As Obi-Wan Kenobi told us, the Force surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. In the case of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, it mostly binds together a lot of ideas from other games, and not in the best way.
The Force binds Fallen Order together like a patchwork quilt. And the seams are not only incredibly visible, but they’re kind of loose and occasionally fall apart. And some have very rough edges from where they’ve been unceremoniously torn from other games. And they maybe smell a bit.
Despite this, it’s also a game that manages to evoke Star Wars in so many wonderful, wonderful ways. So much of it feels right, and at times it provides one of the Star Wars-iest experiences in years. And this makes all of its many, many flaws that much more frustrating.
Fallen Order‘s curtain rises
Players are plonked into the boots of former Padawan Cal Kestis, in hiding several years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi Order is dead, the Jedi have been hunted to near-extinction, the Empire is in full swing, and Cal is a scrapper in a junkyard.
When an accident forces Cal to… well, use the Force, his presence is revealed and the Empire’s Inquisition is immediately hot on his heels. Fortunately, an enterprising pair of rebels (but not those Rebels) are on hand to help him out. With their assistance and some key information, Cal is off on a quest across the galaxy far, far away, to restore the Jedi Order.
The opening is a beautiful section, introducing the main players and mechanics in a very natural way, and there are lightsaber battles against Stormtroopers atop a moving train, for crying out loud. However, it’s also tremendously silly and indicative of some of Fallen Order‘s biggest flaws. How is it that the Inquisition turns up within one train ride of Cal using the Force? And how did the friendly, Inquisition-battling starship find out about Cal? Also, how long has Cal been carrying a lightsaber on his person, while climbing around wrecked ships, without anyone noticing? Why does this make no sense?
That’s not the last time that the plot is hurried along by dubious convenience or breaks its own tenuous rules. It’s also far from the only time something utterly amazing is then crushed by something else.
Do, or do not
This is Fallen Order‘s single biggest problem. It’s practically Whiplash: The Experience. For everything it does staggeringly well – and there is a lot it does well – there are a whole bunch of things it does poorly. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of this, we should actually talk about the gameplay.
Fallen Order has been advertised as being a bit of a Souls-like, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. It’s probably safer to say that it’s taken the traversal, puzzle-solving, and upgrades of modern Tomb Raider and chucked that in with lightsaber-swinging combat that does, indeed, evoke the Soulsborne games.
These are Fallen Order‘s primary gameplay mechanics, and on the surface, they’re done acceptably. Thanks to Respawn’s trademark polish, they’re also wonderfully cinematic. There are periods – glorious, wonderful periods – when these mechanics flow together in a way that makes you feel like a true Jedi badass. When you wall-run along a canyon, dive down below and cleave a Stormtrooper in half with one swing, Force Push two more off an edge to their deaths, and then deflect a blaster bolt at the final one? You feel powerful.
On paper, this sounds great. In the moment-to-moment gameplay, though? Not so much.
Not as random or clumsy as a blaster
The combat borrows most heavily from Sekiro. Enemies with melee weapons have a guard meter, and you need to chip away at this through repeated attacks or careful parrying before damaging them. Your fancy lightsaber has both light and heavy attacks, and as you progress, Cal will pick up Force powers that can help out with battles.
This is where both mechanical and thematic problems arise. Everything that’s not a block or a light attack drains your meager Force meter, and getting that back pretty much requires hitting or killing enemies. The upshot is that you can manage maybe a couple of heavy attacks and a Force power, and then you’re effectively spent for the rest of any battle that isn’t particularly lengthy. As such, most battles aren’t nearly as interesting or varied as they could be, especially on higher difficulties. Force powers are teased; they’re more of an occasional useful ability (assuming the enemy isn’t immune, as many are) rather than an essential part of your toolkit.
And the thematic problems are obvious. Lightsaber-resistant materials have been in Star Wars for a long time, so I’m fine with Stormtroopers blocking blows with riot clubs and the sort. I’m less okay with goats and slugs taking five lightsaber strikes to the face. I also have no idea why there’s a Souls-style “lose your experience on death until you hit the enemy who killed you” thing in place unless it’s there to make you think of the Soulsborne games. Especially considering experience isn’t really that important.
It’s a trap
I played through Fallen Order on the second-hardest difficulty, and things never really felt… difficult. Despite my love of Soulsborne, experimenting with lower difficulties made things more entertaining. Cal suddenly felt more dangerous, and combat felt like less of a slog. But it also felt much, much easier, and that was a problem of a different kind.
There are moments when the combat shines, especially late-game. The last hour or so of the game was a chaotic affair that, again, made me feel like an unstoppable force – but still required me to be careful and skilled. I was cutting swathes through entire platoons of Stormtroopers and assorted vehicles, but a slip-up meant death. This was Fallen Order‘s combat at its best and living up to its potential. This was also painfully rare.
No, Tomb Raider is your father
Combat may occasionally be a slog, but there’s plenty more to Fallen Order. We’ve got all that good Tomb Raider stuff: exploration, puzzle-solving, and traversal. There are upgrades to find and backtracking to do, with all sorts of hidden goodies tucked away in previous areas.
But this, too, is mostly just reminiscent of better games. The collectibles are almost all cosmetic: parts of your lightsaber handle, paint jobs for companion droid BD-1, or ponchos for Cal to wear; these stop being exciting very quickly. Maps are a ludicrously convoluted mess of one-way paths and samey shortcuts, making navigation and backtracking a complete pain, and over half of the traversal upgrades are directly from Tomb Raider‘s playbook. And when your rewards are lightsaber switches you’ll barely see in-game, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm to go and find your way to yet another chest.
The puzzles, too, are unfortunately uninspired. There are some genuinely good ones tucked away in there, but most smack of busywork. The absolute worst are spread across multiple floors or areas, requiring a fair bit of traversal and backtracking, with a single slip-up costing you minutes. Too many of them feel like agonizing padding rather than an intricate part of the experience. Pacing is a real problem in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Every jaw-dropping moment that makes you fall in love with it is bookended with laborious segments that make you wince.
A disturbing lack of faith
I ping-ponged between “This is amazing and I love it,” and “This is incredibly boring,” constantly while playing this game. There are times when Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order works very, very well. There are dozens of thrilling touches, from the small (using your lightsaber to illuminate dark caves) to the massive (climbing along the side of an AT-AT as it stomps through a swamp). And despite my complaining, it’s still one of the better Souls-likes. Combat is a little staid and dull, but not frustrating or poorly executed.
And there’s a lot to like besides that. This is Respawn, so naturally, the set pieces are superb. The characters are likable and evoke the Star Wars feel; BD-1 is possibly my new favorite droid, and while Cal himself is a bit of a personality void, Cameron Monaghan does a good-enough job evoking the naivety and brashness of an Episode IV-era Luke that he’s a pleasant enough protagonist. It’s really hard to fault the setting or stylistics, and when Fallen Order gets into its groove and hits the right notes, it hits them hard. I can’t overstate just how good some of the moments in this are, especially for a Star Wars fan.
Fallen Order and the Rule of Two
But Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order doesn’t do anything new. It apes other, better games and attempts to make up for not being as good as them with those set pieces and the Star Wars veneer. Despite the skill points, there’s no real differentiation in builds or any sizeable upgrades. Experience feels like a box to tick rather than an ingrained mechanic, and you rarely collect anything meaningful. You’re just traversing some fairly empty and samey environments, taking part in battles that are acceptable rather than exciting, and waiting for the next cool event.
I’m not asking for the Star Wars version of The Witcher 3 (though I’ll take it if you’re offering), but I would rather like my exploration and success in battles to feel rewarding. I want to wonder what’s in the chest I can see in the corner, not sigh as I go to open it.
Star Wars has always been about the battle between light and dark, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is no exception. But it’s also no exception mechanically. You can almost see the game that could’ve been, straining against the padding, the bloated level design, and the uninspired combat. The light is indeed battling against the dark here, and while it just about has the edge, the battle is far from over. Here’s hoping for a sequel that uses the lessons Respawn has learned here and gives us a real triumph over the Dark Side.