EA’s first single-player Star Wars game looks just like the movies but is being a Jedi in Fallen Order as epic as it should be?
It is over six years now since EA first got the Star Wars licence and we don’t think anyone has been happy with how it’s gone. The only consoles games they’ve managed to produce in that time are Battlefront I and II, which while as competent as you’d expect from the makers of Battlefield are only ever going to be remembered for the second one’s industry-changing abuse of loot boxes. Which means for many Fallen Order will be seen as EA’s first ‘proper’ Star Wars game.
Although Fallen Order is by Titanfall and Apex Legends developer Respawn it’s been made by a newly formed team led by God Of War III director Stig Asmussen. There are a few echoes of Kratos’ original trilogy in the game but there are other much more obvious inspirations behind Fallen Order, namely Dark Souls/Bloodborne, Uncharted, and The Legend Of Zelda. That’s a heady mix of big-name games but an even more important influence is the Metrodivania genre, which defines the Fallen Order’s structure and creates some of its biggest problems.
Metroidvanias (a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania) are very common as indie games but almost unknown when it comes to big budget 3D games. Fallen Order suggests a few reasons for that, but at first it all seems like a welcome contrast from the linear, undemanding licensing exercise you might have expected. Although the first surprise is that, even more so than Battlefront, this has nothing to do with the new movies and is instead set five years after Revenge Of The Sith, when the Empire is scouring the galaxy for the last remaining Jedi.
You play the game as an inexperienced Padawan named Cal Kestis, who together with an ex-Jedi Master and her pilot friend, are on the run from Imperial Inquisitors. Cal starts the game knowing the basics of lightsaber combat but what amounts to PTSD has left him unable to perform any of the other normal Jedi feats.
Combat works something like Bloodborne, with a light and heavy attack and a significant reliance on parrying and countering, which also helps replenish your Force power. The visual feedback on whether you’ve successfully parried or not can sometimes be a little vague, but other than that it manages a good compromise between the need to look like the movies and works as a video game.
An actual lightsaber fight is rare but for some reason even Scout Troopers are armed with melee weapons and it’s a long time before you get any kind of proper long-range attack. Fallen Order is only as difficult as Soulsborne games on the hardest setting but it’s still no pushover even on the default, while the only way to save and unlock new abilities via your skill tree are at what are essentially bonfires – which refill your stock of health potions (sorry, stimpacks) while also respawning all minor enemies.
That obviously makes no sense in the context of the Star Wars universe but the game just rolls with it, the most Soulsborne-esque elements treated almost as a badge of honour and proof that this is a legitimate video game and not a quick cash-in. Although there’s quite a bit of platforming it all works essentially identically to Uncharted and so requires little real skill to navigate, just a sharp eye to keep track of all the navigable ledges.
At the start, your main Force ability is to briefly slow down your perception of time, but as you progress you learn to push and pull through the Force, which amongst other things expands the range of puzzles – the most complex of which take place in Zelda-esque dungeons. They’re nowhere near as complex or varied as the best Zeldas but, unlike most other mainstream games, they do require real thought (or a hint from your droid) and that’s to their credit.
Despite the potential of the setting, one of the main problems with Fallen Order is that its plot lacks any sense of urgency. Although it’s easy to forget, the main goal is to find a Jedi Holocron that contains the detail of all remaining Force-sensitive children, which involves, for reasons we’re still a little hazy on, following a series of architectural clues left by an ancient civilisation. None of that is interesting but what should be is the plight of Cal and his friends, but it’s almost impossible to care about such dull characters.
The dialogue throughout the game is exhaustingly bland but Cal in particular lacks anything approaching a personality trait. The villains have a few good moments but the storytelling throughout is superficial and obvious. The game also struggles to come up with any new concepts that don’t sound like either fan fiction or generic sci-fi, to the point that we ended up looking back at Battlefront II’s story mode with unexpected nostalgia.
Many great games have failed to impress in terms of storytelling though, so that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, and we should emphasise that Fallen Order is by no means a bad game. But what finally prevents it from being an actively good one is how it handles backtracking. Backtracking is a key element of any Metroidvania game, where you return to old locations with new abilities that allow you to progress past previously impassable obstacles. Fallen Order is filled with moments like that and yet, incredibly, there’s no fast travel at all.
Even Dark Souls has fast travel so not including it here is baffling. As if traipsing backwards and forwards across the massive maps wasn’t bad enough the journey back to your ship, which is the only way off planet in any of the levels, always involves an especially turgid journey that frequently takes upwards of 15 minutes and usually serves no useful gameplay or storytelling purpose.
Picking gameplay mechanics and structural concepts off the shelf like this, and not adapting or iterating on them in any way, is extremely unwise, especially given the very specific Star Wars setting. The game inevitably becomes a patchwork of other people’s ideas, with the level design and geography feeling highly contrived for what is supposed to be a relatively grounded sci-fi universe.
The Force might be space magic, but the straight fantasy of Zelda and Dark Souls allows those games to handwave away contrivances in the gameplay and level layout in a way that just doesn’t make sense here.
It’s a real shame because, despite some so-so facial animation and occasional slowdown, the graphics are great and there’s tons of content, with lots of secrets to discover long after the 15-odd hours of the main story are over. Most of the individual elements are fun too, but they don’t gel together into a coherent whole and instead degenerate into an increasingly frustrating and repetitive one.
It doesn’t help that the telekinetic powers in Remedy’s Control are a lot more enjoyable than this, with the need to be authentic to Star Wars canon stopping the game from offering more outrageous abilities. Or maybe it’s just the story Respawn has chosen to tell; whose vapid characters commit that one crime that not even the prequels were guilty of: they’re completely forgettable.
The ending purposefully sets up the potential for sequels and given how close this comes to greatness we’d certainly like to see that happen. But the challenges of making both a good game and a good Star Wars experience are extreme and it’s unsurprising that so few games manage to balance both sides of the equation. Being a Jedi isn’t supposed to be easy, but we would’ve liked it to be a bit more fun than this.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order review summary
In Short: An earnest attempt to create the ultimate Jedi simulator but the mishmash of game influences and an unengaging story leaves it only impacting on the surface.
Pros: Some of the best lightsaber combat ever and a large, single-player adventure full of secrets. Surprisingly involved puzzles at times, with great graphics and presentation.
Cons: Contrived level layout and poorly handled backtracking. Lack of fast travel is madness. Boring characters and plot. Force powers aren’t as much fun as they should be.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Release Date: 15th November 2019
Age Rating: 16
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