There hasn’t been a better time to be a Star Wars fan. As this is being written, the ninth and final entry in the saga that began with George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars is one month away from release, concluding a story over forty years in the making. The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV series, is two episodes into a promising first season. The animated series Star Wars: Resistance is in the middle of its final season. In the world of publishing, a steady stream of Star Wars books and comics hit shelves on a weekly basis.
From another perspective: It’s incredibly hard to not be a Star Wars fan in 2019. The franchise is almost suffocating in its conquest of mainstream popular culture. Just look at all that stuff! There’s a well-liked Star War for just about everyone. It’s a feat of dominance that barely needs to be performed by Disney, the corporate monolith that now owns Star Wars (and just about everything else).
It’s very strange, then, that the Disney era of Star Wars has largely been a failure in the world of video games. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the new single-player game from Respawn Entertainment for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, is here to right that ship. Fallen Order is the good Star Wars game that has emerged after a string of high-profile failures and aborted plans since publisher Electronic Arts acquired the license to make Star Wars games in 2013.
That Fallen Order is a very straightforward and unremarkable, albeit pleasing, sci-fi adventure makes it feel slight after years of disappointing Battlefront revivals and tantalizing canceled projects. But the fact that it adopts, and mainstreams, one of the most idiosyncratic and influential schools of game design of the decade—the third-person, exploration-based action of games like Dark Souls— feels radical. Taken as a whole, Jedi: Fallen Order brings a very familiar concept to the world of Star Wars video games: balance.
In Jedi: Fallen Order, you play as Cal Kestis, a Jedi Padawan in the era immediately following the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Sheev Palpatine has staged his coup of the Republic and become Emperor, and the Jedi are outlawed and hunted to the brink of extinction. Cal has somehow survived, and the game begins with him in the life in hiding he’s settled into for sometime: working as a scrapper in a shipbreaking yard, tearing down grounded spaceships for parts.
As a scrapper, Cal climbs walls and swings on ropes and leaps onto precarious ledges like a video game character would. But Cal can’t stay in hiding for long. Eventually, his Jedi secret gets out, and he goes on the run from Imperial forces sweeping the galaxy for the last remaining Jedi. As Cal explores the universe and battles his way past various baddies, he also picks up a group of misfit friends and a macguffin that might be the secret to restoring the shattered Jedi Order.
Fallen Order also has a heavy focus on exploration. You’ll travel from planet to planet and back again over the course of Cal’s journey, gaining new powers and abilities that open up new avenues for combat and traversal. Like Metroid and the games that it inspired, you’ll regularly come across areas that are unreachable, locked off until you acquire the power that effectively functions as a key. You’ll find shortcuts and secrets as you travel through labyrinthine planets, then backtrack through them again with your new powers, more swiftly than before. It’s satisfying.
It’s also an experience that’s full of things that want to kick your ass. There are giant alien bugs, asshole alien rams, and alien feral hogs, all put on these force-forsaken planets purely to piss you off. There are also a wide variety of Imperial Stormtroopers, droids, and highly-trained Inquisitors around to test your mettle. It’s here, in combat, where Fallen Order’s biggest surprise lies: The game is modeled after FromSoftware action role-playing games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
I had heard this going into Fallen Order, but I didn’t quite believe it until I played the game. If you’ve played a FromSoft game, you’ll recognize that influence on Fallen Order—the way save points are places where you can meditate and choose to regain your health and replenish your stock of health recovery stims at the expense of respawning all defeated enemies. Or how enemies have stamina meters that must be depleted before Cal can land a frontal attack—and how Cal has meters of his own. Or how each foe’s distinct attack patterns must be learned and respected, lest a simple wild ram charge tackle Cal within an inch of his life.
Fighting in Fallen Order is fun, although a little imprecise. On higher difficulties, nailing a proper chain of blocks, parries, and dodges while responding with a well-timed attack is incredibly satisfying. Something about the game’s combat, however, feels just a little off, like you’re using a socket wrench that’s a hair too big for the bolt you want to remove. The job will get done, but you might be annoyed by the amount of effort it takes. Then maybe you remember to use your Force powers, and that usually makes you feel better.
For players familiar with modern action games, I’d recommend playing on Jedi Master, the equivalent of hard mode. Fights will be tense and fraught, gradually getting easier as your arsenal of abilities grows—until, of course, the game throws an even more challenging foe at you. Most of the time, it feels fair, but sometimes the game will throw a mob of enemies at you that can trap you in a corner and clobber you to death in a way that feels cheap and frustrating.
These sudden difficulty spikes would be less troublesome if the game didn’t feel so rough around the edges in other ways. I’m not someone who’s particularly hard on how a game looks and performs—if I can do what the game wants me to do and it doesn’t actively hurt my eyes to look at, I’m fine. Still, I couldn’t help but notice Fallen Order’s visual hiccups on consoles. Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, textures would pop in and disappear regularly, and at times enemies would appear out of nowhere, or take a moment before they assumed their scripted animations. The camera is occasionally ill-suited to the task of keeping up with the game’s intense combat. Every once in a while, the game will straight-up stop while you load into a new area, locking up for three seconds while everything loads.
Barring the occasional enemy goof, none of this really impedes the gameplay. Once you’re loaded into an area, you can run and jump and fight with few problems. The frame rate is generally stable and exploring the game is a pleasure. When all the textures load in properly, the worlds of Fallen Order look gorgeous. Some players might be disappointed that exploring doesn’t yield anything more than cosmetic rewards or cursory “lore” that really doesn’t tell you much you don’t already hear from other characters in-game. (Only two items you find in the world affect gameplay, extending your max health and Force.) I didn’t mind, though, and I found myself getting extremely invested in customizing my lightsaber each time I found a new part.
It’s tempting to talk more about the Dark Souls influence on Fallen Order because it’s more novel than the other points of comparison, like Uncharted and Metroid, which have been frequent design touchpoints in the world of big-budget video games. But the actual experience of playing Fallen Order reveals that the Dark Souls influence is the one you can buy into as much or as little as you want. The game’s multiple difficulty modes give you the option to check out of combat almost completely, wielding your Jedi powers indiscriminately as an unstoppable space wizard. This is a perfectly viable way to play the game, not to mention a fun as hell one. After a decade of the Souls influence bleeding its way through video games, from indies like Hollow Knight to big-budget clones like Nioh or The Surge, Fallen Order presents an argument for a mainstream middle ground between the uncompromised vision of a game like Sekiro and the accessible challenge of God of War.
Like superheroes or Pokémon, Star Wars is a collection of stories primarily for children, but enjoyed by people of all ages and walks of life. They’re simple works that resonate on a primal level because they adhere to mythic structure and broad universal ideas like friendship, or a black-and-white sense of good and evil. They’re modern fairy tales, but they’re also fairy tales that radiate outward, referencing a richer world of work. George Lucas, the story goes, was influenced by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and the writer Joseph Campbell, with Star Wars being the result of his endeavors to make something like Flash Gordon but filtered through the kinds of movies he liked.
There are children who grew up watching Star Wars and who, as adults, sought out Kurosawa’s films. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order resonates on the same primal level that the very first Star Wars movie did, and in the best possible world, it may well encourage the people who play it to reach outward—to Metroid, to Sekiro or Bloodborne, to Hollow Knight or Hyper Light Drifter. Star Wars succeeded as a film because of the lessons it learned from movies that came before it. It’s no surprise, then, that this Star Wars game has attempted to do the video game equivalent. That’s an optimistic reading, one that has faith in video games’ penchant for iteration and refinement, taking radical ideas and whittling them down to something that improves the experience of playing games for everyone.
There’s another way to look at this, just like there’s another way to look at Star Wars fandom. It’s where the risk-averse nature of big-budget game development wins out, where the FromSoftware action game just becomes the next Metroid, another increasingly shopworn collection of video game ideas used over and over from franchise to franchise, a brilliant spark dulled to an ember by conservative publishers happy to let big-budget video games chase their own tail as long as they’re profitable.
That’s the fear, now that Respawn has given us a good Star Wars game. That the way Star Wars finally cracks video games in the Disney era is the same way Disney cracked other Star Wars entertainment: Taking what was once rare and special, and giving it to us over and over again until it’s mundane.