Are we allowed to start the review with a rant, even if it is a bit of a generic one? OK - God, it's been a long time since we've had a good Star Wars game, hasn't it? Especially on the current gen of consoles. First came Star Wars Battlefront, which sucked because it was pretty much online only; then came Battlefront 2, which at least had single player, but was a bit of a mess when it came to microtransactions. But ever since the announcement of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, things have felt a little bit... different. Here was a fully single player game, with no season pass, no microtransactions, and what seemed like endless potential. If you listened carefully, you could almost sense a great disturbance in the force - the sound of thousands of Star Wars fans crying out in hope. And they were right. Sort of.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a third person action game that sticks you in the space-age boots of a guy named Cal, the last ginger dude in the galaxy, and a man who's been in hiding for years. Eking out a meagre existence as a low paid monkey scrapping ships for the Empire, Cal's life has been more of a nervous one than you might think, as he's been hiding a really big secret... To coin a phrase, he's not just pleased to see you, that really is a lightsaber in his pocket. You see, Cal is (secretly) a Jedi - or at the very least a padawan - one of few to survive the infamous Jedi purge and stormtrooper heel turn that was "Order 66". Yet despite the Imperials keeping close watch on their workforce, despite the regular body searches, and despite Cal literally walking around with his glowstick strapped to his waist in full view, he's lived on this rock for many a year without garnering too much attention - until now. One unexpected use of the force later, followed by a daring escape, and soon Cal's met up with a whole crew of characters - the Jedi rescuer Cere, the six-armed bearded Stitch-alike Greez, and a really cool droid that's basically R2 with legs, named BD-1, who'll accompany you on your travels and rides on your back, like a robotic parrot.
After much exposition, Cal, the world's most gormless Jedi (does he ever close his daft pouting mouth?), Greez, BD-1 and the beady-one set out on a galaxy hopping quest to find the
four wude three ancient Jedi tombs of the sages, one of which is believed hold a mysterious holocron, which contains the names of all the remaining force-sensitive people in the galaxy - people the Empire want to kill, and the... whatever-the-Rebel-Alliance-was-called-before-there-was-an-alliance want to save. To be honest, it's all a bit hackneyed, but it's pulled off with enough style that it doesn't really matter - it's just the right sort of magical Jedi business nonsense to suck you in.
The game itself is a cross between an action game with an emphasis on lightsaber powered melee combat, and what's all too often unhelpfully described in "the biz" as a "metroidvania". What that means in practice is that this is a game about exploration - of scouting every last corner of the game's wild alien worlds, from the starter world of Bogano; to the forest strewn Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk (because you can never have enough y's); the fiery red rock of Dathomir, a planet seemingly almost entirely populated spiders and Darth Maul tribute acts; and the cold, unwelcoming planet of Zeffo, which we can only assume is where the Led Zefflin fans live.
While none of these are truly open worlds, they do at least have a lot to explore - full of tunnels, passages, caverns and paths that have just been waiting for a Jedi like you to come along - only much like in, say, a LEGO game, certain paths and areas will be locked off until you've unlocked certain powers. You might come across a bridge that needs to be force pushed down for you to cross, a door attached to a pulley that you need to force pull towards you, or an access panel you can't yet get BD-1 to go and hack. As you progress through the story, you'll be able to come back and hunt down the game's many hidden collectibles and secrets - which is something you'll certainly want to do. Along with "Force Echoes" that fill in a bit of back story, there's "stim pack" upgrades to be found (essentially the game's equivalent of potions), letting BD-1 heal you more often; upgrades for both your force and overall health; and even lightsaber upgrade stations, where you can build your very own lightsaber, without having to hand over $199.99 first.
Of course, hostile alien planets are hostile for a reason, and there's plenty of wildlife out there that'd like to separate your head from your shoulders if given half the chance. Luckily for you, you aren't just some scruffy nerf herder, you're a Jedi - and despite having forgotten how to use pretty much all of your powers at the start of the game, you do still know your way around a lightsaber pretty well. Though the local fauna can do plenty of damage if they get close enough, your trusty blade will slice through most of the smaller ones in a single hit or two - and you can always try and parry them with a well-timed button press should they get too close.
Of course, it's not just critters you have to worry about, as the Imperials make their presence felt too, with about a dozen different varieties of stormtrooper-alikes to deal with, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. While it wouldn't be too much of an issue if the stormtroopers only had blasters - after all, we all know how accurate they are - unfortunately the Empire have thought ahead, as despite your being one of the only Jedi left in the entire galaxy, almost every squad of stormtroopers you come up against have been equipped with those annoying lightsaber-blocking electric batons. Not that that really makes much sense, seeing as Jedi: Fallen Order takes place between Episode 3 and 4, and the batons aren't seen until Episode 7, but who are we to complain about canon. Maybe the Imperials just completely forgot how to make them at the end of the game, until JJ Abrams arrived and helped them remember through the power of lens flare.
Still, it's handy there are so many stormtroopers about, as taking on vast numbers of troops armed with only your lightsaber is what makes you really feel like a superpowered Jedi. Much like in earlier Star Wars games, (was it Star Wars: Jedi Power Battles that was the first one to do it?), while holding block may deflect blaster fire, pressing it just as the blast reaches your blade lets you send the laser directly back to whence it came, zapping the stormtrooper on the other end. Similarly, melee combat itself is a game of timing and reactions, and you'll need Jedi like reflexes to come out on top. Thanks to the aforementioned electric batons, you can't just go in wanging your lightsaber round and expect everyone to die (although you do sometimes get lucky). Instead, you'll need to time your attacks carefully, looking for them to drop their guard - or just wait for them to attack, and time your block well enough to stagger them, before following up with a few quick hits of your own. With fairly forgiving timing, and a handy roll button you can use should things get too heated, it's not that bad of a combat system - but it does present a few issues when it comes to bosses (more on that one later).
Of course, a Jedi is more than just a lightsaber with legs, and so Cal also has a few more tricks up his sleeve. As you complete the various Jedi temples, you'll slowly unlock additional force powers - and while there's not as varied a range of abilities as in the good old games like Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2, there's at least a selection of old favourites, like Force Push, Pull, and a new one, which seems to be some sort of Force Slow. If you're a novice, Force Slow will be your best friend, as you can cast it to basically guarantee yourself an opening to attack - but with your force powers being metered, you can't use it too often without having to wait for your force gauge to recharge. Still, there's something special about pulling a probe droid out of the air, before lobbing it at a group of stormtroopers with explosive consequences - or better yet, stopping a rocket in mid air, before firing it back at its creator.
What's perhaps more interesting is how the force powers play into the game's puzzle sections. While every planet is crawling with secret areas waiting for you to figure out how to explore them, it's the Jedi temples that are the highlight - so puzzle based are they, they actually feel more like something out of a Zelda game, complete with giant glowing balls you need to roll around. Often asking you to chain several force powers together - or at the very least, carefully study your environment so you can figure out how to get from A to B via some crazy Jedi moves, the temples are one of the highlights of the game.
Right now, though, I know what you're thinking. "My God, they've finally done it! They've learnt from their mistakes, and they've made a great Star Wars game!" And for the most part, you're right! Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has so many really nice moments that'll leave you smiling. But what you've probably also sensed is a disturbance in the force, as unfortunately, in places Jedi has been deliberately gimped from the get go...
If you've been paying attention to social media in the run up to launch (which to be honest, is always a mistake), you'll likely have heard plenty of rumblings about Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order being "a bit like Dark Souls" - something which would have been enough to have us cancelling our pre-orders. However, the truth is, luckily, a bit murkier. For the most part, Jedi seems to offer just about the right kind of challenge - but there are a number of things that developers Respawn have done to ensure you spend a heck of a lot of your time doing just that.
The first issue is the boss fights. While ordinary enemies can be despatched without too much hassle, the game's difficulty spikes astronomically when you end up in a boss fight, turning an otherwise great game into a teeth-gnashing frustration. If you don't have split-second reactions; if you don't see the moves coming; if you don't manage to dodge the unblockable attacks; if you take more than about three hits against even some early (albeit, in that case, optional) bosses, you will be dead.
In and of itself, the difficulty spikes might not be too game-breaking issue, as you can just about muddle past most of them (even if it does take a few swear words and burst blood vessels to do it), but Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is one of those games that has one too many overtones of seeing difficulty as being a feature, rather than something to be managed.
Be warned, what we're about to describe may cause serious eye rolling. First off, your health doesn't regenerate, and there are no medipacks to be found - instead, the only way to regain your health is by using "meditation" points. The problem is, whenever you do choose to do a bit of the old downward dog, every single enemy in the level will respawn too. With enemies being tough as they are, if you're trying to reach the next meditation point (which also double as save points, and are the places you'll end up restarting from), you can't just go forward, kill a few enemies, then retreat to get your health back before ploughing through. If you can't make it to the next save point without dying, you're literally never going to get there. By design.
Perhaps most frustrating are the battles against Second Sister, the game's main villain of sorts. A fellow force user, she can block almost every attack you throw at her, while her speed and agility mean she can be driving her lightsaber through your back in the blink of an eye. Add in a few area of effect attacks, and the fact her guard meter instantly refills once you've managed to land a single attack, and you've got a controller-through-the-window annoying type of fight. Adding insult to injury, we were only playing through on the normal Jedi Knight difficulty, described in-game as being for people who are "new to melee action games". As someone who plays games for a living, that certainly doesn't describe us, and yet Jedi is a game that regularly pushed our limits. If Respawn think the current set up is suitable for someone "new to action games", I'd wager they've never actually met someone new to games in their life.
And while you'd think dying would be something a company called Respawn would get right, your untimely demise in the game is met by not one, but two very different forms of punishment. First, and most inexplicably, if you die, you'll "lose" all the XP you've earnt up until that point - at least, temporarily. Ordinarily, your XP can be spent on a variety of new moves and powers via an RPG style upgrade grid - but when you die, you'll temporarily lose it, until you can get back to that same enemy, damage it, and either kill it, or escape with your life. While that may not sound too bad in theory, what it's doing in practice is (again) punishing new players. If you stray down a path you're "not meant to go down", and end up facing tougher enemies than you'd prepared for, you might want to use that XP to buy a new move - or even buy extra health, using one of the handful of upgrades available on the grid - leaving you much better equipped to take them on. But instead, the system takes away your only way of getting stronger, making it much harder for new players to get good. More annoyingly for the rest of us, death also comes with a much more tangible irritation - a minute long reload time. Yes, should you find yourself on the wrong end of a blaster bolt, it'll be anywhere from 40 seconds to over a minute to get a second chance, depending on which level you're in. Frustrating? You bet - but still nowhere near as frustrating as the boss fights.
Technically, too, Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that's clearly struggling, and could have done with a few more months of optimisation. Textures often hang around in PS2 quality for far too long before eventually popping into their HD forms, while rotating the camera, or sometimes even just moving forward, will see bits of the level in the immediate foreground popping into place. We're not talking distant decor here, but walls, trees, and trim all of a few feet from your face suddenly appearing - but not before flashing a bit of bright blue sky through the cold steel walls of an imperial base. On rare occasions, entire corridors simply forget to load in at all - and this after four patches.
Oh, and here's us lopping off a droid's leg with mind bullets. Or something...
As if the loading times weren't bad enough when you die, some levels will seem to freeze for a good five seconds when you finish climbing a ladder, or walking round a corner, as it seemingly has to load in the next bit. With areas this large waiting to be explored, the lack of a fast travel option is also criminal. Nothing like struggling to figure out how on earth you're meant to get from one end to the other, and fighting your way past enemies you've already killed once to sap your enjoyment.
And all this stuff is immensely frustrating, because in Jedi: Fallen Order, EA have finally managed to get the Star Wars license right. When this is good, it's up there with the very best action games you've played (and up there, gameplay wise, with Control), with inventive, varied locations, a real emphasis on enjoyable exploration, and just enough powers to make you feel like a Jedi. Yet that little too often, it tries to hoist itself by its own stupid difficulty petard, with no real upside, but plenty of frustration for the rest of us. With boss fights thankfully being pretty few and far between, Jedi: Fallen Order is still a game worth picking up - it just may be worth waiting a little bit for it to come down in price, just in case you should find yourself not being able to reach the finish.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4