Respawn’s latest is the best Star Wars game in more than a decade.
Cal Kestis has a problem. Five years after the Great Jedi Purge, the former Padawan makes a living as a scrapper on the planet Bracca, salvaging ships from the Clone Wars. His life is quiet and unremarkable, until a standard salvaging job goes horrifically wrong. Cal uses the Force to save his friend’s life, but this draws the attention of the Empire, specifically its Inquisitors, whose sole purpose is to hunt down and kill Jedi. Cal still has his lightsaber, but he’s completely outclassed. Inquisitors are powerful Force users and expert swordfighters. Cal is a kid with a lightsaber. Things are looking pretty bad.
He’s saved at the last minute by Cere, a former Jedi Master who has cut herself off from the Force, and Greez, a showboating, but cowardly, pilot. Together, they set off on a mission: to retrieve a Jedi holocron across the galaxy before the Empire does. To say any more would be to spoil the game’s plot, and I already feel like I’ve given too much away. Suffice it to say this is a satisfying set-up that gives you a good reason to gallivant across the galaxy. Respawn’s writing team makes the most of it, too. Jedi Fallen Order moves at breakneck speed, but the game never loses sight of its characters and their arcs. By the end, I had grown to love Greez’s smart mouth, and I understood why Cere wanted to cut herself off from the Force. Several other characters get similar treatment as the game goes on, and some familiar faces even make cameos. All these characters – and the twists and turns of the plot – are largely well-executed. This is a game that reveres the source material, and the love it has for its characters and world is obvious from the word go.
"Traversing environments is pretty standard action adventure game. You guide Cal as he climbs up walls, balances across narrow pipes and branches, swings across gaps, zooms down ziplines, and solves environmental puzzles."
If Fallen Order has a weak point from a storytelling perspective, it’s Cal himself. He’s not a bad character, and I think Cameron Monaghan plays him well, but he’s just a little… milquetoast. Vanilla. There’s nothing particularly new or unique about him. He grows on you as the game goes on, and there have definitely been worse protagonists in the Star Wars universe, but when given what was essentially a blank slate to play with, it’s a little disappointing that Respawn defaulted to another kid with a complex involving his past and his master. Fortunately, the rest of the cast is more then able to carry the void left by Cal’s lack of presence.
That said, you don’t need to like Cal to be on board with what Fallen Order offers. Finding the holocron means traveling to several different planets, traversing environments, and fighting enemies. The former is pretty standard action adventure game. You guide Cal as he climbs up walls, balances across narrow pipes and branches, swings across gaps, zooms down ziplines, and solves environmental puzzles. Cal’s Force abilities come into play here, too. He starts off having access to Slow, but as the game goes on, and Cal remembers his training as a child, he begins to gain access to other powers, like Push, Pull, and the ability to run along walls – these are the guys who made Titanfall, after all. Solving puzzles means making use of these abilities as you manipulate objects, climb obstacles, and Push and Pull objects. None of this is new, and the best puzzles almost all appear on Zeffo, but Fallen Order uses both exploration and puzzle solving to enhance pacing and get you familiar with the abilities you have before throwing more at you.
When you get abilities matters, as they directly impact your ability to navigate Fallen Order’s environments. The game operates much like Crystal Dynamics’ modern Tomb Raider games or Sony’s God of War. If you have the right ability – say, the power to use Push to make a bridge, move an object to solve a puzzle, or to run across a wall from one platform to another – you’ll be able to advance. If not, you’ll have to come back later. Fallen Order’s environments are huge, so there’ll be plenty to explore your first time around, even if you can’t get to everything. The environments take the form of planets. You can visit them in largely any order and return to them whenever you want by visiting Greez’s ship, the Mantis. Searching environments will give you parts to customize Cal’s lightsaber – cosmetic only, but they look really cool – the look of the Mantis, Cal’s outfit, and more. Cal also has the ability to sense “echoes” in the Force, allowing him to access memories and knowledge that linger in objects, providing backstory and context to the planets you visit.
"This would be engaging enough if Cal were traveling alone, but he isn’t. He’s joined by Fallen Order’s most delightful character: BD-1, a tiny, adorable droid who rides on Cal’s back."
This would be engaging enough if Cal were traveling alone, but he isn’t. He’s joined by Fallen Order’s most delightful character: BD-1, a tiny, adorable droid who rides on Cal’s back. BD isn’t just a cute traveling companion. He’s also a valuable ally. He can scan the environment for objects and collectibles and will keep a map that shows where you’ve been, where you can go, and obstacles you don’t have the means to traverse. He’ll even scan downed enemies and update your database with tips on how to fight them. Like Cal, BD gains abilities as the game goes on, allowing him to open locked doors, propel the two of you up ziplines, and do several other cool things that you should discover for yourself. The point is that BD is a good droid, and a delightful companion, and you’re lucky to have him.
Running around the environments in Fallen Order is a treat because of how many options you have at any time and how good the movement feels. Better still is how diverse the locations are. Bogano, the first major planet, a combination of green meadows and an abandoned, decaying outpost. It’s a little on the small side, but what the level lacks in scope in makes up for in verticality, and the constant stream of new abilities means there’s always something new to find. Zeffo is a huge world that contains a village, an Imperial base, several dig sites, and a crashed Star Destroyed to investigate. Dathomir, the infamous home of Darth Maul, is a planet of rust red rock and sand that merges ruins and wandering fauna with the outposts of the Zabrack that live there. My favorite was Kashyyyk, a world that features an Imperial refinery, a bunch of trees to climb, and the Shadowlands, a particularly scary patch of forest where absolutely everything wants to kill you and you can bounce on goofy plants to get to new areas.
The differences between the environments go beyond just how they look. Traversing them feels different, and each has its local flora and fauna – you’re unlikely to climb trees on Bogano, but they’re all over Kashyyyk – and its own types of enemies. You might see Imperial troops on Kashyyyk and Zeffo, but they’re no-shows on Dathomir. The giant spiders that populate Kashyyyk don’t show up anywhere else, and the Nightbrothers of Dathomir certainly don’t travel off-planet. Every planet feels different, and you’ll approach them differently as a result. Fallen Order even manages to make backtracking interesting. You’ll visit most planets more than once, but because your new abilities unlock new areas, they’re unlikely to feel the same. You’ll also unlock shortcuts as you advance, which is good because the game has no fast travel system of any kind. If you want to go somewhere, you’ll have to hoof it. This isn’t a huge deal – Fallen Order’s exploration and puzzle-solving were my favorite parts of the game – but traversing old areas to grab collectibles you missed can be a bit irritating if you haven’t been diligent about opening shortcuts. Even if you have, some areas take a while to get to, which might reduce your urge to go back and explore.
"Fighting with a lightsaber is glorious. Combat involves managing Cal’s guard gauge and dodging unblockable attacks while breaking down your opponent’s defenses."
Of course, things aren’t all puzzle-solving and exploration. You’re a Jedi, and people are trying to kill you. Thankfully, the game gets melee combat right, and fighting with a lightsaber is glorious. Combat involves managing Cal’s guard gauge and dodging unblockable attacks while breaking down your opponent’s defenses. Cal has a lightsaber, so all but the biggest and toughest enemies die in a couple swings if you can break their guard. You can do this faster by parrying, which means guarding just as an attack would hit you. You can even parry blaster bolts, sending them back at enemies, which never gets old. Cal doesn’t have a lot of combos – he has light and heavy attacks, and a couple combo variations – so parrying is where most of the depth comes in. You’ll want to parry certain enemies and avoiding doing it for others.
Parrying Kashyyyk’s Wyyyschokks (the big spiders) will open them up for a flashy instant kill animation, but parrying the lumbering Jotaz of Zeffo doesn’t make much sense when you can dodge around them for a combo and still kill them quickly. There’s no point at all in parrying the physical attacks of basic Stormtroopers – just send their blaster bolts back at them or dispatch them with a single swing of your lightsaber. You do want to parry the Lesser Nydack of Dathomir, however, especially if you can do it multiple times in a row (parrying doesn’t stop it from attacking), which opens it up to an execution. And that’s not even getting into the Purge Troopers, who, outside of bosses, are about the only ones who can take you in a one on one fight. As you level, enemies that initially seemed challenging, like Stormtroopers, become a lot easier, and by the end, Cal feels like a demi-god against most enemies – until you fight something challenging, and you’re reminded of just how far he has to go.
Your Force powers come into play in combat, too. If you can catch an enemy of guard or without a melee weapon, you can Pull them to you and impale them on your lightsaber. If an enemy’s too close to a precipice, Push them off. Dealing with a big, powerful enemy and want to make sure you nail that parry? Cast Slow. Fallen Order’s combat isn’t complicated, but there’s a lot of depth to be mined here if you want to. The real treats are the boss fights. I never ran into one I didn’t like, but the best were always against enemies that either fought you swordsman to swordsman, or forced you to use their own attacks against them, like bounty hunters or AT-STs. I never found Fallen Order’s boss fights hard – I beat almost all of them on the first try playing on Normal – but they were always a lot of fun.
"Force is also something you’ll have to manage. Cal will regenerate a set amount over time, but you’ll have to keep hitting people if you want to build enough back up to use your powers (or heavy attacks) regularly."
If you get hurt in combat, you can order BD to give you a health stim. Stims are limited – you get more by finding upgrades to your capacity in chests – so you’ll have to be careful with them. Force is also something you’ll have to manage. Cal will regenerate a set amount over time, but you’ll have to keep hitting people if you want to build enough back up to use your powers (or heavy attacks) regularly. The game’s best encounters force you to use your powers just often enough (for instance, to interrupt an unblockable attack and open up an enemy for a combo) that you’re always looking for ways to get more. It’s a good system, and it incentivizes aggression while rewarding you for using our powers wisely
Killing enemies grants Cal experience, which he can use to buy new attacks, level up old ones, and increase his health and Force meters. You spend experience at meditation circles, which automatically save your game. Cal also has the option to rest, restoring his available stims and Force, but at the cost of respawning enemies. If you die with unpsent experience before getting to a meditation circle, you’ll lose them, at least until you track the enemy down and whack him with your lightsaber, which gives them back, plus your health and Force, to boot.
This sounds an awful lot like a certain Japanese Action RPG series, and it is, though I don’t think it works quite as well here. As the game progresses, story events will clear certain areas of enemies, rendering any risk from meditating non-existent. You also don’t always go back to the last meditation circle you used when you die, so it’s sometimes hard to figure out where you’ll be – and what the game will ask you to do again – if you buy the moisture farm. The game will keep track of any items you’ve collected, enemies or objects you’ve scanned, or echoes you have found, so there’s no risk there. Even dying before reclaiming your experience from the enemy that killed you has no penalty – you now just have two enemies to kill – but you might have to fight a boss again if you don’t make it to a meditation circle after you kill it the first time.
" This is a big, beautiful game with enormous environments (think God of War for an idea of the scale on some of this stuff), incredible sound design, and an engaging combat system."
I don’t think this is a bad system, but I could never get a clear handle of how exactly it worked, whether meditating would respawn certain enemies or not (there were times it felt like it should have and didn’t), and exactly where I’d end up if I died. Sometimes the game will only send you back to what appears to be a checkpoint, particularly during platforming sections. Otherwise, it’s right back to the meditation circle. These are minor complaints when the game feels this good – every hit has impact, and the visual and sound design are incredible – but I do wish things were more consistent.
The game, while gorgeous, is also a bit buggy. I didn’t experience anything gamebreaking while playing on the Xbox One X, but there were several instances of enemies clipping through the environment, losing track of where I was when I stood on a meditation circle (even if I hadn’t used it), and graphical bugs, generally relating to lighting and texture pop-in. I even had one that made Cal fall through the floor of an elevator. These problems appear to be worse on the standard machine, but nothing I saw lasted more than a few seconds or seriously inconvenienced me. I wouldn’t call Fallen Order a particularly buggy game, but it can be a little janky.
That said, the issues I experienced with Jedi Fallen Order were fairly minor compared to all the game does right. This is a big, beautiful game with enormous environments (think God of War for an idea of the scale on some of this stuff), incredible sound design, and an engaging combat system. I do wish the game had a fast travel system so I could get back to places more easily, and I wish Cal was a more engaging protagonist. I also wish the save system was a little more consistent, and that the bugs I encountered didn’t exist. But this is easily the best Star Wars game in ten years, maybe longer (sorry, DICE), and Respawn has done an excellent job of not only capturing the appeal of this world, but putting their own stamp on it. I loved my time with Jedi Fallen Order, and it’s a game that I can see myself playing again. Respawn has work to do if they want to make a sequel here. Like Cal, they’re still learning and growing, testing the limits of what is possible. But they’re off to a great start. The Force is strong here, and it’s good to have Star Wars back, even if there’s still more to do for Fallen Order, and its protagonist, to achieve mastery.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Fantastic visuals and sound design. Good story and characters. Exploration and puzzle-solving is a blast. Solid combat design. Huge enemy variety. Enormous maps to explore. BD-1 is adorable.
No fast travel system. Cal is kind of a boring protagonist. Inconsistencies with the save system. Some visual bugs.
Respawn's latest combines strong level design, excellent puzzles, compelling platforming, great combat, gorgeous visuals, and a fun story to make the best Star Wars game in over a decade.