Exploring Star Wars' first Jedivania game.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order isn't really the type of game we often see set in a galaxy far, far away. It puts some distance between itself and the spectacle of large-scale online battles in the Battlefront series. The newest game in the landmark sci-fi series takes the route of a narrative-driven metroidvania centered around a masterless Jedi Padawan, and his growth within a galaxy in turmoil. This third-person single-player experience is also a significant pivot for developer Respawn Entertainment, which has a legacy rooted in first-person shooters.
Fallen Order carries a lot of familiar ideas and concepts found in common AAA single-player adventures, particularly the focus on exploring an interconnected environment while engaging in cinematic action-sequences that show off the best of what the protagonist is capable of. However, it's wrapped within the iconic blanket of the Star Wars series, which certainly gives the game some exceptional gravitas. Getting to explore various planets, familiar and brand new, and using various force abilities and lightsabers skills in a way that makes you feel like your proficiency is growing is certainly enticing on its own, yet Fallen Order's approach that's established firmly within the canon had some surprises I wasn't expecting. After playing about three hours of the game at a recent hands-on event, I'm intrigued by the journey that the newest Star Wars hero Cal Kestis will embark on.
Over the course of Cal's travels across the galaxy, you'll find the various planets have their own identity and set of secrets to uncover, which in turn creates a stronger picture of the universe Cal is adventuring in. During an interview with game director Stig Asmussen, he elaborated further on how they tried to balance what fans expect with Star Wars, while still trying to keep things interesting.
"When we first developed this story, we all embraced the idea that this is going to be something that's authentic to Star Wars lore," Asmussen said. "But we didn't want to lean into something that was too out there for fans, so there needs to be a little bit of familiarity in there. As the game evolves, the player will begin to see that we're kind of carving out a different path. You'll start to see more of the depth within the characters that they own themselves."
A Padawan's Journey
Set years after the events of Episode III, Fallen Order sees runaway Cal in hiding following the Empire's Order 66, an operation that purged the Jedi order. After a series of events blows his cover, reawakening his force powers in the process, Cal escapes from Imperial Inquisitors--Elite officers trained to combat force users--and aligns himself with vagabonds Cere and Breez, and a peculiar droid named BD-1. There are many similarities between Cal's journey and that of the now-forgotten Kyle Katarn from the Jedi Knight series; however, Fallen Order puts more of a focus on the ensuing growth that Cal will see along his journey.
Our hands-on session began with Cal choosing where to go after his crew's escape from the Empire. Aboard the Mantis, the crew's ship and home base, you'll follow the trail of the missing Jedi Master, Eno Cordova. At this point, there are two choices; the mining planet Zeffo and the hostile world of Dathomir--often known as the Rancor planet. While you're free to head to either one, the safer option is the Imperial occupied planet, Zeffo. It's one of the new planets created for the game, and there you'll explore a mining community deep within the mountains, which sits on top of ruins from a lost civilization that have ties to the Jedi.
Now armed with a lightsaber, some force abilities, and with a ship and crew, Cal's well prepared to tackle what lies ahead. Exploring the vessel gave me similar vibes as classic Bioware games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, which allowed you to chat with your crew and learn more about them between missions. Before flying to Zeffo, I took the time to explore the ship to speak with the team, which can open up some side-missions. You'll also be able to customize your lightsaber--changing the look of the weapon's sleeve, crystal color, and the emitter--and examine the galaxy map, showing the current set of planets you have access to.
Throughout his journey, Cal will be able to broaden his skills and enhance his powers. As a Padawan, Cal has to re-learn to use the force and hone his skills by exploring the universe and unearthing ancient Jedi secrets, revealing more of his past. After gaining experience from fallen enemies, you'll eventually earn a skill point which you can invest into a skill tree divided into three paths--Survival, Lightsaber, and Force. These various skills will unlock Cal's core combat moves, such as a dash attack, and also extend his existing force powers.
Fallen Order's "Thoughtful Combat"
Fallen Order's combat takes cues from the seminal Souls series, placing considerable attention on maintaining control during a fight instead of mashing buttons and using powers wildly. Like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you'll need to break through an enemy's defenses to get the killing blow. According to Asmussen, they refer to Fallen Order's battle system as "thoughtful combat." In Fallen Order, you need to be aware of what's around you and react according to whichever attacks come your way. Using the Star Wars films as a comparison, the measured combat is much more in the vein of the classic series, as opposed to Force Unleashed's battles, which took cues from the over-the-top prequel trilogy.
When describing a game's combat as Souls-esque, that almost always implies that it's punishing, and during several of my fights on Zeffo I encountered squads of troopers who could have quickly taken me out if I wasn't careful. In one instance, during a rather hectic fight, a lowly foot-soldier managed to fire off a killing shot against me when I was low on health. There were indeed moments where I felt punished for being reckless--jumping into a battle against eight stormtroopers wielding rifles did not end well at all--yet I can still say that Fallen Order's early hours are surprisingly forgiving. I often felt in control of a fight, even when outnumbered.
By taking the time to read my enemy's movement and blocking attacks when the time was right, I was able to get through most basic fights without taking a scratch. It felt very satisfying to use my force push to knock stormtroopers into enemy explosives and parry enemy fire. Combat ramps up, however, when more advanced enemies drop in. One planet that the developers warned us about visiting was Dathomir, which is home to some enemies and puzzles that are a bit out of Cal's wheelhouse early on. The game still offers you the chance to give it a shot, allowing you to cut your teeth against the Fallen Order's more sophisticated foes. But still, I was clearly outmatched on Dathomir, so I just hightailed it out of there.
If you die, the enemy that struck the killing blow will steal all of Cal's current experience points, along with a portion of the force and health meters. To erase the penalties, you'll need to return to the enemy, now glowing gold, and take it out, which will, in turn, recover lost experience points and restore your meters. But also in familiar Souls fashion, if you die on the way back to that enemy, then you'll permanently lose that batch of experience points. This can sound harsh, but in practice, I felt it was, again, surprisingly forgiving.
Generally speaking, I felt more invested in fights knowing how easy it was for Cal to meet his end--despite being a Jedi. While your abilities will continue to evolve, and there are several new skills to use, death still comes easy for Cal. Asmussen elaborated a bit further on this approach to combat, and how it ended up having parallels to the overall progression from Cal's story.
"When choosing the direction that we went with our combat, it's more of the path of a Jedi coming into his own, understanding, and evolving over time," said Asmussen. "You know, learning how to become a Jedi. That's going to take patience from not only Cal, but it's going to take patience from the player as well too. There are certainly lots of influences from many different games we've seen over the years, and we've felt very early on that a grounded light-saber game is the way that we wanted to go. To really teach that patience to the player, just like a Jedi would have to learn, was fundamental to our game."
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Embracing The Metroidvania
Exploring the various planets in Fallen Order falls into the familiar loop of combat, platforming, and the occasional side-objective or hidden path that's tucked away. There's a golden path to follow, but you're still free to explore at your leisure. Peppered throughout your adventures are set-piece moments that show off the spectacle, while still telling key moments in the overall story. With each world possessing an interconnected space to explore, you'll open up new shortcuts and secrets that yield lore about the planet. These hidden areas can also lead to upgrades and cosmetic items for Cal. Accompanying Cal on his adventures is BD-1, who can assist in a fight by offering up heath-stims. The droid comes in handy during exploration, as he can scan objects and fallen foes to reveal details about them. Eventually, you can upgrade BD-1, allowing it to hack Imperial locks that lead the way to more valuable items and customization options.
This approach follows the metroidvania design closely, and it was fun exploring Zeffo and unraveling more of its passages. Even after finishing the primary mission on Zeffo, I still took my time to explore the planet, which still had some areas that were inaccessible due to Cal lacking specific abilities. Taking inspiration from Metroid Prime, Fallen Order also features a full 3D map that gives you an idea of where to go. I even noticed a direct nod to Metroid in one of the ruins on Zeffo; later in the section, when exploring the ruins beneath the surface, you'll find a room full of statues holding spherical objects, looking very similar to the bird-like Chozo from Nintendo's series.
From this short section, I genuinely enjoyed exploring Fallen Order's different worlds. Having said that, I still ran into some annoying issues that commonly plague games of its ilk. For instance, it can be very easy to lose track of where to go next, and in some cases, I felt the 3D map didn't provide enough information on which areas were accessible, which I worry could be a big problem when looking to find the more tucked-away secrets.
After playing for three hours, it seemed clear that Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is taking the right lessons from other games, and using them to its advantage for this new story. During the battle of Kashyyyk, Saw Gerrera made his first appearance in the game, becoming a major ally for Cal after hijacking an Imperial AT-AT. Unlike Jedi Knight and the Force Unleashed series, Fallen Order is canon within Star Wars lore, and those moments are now cemented within the fiction. So far, it's a familiar Star Wars story, yet I'm curious to see where Cal's adventure will go from here--what sort of powers he'll unlock, and which other familiar characters will make an appearance. After the strong opening, I'm excited to see more of where this new game's plot will go from here and how it will take advantage of that particular spark Star Wars has to the fullest.
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