The concept behind Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is undeniably great. You're granted a host of extremely powerful Force abilities and set free to use them to your heart's content, wreaking beautiful, Force-fueled havoc in a galaxy far, far away. But that concept is compromised on the DS; you’ll notice the game’s limitations more than its freedoms.
The storytelling in The Force Unleashed is lackluster, with not a word of voice acting and only occasional use of cutscenes. All of the dialogue is conveyed through the use of character portraits and text. But even told in this uninspired fashion, the game's story is quite gripping. After the introductory level in which you play as Darth Vader himself, you'll take control of his secret apprentice, code-named Starkiller, traveling the galaxy and slaughtering Jedi at Vader's behest. But before all is said and done, the tale takes some dramatic turns. To say too much about it would be to ruin the surprises it has in store, so suffice it to say that the apprentice's journey is a compelling one, both on a personal and canonical level.
All of the action in The Force Unleashed takes place on the top screen of the DS, while the touch screen has "buttons" for your six basic actions: jump, saber attack, saber throw, Force grip, Force push, and Force lightning. You move your character using the control pad (or the face buttons, for southpaws) and trigger your actions using the touch screen. It's an effective, easy control scheme that makes using your Force powers a snap. Unfortunately, some powers are barely worth using, since others are so overpowered. Even powered up to maximum strength, saber throw feels quite weak, while your Force push is strong enough to get you past nearly everything the game throws at you.
Level design is a bit uneven. The game starts strong, with a full-scale Imperial invasion of the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. Here, AT-ATs menacingly march on Wookiee villages, and TIE fighters swoop in to blast your enemies to smithereens. The game ends strong, too, with a final level that makes inspired use of what may be the most famous Star Wars location of all. But in between, despite their wildly varying appearances, there are a lot of similarities shared by most of the game's levels. Whether on Felucia, teeming with life, or on the junk world of Raxus Prime, the levels fall into a pattern of narrow, enemy-filled corridors punctuated by occasional wide, enemy-filled spaces. It all starts to feel quite humdrum before too long.
The Force Unleashed is a very easy game. Even before leveling up any of your abilities, you're so powerful that you can cut through the opposition like a hot knife through butter. Even the powerful Jedi bosses pose little threat until the game's final battle; you can make short work of most of them by doing nothing more than repeatedly swinging your saber. As you progress, you'll unlock Force combos, which are performed by dragging the stylus across two or more icons. Dragging the stylus from Force grip to saber attack, for instance, pulls an enemy toward you and impales him on your saber. It's a good idea, and many of these combos are fun to use for their sadistic charm, but they don't serve much practical use. You can easily get through the game without relying on them much at all.
The biggest problem is that it fails to create a sense of freedom, of unleashing you to use the Force to fulfill your own whims. Time and time again, you'll come across traps that you can spring--stormtroopers standing dumbly next to a pile of logs, droids hanging out under rickety platforms--and these all too frequent situations make the game's levels feel artificial, as if they were designed entirely around your powers (which, of course, they are). You'll feel like a rat in a maze, pushing all the buttons that are there for you to push but never getting to exercise your own creativity. And as strong as your powers are, your control over them is very limited. You can send enemies flying with Force push, but you can't send them flying into another foe, or control where they go at all. The game certainly makes you feel powerful, but it never makes you feel liberated. Quite the opposite.
Visually, The Force Unleashed is mostly unimpressive. The apprentice animations are graceful and include some pretty cool lightsaber moves. On the other hand, many enemies are too blocky and undefined to bear much resemblance to their cinematic counterparts, and you'll frequently see things that break the illusion, like enemies passing through objects or laying down in midair to die. The camera, which you have no control over, often presents a poor view of the action. Enemies will fire at you from offscreen, and not being able to see your foes as you Force push them to their deaths takes some of the fun out of it. The sound design is considerably worse than the graphics. The music is made up of classic Star Wars marches, but they're not among the most rousing of Star Wars compositions to begin with, and when you're hearing them for the umpteenth time, they're positively tiresome. The sounds of saber swinging and blaster firing are pure Star Wars, but you'll hear the same death cry from nearly every stormtrooper, the same plaintive wail from nearly every Wookiee. A particular type of Felucian makes one of the most grating noises you're likely to hear in a game, and they repeat it every single time you strike them. It's almost enough to make you want to not kill them. Almost.
The Force Unleashed is quite short, clocking in at around four hours, and there's little to bring you back for more. There are two endings, and your second time through you can use any of the costumes and lightsaber crystals you previously unlocked--but these have no impact on the gameplay itself. The game's two local multiplayer modes don't bring much to the package, either. Free-for-All, a straightforward deathmatch for up to six players, feels sloppy and chaotic, and the one-on-one Force Battle mode isn't much better. The game's mechanics just don't translate very well to multiplayer action.
Even in its obviously compromised form on the DS, there's a kind of morbid glee inherent to the game's concept. It's fun to impale Jawas on your lightsaber, or Force push stormtroopers to their deaths in the beam of a truly massive laser. But the enjoyment is constantly offset by the game's lack of freedom. The Force Unleashed feels constraining rather than liberating, which is especially odd in a game with the word "unleashed" in the title. If you can play this game on any other platform, you should do so. You'll find that the Force is stronger with them.