Truly, it is Star Wars season. We are just a month out from JJ Abrams' conclusion to a cinematic saga that is older than many of its most ardent fans. Folks are now arguing over the merits of Disney’s premiere program for its new Disney+ streaming service, Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian. And now, snuggled nicely between them comes the first single-player, narrative-driven Star Wars video game in nearly a decade, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
Fallen Order is from Respawn Entertainment, a company founded by the creators of the wildly successful Call of Duty franchise after their firing by parent company Activision back in 2010. Respawn went on to release the critically acclaimed Titanfall games as well as the popular battle-royaler Apex Legends. But all these games are (very good) first-person shooters, which makes their newest release rather unexpected. Not only is Fallen Order not in first-person; it doesn’t let its protagonist use guns at all. Series newcomer Cal Kestis is all lightsaber, all the time. Well, that and The Force.
It’s a little shocking that a franchise about space magicians who wield laser swords hasn’t really seen a single-player Star Wars video game since 2010’s The Force Unleashed 2. The premise is perfect for games, because who doesn’t want to feel like a Jedi? And yet, in that time, there has only been a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in Star Wars: The Old Republic as well as the multiplayer-centric Battlefront games. Planned solo experiences, such as the Boba Fett-led Star Wars 1313 were canceled after Lucasfilm’s acquisition by Disney and the reshuffling of the Star Wars canon.
Fallen Order is an official Lucasfilm production, and the company was consulted on many of the creative decisions, from story beats to level design. This is Respawn’s game, but it comes with the corporate overlord’s stamp of approval. And Disney is enough of a fan of the new characters that it has made Marvel expand on some of their stories in a five-part prequel comic series called Dark Temple.
While only superfans need to read the comic, enjoying Fallen Order does require at least a baseline understanding of the Star Wars universe. Conveniently, pop culture is so saturated that regardless of your intentional interactions with the franchise, you probably know who the Jedi are, what The Force is (in broad terms), and that the planet where the Chewbacca-like tall furry aliens come from is called Kashyyyk. But if you, like me, had no idea how many “y”s that planet’s name had in it until you laughed at what you assumed to be a typo in Fallen Order’s subtitles, you’ll be fine. Indeed, people who are really invested will find some of the exposition frustrating, as seemingly rudimentary things are explained for those of us who don’t have Wookiepedia memorized.
Set sometime between Episodes III and IV, Fallen Order follows Cal Kestis (Shameless’s Cameron Monaghan), a young Jedi who escaped the massacre known as Order 66 that brought about the complete reign of the Empire. When the game begins, he’s a junk scrapper who secretly carries around his lightsaber, despite such a thing probably being grounds for execution. He has evaded detection post-Order by avoiding The Force—until one day when his friend is falling to a horrible death and only space magic can save him. You are controlling him in this critical moment, and I won’t lie, there aren’t many instructions more badass than “Use the force.”
Of course, the Empire picks up on this beacon of Jedi-ness, forcing him to flee with the help of Cere Junda (whose story is the primary focus of the Dark Temple comic). And so begins a galactic adventure that brings you to planets new and old, fighting familiar and unfamiliar foes and meeting a wide array of characters, from Junda’s snarky four-armed partner/pilot Greez Dritus to Rogue One’s Saw Gerrera.
I particularly enjoyed Gerrera’s appearance, as it came during one of the game’s more interesting set pieces. After arriving on Kashyyyk, you hijack a Walker (in Shadow of the Colossus-esque fashion) and start to rain hellfire upon unsuspecting Stormtroopers. Suddenly, Forrest Whitaker is hanging from the windshield shouting at you. You see, where most games would pull back to give you a bird’s eye view of the Walker, here the camera never leaves the cockpit. Even in third person, you’re limited to seeing only what Cal sees. Considering the increased situational awareness of the Jedi, this feels like the most appropriate way to replicate that experience. Plus, having Cal—a human man of normal size—always in frame means you get a real sense of the scale of the worlds Respawn has created.
Traversal is where the game's detail and design truly shine, as you parkour Cal along sprawling levels full of walls to run along and ice slides to rush down and vines to jump from. If you think about it for even a second, you’ll realize that such an environment is utter nonsense for places where people ostensibly live and work, but that’s really in keeping with Star Wars, whose fixation with bottomless pits exemplifies a focus on visual splendor over practicality. Playing this game made me realize that this universe is perfect for designing platforming levels, because Star Wars-set games are only slightly more beholden to architectural reality than Super Mario, so you can make all kinds of wild levels without serious concern about their plausibility. And Respawn takes full advantage of that.
But there’s more to this action-adventure game than adventure, and Fallen Order comes out at a time when people are spoiled for quality action games. From last year’s incredible God of War reboot to new releases by Platinum Games and From Software to the many imitators of the latter’s Souls franchise, fans of the genre have endless choices. Which makes it frustrating that Fallen Order is competent at best.
As I said before, Cal uses one weapon from start to finish, and it is one of the most iconic weapons in the world: the lightsaber. If Fallen Order needed to get anything right, it was the lightsaber. And… it didn’t. It got maybe 85 percent of the way there, but you feel that missing 15 percent in each new confrontation. On the one hand, when you see a laser blast coming your way, you can tap the block button to reflect it back at the stormtrooper, usually killing them instantly. This feels amazing; I audibly giggled the first time it happened and then continued to do so many hours later. But this shining beam that can cut clean through metal needs to connect with a big rat three times before it can cut it into more than one piece.
As with so many games these days, blocking and parrying are key, but once you’re on the attack, the game remains frustratingly basic throughout. Every attack other than a standard lightsaber slash requires you to use The Force, but The Force is a limited resource refilled by slashing folks for a while. This throws you into a frustrating loop where you’d really like to mix different types of attacks, but you must watch your meter to know if it’s even possible. Then when you’re full of Force, the moves still don’t flow the way they should. This becomes increasingly difficult as more enemies are thrown onscreen at a time.
The whole thing feels janky. And not just the combat. For example, I saw multiple enemies teleport to the tops of walls and cliffs while we were fighting. On Kashyyyk, I was confronted with the unsettling image of floating Wookie heads that looked like they were put on invisible pikes. These aren’t game-ruining bugs, but they’re disappointing in such a high-profile release from a beloved developer.
Much worse were the dozens of times I missed jumps to and from vines or walls because the camera didn’t quite line up to where I needed it, and more than once I walked into an area that straight-up didn’t load for upwards of a minute, leaving me to stand waiting and looking at a void until all of the assets suddenly snapped into place. Twice, I ended up falling into an infinite abyss from a spot where the floor should have been. As is customary with big releases these days, patches will come and hopefully address these sorts of issues, but seeing a shipping product in this state is genuinely alarming—clearly, Fallen Order is coming out now because Disney mandated a release date, not because it’s ready to go.
And yet there are moments where Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order threatens to be brilliant, and they were why I pushed through the frustration. Seeing a new landscape for the first time is often breathtaking, and I truly love reflecting blaster shots with my lightsaber. Once your force is powered up a bit, few things feel better than Force Pulling a Stormtrooper and then holding them in the air while a giant crushing machine slams down. You get to feel like a Jedi—a feeling that no movie or streaming series is going to give you. And yet, the experience around them is so often confusing and frustrating. It’s messy and buggy and something I want to like so much more than I actually do.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a great idea. Sadly, it’s not a very good game—yet.