I hadn’t realized I’d sunk forty hours into Jedi: Fallen Order until I’d already done it.
This can be put down to my time management skills, and the way in which well-designed game structure can addict you to the “one more thing” mentality. I’d spent much of the time wall-running, reliving Cal Kestis’ personal traumas, and slowly mastering the combat by continuously jumping down onto a giant frog and trying not to die. After about an hour and a half, I finally didn’t die, and the big frog thing did. I couldn’t, however, open the chest that was in the cave yet, because my little droid pal BD-1 didn’t have a specific upgrade. I could use my magic Force empathy to get a piece of backstory, though, and that combined with the experience gained from the dead frog was satisfaction enough. Grinning to myself at finally having beaten the damnable amphibian, I turned the game off and went to bed.
That last phrase — turned the game off and went to bed — defined the rest of my week. Jedi: Fallen Order is at its core an action-adventure game in the vein of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, filled with entertaining platforming challenges and Force-oriented puzzles. It even features the literal raiding of tombs, which sidesteps the ethical questioning by a) having you be guided by the ever-divine Force and b) putting the Empire in your way all the time. You’re a more sympathetic grave-robber than the Empire by a mile, and in between desperately trying to figure out how the hell you’re supposed to traverse the endless caverns, you spend a significant amount of time shredding Stormtroopers and Imperial droids to bits with your lightsaber.
The combat is clever, Souls-lite in the sense that you can die super easily but also much faster and with a large suite of upgrades. By the time I stood in the final boss’ chamber, I was a lightsaber-spinning Force-pulling machine, and it still took me an hour to beat them. I’m not that good at games, but apart from one particularly devastating drain attack, throughout the whole game the fighting felt fair. This is appreciated, as the game throws waves and waves of Stormtroopers, Inquisitors, and the terrifying fauna of a choice selection of planets at you, and there’s always a sense that you can beat the giant troll creature if you just take one more shot at it. And traversing the game’s planets, with their gorgeous environments and sense of evolving scope, is a pleasure of the First Order (see what I did there?). As a small mercy, none of these worlds are desert planets, though one does look suspiciously like a cross between Mars and Mordor.
The comparisons between the above games and Fallen Order aren’t new. The free running is directly cribbed from developer Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall series, and they’re one of the main reasons this game was on my Wishlist. The tight 10-hour-max campaign of Titanfall 2 is one of my favourite shooter campaigns of all time. In combining the joy of acrobatic platforming with high-energy first-person shooting, and lacking the constant stress I found in Doom, Titanfall 2 did a stellar job at showing off Respawn’s single-player chops. I can even forgive the fact that they’re named after a game mechanic, and made a game where dying is inevitable, so every few minutes you get a reminder of the studio name before you return to a save point.
This, honestly, is one of the smartest decisions the game makes. It makes a couple, uh, odd choices control-wise, but the combination of the familiar style, gameplay, and setting make it a frictionless experience. The lack of friction of getting into the game makes its potential difficulty more palatable for a casual I-just-wanna-be-a-Jedi audience, whereas the depth of the combat and well-structured exploration both provide a more involved gaming audience with something to chew on. If I’d barreled through the campaign, I would have spent at least half as long on it, but it was so fun that I kept into it. My mild obsessive tendencies kicked in, and I poked my figurative nose in every corner of these worlds I could find, dredging up long-lost histories, recent tragedies, and interesting personal backstories that provided enough flavour and interest that I was motivated to find each secret. These stories, and tidbits about the culture of each planet and its denizens provide a wealth of story that’s worth delving into, whether you’re a Star Wars nerd or a completionist. I am both, on some level, so I had a lot of fun.
Collecting all the cosmetic upgrades — none of which have any gameplay impact — is a fun pastime, if only because BD-1’s chest-searching animation is cute as heck. Plus, there is a satisfaction of dressing Cal, painting BD-1 and your starship, and redesigning your lightsaber to fit the story beats or the aesthetic of the planet you’re visiting. Actually, that might just be me. None of it is necessary, though, and that’s the beauty of it; the game never asks you to do anything more than play it. There’s no level barrier, only a slow trickle of upgrades to BD-1 and to your Force powers, all of which occur along the games’ main path. Anything else you want to do is entirely on how much fun it is for you.
This frictionless approach extends to the game’s narrative. As the title of this piece may have indicated, all the Force-using characters (Cal, Cere, and a host of others) carry some, shall we say, personal baggage. The game is set between the Clone Wars and the Battle of Yavin (when the first Death Star was destroyed), so the Empire is at its height, and the ravages of the war and the Jedi Purge weigh heavily on the hearts of many in the galaxy. It’s standard Star Wars fare — bland-but-likeable protagonist, ragtag group of companions with one noted cynic, galaxy-saving quest — but it spends enough time on the emotional burdens of their histories that I cared about it. Not enough to get genuinely emotional, but enough that I wanted to see how they changed, and those things resolved over the course of the planet-hopping narrative.
And that narrative ends, too; there’s already an upcoming sequel bubbling under the radar, but if it never manifested at least the first game would have a satisfactory conclusion. If I have one criticism, it’s that they introduce a character very late on who I desperately wanted to see more of, and I’m hoping they get more time in the sequel. They do a deft enough job with your crew’s character development that each of them has a potential arc going forward, dealing with the ramifications of this game and finding their place in the galaxy.
None of this is world-shaking, and it won’t win an Oscar; it also occasionally bends over backwards a little to keep the narrative of Star Wars Disney-friendly. It works so well, however, because it sticks to the bare minimum of triple-A game design. Of course you get to explore the secrets of multiple planets; but they won’t be open worlds by any stretch of the imagination. Of course there’ll be plenty of collectables; but only two kinds, and they’re not connected to the mechanics in any way. Of course there’ll be skill upgrades; but they’ll be tied to story progression, and entirely optional if you feel like a challenge. Fallen Order keeps itself sleek, straightforward, and uninterested in going bigger than it needs to go. The campaign for Titanfall 2 felt that way as well. Respawn seems to have a knack for showing restraint. They know how to make the experience work, finding and honing all the things that actually matter to the gameplay experience, rather than just checking boxes in a triple-A must-have list.
Because of this, Fallen Order, for all its straightforwardness and unoriginality, comes together as something that feels unique, and brilliant in its clarity and restraint. It’s fun, optimistic, and challenging enough that it feels substantial and like it doesn’t waste your time. I didn’t mean for this to be a review, but it seems to be, so I’ll put it on the “Sandy Recommends” list. In a world where games like Cyberpunk 2077 are overhyped and released broken, and Rockstar puts its employees into should-be-illegal crunch time for the sake of horse testicles in Red Dead Redemption 2, I want more games like what Respawn is making — things that know how not to overstay their welcome.