For people like me, a man obsessed with lightsabers. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order let me customize the hilt and blade color of my lightsaber. It's a tiny part of developer Respawn's game and purely cosmetic, but truly blissful -- like a digital version of Galaxy's Edge.
So there's a lot riding on this one, especially after the controversy surrounding the last major Star Wars game, 2017's Battlefront 2. Thankfully it's a thrilling adventure with a well-balanced blend of familiar gameplay elements, despite a few minor wrinkles.
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A Star Wars story
Star Wars is a cinematic franchise at its heart, and Jedi: Fallen Order certainly delivers in the 20 or so hours it took me to complete it. You're dropped into the role of surviving Padawan Cal Kestis, five years after Revenge of the Sith. His fellow Jedi have been wiped out by the Galactic Empire, and Cal has gone into hiding on a junkyard planet. When he uses the Force to save a friend, the Second Sister (a Jedi-hunting Imperial Inquisitor) is drawn to him.
Rescued by former Jedi Cere Junda and pilot Greez Dritus, he follows the path of Cere's late master to find a holocron containing the names and locations of Force-sensitive children -- who are potentially the next generation of Jedi. Like every great Star Wars hero, Cal also acquires a droid companion, BD-1.
The crew flies from planet to planet in Greez's ship -- the Stinger Mantis -- to explore ancient temples, battle the Empire and restore Cal's Force abilities, with an engaging narrative and plenty of jaw-droppingly cool moments.
Fans will note that this is an all-new cast of characters (with a few familiar faces making cameos) so we don't have any attachment to them as the game kicks off. I soon found myself caring deeply about this group, thanks to the game's excellent writing and acting.
Cal and Cere both start out with a bunch of hangups about their Jedi pasts and relationships with the Force -- and both characters develop in fascinating ways as the narrative plays out. Actors Cameron Monaghan and Debra Wilson are excellent in their roles, giving engaging voiceovers and injecting plenty of subtlety into their motion-captured performances.
Greez isn't quite as deep -- he's a typical wisecracking Star Wars pilot and his personal conflict feels a little forced. His fussing over the Mantis is fun, though. Actor Daniel Roebuck makes him likeable.
BD-1, however, is a little charmer and probably the star of the show. It's tough for a droid to stand out in the universe that gave us R2-D2 and BB-8, but BD managed beep and boop his way into my heart. He spends much of the game on Cal's back, but hops off to point out areas of interest and generally keeps you company.
On the dark side, the Second Sister is an exceptional adversary for Cal. The Inquisitors were introduced as Darth Vader's dark side goons in the CGI animated series Rebels, but this character is new and Jedi: Fallen Order makes her feel like a major threat throughout. There's a real weight to each encounter with her, and I found myself anticipating each one with a Sith-like glee.
Deep Star Wars knowledge isn't a requirement to enjoy this game's story -- it's pitched towards people who've seen the movies and tells a nice, self-contained tale. There are nods and references to elements from The Clone Wars and Rebels, but people who haven't seen them won't feel lost.
The wonderful presentation is somewhat marred by pop-in textures (an issue seen in the first Mass Effect), strangely identical groups of Wookiees and other minor glitches. These took me out of the experience a bit, while occasional slow loading made me wonder if the game had crashed. EA told me it's planning to address these bugs with a patch.
Dark Souls of the Force
Since the Empire is hunting Cal, there are plenty of opportunities to put his abilities to the test. Jedi: Fallen Order's combat and progression systems owe a major debt to From Software's classic Dark Souls -- you can't just leap in and attack relentlessly until enemies die.
Instead, you'll have to have to take a defensive approach and learn your foes' patterns before taking them down with a combination of lightsaber moves and Force powers. There's a nice mix of melee and ranged enemies, so you'll have to adjust your strategies on the fly.
Cal learns a trio of major Force abilities in the course of the game -- Slow Time, Push and Pull. Each is mapped to the pad's shoulder button, but I frequently hit the wrong one in the heat of battle and wished the game had a better tutorial system. These can be upgraded and new lightsaber combos can be unlocked using skill points acquired through combat and exploration.
You travel between meditation points, where you can spend skill points, restore your health and restock BD's stim packs (which you use to heal in the field). Like Dark Souls, enemies will respawn when you heal.
See a galaxy of new Star Wars toys from Rise of Skywalker, Mandalorian and Fallen Order
However, Jedi: Fallen Order is much gentler than Dark Souls. I had to tread carefully as I played through on Jedi Knight (normal) difficulty, but seldom felt under pressure to make it to the next meditation point. Higher difficulties move the experience closer to the game that inspired it, and you can change the difficulty in the menu at any time.
It's still satisfying to figure out the most effective approach and take down tougher foes -- like the black-armored Purge Troopers and various sub-bosses -- with ease. There aren't too many fights with Force users like the Inquisitors, but the game makes those encounters feel suitably epic. Learning their patterns is essential, so you can parry their blows and strike when they're unwise enough to lower their defenses. When it all flows, this game's combat is intense and engaging.
In addition to customizing Cal's lightsaber, you can also find new ponchos and outfits for him, as well as fresh color schemes for BD-1 and the Mantis. It would've been cool if Respawn had included stat changes with Cal's items, but they still offer nice visual variety.
Across the Stars
Jedi: Fallen Order sets Cal loose on a variety of beautifully designed planets -- like forested Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk and creepy, desolate Dathomir -- as you seek the holocron. There's plenty of climbing, swinging and leaping to do as you explore each, with a clear Metroid Prime influence throughout.
You'll only be able to access certain areas after upgrading your abilities, so you'll regularly find yourself tantalized by locked doors and edges that are just out of your reach as you wander. These will be marked on your 3D holographic minimap, so you'll know to return to those areas later.
It's entirely possible to blast your way through the game in a linear fashion, but you'd be missing a huge part of its appeal -- nuggets of lore are scattered like catnip for fans. I was drawn into every nook and cranny, but was occasionally disappointed by locked doors and invisible walls.
Getting around is generally smooth. This element feels exactly like the recent Tomb Raiders or Uncharted. You'll use a combination of Cal's agility, the Force and BD's features to solve puzzles. None of these are too taxing, but they're consistently fun and fit nicely within the game's world.
Unfortunately, one thing proved deeply frustrating: sliding. Some sections of the game require you to guide Cal around tight bends and he'll frequently fall off the edge -- one slide in particular had me gritting my teeth in quiet rage (it doesn't quite rise to the level of pad-throwing). Think Super Mario 64's slides, but less fun. They appear less in the later stages of the game, but I wish the Empire had Order 66'd the lot of them.
This will be a day long remembered
Despite some graphical oddities and questionable traversal choices, Respawn's game offers gripping narrative, intense lightsaber combat and wonderful worlds to explore. It's an adventure worthy of George Lucas' galaxy far, far away -- a new hope for the single-player Star Wars gaming tradition.