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Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order plays like a safe, conventional adventure with great lightsabers

(Image credit: EA)

It was a small moment, trivial really, that won me over to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: a stormtrooper saying "Oh, dear" as he realized he was the last man standing on the battlefield, with a Jedi sprinting towards him, green blade blazing. It was the perfect cartoonish reaction of a poor guy vastly out of his depth, delivered with just the right amount of Ryan Reynolds whimsy to make me chuckle. I felt bad for him, honestly, because he was just standing there until I leapt into the canyon, lightsaber on, and started killing his friends. Am I the bad guy, here? That stormtrooper was just trying his gosh-darn best.

That one funny moment caught my attention, because it struck me as a flash of the kind of Star Wars that I still love. There have been so many takes on Star Wars over the years, dark and light and stupid and thoughtful and fantastical and gritty. After three hours of playing a preview of Jedi: Fallen Order, I think the best word to describe it is this: It's the safe kind of Star Wars. It's going to have little moments that make me smile, like a stormtrooper sounding like he's just peed himself, but it's mostly another Jedi drama, expressed through combat and exploration plucked from the last decade's most popular videogames.

As inexperienced Jedi Cal Kestis on a quest to uncover some ancient Jedi mysteries, restore the Jedi Order, and accrue a bunch of cool Force powers, I did things I've done many times before. I slid down long ice slopes, then jumped to ropes that swung me across vast chasms. I wall-ran from one rock face and jumped to another, before leaping towards a white-marked ledge I could grab onto. I rolled giant spheres into concave receptacles to power ancient machines, in puzzles that would be at home in The Legend of Zelda (or Tomb Raider, or Uncharted). And I meditated at beacons of light to refill my healing items, spec new skill points, and respawn the world's enemies, in a system pulled straight from Dark Souls.

It is a videogame-ass videogame.

Points for animation, but no points for originality

None of these actions quite offered the sublime speed and smoothness of Titanfall 2, the first-person shooter Respawn is best known for. But they did feel good, and I mostly enjoyed doing them, though I was never surprised. Cal moves with the snappy responsiveness and fluid animations of modern Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, turning on a dime, clambering up ledges and swaying as he walks along narrow beams. In one especially acrobatic moment, I was running forward across a precarious pipe, lightsaber held out to block a stream of incoming blaster bolts, when Cal fell, then grabbed hold of the pipe from below to keep moving forward. With a press of the jump button he twirled around it and launched up onto the platform, where I introduced the stormtrooper to my lightsaber. The grace of that animation sold the feeling of being a Jedi to me better than Force powers ever could.

It has that Metroid quality of being satisfying to traverse... but at least in the little bit of Fallen Order I played, the game doesn't do much to make that experience its own

As I explored the planet Zeffo for ancient Jedi secrets, I appreciated its intricate level design, which always doubles back on itself with unlockable shortcuts and has chests hidden around easy-to-miss corners. It has that Metroid quality of being satisfying to traverse: When I gained the Force Push power, suddenly I could knock down some cracked, previously impassable walls and return to previous hubs before setting off in new directions.

It's a tried-and-true way of exploring, but at least in the little bit of Fallen Order I played, the game doesn't do much to make that experience its own. I've already played too many games where I slow down a spinning fan so I can step through it; it's not interesting in Fallen Order just because I'm using the Force, rather than some other ability. And the way shortcuts and alternate paths are blatantly marked, the bit of world I explored never felt like an organic space.

I don't want to invoke the Dark Souls comparison, but dammit, Jedi Fallen Order makes it impossible not to. In both games, resting respawns the world's enemies, and if you die, you have to defeat the enemy that killed you to get your experience points back. But where Dark Souls' entire setting is deeply rooted in death and rebirth and souls stuck in limbo, and the world is brutally (and consistently) deadly in every way, Fallen Order uses the system because it's mechanically effective, without worrying about the internal logic of it. 

(Image credit: EA)

Everything in Souls is dreamlike, so when I rest at a bonfire in Undeadburg and the zombies respawn, that just feels right. But when I can fight my way through an abandoned village crawling with stormtroopers, climb up to a high vantage point, and meditate, then turn around to see stormtroopers standing there again, it feels off. So does respawning at these meditation points when I die, but only losing a sliver of health and popping right back up on a ledge when I mess up a jump and fall. Fallen Order has dramatic cutscenes and emotive face capture, storytelling tools it brings to bear to make the characters as convincing and believable as possible. Actually playing it, though, quickly breaks the spell. I can't stay bought in.

This might all sound nitpicky, because it's just a videogame, man, but it's the best way I can express that Fallen Order's mixture of game conventions can be fun and satisfying in their own right, but fail to mesh into a game that entrances me, the way the best videogames do.

Safe games are rarely the most memorable. Fallen Order's approach to Star Wars, too, feels conventional: the Jedi is good, there are many evil Sith to defeat, and I must become a master and restore the Jedi Order to bring hope to the galaxy. Will we ever see a Star Wars game as bold and subversive as Knights of the Old Republic 2 again? If so, Fallen Order doesn't feel like the game that has something new to say about Star Wars.

But I could be totally wrong, and I hope I am. In three hours, I saw only little bits of Fallen Order's story, and its adventure takes place across multiple planets, including Dathomir and Kashyyyk, famous in Star Wars lore as the home of the night sisters (some wicked nasty Force users) and the wookiees, respectively. Exploring that many Star Wars worlds in this fidelity is exciting. And because Fallen Order is part of the official Star Wars canon, set between Episodes III and IV, we know that Cal's quest must, somehow, end in failure. There sure as hell wasn't a new, flourishing Jedi Order when Luke Skywalker came onto the scene. A big-budget Star Wars game ending in complete tragedy would be bold, and rad.

I think it's safe to say, even after just a few hours, that the lightsaber combat is its strongest feature

Combat keeps you on your toes, even against a small group of enemies

I wish more of Fallen Order's design showed sparks of originality, or surprised me like that little blip of personality from a comically doomed stormtrooper. I think it's safe to say, even after just a few hours, that the lightsaber combat is its strongest feature. It requires a deliberate dance of slashing, blocking, and dodging, and enemies quickly punish button mashing by taking out large chunks of your health. Cal is fragile, at least early in the game, but his lightsaber is deadly. Stormtroopers can die in a single hit, but you'll often have to empty an enemy's stamina meter to break their guard and deliver a killing blow. There are many ways to do this, from leaping at them with a Force-powered strike, to pummeling them with repeated combos, to hitting them with a Force push to stagger or a Force slow to catch them before their guard is up.

Dismemberment is unfortunately rare—in finishing moves against animals I chopped one's arm off and sliced the other clean in two, but stormtroopers remain disappointingly whole. Still, but Respawn struck a balance that makes the lightsaber feel powerful. Holding block can automatically protect you from weak attacks like blaster bolts, but enemies with charge attacks or heavy-hitting moves will glow red for a moment to indicate they're unblockable. Parrying by tapping block at the right time is a key skill.

Even early in the game, with few abilities unlocked, I had some tense fights—like in the best action games, just a few seconds of perfect timing and patience can make the difference between a flawless encounter and getting your ass kicked. In one fight, two stormtroopers up on a ridge fired down on me while another pair of scout troopers rushed in close, melee weapons at the ready. I slowed one of the scout troopers and pounced, double tapping attack to cut him down before he could block my hits. As he fell one stormtrooper let off a burst, which I bounced back at him with my lightsaber by tapping block just before the beam hit me. I held block down to automatically defend against the second stormtrooper's volley, then focused on the second scout trooper, attacking, dodging backwards, and then hitting him again until his guard broke and I could smash him to the ground with a finishing move flourish.

At that point the last stormtrooper was easy to take down with a parried blaster bolt. No distractions.

(Image credit: EA)

The timing for parries on the default difficulty is generous, but can still be challenging in the middle of a fight. And this is where Fallen Order differs most dramatically from inspirations like Dark Souls. It's meant to be played by a wide audience, and it has difficulty options to make that possible. The hard and very hard difficulties, Jedi Master and Jedi Grandmaster, make the parry window tighter and tighter, while upping the aggression of enemies and the amount of damage they do.

I talked to the developers about how they designed this system, which you can read more about here. It's a great way to ramp up the challenge without feeling cheap: Critically, enemies don't get more health on harder difficulties. Your lightsaber remains just as powerful.

In three hours I unlocked some fun skill upgrades, including a leaping attack, a dodge kick, and a more powerful Force slow that could target a whole group of enemies. Fallen Order's skill tree is fairly compact, small enough that you'll likely be able to mostly fill it out in a normal playthrough if you're taking your time. The tree is divided into survivability, lightsaber abilities, and Force powers, but it doesn't seem like you'll be so short on points you'll need to specialize, unless you choose to, say, max out your Force skills while deliberately avoiding lightsaber skills. None of the abilities you need to traverse the world, like Force push, come from the skill tree—you'll unlock those through story moments, instead.

Playing a small slice of Fallen Order didn't do anything to convince me that its protagonist isn't a boring, missed opportunity. So far, he seems like the least interesting part of his own game, but that tends to happen when you play it safe. I'm hoping Fallen Order has some surprises in store, and something new to say about Star Wars, when it's out on November 15.

EA provided travel and accommodations for the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order preview event.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.