Earlier this year, From Software's Sekiro reignited a debate over game difficulty, and whether all games should have options that make them more accessible. Respawn's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, out in November, has been in development for some four years, so it's certainly not a reaction to the Twitter chatter of early 2019. But it does feel that way, thanks to a difficulty system that makes battles more or less challenging, without sacrificing the feel of being a Jedi.
"What we needed to get right first was the lightsaber," said Jeff Magers, Fallen Order's lead level designer. "A lightsaber is, for me at least, the most exciting thing in the Star Wars universe, and it's kind of the dream to make a lightsaber game. So we really wanted to nail that lightsaber combat first, which to us meant making it feel like a powerful dangerous weapon, it is. So we started with a Stormtrooper taking one hit, which is difficult in a melee game because a lot of times what feels good in a melee game is hitting a character multiple times."
That foundation led to the creation of a block meter for some enemies. You'll need to bash away on them to break their guard and deliver a killing blow, unlike with stormtrooper grunts, who can die in a single slash. Respawn also designed some of the monsters you'll encounter to be bigger or have tough hides so it feels believable when they take a few hits to bring down.
I played about three hours of Fallen Order, and had to remind myself again and again to be patient. This is not the wild saber swinging of The Force Unleashed. Like in Dark Souls or, hell, Ninja Gaiden, I spent a lot of time blocking enemy attacks, which could shred my health bar in just a few hits. Against most enemies, I could only get in two or three swings before needing to dodge their own attacks. There's no stamina system, but it's very deliberate, especially when you start mixing in using Force powers like slow or push to crowd control a group, and parrying incoming blaster bolts back at stormtroopers to kill them from afar.
Keeping the lightsaber powerful means tossing out a common videogame tool for tuning higher difficulty settings: You can't give enemies more health. At the same time, if everything died in a single hit on an easier difficulty, would the game still be fun?
"We really leaned into creating these four difficulty modes, from Story Mode to Jedi Grandmaster, and they're very different experiences," Magers said. "But also, we're gamers at heart. Respawn is gameplay driven. We wanted an experience that the Star Wars fan that grew up playing all these different games can enjoy. The difficulty modes are the biggest way that we lean into that. We wanted it to still feel like a lightsaber, no matter what difficulty mode you're playing. So one of our core tenants of the difficulty tuning was not changing the number of hit points enemies have based on difficulty. On Grandmaster, you can still kill a Stormtrooper in one hit. What we're tuning is the enemy aggression. We're tuning the size of the parry window, the difficulty of these abilities to pull off. There's a really rewarding mastery loop in those higher difficulties."
I flipped through all four difficulties in Fallen Order's options, which can be changed at any time. Each has three meters: Parry timing, Incoming damage and Enemy aggression. On Story mode difficulty, each meter is nearly empty. Bump it up to Jedi Knight and damage and aggression jump up near the middle, but parry timing doesn't change as much, which means parries are still fairly easy to pull off. I definitely noticed a difference when I kicked it up to Jedi Master, which did tighten the parry window, making it harder to bounce blaster shots back at stormtroopers in the middle of a hectic fight. I didn't try Jedi Grandmaster, but it maxes out damage and aggression while reducing parry timing to what I'm guessing are close-to-Sekiro levels.
Jedi Master difficulty felt like the sweet spot to me: Challenging enough to make me embrace the combat system rather than muddling through, but not so hard that the average stormtrooper squad wrecks my face. The idea of difficulty options is hardly novel, and many games have done them with more nuance than Fallen Order. But it's interesting to see Respawn's solution, given Fallen Order's similarities to Dark Souls, a notoriously challenging game with no difficulty options except summoning a friend to share the load.
It was important for this game. "Because Star Wars is for everyone," Magers said. "We want to appeal to a wide variety of players. I want my niece to be able to play this game, because she's a huge Star Wars fan."