Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order may be the most important Star Wars game publisher Electronic Arts has ever released. After publishing an MMORPG and two multiplayer shooters, EA is finally releasing what many fans have been asking for since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and disbanded LucasArts’ development division: a story-focused, single-player Star Wars game. Traditionally, a single-player Star Wars game would be par for the course for a franchise that has found some of its biggest successes with such experiences (Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, the Jedi Knight series), but it’s taken EA five years to get one on its slate.
A first attempt headed by Visceral Games fell through in 2017, which was followed by the publisher’s declaration that players don’t enjoy linear games “as much today as they did five years ago or 10 years ago.” It’s possible, then, that the success or failure of Jedi: Fallen Order could very well decide how many more of these single-player, story-focused Star Wars games we get. Fortunately, Jedi: Fallen Order is the work of Respawn Entertainment, a veteran studio that’s already seen its fair share of success this year with the free-to-play battle royale game, Apex Legends. And I’m happy to say that what I’ve played so far of this new Star Wars title is very promising.
I spent almost four hours of hands-on time with Respawn’s Star Wars game during a preview event in Anaheim in October, exploring two of the many planets featured in the game as well as learning more about its combat system, skill trees, platforming, customization options, and story. One thing that’s clear after playing the game is that the title’s marketing campaign hasn’t quite shown its full hand yet. I was a bit underwhelmed by how straightforward and hack-and-slashy Jedi: Fallen Order looked during its E3 gameplay reveal and in later trailers. But the real experience — at least based on my time exploring ancient tombs on the planet Zeffo — plays closer to a Metroidvania, Dark Souls-lite hybrid that offers complexity, skill-based combat, and plenty of exploration.
You could try to hack-and-slash your way through the Empire and the dangerous wildlife that populates the game’s planets but you’d probably come out the other end as a Force ghost. Jedi: Fallen Order demands a more tactical and patient approach, putting the concept of swordsmen back into lightsaber dueling. It’s a bit like Dark Souls in the way you have to combine all of the different aspects of combat, including lots of blocking and dodging, as well as time your strikes, to survive. Without mastering all of these skills, the game can be as punishing as FromSoftware’s Action RPG gold standard.
Interestingly, the game sort of bridges the gap between the Prequel and Original Trilogies in terms of combat. Protagonist Cal Kestis (played by Gotham‘s Cameron Monaghan) isn’t as acrobatic or flashy as the Jedi of the Republic but also not as stiff as Obi-Wan and Darth Vader during A New Hope. Cal strafes, mixes both lightsaber skills and the Force during combat, and can even perform impressive finishing moves, but he’s not the overpowered monk with a laser sword that can make quick work of stormtroopers. Ultimately, how you use this combination of movement, hack-and-slash mechanics, and physics-based Force powers is up to you.
As far as that goes, you can tailor Cal to your specific fighting style and needs. Like a traditional RPG, Jedi: Fallen Order rewards you with XP as you progress through the game. Once your XP meter is full, you get a skill point, which you can use to improve your attack, survival, or Force abilities. These three branches make up a skill tree of seemingly endless possibilities, allowing you to mix and match between them without having to commit to one specific playstyle. For example, I spent a lot of time improving my survival skills, unlocking a larger health bar and increased health regeneration, while also boosting more confrontational Force abilities like Push so that I could stagger groups of enemies at a time and hack my way through them. The attack portion allows you to learn new dash attacks as well as incorporate kicks and the like into your combat style.
Judging by the size of this skill tree — I couldn’t even see the extent of the paths in my four-hour demo time — there are plenty more options still to be revealed. Perhaps Cal will eventually learn some fan-favorite Force powers featured in past games?
The past is actually a very important aspect of the Jedi: Fallen Order experience. The title isn’t just a potential beacon for Star Wars‘ single-player future, but also an homage to the franchise’s video game past. Exploring the dangerous and twisting tombs below the Empire-occupied Zeffo reminded me of my first time on the Sith planet of Korriban in the seminal Knights of the Old Republic. Filled with Jedi lore, ancient relics, and quite a few secret passageways, Zeffo is a nice reminder that the Star Wars universe is full of history and plenty of hidden corners.
So, what brings Cal to Zeffo? I can’t say much about that except that Cal and his team — which also includes his freedom-fighting mentor Cere, grumpy Ardennian pilot Greez, and little droid BD-1 — are looking for something that could help them defeat the Empire. It’s hard to really say much about the quality of the story from just four hours that seem to take place pretty early on in the game, but Respawn gets the Star Wars tone just right. The dialogue is snappy, while also a bit Force hippie-ish and surprisingly funny. While the narrative doesn’t seem to be revolutionary — the initial story treads familiar territory — it’s intriguing and very cinematic.
Speaking of cinematic, Jedi: Fallen Order‘s presentation is one of its biggest boons. No Star Wars game has ever looked this good. Something as simple as watching Cal’s hair blow in the wind at the top of a cliff overlooking the mountain ranges of Zeffo is as beautifully compelling a visual as I’ve ever seen in these games. A lot of that beauty, of course, stems from the technological leap between something like KotOR‘s 2003 release and now, but this has clearly been a labor of love for Respawn. There are plenty of little details layered across Zeffo’s surface and the tombs that make every scene pop.
The visuals aren’t without their snags, though. Respawn confirmed before the demo began that the hands-on time on Zeffo was made up of an actual chunk of the final game and that nothing was staged for previewers. To that end, Jedi: Fallen Order mostly runs smoothly, although there were obvious framerate drops and graphical glitches at certain points. This is nothing a Day 1 patch can’t fix, but they were noticeable during my session.
The AI is mostly great, as both stormtroopers and wild creatures work to flank you and kill you, providing a formidable challenge throughout, but there were times when BD-1 wouldn’t log a certain command or wouldn’t follow me to the next room (he’s meant to ride on your shoulder throughout the adventure). This glitch never became frustrating, as BD-1 would recover after a few seconds, but since the droid is responsible for feeding you health stims, scanning things for your databank, and opening certain blast doors and containers, I could see how an AI error could mean you losing a little patience. Again, nothing a launch day patch can’t fix.
There were also instances when I’d engage a stormtrooper and slice him down while some of his comrades a few feet away simply ignored me, not triggered by my actions. This may be another element from Dark Souls that made it into the game, where enemies wait for you to approach them before initiating combat. This may work in a fantasy world like Lordran, where the monsters stand their ground menacingly, waiting to kill you, but it doesn’t translate as well when it’s a little stormtrooper who could easily call for backup on the coms. (I should note that I encountered several variations of stormtroopers, from heavy troopers to shadow troopers throughout.)
Another element that is heavily inspired by Dark Souls is the meditation system — checkpoints scattered across the map that allow you to upgrade your skill tree as well as rest to regain all your health and replenish your supply of health stims (I could only carry three during my demo). Using these meditation checkpoints doesn’t automatically regenerate your health, though. Choosing to rest comes with a price: all of the enemies on the map respawn as well in the process, meaning you may end up having to face the squad of stormtroopers that depleted your health in the first place.
Being killed has its own drawbacks. While you won’t get a Game Over screen in Jedi: Fallen Order, dying does mean you lose XP and restart at your last meditation point. The only way to recover the lost XP is to find the enemy that killed you and deal damage to it. Sound a little familiar?
This is no Dark Souls clone, though. Respawn’s own past work on Titanfall and Apex Legends is a big influence on Jedi: Fallen Order, especially when it comes to its excellent platforming. Cal’s climbing and parkour skills were deftly on display while tomb raiding on Zeffo. The tomb offered a nice mix of different platforming challenges throughout, from swinging across wide gaps between its peculiar rock formations to sliding down winding icy paths to running across walls. A healthy dose of physics puzzles, including a big one near the end of the tomb, makes for an interesting challenge that helps break up the action a little. You’ll have to slow down certain moving obstacles with the Force to move across them or to simply avoid being crushed by them. When you learn Force push, you’ll be able to use it to smash through ice walls before colliding with them during the aforementioned sliding sections. All of these obstacles come together quite nicely.
Some of the platforming did feel a little repetitive towards the end of my time on Zeffo, as I climbed up another rock surface and slid down one more icy path, but I think that was mostly due to the challenge of the tomb’s final physics puzzle, which involves activating three buttons in a room that unlocks the way out of the caverns. Your mileage may vary depending on your ability to solve puzzles. I ended up asking for help.
As you unlock new Force abilities, new areas of the map will become accessible to you as well. For example, once I learned Force push, I was able to go back to rooms with cracked doors to shatter them wide open, revealing new secrets and pathways along the way. It’s a nice bit of Metroidvania-style gameplay that will probably keep you busy on the different worlds for hours. Cal has a handy tool that will help you note which areas have opened up to you as you progress: the holomap, which denotes green doors that you can shatter to access new area, red doors that you can’t, and yellow barriers that pinpoint open areas you just haven’t explored yet. You’ll be able to track all of these points on your holomap with the help of BD-1, who scans inaccessible doors and uploads them for you.
Jedi: Fallen Order allows players to explore several planets across the galaxy. Besides Zeffo, I also had the option to explore Dathomir (Darth Maul’s homeworld), but I was warned that would be a much more challenging path. (You can adjust difficulty in the game all the way to “Jedi Master” and “Grand Master,” if you’re a masochist.) My mission to Zeffo eventually put me on track to explore another Star Wars fan-favorite, though: Kashyyyk, where a Wookiee rebellion against the Empire is the planet’s last hope.
This hectic Kashyyyk section scratched a very different itch. If Zeffo showcases a more thoughtful approach to exploring the worlds of Star Wars, Kashyyyk is the no holds barred, action-packed war bit. From the moment you approach the Wookiee homeworld, the planet is engulfed in laser fire. In order to join the battle, Cal has to jump off his freighter — it’s called the Mantis — and swim towards the AT-ATs devastating the rebel forces on the ground. Cal devises a plan to climb up one of the moss-covered Imperial walkers and hijack it to help out the forces loyal to Wookiee chieftain Tarfful (from Revenge of the Sith).
Piloting an AT-AT is about what you’d expect, as the gameplay switches over to a first-person shooter. Cal makes quick work of the Empire with the walker’s laser cannons before joining up with freedom fighter Saw Gerrera right at the point where the E3 gameplay reveal began. That’s where my demo time ended.
Respawn teased a little bit more of what’s to come on Kashyyyk, including a climb up the planet’s massive origin tree to confront one of the game’s bosses: the Ninth Sister, a member of the Inquisitors charged with hunting down Jedi. The short video was also a showcase of what a more powerful Cal can do once he’s leveled up a bit more. The Force plays a big role in this particular duel, so you might want to pay a bit of attention to that branch of your skill tree before the fight.
But as I said, you can upgrade Cal as you see fit, turning him into a laser-bolt-deflecting demigod or an untouchable Force user, so there’s likely more than one way to fight the Ninth Sister as well as the Second Sister, the game’s main villain. Skills aren’t the only customizable aspects of your Cal either. You can find different materials and parts throughout the maps to change the look of Cal’s outfit and lightsaber as well as BD-1 and the Mantis’ color schemes. There’s not much crafting involved, although there is a handy workstation on which to customize your lightsaber. I had a bit of fun mixing and matching Cal’s outfit to his weapon, to say the least.
“Fun” might actually be the best way to summarize my time with Cal. With several hours of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order under my belt, I’m optimistic about the game’s direction. I can’t speak for its story, as I experienced so little of it beyond what we all already knew from trailers, but the gameplay is exciting and challenging. Most importantly, it feels really rewarding when you finally solve a puzzle or defeat a difficult enemy and are gifted with that all-too-valuable skill point. Players are going to have a blast unlocking Cal’s abilities as the game progresses. I, for one, can’t wait to dig deeper when the game launches on Nov. 15 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.