A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it was widely known that in the world of licensed franchises, Star Wars and videogames have always been a match made in heaven.
It was a match that made the period from the mid-90’s to the mid-2000’s such a blast for gamers who loved George Lucas’s sci-fi magnum opus (How to forget the Rogue Squadron games, the Jedi Knight games, even Knights of the Old Republic, to name a few). The drought of good Star Wars games that came in the early 2010’s, along with Electronic Arts signing a 10-year exclusive deal in 2013, proved less than fruitful (half baked releases, microtransaction fiascos, canceled games) and were some truly dark times to be a fan (not to mention the #discourse surrounding Disney’s stewardship over this franchise, which we won’t get into right now).
But like any good Star Wars tale, there is always a new hope in the horizon, and that hope came with Respawn Entertainment’s surprise 2019 hit, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order.
There were many ways that Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order could have been just another failure in EA’s tumultuous Star Wars journey. It was a game announced at EA Play 2018 by the studio’s president, Vince Zampella, while sitting with the audience with no gameplay on hand, yet it was to be released the following year. It was made by a studio which only had first person shooter experience (having been the original creators of Call of Duty and then EA’s excellent albeit mishandled Titanfall franchise) making a game that was outside their wheelhouse and focused on melee combat. The quality track record for Star Wars under EA was already on shaky territory.
The fact that Jedi Fallen Order was able to succeed after being the studio’s first game of its kind, with some promising yet undercooked ideas and with the cards stacked against them, was both a sign of Respawn’s talent and the hope that this franchise could find some good in the middle of this unproductive exclusive contract. And in 2023, the year this contract fulfills its 10-year obligation, it is fitting that Respawn was able to take the solid foundation of its first outing, realize the potential of the half baked ideas, and deliver the not only the best Star Wars game out of EA, but one of the stronger releases of the year, with Star Wars: Jedi Survivor.
Once You Start Down the Dark Path, Forever Will it Dominate Your Destiny
Star Wars: Jedi Survivor picks up five years after the conclusion of Jedi Fallen Order as we follow protagonist Cal Kestis years after his fateful encounter with Darth Vader and the Inquisitors. In the year since the destruction of the Jedi Holocron from the first game, the former young padawan turned fugitive has abandoned his former Mantis colleagues and become a resistance fighter in the nascent rebellion movement started by Rogue One’s Saw Guerrera. After a heist gone wrong in Coruscant, Cal makes his way to the planet of Koboh seeking shelter and repairs for his ship. While there, he runs into the remnants of the old Jedi Order from the long gone High Republic and discovers the possibility of a hidden planet well outside of the Empire’s control which could serve as the ultimate refuge for the survivors still being hunted by Order 66. The road Cal takes to find this hidden planet pushes him to cross certain lines that a Jedi Knight shall not…
Similar to the conceit of Jedi Fallen Order, Jedi Survivor plays out like a high stakes globe trotting/space faring adventure, though this time, instead of the single focus that was finding the Jedi Holocron, this story mixes the search of this hidden planet, learning the exploits of the Jedi from the High Republic, and Cal’s current moral predicament as he continues his one man war against an Empire that continues to grow, all while he reckons his decisions made over the past five years that alienated him from his Mantis team.
All characters from the team (Cere, Greeze, and the nightsister Merrin) return in the sequel and are given even more depth than they had before. Taken together, it’s a more sprawling story, contrasting against the relative simplicity of Jedi Fallen Order and how it kept the focus on Cal coming to terms over what happened to him in Order 66. Eventually, Jedi Survivor reaches the same level of introspection, leading to a quiet, understated ending one may deem anticlimactic in comparison to the bombastic end of its predecessor, but one that is much more fitting to the darker, more somber yet ultimately hopeful tone of this game’s story. A sequel can’t come soon enough.
More importantly, even with the bigger plates spinning in this sequel, Jedi Survivor just understands Star Wars the same way its predecessor did. Each of these games manages to pay homage to both the original and prequel trilogy in a way that’s respectful and builds upon their mystique, effectively merging the two eras in a cohesive way. The in-between years of what happened between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope are ripe with storytelling potential, with Jedi Survivor showing how much can be accomplished when tapping the rich tapestry of this era, especially one not reliant on nostalgia but on the strength of its own storytelling.
This is Where the Fun Begins
One of the big talking points about Jedi Fallen Order was how much it nailed the property of Star Wars from sounds, visuals, and storytelling, making up for the fact that the game definitely felt like Respawn’s first attempt at this kind of hybrid, action adventure inspired by many of the industry greats.
Here was a game with Uncharted/Tomb Raider style platforming, slightly let down by inconsistent rules and jank which made the platforming frustrating at times. Here was a game definitely taking difficulty inspirations from Dark Souls with a combat system reminiscent to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but lacking the finesse in the encounter design and enemy animation to make combat fully/consistently satisfying. And here was a game definitely taking the Metroid Prime inspiration of level design, but making some odd level design layouts that made traversing back and forth more of a chore (not to mention a pretty bad map and lack of fast travel).
It definitely cleared the level of “decent approximation” of all these things from other games, and the Star Wars coating and respect to the license just helped elevate the package overall. Thankfully, like it often is with sequels, the second go around can be the time you can nail your ideas, and Respawn took the advantage this time around to make sure that it refined these ideas for a sequel that’s absolutely bigger, better, and more refined, on top of still just nailing Star Wars.
From every way you can slice it, if you had problems with Jedi Fallen Order at the gameplay level, Respawn absolutely came in with big improvements in the sequel. Found platforming inconsistent and janky? Respawn has tightened up the character’s movement feel and the level design for rules to actually make sense for extended bouts of platforming. Found the Dark Souls/Sekiro style of combat unrefined? Now combat feels much tighter, has a wider variety of different combat styles in the form of 5 fairly fleshed out combat stances (compared to two and a half in the last game), and enemy animations are cleaner and easier to read than the last time (with the occasional animation jank rearing its ugly head here and there). Found the game’s version of Metroid exploration confusing and not well designed with a pretty bad map? Well…the map is at least a slight improvement. It’s still not the best, but it more than makes up for it with level design that’s grander in scale, more thought out, and a better showcase for Respawn’s design chops that didn’t shine through the last time.
Considering this is the same team that delivered a stellar single player campaign in 2016’s Titanfall 2 with such great, memorable level design that played to that game’s core movement strength, it was weird how limited Jedi Fallen Order felt coming from the same team. This time around, Respawn wanted to prove that Titanfall 2 wasn’t a fluke when it came to level design, and at times it feels like they are flexing. Almost every map in this game interconnects in a way that makes sense when it comes to delivering those Dark Souls style shortcuts for backtracking, and the string of platforming challenges they are able to put you through is exhilarating, doing wonders for the game’s pacing.
The inclusion of a fast travel system in the rest points adds a lot of incentive to seek out the interconnections of these maps. By the time you unlock an extra traversal move halfway through the game, the exhilaration of taking Cal through these Prince of Persia style platforming rises up a notch, leading to a sequence mid way through that’s so awe inspiring, mixing spectacle, gameplay, and scale together, that you’ll be left grinning from ear to ear once you experience it. It will be fascinating if any other game this year delivers a sequence as cool as this one. Hats off, Respawn.
On top of trying to refine what was under-cooked last time, Respawn definitely made sure to make the worlds you explore feel a little more lived in than the last game, while adding a few more systems that deepen the game without over-complicating it. While it is still weird to do Dark Souls style resting points that reset enemy encounters back in a way that doesn’t seem congruent with Star Wars as a universe, at least in the game’s wide open spaces in the planets of Koboh and Jedha, Respawn mixes and matches some of the enemies that spawn in said open spaces that make more sense as a “passage of time,” especially compared to the smaller play spaces where a resting spot respawns the exact same kinds of enemies with just a couple of exceptions.
Because some of these play spaces are bigger, Respawn added a new side quest system, called “Rumors,” that serves as great incentive for exploration, which at times comes with only experience gains, but other times it may put you in the path for new cosmetics (which comes with new beard and hairstyles, as well as a wide variety of outfits that are not simply ponchos this time) or new perks (Respawn’s attempt at some version of build crafting depending on the lightsaber stances you choose to rock).
This Rumor system intersects with the Assassin’s Creed style “Homestead” system in the main cantina that you visit in Koboh, as you can grow the cantina by finding NPC’s around the worlds you visit to help grow the settlement, which then gives you more rumors to go explore more and find new upgrades and currency. The cantina also contains the most charming group of NPC’s to have limited but fun conversations with that embrace the early cheesiness of George Lucas’ spirit with the original Star Wars cantina. The frog character, Turgle, who you meet early on, is one of my favorite Star Wars creatures ever, feeling so visually out of place but so charming that it just works.
As grander in scale that this sequel is to its predecessors, said scale does come with some drawbacks. Because Respawn took the time to increase the play space in the planets you go to, there is a nagging sense that it costs us a grander galactic spanning adventure than what we have. Don’t get me wrong, you do get to explore some different-looking environments that visually look much better than the last game. But at the same time (call me a traditionalist), in Star Wars it always feels like the different planets are defined by their one aesthetic (think of Hoth, Endor, Geonosis, Mustafar and Crait in the movies to see what I mean).
In Jedi Survivor, because Koboh is such a massive play space, you get different environments within this one planet (from forests, to farmland desert, to fire pits, to a swamp to give an example) but it means that a lot of your playtime is spent in Koboh with some detours to Jedha (a more uniform “Arizona”-style desert with beautiful looking desert storms), and some other smaller scale moons. The general flow of the game eventually always circles back to Koboh in a way that makes this grand space adventure feel smaller in scope than it actually looks.
Also of note, the first time you explore the big exploration areas, you don’t have access to any mounts. So if you want to start going on your grand explorations, you are free to do that, but it may be slower than you’d want unless you mainline until you get the ability to tame creatures that you can ride around. Ultimately, these are just nitpicks in the grander scheme of things, especially when the shroud of the dark side is being felt in other, more pressing areas of the game.
May the Frames Be With You
I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if many people suddenly cried out in terror…over another potentially technically busted video game release.
Due to the timing of when this review is coming out, it is very likely you may have come across the discourse surrounding the release of Jedi Survivor and the state of the game as it launched, especially over on the PC side. This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game and reflects strictly my console experience, and it does not reflect what the experience is on PC (you can find plenty of videos and discussions online concerning the fallacies of that version).
When it comes to this game’s technical side, there is a lot to like about the visuals Respawn has cooked with Jedi Survivor. The first game certainly wasn’t bad to look at, and it had some great visual moments (specially in the planets Illum and Dathomir), but it also had an inconsistent level of detail and jank throughout that diminished it on the technical side, on top of pop in and rendering problems sometimes associated with a game developed on Unreal Engine 4.
For Jedi Survivor, Respawn absolutely pushed the envelope when it comes to art direction, lighting, and scale in comparison to the first game, which often makes Jedi Survivor something stunning to look at and justifies why it was developed as a current gen only game. The character models, in particular, have seen some massive improvements, showcasing more of the acting nuance when seen in the cut-scenes. The decision to smoothly transition into a widescreen letterbox format for cut-scenes, similar to Red Dead Redemption 2, aids a lot in adding extra oomph to the game’s presentation.
Compared to the state of Jedi Fallen Order at launch, I didn’t notice as many of the rendering problems like I did in that game on day one, though they sometimes occasionally pop up when you are speeding through one area to the next as the game takes a few seconds to load. On top of improved animation that makes Cal feel like he belongs in the world, Jedi Survivor is a definite step up visually over Jedi Fallen Order.
If there is one area that lets down Jedi Survivor technically, is the state of the “Performance” mode. While I appreciate that Respawn included a performance mode that caps at a reconstructed 1440p image to allow for a faster frame rate for those that want to play it that way (especially with the backlash other game releases have received for not including that kind of mode at all), in day one, this was one of the roughest Performance modes I’d seen in a game this current generation.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that the game is unplayable in the Performance mode, as it is absolutely playable in that mode. But if what you want is a game that runs close to 60 fps, only during the more enclosed areas of the game is that possible. During the more wide open areas of Koboh and Jedha, the framerate definitely hovers in the lower end just a tad higher than what you get in the 4K30 quality mode. It also has some very obvious screen tearing, which hurts the game’s gorgeous presentation.
While there are some gameplay advantages to running the game in Performance mode, this is one of the few cases where I have no problem actually recommending running this game on the default 4K30 Quality mode. While not perfect, with a few small moments of slow down when heavy particle effects are on screen (think smoke and water reflections), this is one of the rare games where a developer actually optimized a game to feel good in the lower frame rate with proper motion blur and frame pacing, so don’t feel bad about the idea of playing on that mode if the Performance mode is too jittery for your liking; it feels shockingly stable in Quality mode.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that a game can only be good at 60fps, but others may feel differently. Your mileage may vary, but I still had a totally playable time with the way that the game performed with its day one patch.
As of the posting of this review, Respawn deployed Patch 1.000.3 on consoles on May 2nd to fix some of the performance issues that plagued the release at launch. Starting a fresh run and taking the game through the initial areas of Coruscant and the first big entrance to the wide environment of Koboh, I can confirm that the performance mode has seen some improvements. The Coruscant sections on Performance mode were especially rough in the early going at launch, and now it feels much smoother with only one slow section halfway through the tutorial. The open spaces still feel jittery, but they are running slightly better than before, with the exception of heavy particle effects on screen.
EA and Respawn have promised a slate of patches for the few weeks after launch, and this first patch is promising. If you absolutely want to wait until everything is ironed out, keep an eye on said patches. Lastly, as for overall stability, the game only crashed on me twice during loading screens in the 32 hours I put into Jedi Survivor. This patch specifically mentioned fixes to crashing, but I cannot confirm nor deny if it stabilized in that area.
May the Force Be With You
It is a testament to how good Jedi Survivor is as an overall package that, even though it had some technical deficiencies that can be seen as deterrents, it didn’t affect at all my enjoyment of what is, for my money, one of the best (if not “THE best”) Star Wars game in the modern era. The way Respawn fulfilled the potential that they barely scratched with their first attempt in Jedi Fallen Order just shows the immense talent this team has at its core.
Even after putting some 32 hours into it, I can’t stop thinking about where it left Cal Kestis off and the implications of a potential, final sequel which I’m already counting the days for. I can’t wait to dive back in and explore every final nook and cranny of its immense play spaces, defeat every last bounty hunter, hunt every last Legendary beast boss, and start a fresh run in the already available New Game+. It is fitting that, as the Star Wars license finally sees itself shackled free from an exclusivity agreement that didn’t bear the fruit we may have wanted, it definitely saved its best for last.
Whatever the future of Star Wars in gaming may be, I’m glad some part of it is in Respawn’s hands.
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This review was possible thanks to a review code provided by Electronic Arts.