Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is this year’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider.
Fallen Order has been compared to a lot of things. It’s been compared to Uncharted, and the start of the game is a heavily-scripted linear romp through a disintegrating scrapyard full of Star Destroyers that definitely feels very Uncharted. It’s been compared to Sekiro, and while I’ve not yet gotten around to playing Sekiro the human-on-human combat in Fallen Order is a similarly slower and more methodical affair of timing your blows to break through your opponent’s guard while dodging their ripostes. And it’s also been compared, inevitably, to Metroid and/or Castlevania, because it relies heavily on the same maze-like worlds with various areas and shortcuts gated off by mobility abilities such as double jump that must be obtained via progressing the story. As you progress through the game you revisit the same areas and worlds several times, with more and more of each map being available to you as you grow more powerful as a character.
More than all of those, though, Fallen Order feels most like a modern Tomb Raider title to play. The balance of exploration, puzzle-solving and combat is more or less the same, and uses the same broad structural sweep. That’s one reason why I’ve chosen Shadow Of The Tomb Raider as my point of comparison. The other reason, and the reason I’ve chosen Shadow specifically, is that, just like Shadow, Fallen Order is a narrative mess that’s been stitched together out of several mismatched bits of game that all have wildly different levels of tone and polish. It’s actually a little uncanny how similar the two are; Fallen Order is at least not burdened with being the third entry in a series that had proven remarkably reluctant to do anything new since it rebooted itself, but otherwise playing Fallen Order was an eerily familiar experience. It’s got the same nonsense story, the same abrupt lurches from scripted set-pieces to tepid open-world exploration, and the same weird fascination with fighting enemies that make use of only a fraction of the combat system’s potential. It’s just that this time the main character is clutching a lightsaber, and that’s something that counts for far less with me than it might do with other people.
Fallen Order casts you as Cal Kestis, an ex-Jedi apprentice who went into hiding in a galactic breaker’s yard after Order 66 went into effect and the Jedi Order got merked by the clones. Unfortunately he’s not very good at it, as he openly uses his force powers to save a co-worker from a grisly fate while there’s an Imperial probe droid not ten feet away. Imperial Inquisitors (Vader-lites invented by the animated shows to give their protagonists somebody to fight lightsaber duels with) swiftly arrive and start chasing him through the ship graveyard where he works, and because he’s a shit Jedi who never finished his training he’s only saved by the intervention of two NPCs who swoop in on their spaceship to pluck him out of harm’s way. This kickstarts what little plot Fallen Order has; the NPCs have come to find Cal specifically because they need a Jedi to follow a trail of clues across the galaxy towards a magic box containing the location of force-sensitive kids that can be used to rebuild the Jedi Order.
Immediately there are a number of problems with this setup. For starters everyone has seen Star Wars the film, and since there’s no rebuilt Jedi Order in that it’s going to be a very fair bet to say that Cal does not succeed and his hunt for the magic box is going to be effectively meaningless except in terms of his own character development. Even if you hadn’t seen Star Wars, though, Fallen Order is staggeringly bad at explaining why any of what you’re doing in the game actually matters, how one thing connects to the next, and even who the people accompanying Cal on his little quest are. The NPCs who save him from the Inquisition are supposed to be major characters who appear in most of the game’s cutscenes; one is a Jedi master who has lost her powers, and the other is a sarcastic four-armed pilot, but I have absolutely no idea what their names are because they don’t actually do anything1. They’re almost entirely absent from the game proper, preferring to just sit back on the ship while Cal does all of the hard work and only popping up to vomit exposition when you’re travelling to the next planet. You’re supposed to be following in the footsteps of a dead Jedi who speaks to you from beyond the grave via a convenient set of holographic recordings, but in literally every single one he just spouts sixty seconds of meaningless mumbo jumbo about a dead civilization before almost absent-mindedly adding “and now I’m going to the next planet”” on the end. Like the ship NPCs he has no active role in the story; a little more understandable in his case since he’s dead, but his search appeared to be more of a galactic tourism trip than it did an attempt to unravel a mystery.
So Fallen Order has a similar scale of open world exploration to Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, and just like Shadow it provides precisely zero impetus for you to actually engage with that exploration beyond sticking an objective marker on the map and telling you that’s where you should go next. It’s even doing a lot of the little structural stuff worse than Shadow did; for example, it’s absolutely terrible at contextualising most of your ability upgrades. Cal is accompanied at all times by a tiny droid called BD-1 that clings to his back while he’s running around and fighting things, but which will leap off and scuttle over to anything nearby that happens to be interactable. This is a nice solution to the old UI problem of highlighting nearby points of interest to the player2, and BD-1 also gets access to a selection of abilities that enable new ways of traversing the environment, such as slicing through doorlocks and travelling up ziplines. That’s all fine, but the problem is that these abilities are gained in the most nonsensical way possible; what’ll happen is that you’ll find a random droid upgrade bench out in the middle of nowhere, Cal will bend over it for five seconds with a screwdriver, and suddenly BD-1 has the ability to overcharge the electrical grid. There’s no work involved in unlocking these abilities, no sense of cause and effect — you don’t pry the new droid parts out of a droid boss you’ve defeated, or even pick them out of a droid scrapyard, and instead the level designers just plop down an upgrade node somewhere at the point in the story where you need that ability to progress.
It all feels incredibly, nakedly artificial, and all the more so because it’s not actually possible to do anything out of order in Fallen Order. While there are optional side areas that you can explore if you want to, you cannot run across the droid upgrade benches or the lightsaber upgrades or the force powers before the story says you can, and when you reach that point you will get the upgrade whether you want it or not. What, then, is the point of doing side exploration in Fallen Order? There’s certainly plenty of side areas in the game, including a fairly lengthy platforming section through a crashed Star Destroyer, but all that’s in them are codex entries, audio logs, and chests containing the following:
- Cosmetics for your lightsaber. You can customise the colour, the sleeve, the hilt — hell, both hilts when you get the double-bladed upgrade! Unfortunately Respawn don’t appear to have considered that if you’re not staring at the closeup in the lightsaber customisation menu, the actual in-game presence the lightsaber has is a tiny stick attached to Cal’s waist. It’s kind of hard to appreciate the cosmetics on an item that is, most of the time, about fifty pixels long.
- Cosmetics for your poncho. The poncho is possibly the single ugliest garment I’ve seen in a AAA game to date, and none of the available cosmetic options improve this state of affairs.
- Cosmetics for your ship. The ship only appears in cutscenes, and on the landing pad where you enter/exit each world.
This is possibly the least enticing set of exploration rewards that anyone could have devised for a Metroidvania title. Castlevania squirrels all sorts of weird shit away in its castle, and Metroid loves to hide optional weapon upgrades and tons of energy tanks off the beaten path. Fallen Order does have health and Force (i.e. mana) upgrades, but they’re handled via the tremendously cack-handed approach of having you need to collect three of them in order to get an upgrade. Zelda does the same thing with its Pieces Of Heart, but they’re comparatively much more common, as well as far more satisfying to collect; here it’s tremendously shit to do five minutes of platforming to get a glowy force ball and then be told you need two more in order to get anything out of it. It’s not even like Fallen Order quantifies the health upgrade your recieve; in Zelda you get a heart and in Metroid you get an energy tank, but in Fallen Order your reward for finding three health balls is that your health bar increases by such an infinitesimally small amount it’s difficult to tell that it’s increased at all.
In fact the only exploration reward that actually feels worthwhile are the infrequent golden chests that dole out estus fla- I mean, healing stims. Which I suppose is a good point to segue into talking about the combat, which has been ripped wholesale from a From Software game. Apparently Fallen Order is heavily influenced by Sekiro; I’ve only played the Souls titles but even I can see that Fallen Order has tripped over the line separating “inspired by” from “ripped off from”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I quite liked the combat in Dark Souls and it does adapt pretty well to a Star Wars game. Cal managed to retain his lightsaber when he fled the Jedi purge, and as the game unfolds he unlocks three Force powers which are used in combat as well as to solve puzzles: Force Push, Force Pull and Force Slow. Arrayed against him are a selection of classic Star Wars baddies: Stormtroopers, Scout Troopers, Heavy Troopers and Rocket Troopers, along with the odd AT-ST. Most of them engage you at range, but Cal automatically deflects blaster bolts if you hold down the block button and can even reflect them back to their source if you time the block right, while rockets and other heavy projectiles can be deflected/slowed with force powers. Scout Troopers choose to get in close to try and hit you with shock batons (which puts me in mind of this classic PA comic), which is where you get into the meat of Fallen Order’s combat: cutting people the fuck up with your lightsaber.
Or at least that’s what it’d be all about if Fallen Order had the balls to set g_saberrealisticcombat to 1; as it is you can chop up droids and monsters but humans just get some scorch marks and then fall over. Nicking the Dark Souls/Sekiro model does a lot for it; you’re not one the super-mobile backflipping Jedis seen in the prequel films, but are instead much more Luke circa Empire Strikes Back. Combat feels slow and deliberate, with no button-mashing (unless you want to die). Fighting human enemies in melee combat is a genuine pleasure, as you either drain their block bar with repeated attacks or well-timed parries, or else knock them off balance with force powers before hitting them a few times with your lightsaber. Most of the regular trooper enemy types are appropriately weak and die in one or two hits once you’ve gotten into melee range and past their defences, but it’s the fights against the special Purge Trooper enemies that are the real highlight here; these are enemies armed with a larger healthpool, magic electric weapons — staff, axe, pair of swords — and a much wider range of attacks and counters. Fighting Purge Troopers comes across as a proper duel, as you need to keep your guard up while looking for openings and mixing your own behaviour up a bit. I learned pretty quickly that the dual-sword troopers were difficult to parry as they attack too fast, so it was best to go on the offensive and hit them with some really big heavy attacks that smash through their block. That’s a high risk option if used on the staff trooper, though, as they’re strong enough to absorb the hits and then counterattack while you’re recovering. There’s no animation-cancelling in Fallen Order; once you’ve pushed the attack button you’re committed to that lightsaber swing, which can be precisely the wrong thing to do if you’ve timed it wrong and find yourself staring at an incoming axe with no way to defend yourself.
The parts of Fallen Order with human enemies were the parts where I found it easiest to overlook Fallen Order’s flaws. Sure, the exploration may be a bit shit, and it’s also a little exasperating that it’s also nicked Dark Souls’ bonfire/enemy respawn system, but as long as my journey through an otherwise surprisingly linear game is filled with fun combat I’m not going to complain too much. The difficulty levels are nicely pitched and adjustable at any time; I had it stuck on Normal to begin with but also didn’t pick up any extra estus flasks for the first half of the game, so things got increasingly tricky, and pleasingly so. Once I had eight of the things the Purge Trooper duels started to become pushovers (literally, they spent the entire time flat on their asses because of Force Push) so I bumped it up to Hard which restored some of the challenge. If human enemies were all the game had then I think the combat would be in an extremely strong place — strong enough to carry the game — and I’d be much more positive about Fallen Order than I am.
Unfortunately another point where Fallen Order strongly resembles Shadow Of The Tomb Raider specifically is that, for most of the game, you’re not fighting the recognisable Star Wars enemies from the Empire. You’re instead fighting an incredibly uninspired collection of monsters, and these are actively unfun because of how they subvert the concept of “cool lightsaber duels” that the combat has seemingly been built around. Even with the basic Scout Troopers you can tell when they’re winding up for a swing, and you can bring your lightsaber up to parry. Time it right and there’s a huge clash of sparks as the two weapons meet; it’s an interaction that’s got a sense of weight and force behind it. Your enemy stumbles backwards, and you lunge forward with a jab through their midsection that they don’t recover from.
Now let’s consider the same fight, but with one of Fallen Order’s favourite monster enemies: a giant rat. Literally, that is what it is. The giant rat jumps from side to side for a bit, and then stops. Great! It’s open for an attack, so you duly lunge forward an… oh wait no, it stopping and standing in one place was apparently the cue I was supposed to read for its own attack, and now it’s stunlocking me with an attack chain. The attack tells on almost every single monster are incredibly fuzzy and difficult to read; even after playing the game for twelve hours I was still getting taken off guard because the attacks kept coming out of nothing. Eventually you do get into the habit of not bothering with any fancy parrying and just approaching the rat with the block button held down, which causes its attack to harmlessly slide off and lets you counter. You hit the rat with your lightsaber; job done, right? Ha ha, of course not; all of the monster enemies are an order of magnitude tougher than the human ones, and this giant rat takes three — three! — lightsaber swings to kill. That’s something that makes me feel less like a badass Jedi, and more like I’m an exterminator who’s been called in to flail ineffectually at vermin with a foam baton. Talk about subverting your own fiction.
(“Giant space rat” is also indicative of the amount of thought that’s been put into the monster design. You will also encounter giant spiders — two types of giant spider, in fact — giant slugs, giant flies and giant yaks. Is it just that Daikatana is old enough now that game designers haven’t played it and thus don’t know that it’s an insanely bad idea to feature giant insects as the primary enemy type in a game?)
There are some monster enemies that do work; not coincidentally they’re the ones with two arms and two legs that are at least somewhat intuitive to read, and all of the boss monsters are also pretty well pitched thanks to having a much more strictly designed set of attack patterns. One common issue that the combat faces across all types of enemies, though, is that while Fallen Order does one-on-one duelling very well it’s far less assured when you’re facing huge crowds of baddies. As previously mentioned, Cal is not mobile. He can’t run very fast, so he can’t outmaneuver a crowd, and his block bar vanishes in no time when facing multiple enemies. So you end up doing what you do in every single third-person melee combat game to date: dodge rolling everywhere, stopping for a couple of seconds to land exactly one hit, and then dodge rolling everywhere again. This works, especially if you supplement it with some force powers to keep a few of your attackers disabled, but it’s hardly fluid or fun when you’re fighting four monsters all of whom have giant sacks of health and who will take actual, literal minutes to wear down.
And the weird thing about Fallen Order is that its combat is pitched to emphasise precisely the sort of encounter that it doesn’t do well. The Empire vanishes for significant portions of the game’s length and there was a full sixty minute segment where I didn’t see a single Stormtrooper. Instead you’re just fighting spiders and slugs, with the occasional giant ogre-thing thrown in. Enemy numbers increase as the game goes on, and the combat starts to feel less like the measured and thoughtful affair Respawn were presumably going for and more like clumsy flailing because you simply don’t have the tools to deal with it properly; attempting to engage a single target to get the best out of the combat simply results in you getting dogpiled by the rest. It is notably less of a problem when Fallen Order decides to go all out and throw piles of Stormtroopers and Scout Troopers at you, since those poor bastards die in one hit and you can actually manage their numbers properly, not to mention getting to feel like the rampaging Jedi you should be. That’s a vanishingly small portion of the game, though, and I would say that the Empire enemies — the fun enemies — are present for maybe 30% of its length. Spending the rest of it fighting generic monster enemies that could have been lifted straight out of any other fantasy game is not what I expected when I bought3 something with the words Star Wars written on the tin; when people fantastise about Star Wars they’re not imagining themselves slicing up a bunch of alien rats, after all.
I probably shouldn’t be so surprised that the combat is so confused about what it wants to be, though, since it simply matches the entire rest of the game in that regard. Just like Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, Fallen Order has been rushed to hit a deadline and has been pasted together out of several mismatched parts that don’t really mesh at all. The Uncharted-style opening is surprisingly excellent, and made me a bit wistful that Star Wars 1313 got cancelled because on the strength of this it’s clearly not a bad idea. Then you’re into the more Souls-y/Metroid-y part of the game, which feels like it was designed for a different set of gameplay systems which would have given it a far wider range of rewards to stick inside of its loot chests. Occasionally you take a little detour into another game entirely, like the part where you drive an AT-AT — this segment is pretty much exactly as it was during Fallen Order’s gameplay presentation debut, but the level of polish it’s received in comparison to the rest of the game makes it stick out like a sore thumb. At one point you’re whisked away from the game for literally no reason to do an arena fight against a bunch of monsters; this part really smacked of Respawn having twenty minutes of gameplay from a previous design iteration that they slapped in because they needed to pad the game’s running time.
It’s really, really telling that Fallen Order’s best bits by far are the ones which ditch the open world exploration and revert to a linear romp through classic Star Wars environments populated by classic Star Wars enemies, though. The opening is like this, as stated, as well as the AT-AT segment, and the optional bit where you explore a crashed Star Destroyer is also great. Cal flashes back to what happened during the events of Order 66 and you get to guide Kid Cal as he tries to escape from the clones, and this too is surprisingly good value considering my historic hatred of gameplay segments where you have to play as the younger version of a character. And the finale of Fallen Order is a fully-upgraded Cal making an assault on a heavily guarded Imperial facility, and it’s a lot of fun, zipping through an environment that oozes Star Wars ambience with waves of Stormtroopers coming at you and not a single giant spider in sight. It feels like Fallen Order needed somebody to make an executive decision to cut the Metroidvania concept (along with its insanely obnoxious backtracking) and just focus on making a great Star Wars action adventure game, instead of producing this weird halfway house where Fallen Order does neither thing particularly well.
Given how much Fallen Order resembles Shadow Of The Tomb Raider it’s hardly surprising that my overall opinion of the game is much the same as Shadow. It’s weird, misshapen and has a plot that makes absolutely zero sense but if we set an extremely low bar of “it’s a triple-A video game” then by those standards it’s fine. The combat is entertaining when the game chooses to make proper use of it and the mechanical action of clambering around Fallen Order’s various worlds is fun enough even if there’s nothing worthwhile waiting at the end of it. However, I would seriously question why you wanted to play Fallen Order instead of one of the many other games I’ve namedropped in this review that do these things far better. Is it because of the Star Wars wrapping? Because I have some bad news there: Fallen Order doesn’t leverage that license anywhere near as well as it should do and for much of the game’s length it’s difficult to tell you’re playing a Star Wars game at all. I will give it some credit for trying to adapt Sekiro’s combat for lightsaber battles but ultimately all it’s really done is made me slightly more interested in trying Sekiro itself, which presumably implements the concept in a far neater fashion. Otherwise while my litany of complaints in this review isn’t quite enough to damn Fallen Order outright, it still presents no actively compelling reason as to why you’d play it over any of the alternatives.
You are right about everything, of course. But not having playing Uncharted or last two Tomb Raider games probably helps: I wasn’t really bothered by the exploration and monster grind. Didn’t feel padded.
But it is very weird for exploration to be mostly about pimping up your lightsaber.
Well, now I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on Sekiro.
Excellent, measured, balanced and informative review.