‘Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’ Is Strong With the Force

In the Star Wars universe, the Force is everywhere. It connects everyone to each other; it permeates all things, living and dead, mechanical and organic, solid, liquid, or gas. This makes it a powerful storytelling tool. The Force is a built-in metaphor machine, basically, a bellwether any Star Wars narrative can gesture toward to reinforce themes, build drama, or progress the story. In Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the Force is dark. It’s full of trauma, tragedy, resonant with a whole galaxy’s worth of suffering. That echo of pain is the background to a classic Star Wars setup: a handful of heroes against a galaxy of fascists, racing against time and impossible odds for a chance at hope.

It makes sense that Electronic Arts would release a Star Wars game at this juncture that hews so closely to the familiar beats of the franchise. As a game, Fallen Order is a Hail Mary for EA’s approach to the games. Up until now, the company’s releases have been scant and disappointing, to the point that it’s hard not to wonder why Disney’s Lucasfilm, a production house more than happy to part ways with collaborators performing below expectations, hasn’t cut the publisher loose. So, in what feels like an effort to restore its credibility, EA has handed the license to its most critically acclaimed development house, Respawn Entertainment, creators of the exceptional Titanfall series, in the hopes that Respawn absolutely nails it.

Fortunately for everyone involved: it does. With scant exception, Jedi: Fallen Order is a consummate Star Wars videogame, traditional in its approach to the material but so elegant in its craftsmanship that it feels worthy to stand with some of the best Star Wars games ever made. Respawn Entertainment proved with Titanfall 2 that it has a deft mastery of single-player design, and Jedi: Fallen Order only cements that pedigree.

In Jedi: Fallen Order, you play as Cal Kestis, a former Jedi Padawan in the space between the Empire’s ascent in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV—A New Hope. Over the course of the game, you join up with a small crew helmed by a pilot named Greez and a captain named Cere, a former Jedi herself. Fighting against the Empire on a variety of planets, you must restore your full connection to the Force, growing as a warrior and a Jedi, while seeking out an artifact that could be crucial to the future of the Jedi Order and the galaxy as a whole.

The journey is handled deftly. Each planet is a densely knotted level, a miniature open world with winding linear paths and significant side digressions that unravel only as you progress in player skill and character ability. Much of the game is spent exploring, prodding at available paths and backtracking to brush past old dead ends with new abilities. These quiet periods of exploration and puzzle solving are interspersed with periodic chunks of combat and scripted set pieces that lay familiar types of Star Wars bombast on thick—exploding ships, giant alien creatures, lightsaber duels, and madcap chases. In its rhythms, the game plays like one of the modern-day Tomb Raider titles, with a duel interest in both exploration and storytelling, but broader and more player-directed. Again, it’s not groundbreaking, but it’s well made from top to bottom. Each planet feels distinct and compelling, and the level design offers a satisfying loop of discovery and recognition as you discover new hidden areas and the paths that connect them to places you’ve already been.

The combat is also effective, and goes farther to capture the drama of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars universe than just about any treatment I’ve encountered. Melee fights are stamina-based, with the player and the enemy both having set amounts of stamina that drain when blocking their opponents’ attacks or being blocked. When the guard breaks, they are open for damage, which means that fights, including the handful of riveting boss encounters, are focused on parrying and precisely blocking your opponent to drain their stamina before they drain yours. On harder difficulties, this takes precision and care, each duel becoming a desperate flurry of blocks and dodges as you work to create an opening.

If this combat system sounds like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software’s latest game, it’s because it is. The system is a simplified version of that game’s, employed with good reason. It’s a way of managing combat that heightens the spectacle of encounters between equals. Even small combat encounters feel choreographed and deliberate. A lone Jedi, lightsaber blazing, fending off enemies who could kill him with a blow.

The writing shines, too, elevating the basic Star Wars formula it uses into a meditation on trauma, reconciliation, and survival despite a future that seems entirely devoid of hope. Cal and his mentor, Cere, share the same traumas—the loss of the Jedi, the black weight of the Empire’s cruelty—and spend the game confronting and attempting to reconcile themselves to that pain. Cere, especially, played via motion capture and voice performance by actress Debra Wilson, is a nuanced portrait of a fallen hero trying to get their spark back. She becomes the fascinating moral center of a story about fighting the Empire even when the Empire is everywhere, always nipping at your heels, always challenging even your most minor accomplishments and basic ambitions. This story is much smaller in scale than, say, the movies. It’s not about winning—it’s about gaining just enough ground to keep fighting tomorrow.

The weakest part of the story, and the game, is Cal Kestis himself. He functions well as a window into the action, but feels like a missed opportunity in almost every way. Any Jedi character created for this time period in the franchise’s fiction would be dealing with the trauma of the Jedi Purge at the end of the prequel trilogy; smart writing would use this trauma as one of a series of building blocks to create a complex character. But those experiences are the only building blocks Cal has. He is, in every other way, a blank slate, weak in personality and presence. He reflects the concerns of the story, and of the characters around him, and he makes some interesting decisions as time goes on. But he is so utterly dull, so devoid of layers. Any other type of protagonist, anyone other than someone who feels like the default white videogame hero boy, would have been more interesting here. At least he has a cute droid.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order looks and often feels like a generic Star Wars adventure, but Respawn elevates it nearly every step of the way. One doesn’t necessarily expect a story about space wizards and evil empires to feel resonant, but this does, and it does so in a way that not many pieces of big-budget media do. Fallen Order is a game about confronting your past and fighting for the future when you don’t know if that future is ever going to get better. That feels timely, and wrapped around that idea, the rest of the game just sings. If Fallen Order was connected to the Force, it would radiate power.

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