The lightsaber is synonymous with Star Wars, a blazing pillar of light that can pierce almost anything in the universe. We've seen it sear through doors, melt armor, and cut impossibly tough surfaces. It's a crucial element of the Jedi power fantasy, full of potential. But in crafting the lightsaber combat of the upcoming Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Respawn Entertainment ran into a stumbling block: it's not always fun for combat to end in one hit.
"It's a problem," says lead technical designer Brandon Kelch. "The lightsaber should kill things. But also, killing everything in one hit doesn't feel good as a game."
Swordfighting is about the back-and-forth, finding a rhythm. As Respawn quickly found, wielding an all-powerful lightsaber meant that typical video game conventions, like health bars, felt strangely out of place.
"Initially, the stormtrooper would take three hits," said lead software engineer Jiesang Song. "And it felt off. So now they block a few times, and that last hit actually kills them in one hit."
It may sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it's the difference that makes Fallen Order's lightsaber combat feel more akin to Dark Souls than a fast-paced, button-mashing brawler. Kelch says the team looked to From Software's Souls series specifically for inspiration in capturing the kind of combat they wanted for Fallen Order. It helped them balance a dichotomy of needs: the desire to hit things, versus the desire to deftly slice like a Jedi.
"We want to hit characters multiple times. We still want the lightsaber to feel like a one-hit kil, most of the time," says Kelch. "Obviously you saw the Wyyshock spider takes extra hits, but such a large creature, you can imagine its skin is tougher than ours. It's an alien spider. That's where we balanced things."
The block meter lets individual enemies like a stormtrooper, who are still below Cal Kestis' power even as a Padawan in training, fall in one slice like they should, while a battle with a more powerful trooper goes to further blows. It was, oddly enough, an answer to a new problem formed by the stormtrooper's newfound blocking abilities.
"When we first did this thing where they would block a couple times, some people would stop attacking because they felt they weren't making any progress," says Kelch. "The guy was just blocking, it was ineffective. The block meter tells you that you are actually breaking their defense."
Of course, there are some comparisons to draw here to the recent Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which incorporated its own system of breaking down an enemy's defense over time with repeated blows. Kelch laughed about this - "there hasn't been enough time to copy that" - but seeing their inspirators at From Software come to the same conclusions they did about making compelling swordfighting was reassuring.
"To me, when it came out, it was proof we had made some of the right choices," says Kelch. "Dark Souls was an influence on this game, from a melee mechanics standpoint, so it was validating to see they had made some of the same choices we made internally."
As the story progresses, Cal will grow in power, gaining more abilities as a Jedi. Players will have to balance the lightsaber abilities with the Force, the other weapon in Cal's arsenal but just as potent as a blazing space sword. In a theater demo, we saw stormtroopers get flung into walls, down into abysses, and into each other. At one point, the Respawn dev froze a stormtrooper's blaster shot in time using Force Slow, then pulled the stormtrooper over and held him in front of the shot. While all of Cal's moves seem potent, the Force Slow in particular opened up some violently interesting options.
"That kinda came out very early on," says Kelch. "We had the ability to freeze a blaster bolt and put an enemy in front of it years ago. As soon as we had the slow blaster bolt, I said, 'I know where this is going.'"
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order seems like Respawn's playground to act out the Jedi power fantasy in the way they do best. Combining their internal influences like wall-running with incoming influence like director Stig Asmussen, who worked on the God of War series. Mostly, it's about making a Jedi warrior that feels rewarding.
Combinations like that blaster shot grab or the razor-thin clash of lightsaber and baton aren't "canned sequences" or "button-mashy," as the devs tell me. Their focus is thoughtful combat, where you make choices and respond to the large enemy variety and myriad configurations they've laid out in the world. You have to think about what you want to do, but it has to feel right.
"At the end of the day, it's gonna feel really good," says Kelch. "That's Respawn's number one priority, is that the games have to feel good."
Read our Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order guide for more coverage on Respawn's Jedi action game.