Star Wars doesn't have a history of strong protagonists. As an elevated adventure serial, its heroes are usually literal representations of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. Luke Skywalker arguably didn't get interesting until he retired from the spotlight to drink green milk on Ahch-To.
Cal Kestis, the red-headed hero of the otherwise lauded Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, has been consistently lumped into this category. Since his initial reveal, he's been frequently derided as "boring" and "hilariously dull." Our senior guides writer Jake Green called him "like Coldplay, or oatmeal" when I proposed on our Slack that he wasn't that bad.
Wired's Julie Muncy, who has also contributed to USgamer, wrote of Cal, "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."
Does poor Cal deserve such abuse from critics? Maybe. It seems that the poor impression he made during E3 2019, when he was bashing the heads of Stormtroopers together and otherwise acting like Nathan Drake with a lightsaber, ended up sticking. It also doesn't help that Star Wars has a relatively poor history of casting people of color as its main heroes, leading to references like the one above. Cere may be an amazing character in her own right, but at the end of the day, the spotlight is most definitely on Cal in Fallen Order. He's the character you're controlling.
Still, by the time the credits rolled, I found myself rooting for Fallen Order's lonely Padawan. His journey, like that of the rest of Fallen Order's cast, reflects the trauma of the Jedi Purge. Sure, he's a bit of a dork, but he's ultimately a sympathetic one. Even Luke had Obi-Wan, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru. Cal sees his only friend murdered in front of him in Fallen Order's opening moments, and when he meets up with Cere, she's too busy dealing with her own issues to be much of a guide. He's alone.
And so Cal is left to find his own way, his only real friend being the tiny droid, BD-1. While traveling from planet to planet, Cere and Greez gab amiably in the cockpit while Cal hovers wordlessly in the background, seemingly uncomfortable with joining the conversation. It may be a deliberate choice owing to Cal being a player-controlled character, but I always took it as an unintentional reflection of his isolation as one of the last remaining Jedi.
Major spoilers for the end of the game are present in this section.
As Cal explore Zeffo, Kashyyyk, and Dathomir, we're treated to flashbacks of his training, which are among Fallen Order's strongest sequences. We see Cal as a young Padawan, his hair done up in the familiar rattail braid; his master, Jaro Tapal, both cajoling and chastising him as he tries to learn new skills.
At first these sequences don't make a lot of sense: why can't Cal remember how to do so much as a Force Push? But then you realize that he's buried away most of his training for his own sake. It's an understated bit of storytelling through gameplay—an example of a character doing their best to forget the most painful moment of their life. It works far better than Cal finding new powers through, say, a random Jedi shrine, which might have been the easier approach to take.
When we finally see Cal's pain for ourselves, it doesn't disappoint. After finally putting all his skills together in a brief obstacle course, Cal is invited up to Jaro Tapal's side. Then comes the iconic Order 66 and a harrowing rush through the halls of a Venator Star Destroyer.
Cal doesn't do much of the fighting in this sequence. Instead, he steadily opens the way for Tapal, even traversing a familiar Star Wars reactor pit. In this sequence, he becomes something like Ashley Graham from Resident Evil 4, using his small size to squeeze into areas that Tapal can't reach to facilitate his escape. Tapal, meanwhile, gets his Obi-Wan moment, effortlessly cutting down hordes of Clone Troopers while Cal looks on from afar.
It's a great level that does its part to tie up Revenge of the Sith and Fallen Order. It has obvious echos of A New Hope, but its excellent execution makes it seem just a bit less cliche. It's probably the first moment I can remember feeling anything for Cal, who in that moment is revealed as a scared and confused child alone in a universe that wants to kill him, rather than the brash, one-dimensional hero he plays in the early going.
Moments like this make me think that the Respawn team saw the scene where Anakin kills a bunch of children in Revenge of the Sith and asked, "Can we talk about how messed up that is for a moment?" Indeed, Cal isn't the only young Jedi we see in Fallen Order's flashbacks. A Rodian youngling also appears at various points, and their fate is used to drive home the heinousness of the Jedi massacre. You could say Star Wars has never been darker in Fallen Order, and in a way that feels far more earned than in Revenge of the Sith.
In that sense, Cal's character could be construed as an exploration of the costs of the Jedi Purge. As we see in Fallen Order, pretty much everyone was broken in some way by the Purge: Cal, Cere, even BD-1. Cal and Cere wind up walking parallel paths toward healing, ultimately meeting in the middle in a way that feels very... well... Star Wars. But it also serves to bind them together, which makes the grand finale featuring Darth Vader all the better. The moment when Cere finally knights Cal, fully cementing his transformation, is especially strong.
When everything is said and done, Fallen Order asks the obvious question: what's next? The Jedi are mostly dead. Cal is trying to recover a holocron with a list of every Force Sensitive youngling left in the galaxy, but even Cal himself doesn't seem to know what to do with it. We see a vision of him taking on the role of Yoda from Attack of the Clones, training up a new generation of Jedi. But even without seeing what happens to Luke in The Last Jedi, Cal seems to know that approach isn't going to work.
And so Cal has to come to grips with the notion that there might not be a future for the Jedi. He chooses to destroy the holocron so that the Empire can't get hold of it, and leaves the burden of rebuilding the Jedi Order to someone else.
I criticized the pace of some of these reveals in my review, arguing that they aren't altogether earned, and I broadly stand by that opinion. Given a little more buildup, I think the moment where Cal, say, decides to build his own lightsaber could be even more cathartic. The ending itself is rushed, smashing to credits in a way that honestly took me offguard.
But when all was said and done, I was able to buy into Cal's journey from callow Padawan to Jedi; an orphan in the galaxy who is able to find a family. Caught up as it is in the throes of adventure, Star Wars rarely stops to consider the smaller emotional details of its grandest moments. Cal's journey is a big part of that exploration, and Disney's "galaxy far, far away" is the better for it.