Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order may just be the first game to nail the elusive beauty of the lightsaber. Game developers have been trying in one way or another to capture its majesty and power since the days of the Atari 2600, but it's never quite come off. It's either been too limited (Jedi Knight), not very satisfying (Force Unleashed), or just plain ridiculous (the horrendous Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Lightsaber Duels). Fallen Order, developed by veteran action studio Respawn Entertainment, seems to nail the balance.
It's a joyous experience swinging the lightsaber in Fallen Order. Whenever a pack of Stormtroopers appeared, I found myself licking my lips, my "elegant weapon from a more civilized age" buzzing violently at my side. To quote Anakin Skywalker, "This is where the fun begins."
Combat is where Jedi: Fallen Order succeeds most brilliantly, and in that regard it's certainly the best EA Star Wars game to date (not that it has much competition). Had it been given another few months in the proverbial oven, it would probably be Game of the Year material in my eyes. Alas, it's held back by too many other issues to warrant that kind of consideration. But it comes so darn close to being truly amazing that it's actually a little heartbreaking. In all the places that 2018's God of War managed to stick the landing, Jedi: Fallen Order winds up stumbling just enough to be distracting.
Like God of War, Fallen Order is primarily a linear action game, but one that encourages a certain degree of exploration. It's been called a "Metroidvania," as well as compared to Dark Souls and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice; but perhaps because it was directed by God of War 3's Stig Asmussen, it's God of War's DNA that I feel most clearly in Fallen Order, whether in the constant wall-climbing or the familiar "maneuver the boulder until it opens the door" puzzles. A fight with a giant bat towards the middle of the game feels like it was lifted directly from God of War's cutting room floor, down to the moment that it chases Cal Kestis, the main protagonist, up a cliff as boulders drop from above.
I like God of War, so I don't particularly mind the similarities, and it never gets so overbearing as to overwhelm the 'Star Wars' side of Fallen Order. But yeah, if you're wondering what Fallen Order is all about in light of EA's deeply confusing marketing campaign, think Kratos with a lightsaber.
Fallen Order's story is where the God of War comparisons begin to fall away, and where my first real issues start to emerge. It stars the aforementioned Cal, a red-headed ex-Padawan who is in hiding after the big Jedi Purge in Revenge of the Sith. He lives and works in a boneyard filled with Old Republic starships, one of many instances in which Fallen Order leans heavily into prequel nostalgia (yes, I know). When he's discovered by a pair of Darth Vader's Inquisitors, he goes on the run with Cere Junda, an ex-Jedi, and Greez, a four-armed alien pilot who is endlessly memed in the USgamer Slack channel, but generally offers a blessedly understated performance.
It takes barely five minutes for Cal to team with Cere and Greez, which is roughly indicative of the breakneck speed at which the plot develops. It generally concerns the quest for a holocron providing a list of every Force-sensitive youngster in the galaxy, but it's really more about how individual characters deal with the trauma of the Jedi Purge, and it features some dark moments in that regard. The Empire has traditionally been portrayed as "evil but also kind of clumsy," which makes it easier for people to dress up as Stormtroopers and self-identify as Dark Jedi, but the Empire in Fallen Order is much more sinister. It includes maybe the first instance I can think of where a character falling to the Dark Side actually makes sense.
Frustratingly, these intriguing themes are poorly-served by Fallen Order's uneven pacing, with key revelations and developments often coming almost out of the blue. This is especially the case for Cal, who is flatout insufferable for a good chunk of the game before the writers decide it's time for him to come to terms with his past. I actually ended up liking Fallen Order's cast by the end, particularly Cere, who is a marvelous combo of Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But their development feels rushed, and that in turn makes it harder to buy into their individual emotional arcs.
This is hammered home by Fallen Order's final moments, which made me feel like Respawn had run out of money and had to pull the plug. Actually, Fallen Order being one season of a show on Netflix might be a better analogy. Either way, I left feeling curiously unfulfilled despite Fallen Order largely managing to tell a complete story.
Unfortunately, this sense of being rushed permeates Fallen Order, which is what ultimately keeps me from giving it full marks. This is especially noticeable in the technical areas of the game, which range from "mildly annoying" to "borderline disaster." Playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, I constantly encountered texture pop-in, weird framerate hitches, and glitched enemies. There was more than one point where the game just stopped to load in a new area, and at least one excruciating instance of it hard crashing to my dashboard in the middle of a particularly difficult section. A patch was released during the review, and another is apparently on the way, but in its current state calling Fallen Order "messy" might be charitable.
When Fallen Order is cooking though, boy is it one of the most enjoyable action games I've played all year. I know I've got a good game on my hands when I have to text after a fight, "That was AWESOME." The duels in Fallen Order are so much fun, resembling as they do the Valkyrie fights from 2018's God of War, which I also loved. They demand precision, strong pattern recognition, and the full use of your constantly evolving moveset, or you will be mulched. Actually, Fallen Order is a pretty hard game in general. True, you can just Force Push your enemies off a ledge, or Force Pull them in for a quick stab in the midsection, but even lowly Stormtroopers can be a major threat in numbers. And if a Purge Trooper or Bounty Hunter shows up, watch out, because they are almost mini-boss fights.
These fights are unevenly dispersed throughout Fallen Order's half-dozen or so planets, about three of which live up to the massive, explorable environments promised in the promotional material. To their credit, planets like Kashyyk really are huge; to the point that it actually feels daunting to circle back and delve deeper into their depths. Fallen Order's developers made a deliberate decision to omit fast travel, one that I broadly agree with, but I'll admit that I really missed Fragile's umbrella as I fumbled my way back to my ship. For those who are willing to go planetary dungeon diving though, there are plenty of secrets and optional enemies to find, and almost all of the main planets can be visited in any order you want.
It's in the exploration, not to mention the often wonderful combat, that you can see the outlines of a really spectacular Star Wars game. I haven't even mentioned some of Fallen Order's coolest elements, like Cal's fully-customizable lightsaber, or the way that it masks loading times through the Mantis seamlessly lifting off from a planet and jumping into hyperspace. If it's possible to say this about a game in 2019, it actually understays its welcome a bit. I could have done with maybe one more big planet to explore, and maybe a little more of an emotional denouement like the one in God of War. In the end though, it feels like Respawn simply ran out of time and had to wrap up as quickly as possible.
Still, Fallen Order feels like a positive step in the right direction, at least in the sense that it will make Disney less likely to tell EA, "You have failed me for the last time." If Fallen Order ever gets another season—and I hope it does—I'll happily join Cal and the rest of the crew of the Mantis for further adventures in the Star Wars universe. But as for being the showstopping blockbuster that the franchise deserves, Jedi: Fallen Order isn't quite there yet.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order comes painfully close to being the best action game of the year, but it ultimately falls short due to pacing problems and a host of technical issues. Still, this is the first step into a larger world for a franchise that has persistently struggled since its acquisition by EA.