I love the moment a game clicks. I usually have two: one for gameplay and another for the story. The story of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order clicked pretty early for me: when your cute little droid buddy BD-1 races you to the top of a hill, your young Jedi protagonist Cal Kestis gleefully calling out, “Oh, it’s on!” It’s genuine, joyful, and fun. It was when I knew this one was special.
Initially, I had been skeptical. Actually, I thought this game looked terrible. The first gameplay reveal video of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was everything wrong with Star Wars in 2019 — flashy, stuffed with references, and derivative. It was honestly a bit of a relief. In 2019 I was underemployed, living alone, and desperately single. I needed to set boundaries for my habits, and being able to ignore the big new Star Wars video game was a major step for my self-control.
When the game came out, the reviews validated my choice. The Escapist’s own review was particularly scathing and confirmed what I suspected: Five years into the Disney era, the franchise was lost in the weeds, bloated with nostalgia.
Then I got a DM from my friend Alexis: “So this game is Jedi Dark Souls.”
Friends, I am but a humble videogamesman in my mid 30s. There is a combination of words that can unlock untrod paths in my brain, like pop culture ASMR, secret even to me. I am a cultural sleeper agent waiting to be activated.
Turns out JEDI DARK SOULS is one of my trigger phrases.
I know, I know, cue the eye rolls. Nonetheless, Jedi Dark Souls is a fucking killer idea, and marrying that proven, tasty gameplay loop to a Jedi power fantasy is killer still. But Respawn’s writers went further: They explored the trauma of the Jedi living in the immediate aftermath of the Empire’s rise with more care and nuance than you would expect from the people who made Titanfall 2.
Trauma is way overused as a story motivator, and Star Wars has stumbled in conveying the horror of the Jedi purge many times, as recently as this season of The Mandalorian. Usually, this is a problem of tone. The Star Wars people have to show kids getting gunned down by soldiers, but they don’t want to traumatize anyone — so they let some teens do awesome flips with their laser swords before they get shot to death.
That these scenes are set in the prequel era, which is wrapped up in childhood nostalgia for many people, is even more problematic. It’s no wonder The Mandalorian crammed the guy who played Jar Jar Binks into a Jedi purge scene: anything to take a little pressure off the horrific corner they wrote themselves into.
But video games still live in this weird negative space where their stories often aren’t taken seriously. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was in development during the sequel trilogy, so you would expect Respawn to take its cues from those breezy, nostalgia-heavy blockbusters. But instead of some Force Awakens Jagermeister, Respawn took inspiration from the single-malt scotch of the franchise, Rogue One, in that Cal Kestis and Jyn Erso both have their lives destroyed by the Empire but try to live by their mentors’ noble ideals.
Unlike Jyn though, Cal has no community except for his scrapper buddy Brof. One of the aforementioned Jedi kids, Cal watched his father-figure Jedi Master get executed and fled to the horrifying planet of Bracca, where starships from the Clone Wars are cut into pieces, the defeated breaking down the tools of their lost war to make weapons for their oppressors. Rough stuff! Cal went into hiding and cut himself off from the Force.
It’s easy to imagine Cal living his life in the scrapyards, terrified of discovery and execution. One of the bleakest things about Fallen Order is where it sits in the timeline: Only four years after the end of the Clone Wars, the galaxy has a long wait until Luke kills the Emperor.
Luckily, Cal is discovered by former Jedi Cere and requisite loveable non-human Greez, who whisk Cal away on a galaxy-spanning romp. However, Cal gets used a lot, first by Cere, then by Saw Gerrera, and finally by the Empire itself. In the desperate times of the early Empire, loyalty is brittle and angry, and many people see a 20-year-old kid with a lightsaber as nothing more than a key. Cal goes along with it all less out of a sense of duty and more because he’s so achingly lonely, so frantic for someone to take care of him, he’ll endure anything to keep what he has.
A lot of people don’t like Cal Kestis. They think he’s boring, just another white male protagonist in a universe full of colorful alien species, literally. I agree Cal being human is a missed opportunity, but actor Cameron Monaghan gives him a depth of soul that is key to why his journey is so engrossing.
Monaghan’s enthusiasm for being in a Star War is infectious. He brings a genuine sense of wonder to what he’s seeing and doing, something the movies and TV shows have mostly failed to deliver. With exceptions, Disney Star Wars is pretty flat. The “John Williams” of it all makes moments that should drop our jaws and blast our eyeballs out of our sockets feel more like expected elements than soul-stirring moments. Monaghan’s performance sells it. It’s even more impressive when you remember he’s acting in a big motion-capture box with no sets or fancy LED walls to inspire him.
Monaghan has good, occasionally great, writing getting him there, but the narrative team knows when to let scenes breathe. The writing in Star Wars is pretty broad — characters say what they’re thinking out loud — but Fallen Order lets characters think and feel in silence.
Monaghan is supported by none other than Deborah Wilson, the Viola Davis of video game actors, and Daniel Roebuck, an all-star “That Guy” with over 250 credits going back to 1985. The scenes among Monaghan, Wilson, and Roebuck feel almost theatrical at times, with long takes and generous dialogue — not to mention interjections from space cutie BD-1, the droid friend so adorable they brought him back for The Mandalorian.
I know it’s not a perfect game. It was plagued with technical problems at launch. And even playing the spiffy modern PlayStation 5 version, there are moments where Cal’s animations will glitch out, or he’ll sink into the ground, or any number of graphical problems like bad bokeh and uneven lighting. It’s obvious the game was rushed out the door to help promote The Rise of Skywalker, and the fact the quality of this far superior experience was compromised to help make more money for a movie so vapid and careless is corporate art at its worst. If you can play it on PC, do; it’s a lot more stable and polished.
It’s not just the gameplay that has problems. The narrative is stretched a little thin, a common problem in too-long modern games, though Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is pretty lean. The Dathomir sequence could be cut in half at least, and even then, its storytelling foundation is shaky. Taron Malicos, the fallen Jedi, serves the same narrative purpose as Trilla, Cere’s fallen Padawan turned Inquisitor, but with much less emotional impact and character connectivity. The planet’s inclusion feels like an excuse to have a bunch of Clone Wars references.
Dathomir does provide a major story beat: the destruction of Cal’s lightsaber. The lightsaber is one of those indelible movie symbols that whole marketing campaigns are built around, like Indiana Jones’ fedora or Captain America’s shield. Fallen Order is no exception: The image of Cal’s busted lightsaber, blasted in half by the clone trooper that killed his master, is Fallen Order‘s central icon. It represents Cal’s journey from broken, frightened Padawan to full Jedi, culminating in his master’s saber being destroyed and building his own.
Narratively, it’s pretty tidy and something we’ve seen before: Luke and Rey build their lightsabers as metaphors for their self-actualization, to say nothing of Kyle Katarn or Corran Horn or any other Jedi from the vast multiverse of Star Wars. Lightsaber as rite of passage is potent.
Too bad the game totally blows its own narrative tidiness apart.
See, you can customize your lightsaber in Fallen Order. That’s not a fact. It’s a command. Imagine the clickbait rage headlines and angry Reddit posts if they hadn’t allowed lightsaber customization! I have no problem giving players the option of ignoring the narrative reason for Cal clinging to his master’s battered weapon. Though it pains me, I know a lot of people don’t give a womp rat’s ass about the stories in games.
But someone at Respawn made the call to force you to fuck with Cal’s lightsaber. At the top of the highest tree on Kashyyyk there is, for no reason at all, a workbench. You can’t walk by it, jump over it, or avoid it. As soon as you approach, Cal plonks his lightsaber down on the table, makes a couple of quick welds, and voila, he’s made himself a double-bladed lightsaber. How? Where did the parts come from? Why is that workbench at the top of a friggin’ tree? From a gameplay perspective, it doesn’t make sense because you use the double-bladed saber to fight groups of enemies, and you’re given it right before a one-on-one boss fight.
The worst part about this choice is the game bakes the double-bladed saber into the narrative. Cere gives Cal her old lightsaber. In a wonderful moment, Cal welds both sabers together, literally melding his old master with his new one, creating a symbol that represents them both. But that moment comes late in the story, because that’s how stories work, and we can’t withhold the Mega Cool Darth Maul Double Lightsaber from players for three quarters of the game!
As annoying as the narrative awkwardness and bugs can be, Fallen Order has a charm to it that makes it all bearable. Would I love this game so much if it weren’t Star Wars? Probably not! But that’s been true of the franchise since the ‘80s. We accept the jank and weirdness because we love the feel of this universe. The jank has always been part of the appeal, as far back as Industrial Light and Magic blowing up model spaceships with firecrackers in 1977.
That shaggy charm is what poor Star Wars projects, like The Rise of Skywalker and The Book of Boba Fett, are missing. It’s what saves Solo from being a cynical cash grab and keeps Rogue One from being a joyless slog. Cal racing BD-1 up the hill to the temple is charming, and because they nail that moment, you forgive careening off an ice slide into the abyss for the fifth time in a row.
At the time I’m writing this, we’re less than a week away from the release of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, the sequel to Fallen Order. It certainly looks like EA gave Respawn the time and money it needed to get the game where it needed to be, and there’s no terrible tentpole blockbuster it has to rush to promote. In fact, the way Star Wars has changed since 2019, Jedi: Survivor is the big tentpole blockbuster! I just hope, with all the time and money, the team hasn’t lost that essential, elusive charm that makes these stories worth experiencing again and again. I hope, among all the lightsabers and blasters, there’s still time for a race with your little buddy.