Time played: 20 hours
Platform played: Xbox One X
We’ve been waiting a long time for a good single-player Star Wars game. It’s been more than 10 years since The Force Unleashed and, with the exciting Star Wars 1313 canned in the meantime, it’s been a difficult decade for fans who are just begging to get their mitts on a virtual lightsaber.
Luckily, Respawn Entertainment has finally come through with a narrative-led, Uncharted and Dark Souls-inspired Star Wars game in Fallen Order, which also turns out to be embedded in official universe canon.
So, given the heavy millstone around its neck, does Fallen Order buck the pressure or end up being a muddy collection of trending influences?
A new hope?
One thing is for certain. As soon as you start your journey, you’ll get the impression that Fallen Order understands and respects the hallmarks of Star Wars. Intricate material details and cinematic framing litter each scene. Watching the heavy rain as it trickles down and pools at the bottom of a vibrant roof, enjoying a glorious vista as the orchestra comes in… it feels very in tune with the movies and respectful of the source material.
The score, in particular, is extremely Star Wars, even making unimportant conversations feel like they’re worth tuning in for. The opening sequence of the game stands out for the way it introduces Cal’s powers seamlessly but, not soon after, Fallen Order flips a switch and drops you into Metroidvania style environments that reward careful exploration. Unfortunately, it didn't take very long until we were craving more of the unpredictable Star Wars set pieces that the game frontloads in the opening.
The main meat of Fallen Order is this lonely, explorative attrition against the game’s tricky enemies, which range from stormtroopers to fantastical bog rats and tomb defending mechanicals. They all look the part, but the non-humanoid character designs could be from any soulslike and we wouldn't bat an eyelid.
Carving your way through each planet feels like taking your first steps out of Firelink Shrine, though the world isn't linked like Lordran but more traditionally split into worlds from Star Wars lore. Some of the planets quickly blend into one palate of lush jungle, but Dathomir and Kashyyyk stand out on their own given the rich lore behind them. We did appreciate how Cal’s ship The Mantis serves as a North Star and is visible in some places from where you’re fighting, anchoring your location on the map. It’s a nice touch.
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A disturbance in the force
This disconnected style doesn’t do Fallen Order any favors, but it helps to elevate the Metroidvania elements of the game, which have you returning to each planet after the fact with newfound powers. This allows you to pick up new collectable items as well as fancy force skills.
A lot of the context hiding in these nooks and crannies is well written and will delight the die-hard fans, but it can start to seem like set dressing for the sake of it, given how much of it there is. Perhaps if Respawn reigned in the collectables, and made them more specialized, it would be more rewarding, but there are just oodles of inexplicable cosmetic upgrades to find like poncho colors and lightsaber hilts.
It pales in comparison to Dark Souls’ archaeological storytelling via item descriptions and artefacts. Eventually, we just gave up on collectables unless they had a statistical buff tied to them. Anything else felt pointless. We understand that Respawn needs to find a way to usher players down every nook and cranny, but if it’s just there for the sake of it then why does it need to be there?
The rest of the game seems to relish in the ‘Design by Subtraction’ style with a gorgeous minimalist HUD and hands-off approach, which is why this design choice confuses us so much. Perhaps a gear system was scrapped or deemed too ambitious, but the point of urging players to explore is to reward them with something and, unless you find things that can help you or the lore echo’s, it's a fool’s game.
Too many Cantina cooks
As you can imagine, the Uncharted and Dark Souls parts of Fallen Order feel very disparate. In our eyes, they should have been intrinsically connected if Fallen Order wanted to be more than just the sum of its influences, which it wears very proudly on Cal’s poncho sleeve.
The climbing animations and the process of using obstacles to preface and constrain story beats are ripped from Uncharted, and whilst this can’t be a bad thing, we were waiting for the moment where Fallen Order would use its stellar source material to go beyond the confines of typical Naughty Dog storytelling. It’s good fun, sure, but some of the dangerous mishaps could use a bit of galactic flair.
Puzzle-wise the game provides a few interesting rooms but Fallen Order seems to have a problem with signposting. You can easily end up lost or stuck, feeling frustrated for quite some time even with the hints from your charming robot companion BD-1. There were a few puzzles where we found the solution or the next area by mistake, the worst of which is a pile of rubble you have to push through to get to the next area - you’d have no idea it was where you needed to go unless you rubbed Cal’s body against every wall.
We found combat to be frenetic and more Bloodborne than Dark Souls, with a surprising amount of work being done by the haptic vibration in the Xbox One controller. You can feel the heft of Cal’s lightsaber when he’s cleaving through rats and troopers, and the way he leaps and jolts around enemies in combat feels as fluid as Sekiro.
This is easily Fallen Order’s best offering and a fantastic surprise. Learning how to unravel an enemy with your lightsaber and combining force abilities to deal damage is so much fun. Reflecting blaster bolts has similarly never felt as satisfying, though we think The Force Unleashed still has it beat when it comes to wreaking havoc in giant combat arenas, as Fallen Order only really has you fighting small groups at once.
By having four difficulty levels the game is certainly more accessible than Sekiro, but it also can’t find a challenging midpoint like FromSoftware games do. We’ve been mostly playing on Jedi Master, but at some points, it just feels unfair, whereas Jedi Knight is far too easy. It means we were switching difficulties when the enemy challenge started to spike at random, which isn’t really what you want from a Soulslike, it hampers half the fun. The ‘bonfire’ placement is also ineffective, and usually, you can just run past a group of enemies to get to a safe point and cheese them from behind. Just having the option is far too tantalizing.
Performance-wise the game chugs hard, even on the Xbox One X, so much so that we decided to stick it in Performance Mode, a necessary option that drops the game to 1080p and improves the frame rate, an essential feature of a game that is very much about timing. Hopefully, this will be patched in the future but at the moment, the game performs below the standard you might expect, which is especially disappointing on a device that is built for untapped 4K.
Unfortunately, the writing is a bit predictable and Cal Kestis is an extremely dull protagonist. The way he brandishes his lightsaber in an early section of the game after losing a friend is certainly noble but completely reckless and unbelievable. If he cared about being a fugitive, he would have kept it sheathed and not let his emotions overcome him. He’s an emotionally predictable character and, unbelievably, one of the first things he does in the game is to pick up a guitar and play with his eyes closed like he’s some insufferable bro at an after-party.
This would be fine if the wider story could carry him, but it almost immediately slams the brakes as far as the fugitive premise is concerned, sending you on an adventure to find ancient Jedi secrets. It’s nothing more than an excuse to push you through the game, and Cal is mostly on the front foot, which feels unnatural given the way his story is staged.
What’s criminal is that with one of the most lore-rich properties in the world, Fallen Order fails to acquiesce any truly ambitious plot threads. It’s a hero’s journey with a few interesting twists. The inclusion of characters from wider Star Wars lore and attempts to coax out some backstory from its locations is admirable, but it just doesn’t have the emotional pull.
The joyous gameplay of the semi-scripted opening sequence does return in spots, our favourite being freeing the wookie slaves from Kashyyk, which involves clambering up an AT-AT, Shadow of the Colossus-style. Sadly these moments arrive in an intermittent fashion, making all the lonely gameplay that surrounds the set pieces feel bloated. The story itself is passable as a Star Wars sideshow, but we were clamoring for something that stood boldly on its own - akin to BioWare’s KOTOR series.
The issue is though, despite all its flaws, we kept pushing through and enjoying the challenge as Fallen Order ramped up the difficulty and sent us on an interplanetary adventure. If you like soulslike games or adventure titles like Uncharted, Fallen Order feels like comfort food, especially if you ignore the chaff and focus on perfecting the incredible combat. It’s just a shame it’s so safe given the immense potential.
Fallen Order is a faithful Star Wars game with a safe story and some puzzling design choices, but at the core of the experience is a Souls-lite platforming puzzler with a truly fantastic combat system. Respawn’s action-adventure best realizes the childhood dreams of many fans who have grown up wishing to wield a lightsaber, so whilst the set dressing and characters can’t meet the bar set by the cinematic universe, it’s a perfectly complementary sidecar.
If you’d like a single-player narrative adventure in a beloved world (an increasingly rare gambit nowadays) then it’s hard not to recommend Fallen Order in spite of its current performance issues. Crucially, the formula at the core of the game is very addicting and well made, even if a lot of what surrounds it is a letdown.