Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Review Date: 4/26/20
"Nothing unites people like tragedy."
"Fallen Order" takes place during the "Star Wars Rebels" time frame, after "Revenge Of The Sith" and before "Rogue One." Darth Vader and his Inquisitors are actively hunting down the remaining Jedi and Force users who managed to escape the great purge. One of these is a young padawan named Cal Kestis, whose master died while trying to protect him. Burdened with guilt over his master's death, Cal abandoned the Force and ended up working in an Imperial scrapyard to make ends meet. Not the safest place to be for a former Jedi apprentice. Inevitably, his past catches up to him when he accidentally reveals his Force powers and becomes a target for Inquisitor Second Sister. When all seems lost, Cal is rescued by a disgraced former Jedi master named Cere, and a new adventure begins. Cere is looking for a lost holocron that contains a list of Force sensitive children. With that, she and Cal could start rebuilding the Jedi Order, but in the hands of the Empire, it would mean the death of those children. But can Cere be trusted, and does she have ulterior motives? The quest for the holocron takes Cal to several different planets including Bogano, Zeffo, Kashyyyk, Dathomir, Ilum, and Nur.
The game is essentially "Uncharted" with lightsabers. It utilizes the Unreal Engine, and while the graphics look fantastic, they occasionally suffer from pop-up people, LOD artifacts, stuttering frame rates, and inconsistent lighting. The most disappointing aspect of the presentation is the lack of persistent bodies. Much like "Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness" (2003), defeated foes simply pop out of existence. It ruins immersion and significantly cheapens the overall experience. Even a simple fade out would be preferable. Combat is difficult and unforgiving, even on the easiest setting. I started playing on "easy" and had to switch to "story" after being unable to get past the first Stormtrooper encounter. It isn't until you reach the end of the game and unlock all of your Force powers that combat starts to feel natural and you can focus on honing certain strategies and techniques. The game also enforces artificial difficulty by respawning enemies if you decide to heal yourself at a save point. It makes risk management much more tense than it probably should be.
The game does an excellent job of world building and is filled to the brim with "Star Wars" lore and obscure references. The story itself is a bit weak, but it hits all of the right beats. The biggest disappointment is the cast, and even though the characters are infused with "Star Wars" DNA, I found them annoying, overly contrived, and difficult to engage with. Cal isn't a particularly interesting or endearing protagonist. He's like a mash-up of Rey, young Han Solo, Luke, and Anakin, but he lacks personality and motivation, and comes across as a moody and angst-ridden teenager. In all fairness, that's how the film characters are as well, but for some reason I can connect with them easier. Similarly, the dialog is bland and corny, but the films suffered from bad dialog as well. Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that I generally don't like playing male protagonists, and that I found Cal physically unattractive. It's petty for sure, but Cal's appearance really bothered me. Some of that is due to the Uncanny Valley effect, while some of it is simply Cal's features. Cere's bug-eyed appearance made me equally uncomfortable, which is interesting because the motion capture actress looks just like her. The other human characters like Trilla, Malicos, Merrin, and Saw Gerrera, tend to fare better, perhaps because their features are more subtle and subdued. However, towards the end of the game, I warmed up to Cal considerably and didn't feel like his appearance was stabbing me in the eyes anymore.
One of the game's biggest stumbling blocks is Cal's moral ambiguity. Combat and aggression are the only way to make progress in the game, and Cal is a ruthless cold-blooded killer. Granted, this is a common problem with many action games, but it seems to really go against the grain of Jedi teachings. It would be nice if the game offered the choice to sneak past Stormtroopers rather than kill them, but the levels and story progression are pretty rigid and linear. That said, I found it extremely satisfying to Force push a group of Stormtroopers off of a ledge or cliff. Cal also mercilessly murders any wildlife that he comes across, as creatures tend to be a bit hostile in his presence. His actions are confusing and inconsistent, though. At one point, he finds a wounded bird and commits himself to helping it, but he has to kill a bunch of other animals in order to reach it. Similarly, when appealing to Night Sister Merrin, Cal says that finding the holocron will save the lives of innocent children, right after she witnessed him forcefully invading her home and murdering dozens of her Night Brothers who were acting in self defense. These moments are difficult to reconcile and don't cast Cal in a very positive light. However, these observations are probably just the musings of a weary middle-aged man. My thirteen year-old self would have probably loved all of the mindless killing and not given it a second thought.
Interestingly, it's the side characters that prove to be more endearing and enjoyable than the main characters. Cal's companion droid BD-1 is a lovable little guy that comes to Cal's rescue on numerous occasions. In fact, he's the only character that Cal has any real connection to. The captain of the ship that Cal travels on is a grumpy and frumpy four-armed guy named Greez, and while his gruffness is off-putting at first, he becomes pretty lovable the more you get to know him. Night Sister Merrin is a delightfully stoic character with a thick Russian accent and a wry sense of humor, who scares the bejeezus out of Greez - a fact that she's keenly aware of and uses to her advantage. However, my favorite character may be Trilla, the Second Sister Inquisitor who relentlessly pursues Cal across the galaxy. She wears an extremely sexy Imperial uniform, which is one of the best designs I've seen in the "Star Wars" universe. Apart from the creepy yellow eyes that are typical of Sith characters, she's quite attractive and has a sexy and commanding British accent. Her tragic past and the suffering she's endured also makes her a sympathetic character, although her dialog is written to portray her as a vicious and murderous sociopath. But I suppose the game doesn't want us to sympathize with the Empire TOO much, as that would derail Cal's story.
The game has lots of collectibles to discover, which requires revisiting all of the different planets whenever Cal learns some new Jedi abilities. While all of the backtracking is cumbersome, it's better to grab these sooner rather than later, as the experience grants access to more powers and increased stamina. This definitely comes in handy as the game progresses and enemies become more difficult to handle. However, some areas are buried far too deeply to want to revisit, even with shortcuts available. In one case, I solved a puzzle out of order, which permanently kept me from reaching a particular collectible. I ran into another broken puzzle in the game where a necessary platform disappeared and left me stranded in a place that I couldn't escape. That forced me to have to reload my game, but thankfully I lost very little progress. Apart from that and one instance where Cal fell through the ground and into infinity, the game is remarkably solid and performant.
While "Fallen Order" falls a bit short of greatness, it's still good enough to satisfy anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a "Star Wars" adventure. It starts out slow and clumsy, but by the end it feels good to swing around a lightsaber and effortlessly traverse the terrain. It's been touted as the best "Star Wars" game to date, which I can't speak to. I know the franchise has been plagued with mediocre offerings since the very beginning, but the only games I've bothered with are the charming Lego versions. While Cal might not be the most likable hero, I ultimately enjoyed my time spent with him and the misfit crew of the Mantis. An interesting side note is that the Mongolian rock band The HU is featured in two places on the soundtrack, which fits surprisingly well.