Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is an astonishing game. But for such a popular title, Fallen Order’s many achievements seem somehow derided or overlooked. So someone has to sing its praises and go to bat for it. Yes, this poor old triple-A game. Sure, it’s sold more than 10 million copies and reviewed generally well, with a score of 79 on Metacritic. But still the big-budget title feels a little unloved compared to games of similar popularity.
Some players didn’t care for Respawn Entertainment’s take on Star Wars, with a common complaint being that it was lacking an identity. But Fallen Order is so well crafted that I would place it in a pantheon of the best Star Wars entries, whether movie, TV show, or game - it just happens to have a lot of inspirations.
No cultural product exists in a vacuum, of course, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order should be considered one of the greats precisely because of its inspirations. It also happens to be one of the very best Star Wars ‘movies’, standing alongside the original trilogy and the modern minor masterpiece that is Rogue One.
This is not to cast aside its strengths as a big-budget third-person action adventure video game. In terms of cinematics, a modern requirement for the genre, it is up there with the best of Nathan Drake’s adventures. For gameplay, it’s a mash-up of that treasured Naughty Dog series and FromSoftware’s Dark Souls. The level designs, especially, in the way they join up and cohere, owe much to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Soulsborne titles. But this wide-ranging borrowing, like a Greatest Hits of modern third-person action adventure games, is exactly why some reviewers criticise Fallen Order. But those criticisms mean little because the level of polish Respawn has brought to its borrowings shouldn’t be sniffed at. Sure, it might be derivative but it’s been nearly 15 years(!) since the first Uncharted leapt into our lives, and 13 years since the launch of Demon’s Souls – are we saying that their highly successful designs having an influence on other games is a bad thing?
One thing Fallen Order does far, far away better than the Souls games is in telling a story and building characters that I actually care about. It also succeeds where many recent Star Wars movies have failed. The less said about Episodes 7 to 9 the better – especially the ridiculous finale. We must instead turn to an offshoot for a good story and that was 2016’s Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards.
Rogue One had a sleekness, a brisk yet illuminating way with its ensemble cast, and a plot that seemed grounded in reality. Episodes 7 to 9 seemed to operate on a raggedy logic that this thing had to happen, then this thing, because The Force, and Jedi, and Sith, and blah blah blah, all of which must be talked about, and yet despite all these plot points (or because of) it never seemed able to settle even into its own universe. Rogue One, set during the ascendant days of The Galactic Empire, in all its greedy, malevolent evil, was instead an edifying portrayal of what life was like under the regime. Its universe seemed horribly, murderously real.
Fallen Order shares a similar grittiness and grimness. Beginning on the spaceship-breaking planet of Bracca we find former Jedi Padawan Cal Kestis in hiding, labouring as a scrapper. Cal has had to hide his Force abilities as any remaining Jedi and Padawans are being hunted down and killed or else tortured and conscripted to become Inquisitors for The Empire. Cal’s ambitions have diminished and the dank horizons of Bracca reflect this bleakness.
Set five years after The Great Purge, when the Jedi were massacred by the clones from Order 66, Fallen Order doesn’t shy away from showing players the damage The Empire is wreaking. On Kashyyyk, the lushly forested homeworld of the Wookies, the consequences of environmental degradation are laid bare as The Empire clears and mines the planet for resources. On Zeffo villages stand eerily empty as Stormtroopers patrol the streets. The bullying oppressiveness of Palpatine’s regime is clearly evident, the suffocating effects of its power, on citizens all over the galaxy, strongly implied.
This is the context in which Cal’s story takes place and the planet hopping the player does, once Cal is ‘stolen’ away from Bracca, doesn’t feel triumphant or daring, but furtive and necessary, and the limited control you have over your destiny is made plain. Players assume the abilities of neither a Jedi Master or Knight but a Padawan and a wounded, traumatised one at that who didn’t complete training. It’s no wonder the hostile creatures you encounter present such a Souls-like challenge. It’s because Cal possesses skills not that much better than the younglings who got massacred in Episode 3 (damn you, Anakin!).
The people Cal joins up with are also strong personalities, if not stronger than Cal’s. This is especially prominent in the case of Cere Junda. The way her character is drawn, with those slightly bulging eyes, the intense look, and Debra Wilson’s performance, makes her a forceful presence. Cere has a compelling backstory of her own and actually possesses phenomenal Force powers. In the final part of the game, Cere briefly goes toe to toe with Darth Vader and even traps him with her Force powers, which she is afraid of using since they have started shifting to the dark side. Cere, much like Cal, has trauma embedded in her soul. These people have issues, maaan, but in the galaxy they live in, and with the Jedi backgrounds they have, it’s understandable, even relatable somehow. This mysterious relatability is one of the reasons why Fallen Order is such a powerful work.
Then there’s the late addition to the crew, Merrin, who is basically a witch, but properly a Nightsister of Dathomir. More fleshed out and fully-formed than your typical late-arriving squadmate, it’s Cal who in fact feels like the most video game-like individual, a cipher rather than a fully three-dimensional character. But this too stands firmly in the tradition of Star Wars, as the series likes to have vanilla white, bland characters as protagonists (see Luke Skywalker and Rey).
Merrin has inspired much fanfiction and fan art. The deep voice, the powers she has, the confidence born from her high position in a matriarchal society, cut by the sorrow and tragedy that has been visited on her world, makes her a highly resonant individual in the Star Wars universe. The sequel offers tantalising possibilities for her character and her dynamic with Cal.
Fallen Order’s story is affecting because it’s a tapestry of wounded and traumatised individuals (which includes the tortured Inquisitors) and powerful precisely because this little band of renegades isn’t trying to defeat the whole Empire. They’re aware they are not anywhere near powerful enough to do that. Instead, they’re simply trying to keep hope alive. Much like Rogue One, theirs is a mission that’s clarifying in its relative simplicity, and poignant because the fire of hope is so small set against such staggering, icy malevolence. Rogue One has a band of rebels attempting to steal blueprints to the Death Star that will reveal the key to its destruction, while Fallen Order is about finding and retrieving a holocron containing a list of Force-sensitive children (how this list could’ve predicted these children is conveniently left out). It’s a story of a few individuals bravely united trying to resist an almighty force, and that turns Fallen Order and Rogue One into ember-like stories, warm enough to kindle one’s spirit, rather than the roaring triumphalism of the original trilogy or the fiery smoke and show, with little substance, of the latest trio.
The lore of Fallen Order too is intriguing. The history of the Zeffo as you uncover its dynasties, its rise and fall, is well written, and the environmental storytelling, with the soaring statues of the High Zeffo period, skillfully realised. But this surrounding atmosphere, as finely drawn as it is, would be nothing without strong characters.
Cal might be a vanilla lead, but he is a cipher for the player, while in the finely drawn arcs of Merrin and Cere we are given strong reasons to care. I am keen to know what lies ahead for Cere’s crew of outcasts and how Cal learns to trust and form bonds again, with this newfound family of his.
Will fans hop on over to her new platform?