Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is one of the more propulsive and joyous games released this year. The latest from Respawn Entertainment (the creators of Titanfall and Apex Legends) is sure to satisfy fans who have impatiently waited almost a decade for a single-player action-adventure Star Wars game, and one that is actually good. In fact, Fallen Order is better than good— it’s great and worthy of standing side by side with the best Star Wars games ever made. Save for an incredibly bland protagonist, Fallen Order delivers what any fan could hope for.
We’ve been waiting a long time for a good single-player Star Wars game and thankfully Respawn has come through with a narrative-driven adventure that calls to mind the best of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Dark Souls and even God of War while also embedding itself in official universe canon. If that isn’t enough, Jedi: Fallen Order drops you into Metroidvania style environments and features incredibly tough boss battles and a skill tree that lets you unlock tons of new abilities by accumulating experience and skill points. Jedi: Fallen Order is an ambitious game, to say the least. It features the fast-paced action the developers have become famous for and while the result isn’t groundbreaking (nor original), it’s a solid space opera spectacle with enough nostalgia to overpower even the most jaded gamer.
The story takes place sometime between Star Wars: A New Hope and Episode III, when most of the Jedi Order are either dead or missing in action. You assume control of Cal Kestis, a promising young Padawan in the Republic who following the events of Order 66 (which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jedi) was forced to abandon his training and seek a solitary life on the planet Bracca. In order to survive Darth Sidious’s purge of the Jedi Order, Cal removed himself from the Force, concealed his identity, and took on a job working for the Empire. Unfortunately for him, a squad of professional Jedi hunters led by Second Sister have tracked him down, leaving him with little choice but to fight back.
The Story is Canon
Fallen Order kicks off with a powerful and emotional sequence as Cal decides to risk his own life and try to save his friend. In doing so, Cal reveals himself to the Empire, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse chase that sees him team up with former Jedi Master Cere Junda and a Latero pilot named Greez Dritus. Armed with Jedi powers, a lightsaber and the trusty aid of BD1 (a droid designed to assist with exploration in remote and dangerous locations), Cal blasts his way through hyperspace discovering ancient tombs, freeing Wookie slaves, hijacking an AT-AT and basically fighting the Imperial Army.
Jedi: Fallen Order is a step forward for the franchise – an exhilarating ride, filled with exciting battles, non-stop action, soaring emotions, and performances that can be described as legitimately good, rather than just good, for a video game. It’s also a rousing introduction to new characters who will likely carry this world forward (I expect a sequel or two). There’s seriously a solid story here and one that adheres to the spirit and tone of the Star Wars universe. The supporting players, for example, are all great. Cal’s droid, BD-1, is particularly captivating, and the game does an admirable job of building up Cal’s friendship with the droid in both the cinematic cutscenes and in the actual gameplay.
Story-wise, BD-1 is crucial to the plot since the droid is entrusted to guide Cal on a dangerous mission assigned by Master Cordova who left behind a list of the missing Jedi children who he believes will one day restore the Jedi Order and defeat the evil Empire. Without BD, there is no adventure. With the help of the droid, however, Cal is able to travel to various planets and discover and unlock important messages and clues left behind by Cordova. Aside from guiding Cal across various planets, BD-1 also serves several support functions in gameplay. He can function as a zipline, hack certain droid enemies, unlock doors, project holographic maps and even provide Cal with “stims” that allow him to heal himself during combat— something you definitely need since a number of gameplay mechanics are lifted from the Soulsborne genre; in other words, the game can be hard.
Truth be told, the first few hours of Fallen Order are a bit generic as players are slowly introduced to the world, but it doesn’t take long before the game starts to shine thanks to the relationships Cal forms with his colleagues who he meets along the way. Jedi: Fallen Order is a story of rebellion and finding hope, but it’s also a story of friendship and braving adversity and the game really excels by investing in the interpersonal dynamics of its entire cast, and not just the good guys but the villains as well. BD-1 is without a doubt the scene-stealer as he certainly adds some much-needed levity to the journey, but every character serves an important role (big or small) in moving the story forward. Of the entire cast, I have to make mention of Actress Debra Wilson who does a superb job in her motion-capture performance as Cere, a warrior who is wounded and haunted by her past. She is the moral center and becomes Cal’s mentor as they desperately try and survive in a world that seems entirely devoid of any hope. As the plot unfolds, Cere relives her darkest moments and confronts the mistakes of her past. In these scenes, Debra Wilson shines so brightly, you’d be forgiven for thinking she deserves an Oscar.
Given that Respawn Entertainment worked closely with Lucasfilm, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jedi: Fallen Order is officially part of the Star Wars lore. And despite operating in the shadow of the immensely popular series, it understands this and hardwires that understanding into its own DNA. And like the best Star Wars games, it borrows ideas from the films (and other reading material) while inserting flashbacks to flesh out the heroes and the conflict at hand. It certainly helps that the latest game in the canon explores new characters and new corners of the galaxy while remaining faithful to the core themes of the franchise and even if some of these storylines seem recycled from past stories, the new additions and the central mystery keeps the story engaging from start to finish. And while this story is much smaller in scale than the blockbuster movies, Jedi: Fallen Order raises the stakes in every chapter thanks to the omnipresent threat of the Inquisitors hunting Cal, who always seem like they’re one step away from closing in on the kill. And if you know anything about the future of the Star Wars universe, you know that Cal’s future isn’t looking too bright. All in all, the team at Respawn did an incredible job of exploring and expanding the universe of Star Wars, especially considering the dark time in which this story takes place.
It’s clear when playing Fallen Order that the team was interested in creating a more nuanced, character-driven tale and in order to achieve that goal, they carefully crafted a story that weaves the player’s actions and interactions into Cal’s evolving journey. What we have here is a coming of age tale which sees Cal growing as a person while strengthening his relationship with the Force. Unfortunately, Cal Kestis is also somewhat of a dull protagonist. Sure, he has a tragic past (who doesn’t in this universe) but he’s also a blank slate, predictable and devoid of layers. Given that the story takes place after the Great Jedi Purge, you’d figure the writers could have used that trauma to create a far more complex character and inject Cal with a bit more life— a bit more personality— and/or a bit more fight; instead, he’s just a quiet, brooding loner. In the end, it feels like a missed opportunity, especially since actor Cameron Monaghan, who plays both the younger and older Cal, delivers the best performance he could with the writing he was given. It’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination but Cal is surprisingly the only disappointing factor of the game.
Jedi: Fallen Order’s best quality is exploration. What at first seems like a standard linear experience quickly reveals itself to be so much more. Levels are immense with plenty of shortcuts to unlock and puzzles to solve— and to help you navigate, Cal is given a handy 3D map that highlights which areas you can and cannot yet pass. Much of the game is spent exploring and it helps that each planet feels distinct and features various set pieces that liven up the proceedings. Although you do spend some time backtracking through these environments, it never becomes tedious as most areas are filled with tons of secrets such as new outfits for Cal to wear and additional stim canisters, which become valuable when facing off against a dangerous foe. As the level design quickly opens up, Cal gains new abilities that allow him to run along walls, jump higher and push and pull large objects that help him navigate through the treacherous ground.
Jedi: Fallen Order Kicked My Ass
The combat in Fallen Order which has frequently been compared to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is easily the biggest surprise. Fighting relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries and the decision to make combat more focused on defensive strategy heightens the spectacle as well as the flow and pacing of the game. Jedi: Fallen Order requires patience and relies less on mindlessly button spamming and more on strategic mastery. You have to look at your surroundings, understand your enemies and identify their strengths and weaknesses. It’s all about timing, and exchanging lightsaber blows during riveting boss encounters is incredibly satisfying. And it’s not just with the boss battles either; even encounters with regular stormtroopers and alien creatures take precision and care, each battle becoming a ballet of blocks and dodges as you patiently wait for an opening to attack so you can inflict more damage. Playing in the Jedi Master mode is tough and I do mean tough. Jedi Grandmaster seems downright impossible, at least for me. You’ll die. And then you’ll die again; rinse and repeat. And did I mention that when you do die, you lose whatever XP you’ve gathered toward skill points and have to return to defeat whoever killed you in order to reclaim it. Fans of the Dark Souls series will love it; for the rest of us, you can always dial down the difficulty setting because unlike those From Software games, you do have a choice over which difficulty you want to play. Whether you’re an action game veteran or a casual Star Wars fan, the game has four difficulty modes that should accommodate everyone. That said, if you’re familiar with action games, I highly recommend Jedi Master for your first run; Story Mode and Jedi Knight are too easy and don’t provide enough of a challenge.
Jedi: Fallen Order feels like a direct response by EA to its fans who’ve been very vocal about their disappointment with the company’s previous Star Wars games. Or maybe EA was just trying to please Disney who has made it clear they have no issue in parting ways with collaborators who don’t deliver quality products. Whatever the case, EA was wise to hand over the license to Respawn Entertainment who’ve proven they have a real talent for making spectacular single-player action/adventure games. In spite of some minor performance issues, Fallen Order does exactly what it set out to do. Not only does it feel like a genuine Star Wars game but it pumps new energy and life into the franchise in a way that both resurrects old pleasures and points in promising new directions. Fallen Order is great. Not groundbreaking. But one of the very best games of 2019 and one of the best Star Wars games ever made.
Jedi: Fallen Order re-awoke my love of Star Wars video games and turned my inner fanboy into my outer fanboy. Here’s hoping they make a sequel.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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