I love Star Wars. There was a time somewhere across the past decade where I was convinced I wouldn’t like most Star Wars stuff coming out. It was probably between 2007 and 2015. Despite liking the sequel trilogy as it happened, I was definitely skeptical in the leading years until that momentous December in 2015. By the time 2019 rolled around “the discourse” surrounding Star Wars had turned me back towards Star Wars so hard I’ve caught up on most things Star Wars visual media and found a new appreciation for so much of what’s out there. Rebels is definitely one of my favorite Star Wars things now and Ahsoka lands in a few months. I’m excited and it’s been nice to at least have regular Star Wars ideas coming out now.
All this to say I have a bit of a Star Wars bias that’s backwards against what others will often say. Ignoring The Last Jedi (which I loved), I liked Obi-Wan more than most. Boba Fett had an empty protagonist but I appreciated it for that emptiness because Boba Fett has always been the guy that looks cool and does very little (except in Clone Wars). And it turns out the same opposite approach applies to the newest Star Wars game. The world rails against Jedi Survivor for the bad release it absolutely has had, but I kinda don’t care because Star Wars video game again. It’s been a month since release and I’m finally ready to start putting all my thoughts and notes on this game together after beating it. Answer? It’s good! I think I won’t be walking away from Jedi: Survivor considering it a revelation or anything in the years to come, but the highs are higher this time around. Unfortunately the lows are maybe a few rungs lower too for me to say I enjoyed every aspect of this game more than the first. Like always, I start at the good.
Checking the Improvement Boxes
In playing Jedi: Survivor, I would go back and read my old review of Jedi: Fallen Order from 2019 and I kept getting surprised by Respawn every time I had a session playing Survivor. For the first two weeks I consistently found complaints I had lodged against the first game getting quickly checked off as “fixed” in this one.
First there’s the gameplay. Originally I complained in ways about Fallen Order’s combat struggling to work in tandem with animations. This was a rather sticky problem for me because I had just finished Sekiro, which is kinda peak sword-style gameplay that tries to replicate this idea that sword fights are enjoyable when they’re this rhythmic back and forth of dodging, blocking, parrying, and taking the offensive only when you can to break down an enemy’s guard. Fallen Order had similar gameplay but didn’t get the “feel” of it quite right when it came to higher difficulties and (more importantly) the harder boss fights. It was frustrating at times, but awesome when firing on all cylinders. I don’t know what Respawn did but it feels 100% gone here. I still played this game on a higher difficulty like last time (one notch up) and yet the blocking vs. parrying differences almost always felt tangible and like something I could manage. Boss fights that got more intense in second or third phases felt dangerous yet passable if I could just learn the timing right.
Taking more inspiration from Nioh’s (and Jedi Outcast/Academy’s) stances, Survivor has multiple stances you unlock across the game and they almost all feel purposeful. They’re also different ways to modify your lightsaber. I almost felt spoiled for choice here. Before you leave the opening of the game you’ll have three stances already available to you: The first game’s traditional single-blade stance with revamped moves to unlock, a two blade stance that moves fast and packs a high damage output while lacking in range and defense, and the ever-famous double-bladed stance that has high defense and range, but won’t knock over every enemy quite as quickly. I almost immediately abandoned the solo blade once I got my hands on the later two stances. By the time you’re about a quarter of the way through the game you’ll unlock a sort of rapier-styled stance featuring one blade and a blaster and then about half way through the game you get a crossguard stance that works very much like a greatsword in the Souls games; high damage, long wind ups. In this wide range of skills available you’ll likely find two or three stances to stick to and upgrade them across the game. I had a blast with it and was surprised that the blaster stance wound up being a favorite of mine. It was an easy contender against the dual blade stance regularly. The additional ability to charge up a shot or fire off quick blasts that take out ranged enemies just became way too useful in this game, especially at harder difficulties. Your abilities make a quick return with most of your abilities from the first game readily present for the player right at the start. It’s refreshing to not spend so much time in a sequel reacquainting oneself with all the abilities from the first. AAA games of this scope and scale often have to deal with the concern that players who missed the first game will be utterly helpless the second time around, bigger sequel, more things to learn. Luckily the extended tutorial mission on Coruscant provides almost all the training wheels the player needs. I found particular joy in some of the later abilities permitting the player to lift multiple enemies into the air and allow you to prioritize crowds in your own way. I only wish it would last longer, even when maxed out it felt a little hampered.
Next check box: Level design and traversal. In Fallen Order this was a particular grief for me since Fallen Order clearly seemed to be trying its hand as a Souls-vania. Map design that creates forced circles / little to no way of backtracking? Almost entirely gone this time. Not only are there very few times where you’ll stumble into an exploration that requires you to go forwards to find a way out, but there’s fast travel now for almost the entire game. This addressed one specific complaint I had about the first game with two solutions. Survivor worlds are often larger than Fallen Order (I was often making the Akrham City/Knight comparison to Fallen Order’s Arkham Asylum, the former is wider, the later is closer and layered), the result of that scale change means map design is often more open-ended and allows for players to just leave areas with ease, but if you find yourself not wanting to bother with longer traversal as well, the fast travel is your friend. You can’t fast travel between planets, but that’s just a ship loading sequence away. Outside of the game’s lengthy introductory hours, you can leave to another planet at almost anytime you wish. Map design overall feels so much more thought out and segmented in big chunks in a way that feels natural and enjoyable. Some of my favorite memories of this game are tied to being able to finally traverse a zone and deciding on a whim to just go through it before the story ever takes you there. To my surprise the game enables this behavior better than ever before with optional chunks of the map that act as larger bridges between story areas on the main planet of Koboh. This results in some zones of the game existing just for the fun of discovery. There’s even a few places to go to that never cross paths with the story at all. At one point I decided to try exploring a mountain pass during a part of the game that takes place at night on Koboh. I expected the mountain pass to have something blocking my way and there were definitely a few paths I couldn’t take yet, but I actually went all the way to the mountain summit and took an elevator back down, I even unlocked a new tool that let me explore more of the game. This was entirely optional at the time and, true to the metroidvania fashion, the game just kinda let me do it once I could. I did this in Jedi: Survivor at least three or four times throughout my experience and every time I enjoyed it.
One of the other points I levied against Fallen Order’s map design was that the lack of fast travel made me think traversal should’ve felt so much more important in that game’s mechanics and controls. Granted Fallen Order had its traversal strengths, but you’re also hampered for a lot of the game as you relearned your abilities and the controls were too sticky. Traversal feels so much better this time around. Controls feel less sticky and this is a rare case of a sequel not removing the player arsenal from the start. So right from the beginning you can already double jump and wall run and hop to new heights. You’ll still pick up new abilities as you go too, adding to your growing range of tools available to you (an early zip grapple, followed later by a point launch jump, a dash, and more) . This creates a greater sense of that freedom to explore since so much is a capability of yours right off the bat. Having the option to fast travel addresses a problem from a previous game while better traversal controls this time around make you happy to explore or skip the fast travel in some cases anyways. As this review progresses you’ll see I kinda don’t love how utterly open this Jedi game feels and what Respawn feel they need to do to because of it, but when the metroid elements come out, remember that those complaints kinda vanish. The open elements simply start swallowing the metroid elements whole.
I think the only thing that consistently bothered me about this game’s traversal is a design and programming choice that I imagine was something Respawn might’ve gone back and forth on for a long time: Fall damage. Anytime the player falls into a death pit or somewhere the devs don’t intend you to go, the game considers it a failure and the player takes a small amount of fall damage while being set back to the last safe place where they were standing. That’s a mechanic we’ve seen in a lot of in other games. The fall damage can be disabled, which is nice for accessibility. You just keep trying with no damage. But here we’re playing an open world souls-vania with a lot of traversal capabilities. We have double jumps that can be delayed between jumps significantly, a dash that extends your distance reach during those jumps, and even sliding or extended wall slides. So how do you know when fall damage should trigger? You don’t want to just program every single place where if players fall “here” it’s considered fall damage because it’s a big game. That takes too long. And sometimes players will jump from a location way too high but not “out of bounds” and it won’t feel reasonable for a person to fall that far and not take damage. This isn’t Borderlands. Respawn’s answer to this appears to be (I’m not an actual programmer, but my constantly running into this seems to confirm the idea) to give players a set “fall length” and if players have fallen a certain distance, even if they’ve seemingly mitigated how bad that fall distance is with a jump or a double jump to interrupt that fall, the game still assumes you’re taking the damage if you haven’t hit terrain. Even if where you land is in-bounds. By normal human physics I’m pretty sure this makes sense. Using the force to interrupt your fall with a jump won’t negate the drop, right? But for “game feel”, it doesn’t quite add up. There’s a lot of moments in this game where a fall almost within control for Cal and the screen starts to fade to black around the edges, you can dash, jump or double jump to prolong that, but ultimately you hit the ground, Cal takes damage, and you’re reset to a ledge again. I’d rather just take the same amount of damage and roll to the place I was trying to reach so long as it’s not out of bounds for gameplay. Instead Respawn chose to do both and it sorta slows me down sometimes by taking non-optimal paths. If the damage scaled based on fall distance and exceeded a certain amount, maybe then reset me? I didn’t love it.
Puzzles are much better this time around. They weren’t a massive complaint in the first game but since the puzzles were so directly tied to your discovery of powers in Fallen Order, it was this sort of prolonged version of the starting area in Breath of the Wild. A tutorial that ran across an entire game as Cal got in touch with his powers again. Forget all of that now. Puzzles are a constant, both small and large, tying together story quests or side quests, allowing exploration and a means to uncovering items to add to your ever growing swag collection. Having additional tools like an electric bolt or Koboh seed sprayer that BD-1 can utilize also added to the various tools Respawn could use to build up puzzles here. Pair that with later abilities you get (like dashing or barrier skipping) and Respawn’s capacity to build a variety of puzzles and challenges grew really well. So they instituted challenges throughout the game to explore what they could build. My only sorrow here is that BD-1 can’t use his bolt ability as a combo link during Cal’s attacks. Just hear me out: It’d be rad.
A Bigger Jedi Game
Once I start talking about challenges I think it’s safe to wade into the waters of how Jedi: Survivor is just ultimately a bigger game than before and I’m not entirely happy about it. I think it took me close to 60 hours to do everything I could. I got all the collectibles aside from whatever lies at the end of the double rancor challenge and I unfortunately encountered a bug locking me out of half of the bounty missions for now. Respawn are working on a patch but I consider my time with the game done at this point. I play games slower so my time investment isn’t a fair comparison for most others out there. 60 hours for me might be 30 to 40 for you. How about a scale to better paint the picture? Jedi: Fallen Order had four main planets you’d spend most of the game on and a couple segment-specific planets. Jedi: Survivor has four as well, this time it’s Coruscant, Koboh, Jedha, and Shattered Moon with two other segment-specific planets tied to the plot. The first game did take place on Zeffo and Bogano quite a bit, but there was a lot to explore on Kashyyyk and Dathomir too. If you charged through this story you’d probably get a game about as long as Fallen Order. Most of this game’s plot takes place between Koboh and Jedha, the story this time taking a keen focus on a settlement in Koboh where our old pal Greez has set up a saloon. Meanwhile your time spent exploring Koboh will contain encounters with various characters you invite back to the saloon. Over time the place becomes lively with a robot DJ and various characters that act as salespeople to provide you with upgrades or customizations. A similar setup exists on Jedha to a smaller scale, you won’t invite people to the hideout there though. Where Jedi: Fallen Order was about traversing the galaxy to unlock answers across multiple planets, Jedi: Survivor is about setting down roots to try and build up a community. Or, it should be. But I’ll get to that complaint later. Much in the vein of Horizon: Forbidden West or Metro: Exodus, a great deal of your time in Jedi: Survivor is going to be spent going back to Pyloon’s Saloon and talking to all the various characters there. Everyone has their favorite. Current fans are debating whether Turgle is the best or Skoova. Turgle is a sort of standing turtle character that’s lost his shell and constantly gets into trouble with others with his various schemes. Skoova is some sort of a squid fisherman type that rests in his lovely diving suit and regales you with stories aplenty of his times traversing the galaxy. You can find him across the game at various ponds and pools and he’ll go fetch a fish to go put into the tank back at the saloon. I always loved finding his little hoverboat in unexpected places as the story progressed because sometimes he’d be on entirely different planets as if he was stowing away on my ship. Yes indeed, Pyloon’s Saloon very much acts like your trips back to the Normandy between missions in Mass Effect games. It’s a great time hearing tales, picking out music for the DJ to play (and I was surprised at how much I liked the music my robot DJ would spin, I’ll have to go get the in-game music officially for my library and spin them myself). I will say this about Koboh though: It’s visually boring a lot of the time. It’s a planet that has a lot of neat destinations on it (a trip to a luchrehulk in the swamps, an ancient array in a basalt forest, a sky satellite), but so much of the main landscape for most gameplay is yellow-tinted dry grasslands that sometimes make you feel like you’re playing a video game that takes place completely on Dantooine when we could be off exploring a Shattered Moon at least half the size of Koboh. Instead that Shattered Moon is maybe a fifth of Koboh in scale. Koboh has its varieties, don’t get me wrong, but even Fallen Order’s Zeffo and Bogano had more fascinating landscapes regularly. Zeffo had stark green and gray mountainous scales at harsh angles, constant vistas with ominous statues, and a lurking Imperial presence in the foggy distance. You just don’t get that in this game much on warm, comfy Koboh.
Jedi: Survivor isn’t bigger with a core base and lots of characters though. In fact, if we didn’t have the characters and the saloon to regularly visit on Koboh, I’d argue the total map size in Survivor equates to roughly the same as Fallen Order. It’s skewed differently towards two planets this time. But Survivor is bigger through a lot more stuff than before. Here I’ll stop for a minute or three and lodge some nitpicks. Jedi: Fallen Order had eight different lightsabers with various materials to unlock and twenty one different ponchos to wear across a 30 hour game. Jedi: Survivor has nineteen different lightsabers, twenty-four material sets for them, and just as many outfits with different color combinations (for EACH outfit) for a massive variety set here. It’s a little astounding. For a 60 hour game I didn’t find this well ever running dry, which actually kind of bugs me a little. I don’t want this to be a big point later but we’re all (okay, I am) a little tired of games made big by just having too much filler in it, and the collectibles definitely strike that chord a little bit here. I never disliked the collectibles here, I just felt there were too many compared to how much story and game there was. It overshadowed the game. There’s a seed collecting aspect that lets you plant a garden, I’m sure plenty of people liked it in this game but I wasn’t a fan. The seeds are hard to notice in such a visually grounded game, you’d have to be looking at every bush as you play for signs of little fireflies to indicate it’s a plant you can harvest and take with you. The game sees the return of its built-in codex where BD-1 lets you know there’s something he can scan and players can read to learn more about. In addition to that there’s still Cal’s psychometry ability, allowing him to touch things and experience memories through the force left in the object (serving as quick audio logs for the player). Both of these features should’ve been merged into one: Audio logs. We don’t really need flavor text to paint out the details of the Star Wars world. I was often pausing the game every few seconds to read four entries I unlocked in one room. Some were literal story summaries of what I just experienced. We either let Cal talk about the thing he just felt/saw/heard, maybe BD-1 calls attention to it, and then that’s that, or we just let the art speak for itself. The only reason people enjoy reading item descriptions in Souls games is because they’re so geared around combat and exploring and not conversations. So the only ways we absorb world lore is through the art around us and the very quick flavor text (literally three sentences or less), or NPCs telling us about the world. In Souls games, that flavor text is also always optional, it’s not a notification of lore that we’ve just unlocked that shows up every ten seconds as we play, we go find it on our own in the menu if we feel like it.
It doesn’t end there though, there’s different hair styles to buy and unlock, different perks to buy or find from vendors that can alter your playstyle, chests containing any of these items, and challenges to find and overcome in the form of actual challenges or a tactical holotable game to play (I actually loved the challenges because they’re gameplay all to their own, but I’ll leave my nitpicks on those a few minutes down the way). At the end of the day this is just a little too much collecting for a game a little bit smaller than the rest of that stuff. I hit a point where I realized I had progressed enough to basically go everywhere in the game unless the story kept me from it. I was probably 70% done with the game. So I set off on getting every last collectible I could at that point because there were simply too many I wasn’t finding organically anymore. I was amazed at how many I had missed because the world is just a little too big and the side quests a little too scarce to drive me towards those places. The holomap comes out in a quick flash but feels a little too unclear this time around and the game would even list red locked doors as “Open paths” sometimes. What would that mean? Did I have an ability that could solve it? Was the game just wrong? What is the map not telling me? It was making the challenge of finding all these items too daunting. Equally frustrating was that after the process of trying to find almost everything, I progressed the story just a smidge further and started finding the terminals for “here, we’re now going to put everything on the map for you”. Just a little too late Respawn, sorry. I feel it would’ve been safe to just provide us with the map scans through some arbitrary reason right after our first trip to the Shattered Moon, which is basically half way through the story. By the time you’re that far in you’ve visited everywhere once aside from the story-locked planets. I feel if we got that item map half way through the game and also scaled back materials to just unlock automatically with each costume and hair styles were just always available, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Finding all the things was a bit more of a joy in the last game. This time it felt like a little bit of a slog. However, I will say doing this led me to explore more of the world again and find maybe my favorite little zone in the game.
In said zone you work your way down into underground caverns in Koboh, dark foggy places. You keep running across rooms where Mercenaries appear to be in some sort of a prison? There’s energy barriers and they warn me once they get out they’re gonna kill me. Exploring these caverns involves going down holes that feel like the ground gave way (in one case you even make the hole yourself), which makes the descent feel unnatural and out of control. In one room you’re navigating through a field of explosive pods that grow naturally along the cave walls and floor. Then, a trap. You fall in, find what you think is an escape but in fact all of the mercenaries you encountered on your way to this place were using a network of caves here to ambush you, three lightsaber wielders at once. A fight I won’t forget having barely survived it by the skin of my teeth first try.
It isn’t all bad. Up until I realized the collectibles were outpacing the game, all the various adventures I’d go on were delightful. A surprise return of Ogdo Bogdo with “Spawn of Ogdo” was infuriating and hilarious. I mentioned the challenges earlier and they’re really cool and there’s two different types. One is a traversal challenge where you’ll use various abilities in vague liminal spaces that push your traversal responsiveness to the limit. The other is a combat challenge type where you’ll be pitted against specific combinations of enemies, often in waves, and sometimes even restricted to a specific weapon stance to make the challenge more interesting. Specific highlights for me here involved one against an endlessly spawning wave of B1 battle droids until you killed 100 of them. Another was an absolute troll of a moment where I realized the game was putting me up against both the original Ogdo Bogdo and Spawn of Ogdo. I was infuriated all over again, but I still had to do it for the sake of ending their reign of terror. There was one traversal challenge and two fight challenge nitpicks I had. For the traversal challenge it was “Fractured Momentum”, it has to deal with ziplines where you grab onto BD-1 and slide along ziplines and can switch lines or even zip up to other lines from a grapple point. All cool. But this particular challenge really failed to telegraph what they were trying to teach you because they were trying to teach you three or four things at once. First you’re just jumping ziplines left and right to avoid some static electric obstacles. Then you grapple up to a single zipline and it seems like the rest of your path is facing behind you and upwards. So your natural instinct is to TURN AROUND (a thing you can do). But on this single zipline is an electric ball that isn’t static, and shortly after you get on the zipline it zooms straight at you. Only once, and only on your first grab to that line. If you turn around to go the right direction you’ll get hit, you’re too slow on a turn. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong because sometimes I would grapple up to the zipline and Cal would be facing the right direction and I’d be able to get to the next grapple point before the electric ball would hit me. But I couldn’t do it consistently enough so I wasn’t sure if I was doing something wrong or if the game was just landing me on this line wrong. Eventually I learned that the key was to get on the zipline, start sliding the wrong direction first, jump OVER the electric ball, then turn around, and go do the same thing again on two ziplines elevated from each other. There was further timing puzzling going on there that drove me utterly mad. I think I spent an hour on that challenge and hated every minute of it. Meanwhile, what drives me crazy about the combat challenges is that there’s no quick respawn. If you fail the traversal challenge you’re just kicked right back to the start of it. If you fail combat challenges you’re forced out back into the game world via a load screen, then to get back in you have to sit through a second load screen. For challenges you can fail in an instant this is really frustrating. Making matters worse, the first combat challenge I came across was one that involved too many enemies while I was still fairly early on in the game. I beat my head against it for probably thirty minutes. There was just no way for me to easily beat the odds with my abilities at the time. In many ways challenges almost encapsulate everything there is to say about Jedi: Survivor. Because it’s really good and fun. Until it isn’t.
A Loreless Start (Story — Part 1)
By far Jedi: Survivor’s biggest points against it are its own performance issues (saving it for the end) and the “go bigger” AAA aspect that just means a lot of filler collectibes (I like changing my outfit and lightsaber every session, but not everyone will). These are just nitpicks and annoyances in the face of a game where the developers clearly put in a lot of time trying to improve on the first game. So much of Survivor feels like a natural evolution of the great starting point we had in Fallen Order. I think at times they failed on execution here and there but “more of the same” is a safe bet for some people, myself included when it comes to some Star Wars things. However, despite its launch performance issues, the nitpicks, my preferential problems with open world designs, despite all of that, what I think is going to make people forget about Survivor in a year’s time is the story.
Because it tried just a little too hard without putting effort in the most important places. It didn’t know what it wanted completely.
It’s spoiler time. First we’re doing early spoilers, bigger spoilers will come later.
Jedi: Survivor takes place five years after the first game. Cal has a new crew, almost all of that crew dies after a mission on Coruscant except for a blaster-weilding jetpack dude named Bode. You get separated but you both make it out. Cal learns from the intel gained on Coruscant that the Empire has only gotten much stronger in the ten years since Order 66. All of his efforts have felt fruitless. He and BD-1 make their way to Koboh to get some repairs from Greez. While waiting for Greez to make some repairs to the ship, Cal stumbles upon an old Jedi ruin and a droid named ZN-A4 (Zee for short). Cal finds Zee’s last memory before being wiped involves a High Republic Jedi Santari Khri telling Zee to get to the array on Koboh to unlock the secrets of Tanalorr. At the array Cal taps into a memory where Santari Khri converses with another Jedi, Dagan Gera, they’re on Tanalorr and discuss how the planet is hidden from the galaxy behind a nebula right outside Koboh called “the Koboh Abyss”. Enemies arrive, Dagan Gera stays behind to fight and at the top of the array, Cal realizes he tapped into Dagan Gera’s memories because he’s alive in stasis here. Cal lets Dagan Gera out of stasis but Dagan Gera is all angry about being abandoned by the High Republic Jedi back in the day and thrown into stasis, he bleeds his lightsaber crystal red, turns villain, and attempts to kill Cal. Cal is now on a race against Dagan Gera to get the tools and information needed to fly through the Koboh Abyss and reach Tanalorr, a potential haven for Cal, his friends, and any resistance movement against the Empire. Simple enough.
That’s the setup. It takes maybe 15 to 20% of your time with the story to get that setup rolling. If it sounds flat, that’s because it unfortunately is. There’s some really cool developments across the game’s middle, the story and setting ultimately working to reward people who were here for the first game’s development. You head to Jedha looking for assistance from Cere, who has built up an underground network of people trying to restore as much Jedi historical data as possible (called the Hidden Path). You have some trouble with the Empire on your way in, and you’re surprised by Merrin! Merrin was one of my favorite characters in the first game and I’m really glad Respawn seemed to like her just as much, they take time to let you see how much Merrin has grown in the past five years, even taking months or years of absence from our team in the first game to try helping out the galaxy on her own. We see the depths of her abilities across the game and just how much more resolved she is in her personal quest to try and bring that justice for others. It’s fantastic. It’s worth mentioning here that in the gameplay whenever you get to play out a finisher in Survivor, the animations always feel excellent, but when you have a buddy with you (Bode or Merrin) they feel extra special as the game will involve the second character in a flurry of awesome animations. I couldn’t get enough of every time Merrin was there and I ran a finisher on an enemy. Her Dathomir magic is just teeming with a unique style that’s a little more cutthroat and dangerous when the weapons come out. She’s definitely one of my favorite expanded Star Wars characters out there. To top it off, when I’d go and explore more of Jedha, I was thrilled because Merrin would join us!
Merrin and Cal have a little catching up in the desert and it seems to suggest they were romantic during the conquests Cere, Greez, Merrin and Cal went on in the past five years, and that Merrin needed to go off and do her own thing for a while. The longing is there, but there’s an uncertainty if they should try this again. After a night hiding from a storm in Jedha, Merrin takes us to the Hidden Path hideout only to be surprised by Eno Cordova. He’s alive! He works with Cere in the Hidden Path and we have a similar conversation with Cere: She is supportive of Cal’s mission against the Empire, but is honest about her desire to try and rebuild what was lost after Order 66 instead of trying to fight back. The knowledge the Jedi held is just as valuable to her as fighting might be to Cal. With the evidence of Tanalorr as a destination that can be reached, Cere and Eno turn their focus to providing Cal with the information he needs to reach Tanalorr so the Hidden Path can go there and build up their resources away from the Empire. Bode’s in too since he has a daughter named Kata and wants the same thing.
So where does it fall apart? How does it fall flat?
The game’s story is too flat while trying to do too much. Jedi: Fallen Order I equated to a lot of previous Star Wars stories all about discovering some sort of historical element and the context of that element in relation to the game itself. Fallen Order took after KotOR in a goose chase to learn more about an old civilization that knew a thing or two about ancient powers and it turned out those ancient powers were maybe related to the downfall of that civilization. It worked well as a way for Cal to get in touch with his powers again and with one cautionary tale of a Jedi that slaughtered the Nightsisters on Dathomir, and with the game’s overarching plot, Cal came to the conclusion that the important mcguffin at the end of Fallen Order (a holocron with the location of force sensitive children across the galaxy) needed to be destroyed. So he destroyed it.
If there’s any theming going on in Survivor, it’s this continuation of fallen Jedi being a problem (but not really for any reason) and a theme of escape. The former seems fine but the second is where the story kinda just gets muddled even though it’s got potential. Dagan Gera almost instantly turns dark after being revived, lashing out against Cal as a remaining Jedi, a representation of something he hates but his qualm really isn’t with Cal. Dagan Gera is about 500 years out of his own time. The shock of this reality and what to do next should be a bit more prevalent to him but it barely comes up until near the end of Dagan Gera’s part in the story. He’s incredibly one note, talking about Cal being weak at every confrontation, but not really discussing much regarding Tanalorr other than it being “mine” and (during your final fight with Dagan) how he’ll personally raise a new generation of force users against the Empire since Cal failed to fight them. The story with Dagan severely suffers what most people would call a “just talk” issue, but personally, the story suffers a lack of what Fallen Order had so well: History to sink into. Despite the game being the first to really try and look back to the story of the High Republic (Disney/Lucasfilm’s next big Star Wars interest so they can try and get away from the Skywalker lore and make some new stuff that’s not constantly invalidating someone’s favorite lore points), there’s almost nothing here suggesting anything interesting about Tanalorr or Koboh other than the fact that Tanalorr is hidden behind an abyss that’s impossible to navigate. There’s a particle that infests certain areas of Koboh, sometimes it’s present like a swarm of bugs, and in other areas it’s a weed almost tainting the ground and growing around the landscapes. “Koboh Particles” it’s called. And the history of it never really comes to light. Koboh has a shattered moon, the result of some unfortunate cosmic event the High Republic Jedi did to the galaxy at the height of their explorations. But this also never really gets explored, just that it’s a major screw up they did. I was really expecting Dagan to keep hinting at the possibility of Tanalorr being some untapped power that Cal couldn’t even begin to comprehend. It could’ve been a cautionary tale again that this power is something untrustworthy. It would’ve been interesting to see Cal almost blind to the danger this time around because he’s desperate for a solution. Maybe he thinks he can control it. The game even hints at this at one point with Cal’s obsession being a concern to himself and others. But that never happened. Dagan, unfortunately, feels incredibly one note. He’s evil mostly for the sake of being betrayed by his friends a long time ago. So he’ll stand in your way even though you both technically want the same thing. And then you’ll kill him 4/5 of the way through the game.
All the High Republic aesthetics and hints in this game are interesting. Zee is a cool droid who could provide us with lots of details about the High Republic times and more about Santari Khri and Dagan, but outside three story quests, Zee is mostly a shopkeeper and conversation person for us back at the Saloon. She could slowly reveal so much information to us over the course of the game as we try to restore her memories or something, but nope.
Unraveling the “Mass Effect 2” Problem (Story — Part 2)
Here in the middle chunk of the game’s story I can also talk about how this game is too afraid to be Mass Effect 2 or other games that feature a main hub family dynamic aspect. We have the Saloon with its ever expanding cast of characters that can act as our stand-in for the Normandy in this game. Cool. And you do talk to these characters, mostly hearing stories from them. Jedi: Survivor even gives you the chance to give Cal an opinion when prompted once in a blue moon, sometimes those characters ask Cal to weigh in on the story and you get to choose what he says. It’s nice. But all those characters do is tell stories and act as vendors. That’s it. One character, Caij, will give you bounties to do as quests. You even suggest she should get involved, help you out on those quests. But she says the bounties aren’t high enough for her. Technically finding Skoova in all those locations is a bit of a quest too, more a collectible than a quest. But I think this game could’ve gone one step further and given you the chance to go on quests with these characters. There’s a character named Mosey who acts as your information point on animals you fight in the game. Why not have her join you for the bigger monster hunts that she keeps telling you about? Why not teach her some things about animal taming that you learn in the game? You find a droid in a sort of exploration quest and the droid had been trapped in a cave under a building for something like 20–30 years. Once the droid is back at the main outpost in Koboh, the droid tells you it’s leaving to go help the galaxy elsewhere. A door is unlocked, you get an item and that’s it. Why not recruit the droid for your ship? A pair of scavenger characters keep talking about trying to avoid going for items out on Koboh because of heightened dangers. A local raider crew in the game and the Empire are present in growing numbers. Eventually though the Empire’s kicked out by the raiders and you put an end to the leader of the Raiders. One of those scavengers goes out on his own and dies. The other friend mourns the loss but that’s it. We don’t go get revenge with that friend and have any sort of a ceremony for the loss we’ve experienced. Koboh’s a really large overworld in this game and I feel so much of what could’ve been is robbed by not going out with these characters and doing things.
What made Mass Effect 2 special was three fold. 1) The premise of Shepard’s resurrection and recruitment by Cerberus allowed us to explore the criminal underside of the Mass Effect galaxy. We’re a crew trying to hire and gear up for a galaxy “heist” (that heist being to go somewhere dangerous and blow some stuff up). We won’t have the backing of the “good guys” this time so we make more interesting friends. 2) Galaxy missions are scaled back to primarily focus on missions recruiting members of your crew and missions helping your crew resolve their life issues before doing the heist that might kill them. And 3) Conversations before, during, and after all these quests tie into the sensation that the story is developing. It’s all about the characters. The big plot of the Reapers takes a back seat here to allow characters to take the front. This way, when you get back to that heist, you’re excited and worried all at once. Will anyone make it out alive? Who knows! It’s noteworthy that Mass Effect 2 also stripped back a lot of the elements present in the first game’s gameplay. RPG elements and various weapon mods and even character build stats were reduced to focus the gameplay, but plot and story elements still had the dynamics that the BioWare series was looking for. The difference there being that Mass Effect 2 was a game filled with character-driven sequences with larger plot moments taking up the defining arc of the game.
I’d like to make the argument that the story about the Koboh Abyss and Tanalorr either should’ve been a central lesson about searching for a power too strong for anyone to wield, or it should’ve been about building up a resistance by putting down roots in a community so you can defend what’s important to you and escape to Tanalorr when it’s time. Let me break it down a little more. I’ve already established Tanalorr is literally all they say it is: A hidden planet. Instead the story could be about building up that resistance by just trying to build a community first. Imagine if you spent major plots points in this game chasing after the secrets of Tanalorr but without Dagan Gera as your antagonist. Like, maybe he’s there, but instead you’re spending more time trying to put down roots, establish a base and try to figure out more about Tanalorr first, taking companions with you as you do so. You don’t know it’s a hidden planet, it’s just something important that Dagan keeps yacking about while not telling you everything. You delve into its past, what the High Republic actually did to the galaxy (and what they were doing on Koboh, specifically). Meanwhile Cal’s building up a community of people with Greez. First Greez just asks Cal to do a couple things in repayment for the needs of Cal’s ship, but the promise of Tanalorr feels just as impossible as fighting the Empire. So Cal takes an interest in it but does the first few odd jobs for Greez before realizing a lot of the people on this planet prefer to avoid Imperial entanglements too. So Cal starts working with these people, they move into the town where Greez’s saloon is, doing jobs with them, and talking to them about the opportunity of Tanalorr. The short terms goals of the community is to build up enough strength to take on Rayvis, the leader of the mercenary group in the game that makes life a pain for the rest of Kobh’s residents. I already regularly found myself going to the saloon in this game, why not swap out a fair chunk of the collectibles for more quests from these characters. You already get a couple here and there, expand it to cover your exploration of Koboh’s more hidden sectors that have collectibles in them. There’s also several story beats throughout the game already where the town or saloon comes under attack but you’re almost never there for it, leading to it feeling like too much action happens off screen. I’d be invested in action happening at my “character-talk-home-space”, especially if we seem to be building teams together. As the promise of Tanalorr gets closer, some larger attacks by the Empire can take place and the town’s ability to handle these challenges can be like in Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission. Or at least feel like that. Stakes feel higher. And then it’s revealed: Tanalorr is a planet hidden beyond that abyss near Koboh. The desire to find out the way to Tanalorr grows and as the planet becomes less safe everyone wants to go. We encounter something similar at the end of the game when a Star Destroyer shows up over Tanalorr, almost everyone you brought to the cantina just wind up leaving for their own reasons in the actual game. It felt kinda hollow there, “Welp, you finished the video game. These side characters will now go on and do their own thing. Coming to Pyloon’s Saloon regularly was a waste of time, you’re not gonna see most of them again.” Building up a team in a more remote and stable place feels like an awesome change of pace for most Star Wars stories and can go hand in hand with the family theming in Cal’s arc.
But as a point of resistance, well, you’re not really spending time building a team in this game. So how about that other version of the story? Tanalorr having a cool secret mcguffin that can be a weapon against the Empire. The one about power and obsession. Without Dagan Gera’s depth of character, the story still continues to suggest Cal’s pursuit of Tanalorr is reckless. There’s a moment around 60% into the story where Cal realizes Dagan was blinded by his ambition for utilizing Tanalorr and Santari didn’t catch his turn for the worse with this ambition. When she does discover it, he threatens the Jedi so she cuts his arm off and throws him into stasis. Cal fears he’ll wind up like Dagan in his pursuit of a way to hide or fight the Empire. Merrin reassures Cal that she and his friends will be there to pull him back from that place if he ever goes there. This sort of works (especially with a spoiler in part 3), but Tanalorr is flat as can be in terms of things to discuss. It’s just a hidden planet. Cal also doesn’t seem entirely bent on just escaping the Empire. I feel like the game could’ve taken some interesting twists near its end where the crew venture to Tanalorr and fight Dagan there, but Cal becomes too blinded by its powers and then you have to play Merrin and fight him (yourself!) to bring him back. It makes for an interesting boss fight because suddenly you’re playing against a dark version of your own character that you’ve been building up the whole time. The story taps into Cal’s venture towards a quest for power to control things rather than the quest for safety he should be on. Merrin maybe has to wound Cal in an irreversible way, do something that would destroy Tanalorr’s power mcguffin, the relationship splits in a weak place, leaving us on even more unfamiliar tides than where we were at the start of the game. And (BIGGER SPOILER SPOILER!) you can still kind have the whole plot point where the Empire finds the Hidden Path on Jedha and just have Vader kill both Cere and Eno instead of the big betrayal.
It’s All About Family (Story — Part 3)
In a recent interview Alanah Pearce has with lead writer Danny Homan, you pick up on the fact that most of the inspiration behind Survivor’s story links up less with your stereotypical Star Wars quest story and more an exploration of a group of characters that Cal considers family. Survivor is a parallel relationship exploration between Cal and his self-declared family members in the game with that of our villains. First Cal looks at the relationship between Santari Khri and Dagan Gera, seeing Dagan’s actions as obsessive and a betrayal that he doesn’t understand because she didn’t see it coming. But then after beating Dagan with Bode by his side, they take the compass back to Jedha, Bode seems a little uncomfortable letting the Hidden Path go to Tanalorr with Cal and the crew, and then the next day Bode reveals he’s a double-crosser. First he’s someone who’s been working for the Empire all along as a spy, he shoots Eno dead and runs with the compass for Tanalorr. But then when we chase him down Bode reveals he’s a former Jedi hiding as a spy within the Empire. Bode leaves Cal for dead while the Empire (Vader in the lead) crashes down on the Hidden Path. Cere duels Vader, nearly beats him but still dies in the process. Cal experiences her death through psychometry. Greez has a very stirring talk with Cal and Merrin about how this is not Cal’s fault and that this is all on Bode. I’ve always liked Greez because he’s this interesting picky character. In Fallen Order he gets us into some royal trouble and tries to really make up for his mistakes, simultaneously he’s really picky about what he eats or how people treat his ship in that game. He’s a reluctant ally to Cere’s crew in that game but you get the sense that he knows he can’t keep playing with one foot out the door in this galaxy anymore. So by the time you meet him in Survivor his concerns are moreso in keeping the family alive and being confident that he still has what it takes at his age. His speech to Cal while Cal’s wrestling with Bode’s betrayal was particularly moving as someone who always felt like he wasn’t quite as committed to the fight.
The trio tracks down Bode to an Imperial spy base in an asteroid, we learn Bode and his daughter have been staying there as a pawn of the Empire after they killed his wife, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Cal’s cover gets blown, Bode gets away while the Empire there tries to stop Cal, Cal taps into the dark side to escape the horde of troops trying to stop him and almost force chokes the administrator there out of pure wrath. Merrin brings him back to the light. A last minute reveal shows there’s still a way through the abyss. They go to Tanalorr, realize if they kill Bode they’d just be leaving his daughter an orphan like the both of them have previously experienced. They both agree this is pretty messed up and kindly ask Bode for the compass, not looking for a fight. Bode looks for a fight anyways because this very hard to find planet that’s the size of a planet is still not remote enough unless literally no one else is here but him and his daughter. It’s pretty unreasonable at this point for Bode to rationalize that this is how remote he needs to be to avoid the Empire on the opposite end of an unavigable abyss. So Merrin and Cal fight Bode, Cal taps into the dark side once more to overpower Bode at a point of desperation, kills Bode. They adopt Cal’s daughter (who seems really okay with all this for her very young age, saying her dad wasn’t the same after her mom died). A fire is held to burn the remains of Bode, Cere, and Eno. Cal mourns Cere finally, leaving Cal at the end of the game in a much darker place than before.
The big thematic element the game was truly going for this time around was trying to wade further into that family dynamic. At the start of the game, Cal is clearly hurt by his family members that all went their separate ways for a while. Cal lost his other new family at the start of the game so he’s done trying to beat the Empire on a large scale. He instead wants to search for a way to protect what he has in hiding. This lines him up with Bode’s interests and Cal slowly learns about this dynamic between Santari and Dagan, two friends who also trusted each other deeply. Santari didn’t see Dagan’s turn towards the dark coming and has to stop him. Cal experiences the same thing with Bode. Parallels! Across the middle of the game Cal is coming to grips with what Cere, Greez, and Merrin all want, but then those characters also kinda slip into alignment with Cal’s interests too. It all seems to be coming together well, which is why the family unit needs to be betrayed by one they believe to be their own so we can have the big “Dark Cal” scary sequence after Cere dies. The story is exploring Cal’s darker experiences getting the better of him after he tried to get back together with his family. It works, but much like Fallen Order a lot of it suffers from the same problem as before: Characters talking more about their experiences than what they are feeling in any given moment. It’s not bad. But the promise and curiosity of Tanalorr and Koboh’s mysteries got me confused about where the game was going. Bode’s betrayal happens late and since Dagan felt like such a major villain for the whole story, it felt weird when I defeated Dagan, went off and spent hours on more gameplay and another hour or so of story only for Bode to finally betray me then. He could’ve done it right after we killed Dagan, stolen the compass then, and the attack on the Hidden Path could’ve been a coincidence (or FELT like it until we realized Bode made the call early). Dagan’s one dimensional villainy is instead replaced late in the story by Bode’s two dimensional betrayals.
There’s some interesting points at play. Bode is someone trying to hide his powers the entire game. He’s a survivor just like Cal and willing to do anything to protect the important people in his life. For a universe of stories mostly about broken familial ties and bad parents, Jedi: Survivor seems interested in a father character that’s doing everything he can to give his daughter a chance at a world away from the Empire. I saw a fairly strong response from parents with regards to Bode’s actions, but a Joel, this one isn’t. He’s literally selling out his friends when he, his daughter, and his friends could all drop off the galaxy map in an instant. In many ways I think a great deal of these issues stem from the story of Dagan and Santari being the story we’re being shown for most of the game’s runtime. Sure we get plenty of scenes with Bode and a lot of dialog from him about their chances, about his daughter, about the fight. But none of it feels like this complex conversation around the insanity of protecting the ones we care about in the age of the Empire. Am I bothered because Bode isn’t given enough time to develop more as a villainous foil to Cal, or because it’s kinda difficult to make a character like him interesting in Star Wars, a fiction that’s often oversimplified the experience of war and a zealous fascist overrule? Probably a little of both.
I think if we got more time in this game with Cal brooding over his family splitting and the sense that he hasn’t truly reconciled things over that split that the loss of Cere would’ve felt stronger. Even without that I feel like Cal and Bode still don’t get a real conversation about Bode’s actions. Bode’s fear of losing his daughter control him to an impossible end, Cal’s anger over Bode taking from Cal in a way that’s unforgivable when they both want the same thing. The dialog at the very end of the fight is well rounded, Cal telling Bode to not put this on his daughter, Merrin pointing out that both Merrin and Cal know what it’s like to grow up as orphans and that they don’t want this for Kata and it’s wrong to hold this over them. Bode is asking if they’d be able to care for her, keep her safe from the Empire. The theming is all there, but much like Fallen Order I’m waiting for the emotional dialog blow-outs that make human drama like this something we love watching. It’s still fairly stilted despite some really good performances at other points in the game. Here’s to Respawn taking Cal and crew in a more interesting path in the last Jedi game because this one is at least setting up a much closer family than before.
Nitpicks and Other Praises
Yes. The game launched poorly. And that means I’m sure even now a couple months post launch the game probably still has optimization issues. Personally I didn’t run into too many problems on PS5. The screen tearing was pretty constant but having grown up on GPUs that never could achieve 60 FPS for years this never really bothered me in my 60 hours with the game. The framerate was never bad on PS5 for me in performance mode. Respawn definitely has some problems using Unreal Engine 4 here but I never crashed once. The problems I encountered in this game are ones I’d encounter on the best running games on PC too. During the first couple weeks I encountered quite a few bugs though. There was one complete freeze up for 5 seconds loading in the main village in Koboh as the characters and shops seem to get loaded in as you approach it. It kinda scared me for a second. Graphics glitches at the end of a long session when going to modify my lightsaber had strange shader corruption. That happened once or twice. In Koboh I once saw a character moving without walking or animating at all, just hovering. But the bigger creeps for me are the bugs that lie to me. Moves being displayed in my move list that I haven’t even unlocked yet, my souls / XP pickup vanishing in the real world but being visible on the map, the map telling me something is blocked when in actuality it isn’t, etc. It wasn’t a particularly long list of issues after the first couple weeks and if you’re reading this (a review from a non-published critic) hopefully you’re someone who knows not to buy most AAA games at launch. That’s been the rule for a long time at this point, it’s not any different here. There were far worse launches this year, but this wasn’t a good one either.
If I want to praise the game for a minute, the settings are really good! There’s FOV adjustments they offer you even for a third person game so if you’re used to a more pushed out camera perspective like in Souls games you can have it here. They even ask how far you are from the TV to gauge that. Something tells me God of War: Ragnarok doesn’t offer me this at all. I will say maybe my complaints against the map were more specific to time I’d spend playing on the TV instead of streaming my PS5 to my computer screen where I was closer to see everything.
Going back to nitpicks about the gameplay though, flight is kinda awful. At first it appears to be this mechanic that might play a wider part of the game so you’re first shown the flight controls for this winged animal you grab onto from the legs and the controls just feel bad. It feels laggy and strange and confusing. You can’t really pick up wind so much as you fly over air currents. Then, the game proceeds to never show you those controls again wheras in other games creatures you ride in an open world game have steering controls almost always showing on screen. Then the more you play the game the more you realize the creatures you ride on for flight purposes basically replace ziplines that go down, only you can’t fly back. It’s just for variety. Meanwhile I didn’t get quite enough time to nitpick the combat. I really enjoyed this game’s combat but on the harder difficulty mobs became a pain fairly regularly. There’s just one too many enemies that can shoot with blasters in most larger fights and suddenly my ability to control crowds with the Crossguard stance became impossible because there’s just too much wind up time. Not only did reflecting blaster fire back at more advanced enemies just not work (because they have dodge abilities too), but the melee mobs of enemies don’t operate with any sort of an attack cadence that tries to give you times to respond. The game borrows from Sekiro more than Souls in its combat fundamentals, which means it should be about 1 vs 1 more than crowds. To top it off the game has attack guidance, so you can try to dodge through enemies and try to attack certain enemies in a group while not locked on and Cal kinda automatically still tries to pick out the enemy for you rather than letting his saber just swing in the direction you want. The saber can do that, but you’re more likely to miss if you’re not in a stance for it (double-bladed or crossguard having the range) or sometimes it’d happen “just because”. This “just because” comes from deeper within the game’s systems that want you to fight melee enemies like Sekiro: Parry, attack back, etc. Combine all these problems at once and crowd fights kinda get worse as the game goes on at higher difficulties. The finishers are all pretty awesome though, different for each stance and particularly gruesome despite not having blood and keeping a T rating.
Let’s talk about bosses! I mentioned earlier how I liked them (even if they were trolling me), but Dagan Gera feels AMAZING. Survivor had a particularly tough uphill battle because Second Sister quickly became labelled one of the best Star Wars fights in any video game. A fight you learn and get better at, one you try to perfect while the game amps up the experience towards the end by leaving you little room for failure compared to before. That was memorable and fun. This time, Dagan Gera is this progressively cool fight that taps into more as the players do. So in the start of the game Dagan will use a strong one-blade stance that looks different because you’re fighting someone who’s only got one arm. Immediately different, right? When you fight Dagan a second time he’s modified his lightsaber and switches between a force-holding two blade stance and the double-bladed. Sometimes he’ll use the second blade in a circular throw move where you either parry it to force it back to Dagan’s hands or jump past it and get stuck in this closer circle fight with Dagan with one blade to fight you and the other a constant hovering threat. The double-bladed stance feels normal but most double-bladed enemies in this game have this cool “feint” where they shut off the blade for a time while spinning it past you, tricking you into blocking for a parry when the attack actually comes after. This is some phenomenal programming work that’s recognizing how players get into the cadence of attack patterns and trying to force players out of that comfort zone. I was surprised Respawn managed to do something just as interesting and exciting as the Second Sister fight, but Dagan Gera definitely does that. It’s not easy to build a boss fight you want to just keep learning from and trying to beat the way a Souls games does but Jedi: Survivor certainly has those moments.
Overall I’d recommend Jedi: Survivor if you’re a big Star Wars fan or, if you want an okay souls-vania, maybe wait till it’s on sale. Honestly Lies of P looks and feels far more on-the-money for these sorts of gameplay experiences without nearly as many issues in the way. But Jedi: Survivor also leans harder on that open world spectrum than Fallen Order so if you want something like this, I’d say go for it. On PC it’s hard to recommend given the litany of issues it had on launch. I definitely feel less hopeful for the third and final installment of this series after playing Survivor because I don’t know what Respawn want to do next: Make it even bigger and abandon most Sekiro-Souls links? Or scale it down, make it more like the first game’s designs? It tried to go too wide for a personal story and didn’t provide enough sustenance for me. I felt a lot more hopeful for the future with Fallen Order, but I can’t act like I didn’t have a blast throughout much of it. Merrin/Cal ship fans will be very pleased as I was too. People looking for some fantastic boss fights will definitely pleased. And at the very least: There is indeed a poncho to unlock again. And a lot of time you can spend just building lightsabers.