Single-player Star Wars games have a long history, but a poor track record. Not since the critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic titles, which were helmed by legendary studios Bioware and Obsidian Entertainment roughly 15 years ago, has Lucasfilm and its partner Electronic Arts produced a narrative Star Wars game that managed to capture the magic of the films and the richness and depth of the series’ expansive universe.
That could finally change this November, when Titanfall and Apex Legends developer Respawn releases Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The game is the first proper, big-budget single-player Star Wars game since 2008’s The Force Unleashed, and it’s telling a canonical story set during the events after Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, when the Jedi Order is disbanded and the Galactic Empire supplants the Republic. You play as Cal Kestis (played by Shameless’ Cameron Monaghan), a Jedi Padawan on the run from the empire after his identity as a surviving Force user is revealed.
After spending roughly 40 minutes with the game and chatting with game director Stig Asmussen, I’m confident it has the potential to be the narrative Star Wars title fans have been yearning for. It tells its story like an interactive Star Wars film in the best ways, looks and plays like a deep and engaging action-adventure should, and has lightsaber combat that’s downright exhilarating.
“We’re trying to be faithful to Star Wars, but also we’re trying to make a fun game,” Asmussen tells me an interview this week at E3 in Los Angeles. He says the biggest challenge for Respawn has been convincing Lucasfilm that it can pull off a game that mines such a core part of the series — a time period that’s most prominently occupied by the standalone film Rogue One — while also giving players the most iconic and creatively guarded symbol of Star Wars lore: the lightsaber.
“The way that we’re approaching combat in more of a grounded approach,” Asmussen says. “It’s not just basically going in there and laying waste. [It’s about] how you use your Force powers and when you use them, as opposed to when is the right time to use the lightsaber.”
Part of that is because Asmussen says his team is telling a story of an in-progress Padawan, a Force user who’s not fully trained and had his education abruptly cut off by Order 66, the Galactic Empire’s betrayal of the Jedi Order that resulted in the murder of a majority of the lightsaber wielders across the galaxy. “He’s basically unpolished, rough around the edges. That’s something since day one that we wanted to come across. Over the course of the game, he starts to become a little bit more of a veteran.”
“They won’t let us go as far as ‘Force Unleashed.’”
But it’s also because Lucasfilm didn’t want Asmussen, best known for working on Sony’s God of War franchise prior to the 2018 reboot, to make a game as indulgent as Force Unleashed. Or, as he told Polygon in a separate interview, “God of Star Wars.”
“They won’t let us go as far as Force Unleashed,” Asmussen says of Lucasfilm’s guidance. “They don’t want to go that over the top. They want it to be grounded, like the movies.” Aesthetically, the tone Fallen Order strikes is close in spirit to the original Star Wars trilogy, and you can feel that in both the way it’s telling its story and in the combat.
That’s led some viewers of the gameplay trailer revealed at E3 last weekend to comment that everything looks slow and sluggish. The common complaint is that, as a Jedi, Cal should be able to cut through his enemies with ease, and that he should move much faster and more fluidly, as the Jedis do in the prequel films.
But Asmussen says that’s not the kind of game Respawn wants to make. A lot of the team was built from the ground up, meaning it shares almost no crossover with Respawn’s more core first-person shooter experts that worked on Titanfall and Apex Legends. “We’ve got ex-God of War veterans, people from Uncharted, from Metal Gear, a lot of people from the Batman series,” he says. “So we’ve built a team of very experienced individuals who have worked on action-adventure games.”
In my brief time with the game, that experience showed. Fallen Order feels like a hybrid of some of the best game ideas of the moment. It has a seamless storytelling style that almost never takes you out of the action. It also does a great job of blending role-playing elements with traditional adventure ones, much like the 2018 God of War helmed by Cory Barlog, who Asmussen replaced on God of War 3 before Barlog retuned to reboot the series at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio.
In one scene during my closed-doors demo, the Respawn employee guiding the early portion swam up to the feet of a roaming AT-AT in the midst of battle, climbed the vines growing on its legs, and infiltrated the cockpit. From there, he was guiding the enormous machine himself, making use of its blasters and cutting through the enemy’s forces to meet with Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker, reprising his role from Rogue One). It was the type of scene that, had it been in a God of War game from 10 years ago, might have been a quick-time event, but has been fine-tuned and more carefully crafted to resemble the spectacular set piece moments of a newer Uncharted title.
Fallen Order’s combat is also slow, methodical, and requires a fair amount of strategy and creative thinking. It’s reminiscent of a FromSoftware game. In particular, Fallen Order lightsaber battles are a lot like dueling in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game Asmussen says his whole development team realized was very similar in style to their own, albeit much more hardcore and difficult.
Combat is slow and methodical, like a FromSoftware game
In particular, you can’t just charge into battle and, as Asmussen puts it, lay waste to everything in your path. The grounded approach Asmussen mentions means that the lightsaber feels more realistically destructive, as it does in the original trilogy, but you have to earn that finishing blow by beating down your enemies’ defenses. That involves a mix of Force powers, like pushing and pulling and Cal’s signature Force Slow, and parrying or dodge rolling and countering. But when you do go in for the signature lightsaber strike, Cal pulls off a devastating series of finishing moves that feel organic and varied depending on the enemy type and Cal’s position relative to them.
Once I got the hang of the pace of the combat, and how to mix and match various Force abilities and physical maneuvers, I felt truly powerful and steadily made my way through multiple enemies; it felt like a flashy, flawless action movie sequence.
Of course, the game pushes back against your power in some key ways. You have a limited number of health recharges, similar to Dark Souls, which can be restored only by resting at a meditation spot, which doubles as a save and skill tree access point. Your Force meter also drains quickly. Getting overzealous with the Force Pull or lightsaber throw means you’ll be stuck turning and running from your enemies until you feel prepared to duel with them and try to pull off a parry or finishing strike. Only through physical combat can you restore your Force meter.
This approach to combat has the effect of turning your Jedi into a kind of samurai or knight, which is the historical analog Star Wars originally intended for these warriors. I felt most effective when drawing enemies into a tighter line and taking them on in individual bouts, using my Force powers as critical last resorts to close a gap or give myself distance, either by moving my body or pushing and pulling the enemy. You won’t feel like a Jedi superhero, as Obi-Wan and Anakin seemed in the prequel films, at least not fully. But Fallen Order makes you feel in control of your abilities in a way that seems more earned and satisfying.
The final influence, and one Asmussen pointed out directly, are the crop of “Metroidvania” games that have steadily taken over the indie scene. Fallen Order is a traditional action-adventure game with some light role-playing elements, like branching dialog options and real-time cutscene-style events that play out in the background as you explore. But Respawn is peppering in some nice touches in the design of its game world and the puzzles you’ll solve when you’re not engaging in combat to give it the kind of depth you get in a game like Hollow Knight.
“We hold ourselves accountable. We have a really high bar, as well as Lucasfilm.”
For instance, every planet you encounter can be revisited, and secrets are hidden on the ground that are only accessible by gaining new Force powers and abilities for your droid buddy BD-1. There are also no waypoints in the game. BD-1 can project a map that will give you clues as to where to go, but you’ll only find the right path by exploring. And occasionally, Fallen Order will put you through an intensive loop to unlock a new skill or ability that then opens up multiple paths to explore, some with main story implications and others that are more like sidequests.
Star Wars games, especially story-driven ones, have a lot of fan expectations, both from those who long for the days of Knights of the Old Republic and from the diehard fans who are protective of it in all forms of media. When EA canceled its other story-driven title, from EA Vancouver and Uncharted lead Amy Hennig, the disappointment within the community was palpable. EA’s stewardship of the Star Wars license has also been rife with controversy, extending beyond the fumbling of single-player games to the microtransaction mess of Star Wars Battlefront II.
Asmussen recognizes this, as well as the immense weight Respawn shoulders with this game. “We hold ourselves accountable. We have a really high bar, as well as Lucasfilm,” he says. “That’s why we wanted to tell something that was new, not leaning on things that have a lot of expectations attached to them.” Cal might be canon, and in a period of the series recognizable to even casual fans, but Asmussen says Respawn is dedicated to establishing new ground for Star Wars games with Fallen Order.
“I’m a big believer that the galaxy of Star Wars has some of the best ingredients.”