A Massive But Special Sequel

A Massive But Special Sequel

The last several decades of Star Wars video games have been spotty, to say the least. 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was a rare standout, a big adventure from one of the world’s biggest publishers that still felt bold and experimental. A lot has happened since then, and now a sequel, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, is back with more, more, and more.

A lot of the edge Fallen Order had isn’t here, but that’s a product of time; AAA games playing footsie with Dark Souls was more novel back then. Instead, developer Respawn Entertainment took what worked before and went all in, stomping on the gas and fully committing to the story and characters we met before. Survivor feels huge, dense, and super got-dang expensive, and after just a few hours of playing the game’s action-packed intro on Coruscant (I skipped that part during the press preview), its heart-stopping 150GB download size started making sense.

Screenshot: Respawn Entertainment / Kotaku

Despite playing for around 30 hours before seeing Survivor’s credits, I ended up leaving much of its world(s) unexplored. This is an ambitious Metroidvania that straddles the line between meticulous level design and open-world map game, that also desperately wants to tell a profound Star Wars story about found family, faulty institutions, and the personal costs of resistance. You also get to chat with a Scottish slug-man about fishing, maintain a garden on the roof of a grungy saloon, and play dress-up with Cameron Monaghan. I definitely felt the bloat at times (especially near the end), but between the effective emotional core at the narrative’s heart and the game’s fast and heavy platforming action, Survivor showed up ready to work.

The band doesn’t always get back together

We’re reunited with Cal Kestis five years after the events of Fallen Order, and it’s not exactly a happy reunion. The Scooby Gang from the first game has broken up, due to events only hinted at in the game. The novel Battle Scars from Sam Maggs fills in those blanks, but you don’t need to know exactly what happened to understand it probably sucked. Cal, now piloting Greez Dritus’ Mantis ship by himself, has been working with Saw Gerrera to undermine the Empire at every opportunity, but is struggling with a lack of results. But before he can contend with burnout, he’s forced to crash-land on backwater planet Koboh after a mission goes sour and the Mantis is damaged.

Cal Kestis looks at a tactical map displaying the location of the Mantis ship and surrounding landmarks.

Screenshot: Respawn Entertainment / Kotaku

On Koboh, not only is Cal reunited with Greez, he stumbles into a conflict that’s been brewing since the days of the High Republic. Throughout the story Cal is forced to confront the dark side of the Jedi Order (figuratively and literally), and reconcile a looming fissure between wanting to stand up to the Empire and a growing desire to build a life with his found family. Star Wars’ longstanding theme of balance on an existential scale runs parallel with the more human conundrum of finding (and even defining) value in balance on a personal level. And to its credit, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is honest enough to grasp at a bunch of questions and answer “I don’t know,” in a way that feels genuine rather than like the kind of fence-sitting that games at this scale tend to lean into.

It really feels like I’m a sad and tired Jedi

The skeleton holding all that narrative muscle together is an interstellar Metroidvania adventure comprising several locations, but none as massive as Koboh. Introduced as a rural backwater full of prospectors and criminals, Koboh becomes a bustling hub that not only houses the bulk of Survivor’s side content, but also acts as a sort of funnel toward major story beats. It’s an interesting vibe, almost like Metroid Prime minus the jarring biome shifts. Excursions to other locations vary in size and scope, as Survivor’s story isn’t structured the same way Fallen Order’s was in terms of locations as “levels,” so to speak.

Weirdly enough I found this approach reminiscent of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (shoutouts to the OoE sickos out there). I’ve seen disappointment from peers on this part, since exploring different planets was a big attraction in the first game. But I appreciated Survivor’s focus on building up a singular location in the Metroidvania tradition, with the additional locations adding variety and flavor without demanding proportionate time investment, especially since Survivor has a slight padding problem in its later hours, during which I felt the escalating story was interrupted by chunks of “gameplay for the sake of gameplay.” It was frustrating to be so invested in the goings-on just to come to a screeching halt to deal with an hour of bouncing around on space balloons.

Cal Kestis is held in the air and choked by a menacing droid.

Screenshot: Respawn Entertainment / Kotaku

You may not be running around a bunch of different planets, but there’s certainly no lack of running around to do. And it feels great to do so, even if there were times I wanted the game to just get on with it and wrap up a few hours earlier. I may have resented those space balloons for impeding my path to the ending, but I have to admit they were fun. Cal Kestis is a hell of an acrobat in Jedi: Survivor, with much more speed and weight to his movements than in Fallen Order. He’s also more capable from the get-go, instead of forcing you to slog through the usual trope of having to re-learn everything.

With a bag of new tricks to learn along the way, some truly badass setpieces are spun around what can be boiled down to a nerdy guy jumping on rocks. There’s one sequence in particular that would unfortunately anger the Spoiler Police to get into, but it follows a notably excruciating puzzle and was so sick I completely forgave the game entirely for its heinous crime. It’s a testament to how rock-solid Survivor’s fundamentals are.

More money, more problems. And more cool stuff too

Perhaps predictably, Survivor is less rock-solid on a technical level. It’s important to note I was playing a review build of the game ahead of a day-one patch, and I imagine whatever problems that persist after that will eventually be smoothed over as well. Nevertheless, throughout my time with the PlayStation 5 version I experienced a routinely unstable frame rate, multiple crashes, and occasional glitchy tomfoolery (mostly the fun kind). I’ve heard each version has its own set of performance woes, but you’ll have to seek out individual perspectives on that front. Overall though, after fiddling with my TV and settling the game to favor a solid 30fps over an unstable 60fps, things were fine far more often than not. A game this massive is gonna come with rough edges out of the gate, and it could have been a lot worse, at least on PS5.

What really stands out to me after playing Star Wars Jedi: Survivor all the way through is how it manages to tell what feels like a focused, grounded story about a single person. If you sift through all the messiness inherent to such a massive project, you can really see all the effort put into making Cal Kestis not just a more interesting character to play as, but making his presence felt in this universe. Star Wars prequels often suffer from having to reset the board, so to speak, because everything has to lead to the “Everyone is Dead” setting established in the movies. There’s some of that here of course, but the writers found a clever way to subvert it, with a conflict that doesn’t need to have galaxy-shattering ramifications to feel crucial for both the characters and the player.

All the problems Star Wars Jedi: Survivor has are clearly and unsurprisingly tied to its ridiculous scope. There’s stuff piled on top of stuff, and not all of it feels substantial, fully baked, or in some cases functional. But the foundation Respawn laid in Fallen Order is still here, and everything about Survivor that’s connected really shines. The characters are more fleshed out and their conflicts are compelling and relatable. The level design is appreciably authored in that way that makes “Metroidvania” a stupid-looking word that means so much. And when it comes to combat, there are so many different ways to brutalize droids and Stormtroopers, the combo video community will feast for years to come. It’s a hearty stew, even if you still have to watch the sodium.

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