Respawn serves up another slice of Jedi action, but is this the game you’re looking for?
There are many consolations to being Cal Kestis, the hero of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Sure, he’s on the run from the Galactic Empire, whose troops slog across a rim of dusty worlds, tracking him and his kind like bloodhounds. But look on the light side. In the new game, he gets to sport a mullet, which, given his status as a redhead, grants him the bushy air of an embarrassed squirrel. Pair that with the Rebel Hero jacket, in custard-yellow, and you can make it look as though the Empire were pursuing an extremely dangerous Aerosmith fan from 1980.
The sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, this new adventure sees Cal back in the saddle. The story opens five years on from the first game, with Cal on Coruscant – a grey and many-layered city, like a concrete lasagne. He is in handcuffs, prodded along by bounty hunters and dragged, at one point, by a no-nonsense droid. Needless to say, he will soon be sprung from captivity and go scampering across the interstellar vales, so these early moments – linear, narrow, and narratively locked – are a great chance to let the atmosphere seep in. The developer, once again, is Respawn Entertainment, whose artists throng every spare inch with touchable detail. Check out the regular folk who bustle down the alleys, and the light that leaks on them from the neon above.
I was reminded of another proud ginger outcast, who purred through similar surroundings, in last year’s Stray. Like the star of that game, Cal has powers beyond the ken of his would-be captors, and evades imprisonment by a whisker. He is aided by a squad of allies, among them the likable Bode, who wields a pair of pistols and does pretty much what comes naturally. Belonging, as he does, to a rebel cell, what comes naturally is shooting Stormtroopers right in their plastic breastplates and scooting through the air with a jetpack. All in all, he Bodes well.
After a heated chase, Cal scrapes away from Coruscant aboard his ship, the Mantis, which suffers an injury. “Gyro’s failing!” Cal says to BD-1, who, with its modem head and goggle eyes, is a dead ringer for Nintendo’s R.O.B. That clunky peripheral (short for Robotic Operating Buddy) hooked up to the NES and gave us such treasures as Stack-up and Gyromite – the latter of which would surely have come in handy here. In similar fashion, BD-1 plugs into the plot, giving Cal moral and tactical support. The story, liberally strewn with MacGuffins, spins around a hidden planet, which could serve as a haven to the galaxy’s lost Jedi. Let it spin, as far as I’m concerned. The truth is, we crave a failing gyro, the better for Cal to barrel onwards to wild new reaches, taking in the sights and hacking down foes.
This time around, the sights include Koboh, a rugged lump of brown and green, on which we land in search of ship parts; and Jedha, which viewers of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may recognise as a holy Jedi hangout. We don’t get quite the range of locations that we did before, but Respawn makes up for it with sheer sprawl. Koboh is vast and cavernous, with side missions stashed in its plentiful nooks. Once again, a debt is owed to Metroid Prime, not just for the way that progress hinges on tight platforming and newly unearthed abilities, but for the spit and crackle of its holographic map. As for the hacking, the combat has the same hum and smoulder as last time, all lopped appendages and hissing impalements.
For the clashes, Respawn struck on a similar system to that of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, wherein you bat away your enemies’ attacks with good timing and go for the killer blow. I was surprised, then, at how steep the developer was willing to pitch the challenge, and here I fancy that it feels a little easier. For one thing, you have more options. If you want to get thoroughly uncivilised, then you can opt for the blaster-and-blade combo. Plus, Cal now has the power to pull off mind tricks, whisking his opponents’ thoughts into a runny scramble and coaxing them to manhandle their comrades.
Respawn also dishes up an array of new adversaries. My personal favourite is the B1 battle droids, which clatter toward you like an army of cream-coloured stick insects. We also have the droidekas, who curl, like woodlice, into armoured balls and rumble forth. Both will be known to fans of the prequel trilogy; indeed, much of the developer’s brief seems to have been to peer into those cobwebbed corners of the saga for the sake of retro chic. “What I would give to see a glimpse of that galaxy,” says Cal, musing on a time before the Empire, and tapping into the wishes of devout ranks of prequel apologists. If your heart leaps at the spectacle of a Lucrehulk-class battleship, trusty stalwart of the Trade Federation, then this is the game for you.
The chief villain, for a good chunk of the run time, is Rayvis, which sounds like a brand of cheap bread but is in fact the fanged and purple leader of a gang of brutes, called the Bedlam Raiders. The baddies are the weak link here, but the good news is that they are bad, though and through, which frankly comes as a relief of late. Too often these days we are asked to grapple with the full spectrum of moral greys that cling to the characters like a fog; or to TV shows and movies that don a mock darkness and try to behave like serious thrillers. Where Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and its predecessor score is that they keep in mind that it might be an idea to swing a laser sword now and then.
The advantage that games have, when it comes to Star Wars, is their need for mechanical thrills. The storytelling, by definition, has to take a back seat to the action. (Though, I live in trepidation of Quantic Dream’s upcoming “Star Wars Eclipse,” which will likely operate under the heavy reign of damp drama.) Given that George Lucas went about his creative task with the sale of toys at least partially on his mind at all times, one could argue that video games are the perfect forum for the series. Cal Kestis may be part of a satisfying and solidly delivered fiction, with plenty of dialogue to boot, but at heart he is an action figure – defined by play, and most expressive when swinging his weapon and running across walls. Respawn Entertainment has delivered a bright and assured blockbuster that makes Disney’s efforts seem not only puffed up but ground down, in their demand for cohesion and submission. If you miss the bad hair and the robes, the wackier plots, and the showdowns that would explode into a blinding blur of choreography; in short, if you long for the way things used to be, here is a glimpse of that galaxy.
Game: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Platform: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Out Now