Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Can Play The Hits And Little Else

Games Reviews Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Can Play The Hits And Little Else

A few years ago, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order came along and rekindled a faded relationship I had with the series, which had spent years spiraling in both interesting and disappointing ways to that point. It sparked an ember that itself sputtered from time to time thanks to a rough foundation, but showed promise that it could grow into something grander and bolder. After some years, we’ve finally gotten the sequel, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, which I can confidently say is grander than ever, though I don’t know how much bolder it’s actually become.

Survivor is a very typical sequel in many of the ways that folks who loved Fallen Order would hope for. It’s got more expansive abilities and skill trees, more stances than ever to mix up gameplay, bigger worlds to explore and better feeling exploration to accompany that scale, as well as great depth to its customization. It’s also a blockbuster game, so the game looks predictably gorgeous. If you’re a story person, there’s more interesting characters to get to know and for what it’s worth, Survivor offers up morsels of an interesting direction through them and the game’s narrative. However, in so many ways, Survivor also feels stuck in some sort of pattern that it can’t possibly break free of over the approximately 30 hours I spent playing it. Call it the powers that be, fate, or destiny. Hell, call it the Force if you really want to, but something keeps Survivor stuck in the past. So while it can play the hits, it can’t do much else on its own.

When we pick back up on Cal Kestis’ journey in Survivor, our boy’s a bit lost. He’s been separated from the crew that players got to know in Fallen Order, and he’s fighting a fight that feels endless. Having known nothing but his war against the Empire, he rages on, but with no explicit direction or imperative until he chances upon one on the planet Koboh, which becomes central to a struggle older than Cal and most of his companions. As this conflict grows, Cal sets about getting the band back together, and along the way is joined by new companions that help him meet this new and also ancient threat. Zee (an ally) and Dagan Gera (an antagonist), both characters displaced out of time for reasons players will come to find out, are the best of these additions, with Gera in particular pointing to an ideological split that starts forming the cracks in the foundation of a time period—the High Republic—that the series has barely scratched the surface of. In truth, my greatest desire coming out of this game is to see more of that era in Star Wars, though I would prefer if the game already being developed in it weren’t being made by Quantic Dream.

Cal is also joined by Bode Kunda, who injects a welcome amount of charming rogue energy to the formula, and occasionally accompanies you into battle. Along the way, Cal reconnects with Greez, Merrin, and Cere from Fallen Order, and seeing them come together often leads to the game’s better and quieter moments. The fact that these relationships are as front and center as they are in this blockbuster is one of Survivor‘s greatest saving graces, and the way in which some of them complicate by the end points to a different direction than I would’ve expected for the inevitable third game that will follow this one in a few years. It is a shame then that on the way to this conclusion, and throughout the game, Survivor squanders its premise—finding a place free from the Empire’s grasp or knowledge, thereby free from the conflicts and dynamics that have always defined Star Wars—as it trips on themes and tropes found in both the larger franchise and games of late. Survivor briefly dares to dream of a world outside of its usual mode of thinking, before getting dragged kicking and screaming back towards it.

This familiarity extends to Survivor‘s gameplay, which builds upon the foundations of Fallen Order without really addressing the baggage it came with. Cal gains some new Force powers, like the ability to lift and slam enemies, as well as new stances, my favorite of which—as a Zweihander kind of guy—gave me powerful but heavy swings and a saber reminiscent of Kylo Ren’s. The former of these, and by extension most of the force abilities, feel really muted in combat without significant upgrades with the exception of the Jedi Mind Trick, which allows you to eventually confuse up to two enemies but is plenty useful even in its nascent forms. The stances, which dictate various aspects of your Cal, such as his strength, speed, and defense, are a welcome expansion, allowing for a multitude of methods for players to approach combat, even if some fall flat to me. Both are valid avenues for growth in a sequel, but in its scaling, Survivor‘s encounters also grow a little too unwieldy for either to sufficiently untangle its mess.

Combat in Survivor never quite comes together gracefully. While I won’t sit here and say every fight is bigger, a lot certainly are and throw in a greater variety of enemies, all generally faster than Cal, who sticks to targets and plods his way through animations to connect his blows. Cal, who is broadly over animated and stunlocks very easily, constantly falls on his backfoot, especially on higher difficulties as onslaughts of elite enemies all more lithe than him bear down. Early on, especially considering I had no powerful stances that could knock out enemies’ postures more effectively, combat outright felt bad and I felt especially powerless. So many encounters kind of just messily ended, not because they were hard-fought and meaningful challenges, but because the game seemed to think it gave me more effective tools than it actually had and I was barely scraping by because of that error in judgment.

[A note on difficulty in the Star Wars Jedi games: both Fallen Order and Survivor have a range of difficulty options that affect very specific settings. The settings it affects are parry timing, incoming enemy damage, and enemy aggression. I played the game on the second highest difficulty, so I know I purposefully made the game harder. However, it felt like reporting that these approaches to difficulty felt punitive and poorly considered. At times, it simply broke the rules of the game in unfair ways, like AI queuing attacks that’d hit me while I was in command grabs, or that’d connect the second I broke out of them. Suffice to say, it’s certainly doable but not recommended for players who might be looking for a fair challenge.]

Some new moves and flashy animations aside, the rules of engagement largely stay the same in the often bigger sequel, which is especially disappointing when it comes to arenas and boss fights. Most of both are flat, often happening in plain rooms that rarely take advantage of your Force-granted athleticism and new techniques to do anything other than, once again, play the hits. Slice and dice your way through grunts, take out some elites, rinse and repeat. One-on-one boss standoffs happen in circular arenas so often the shape starts to feel like a damn omen. It’s a little stunning how little Survivor dares to dream up sequences (that aren’t on rails) which empower you to do more than the same thing we’ve been doing for two lengthy games now.

Where the game does sing a slightly better tune is in its exploratory half. If one half of the equation is the almost Souls-ish combat, the other is its tendency to build 3D Metroid spaces to find and come back to when you unlock new abilities. Exploration in Survivor is mostly tied to rumors, which are passed onto Cal by NPCs on Koboh who frequent Pyloon’s Saloon, Greez’s new business venture and a dive bar that you fill with characters recruited from around the handful of planets you get to see in Survivor. Different characters will issue you certain quests (like Mosey who gives you monster hunting tips) and the completion of these will often reward you with currency, upgrades, or customization options. (While I won’t significantly touch on customization here, I did feel I owed it to the game to at least say it is way better than the ponchos of the last game and miles deeper.) On more than one occasion, you’ll be going through what are essentially mini-dungeons, using abilities you slowly unlock to plumb the depths of deeper networks of caves or discover more secrets across some of the fairly expansive worlds.

Koboh in particular is Survivor’s tour de force, a setting you keep coming back to alongside its shattered moon and the planet of Jedha. Every time you return to Koboh, you are tasked with setting off in a new direction, revealing whole regions of the map that are arguably on par with smaller worlds across this game and its predecessor. Koboh is truly massive and contains even more than I could stand to see before wrapping my review, including a garden you can build, a fish tank to develop alongside a long-winded companion, and a holo game to play. As you discover its secrets, you’ll even uncover High Republic Jedi chambers that function much like a shrine in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Though there are much fewer here to be found, they still come in varying shapes and sizes and have different goals. Alongside the rumors and returning bounty hunter system, they formalize a structure to the side content of the game and flesh out the world and side characters a bit more. This side of the game winds up being leagues more enjoyable than the combat, and I would sign up for a game about Cal being a Force-sensitive spelunker/archaeologist unraveling long hidden secrets over the action-centric titles we’ve gotten thus far.

That’s because the fantasy that these Jedi games aim to peddle is ultimately incredibly vanilla. Put a lightsaber in a fan’s hands and they will swing it to their heart’s content after all. It’s all they know to do with it following the weapon’s iconic legacy throughout the films. They want to recreate the feeling of Maul’s two-on-one duel from The Phantom Menace or the high stakes of either of Kenobi’s climactic encounters with Anakin. It turns out all along that the thing holding Survivor back is the Jedi of it all, right there in the title and promise of the game. It can’t possibly break free of being this vehicle for wish fulfillment enough to do something for itself, something that doesn’t put it in lockstep with the movements of Star Wars at large. And so despite some steps forward, Survivor finally settles for falling back in line and humming an all-too familiar tune.

Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.

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