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Review: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

9 May 2023

I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the Star Wars franchise, but not in the way that a lot of people are. There’s a certain curmudgeonly streak of people that have existed more or less since 1983 with a very specific idea in their minds about what the films, books, games, and so forth are supposed to be, which usually includes the large number of sequel comics and interquel content that just keeps filling the universe with more weird Force-users, more Jedi, and so forth. I never had any interest in it when I was younger and frankly found it overstuffed in a way you can only get when your source material is about six hours of film and you have to expand that into a functional universe.

So I was not at all curmudgeonly when Star Wars got bought by Disney and the powers in charge decided to jettison all of that and start fresh. But I am curmudgeonly about the fact that the change has meant… exactly the same stuff, only now nobody has to keep track of minutiae from the old batch of cruft that had been built up for thirty years. But it’s the same things, re-hashing the same things from the movies and the same settings.

It was with this attitude that I gave Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order a pass when it first came out. Yet now I find myself reviewing the sequel, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, which is another take on the basic concept of “we got Jedi in your soulslike, but more.” It’s out now on PC, Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5. I played the PC version. And if a week of coverage has made you read that last sentence and wince with reflexive worry… just keep reading!

We Have Luke Skywalker at Home

There is, at least theoretically, a plot summary of Fallen Order included with this game. It is not remotely helpful if you have not played that game; it is a disconnected series of clips. Probably a useful refresher if you’ve played that game a while back, though, and I’m glad it’s there; it just didn’t help me get up to speed.

Fortunately, knowledge of Star Wars means that it’s pretty easy to get up to speed anyway. Cal Kestis is a Jedi, he survived Order 66, and that means he’s running around being a Jedi but tormented and sad and knee-deep in the part of the story where we know there’s no real big victories to be had. The Jedi don’t really come back until Luke Skywalker shows up, and that means Cal and his efforts are just trying to be heroic in a universe where he’s just not going to win. But that’s fine. We don’t need to have a story where Cal resurrects the Jedi, just one where he’s a likable enough protagonist trying to make a difference around the margins.

And curmudgeon or no… we do generally get that. I’m trying to be gentle with the fact that there are some elements of the story I just don’t know about. For example, very early on there are some characters that get killed, but my lack of backstory means I don’t know if this was a sudden and unexpected death from a character we enjoyed all through the last game… or an early death of a doomed character we only just met a few moments ago. I’d believe either. The key to the story is Cal, though, and selling him as someone who’s not precisely world-weary but definitely is feeling the weight of feeling that he can’t accomplish anything.

It does, however, mean that we’re retreading ground from the old expanded universe and it increasingly shows that… well, the Jedi Purge was actually kind of a slapdash thing and an awful lot of Jedi still wound up kicking around after the Empire took over. And while I don’t want to spoil it, the game is lousy with “oh, here’s another Jedi.” Yes, I know, the Jedi were all over the place and consisted of more than like seven people, but it still reads kind of weird when supposedly all of them have been wiped out except for most of the cast of the game. But… it has to all be there, because we can’t explore the blank spaces in Star Wars, we have to occupy the narrow 60 years or so of the existing films (and more specifically the time that is bracketed by the original trilogy).

That’s not exactly a complaint, but it is there. If you basically want to see a story about how a Jedi survived after things fell apart, that’s precisely what this is about. Remarkably, Jedi: Survivor is about a Jedi survivor. And as a personal story about Cal where the game hopes your brain makes the happy chemicals at blaster sounds and lightsabers and droids, it works! But if you want something exploring new angles of the lore or new kinds of stories, you will be sorely disappointed.

But take that with a grain of salt. If you wanted to see more of Cal’s journey? This is solid and provides exactly that, and nitpicks and grouses do not change the fact that he gets a journey that goes into a lot of interesting and novel places.

Jedi Night-Night Time

It’s not fair to say that most of the game is gameplay and not story; it’s actually a pretty even split, to the points where moments when I died felt kind of odd just because it broke the narrative flow that was otherwise extremely tight. But the balance is pretty good, a firm mix of gameplay and story beats without either one taking over too much time, and the gameplay is a combination of light exploration and platforming and combat.

The light platforming is, honestly, pretty boring. The level design in this case sort of works against it. You can often see places where it looks like you can go in a direction counter to the implied direction you’re supposed to go; head over there and get a secret. These range from upgrade items for your abilities and such to codex entries, which thankfully are just shy of explaining what Star Wars is. But only just, and if you’ve long marinated in the content, I don’t think much of the lore presented by exploring will be terribly captivating.

No, it’s combat where the meat is, and it’s here that a problem arises insofar as… well, I do not care for parry-based combat systems. But Jedi: Survivor is almost entirely built around that. Time your parry just right to reflect a blaster bolt back at your opponent. Time your parry and then counterattack. You get the idea. Dodging is an option, but it’s generally a secondary one.

Why? Well, because every enemy (and Cal himself) has a block meter. If you just run in swinging, most enemies are going to block you, or they’re going to pepper you with blaster fire. Parrying and then counterattacking opens them up to let you get in some good swings. Of course, you also have to not overcommit; it’s possible to get so caught up in slashing away at a parried enemy that you don’t notice them recovering and blocking, and they can parry you right back.

Bolstering this is the fact that Cal gets access to five different stances across the game. A single saber, paired sabers, or a double-bladed saber are all familiar styles to basically every form of Star Wars content that involves lightsabers at this point. More distinct is using a blaster and a lightsaber for matching range, or mimicking Kylo Ren’s parry-heavy style. Since obviously Cal is always using a saber, having all five stances – and the ability to swap between them – keeps combat feeling fresh, especially with the asset of having skill points to invest and learn new abilities.

And let’s not forget that the game is pitched at a pretty good difficulty level, on a whole. You’ll die occasionally, there are sections that are tricky… but you rarely find yourself saying that you don’t know what happened. You know you got too aggressive, didn’t parry enough, and so forth. The lack of any on-screen stamina bar (or much in the way of builds beyond your skill points) also helps you feel in control of the flow of combat.

However… therein also lies a bit of a problem, or at least something that feels to me like a problem. Because at the end of the day, the combat feels much less like a chance to be the kind of Jedi you want than a chance to solve a number of combat puzzles.

Allow me to explain. To a certain extent, every game is going to have elements of this. You have to deal with a certain situation and thus you have to think about how you’re approaching it, just like platforming. But there’s a difference between “here is a space you need to get to, use the tools however you like to get over there” and “there is a path, once you see it that’s the only way forward.” Once you start seeing the latter, it becomes impossible not to notice it. And the best combat encounters are the ones that you can take on however you like, but far more often it feels like you’re supposed to go in with a specific approach, do specific things, and then you clear it.

Indeed, I felt like there were sections I made harder on myself just because I was like “I enjoy this style more so I’m going with that.” But it ties into the same basic issue the platforming has. There are certain walls Cal can wall-run on. You can’t wall-run on other types of wall. There are certain types of walls you can wall-jump on. There are grappling points. You get the idea. But you’re never set into a scenario wherein you have multiple ways of getting across an area; all of these abilities are functionally identical, because all of them are just “look for the place where you can move forward, and sometimes that means doing this navigational trick, but you’ll never pick between them.”

The Garbage Will Do

All right. So the game looks gorgeous… in the abstract. The graphics for this game were clearly made by people who worked hard to make the game look as Star Wars as a Star Wars can Star Wars, and it’s here again that I risk a potentially controversial opinion. Because the graphics look good, but they are way too resource-heavy… and they’re actually creating a world of plastic.

Like, early on, you wind up in a dingy backroom on Coruscant. From a pure modeling perspective, it’s gorgeous. Stacks of barrels and crates are all over the place. Tarps and rubbish are strewn hither and yon. It’s lovely. It has character. And you step forward with Cal, you swing your lightsaber, and you watch it pass effortlessly through all of this environmental detail without leaving so much as a scorch mark. You can’t interact with any of it. Not to destroy debris or anything, not even to just kick papers around. That pile of paper to one side is a purely decorative element, as impossible to alter as a pre-rendered background from the PlayStation era.

“Well, la-dee-da, how far up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs do you have to be before you complain that you can’t smash a crate in a video game?” And sure, I get that. These are video game environments. Destructible stuff is hard. But it just reinforces what I mentioned before. These environments are just places where you look for the next spot where you push a very specific button. You’re not smashing crates to get stuff (you can’t if you want to), you can’t interact with crates that aren’t specifically marked as “Interact With Me For A Thing.” You aren’t exploring a lovingly detailed world. You are exploring a hallway that has very pretty props, but they are glued down and spraypainted to prevent interaction.

And I’m sorry, but this should not be melting my GPU in order to do that.

I mentioned to our head of reviews at one point that I had to basically replace my GPU in order to play the game, and while that’s a touch hyperbolic (I wanted to replace it anyway) it’s only a touch. This game has beefy system requirements. Which, again, would be totally understandable if the environment was something unique, if you were exploring a rich open world full of stuff to do and corners to explore. But you’re not. You’re following linear hallways that are lovingly crafted but almost devoid of interactions while your GPU screams at you to please, let it take a little breather, it hurts.

Oh, and the options for handling the display are terrible. Do you have a multi-monitor display and want to put the game on a monitor other than your primary one? Go to hell. Do you want to set a lower render scale for your primary monitor on fullscreen windowed? Nothing doing. Want to run a benchmark or see recommended settings? The game hopes you enjoy getting nothing but contempt. It goes on like this.

That’s in addition to all of the charming I-cannot-believe-it-is-2023 bugs and inconsistencies and performance issues. For example, every single time I launched the game – and I do mean every time – it needed to take some time to “optimize files for my PC.” Between that and the loading screen logos for the studio and EA and so forth – which stutter – it generally meant that the time between launching the game and being able to actually click on the menu was between two-to-three minutes, far slower than any other game in my library, even the notoriously not-exactly-optimized-as-heck Cyberpunk 2077. And as I have mentioned before, I do not have a bad PC!

Also, sometimes fullscreen mode just won’t. I got into a very fun loop wherein the game launched in fullscreen mode but automatically lost focus during the launch, and then could not have focus restored without losing focus again. Which means that it’s two-to-three minutes to launch to the game not working… and you can’t fix it, because that would require the game working for you to change the options! The game actually generally hates you using keyboard instead of a controller; I persisted basically for no good reason, but it also featured such fun new experiences as the mouse not lining up where the cursor was, things that change not on click but when you hold down a keyboard option, and so forth.

Noting that the game has performance issues is, of course, nothing new; basically everyone who has played the game on PC has done so. But I haven’t seen a lot of discussion of the scope of these issues, and I want to stress that even with all of these issues sorted out, the game still doesn’t run great. It’s not like once I sorted all this stuff out the game worked well! There were frequent stutters during cutscenes and transitions in and out of fights, frames dropped, lag, and so forth.

I don’t like comparing one game to another. My general feeling is that if a game is not doing things well, that should be obvious without needing to point to some second element and say “see, look at how that game does it.” But when I fire up, say, Elden Ring… the game doesn’t try to melt my GPU, it has an open world with an environment I can interact with far more actively, it doesn’t care which control scheme I prefer, it doesn’t stutter, and I cannot say it really looks any less detailed or attractive than this game. The game has environments that look amazing, but like I said, they’re just painted on and are only really differentiated from PSX-era pre-rendered backgrounds by mechanical process and detail.

This has been entirely too much talking about graphics, I know. The voice acting is quite good, and the soundtrack is the same John Williams-adjacent score that you have heard in all sorts of Star Wars media by now. That’s not an insult, really, just a statement of fact. But it’s hard to really take all of this stuff in when you’re constantly fighting to get the game to be playable, and when that fight is an unforced error based on graphical overweight… it kind of gets to you.

Survives, but Limping

It’s possible that my experience with Star Wars Jedi: Survivor would have been much more positive if I had played on console instead of PC. Or if I had played the first game. Or if I had a different sort of approach to these games. There are lots of possibilities. But ultimately I have to review the game I’m actually handed, and the fact of the matter is that this game isn’t bad but doesn’t really stick to the ribs.

The story works but it has some notable flaws, and if you’re familiar with the property lots of it feels like familiar ground. The gameplay is solid enough but it’s very much about following a very strict path rather than going off in new directions. The visuals are afforded far too much weight and don’t actually work all that well beyond seeing quick snippets in trailers.

Which, when you look at it all in one go, might make this the most Star Wars game possible in all of Star Wars. I just wish that felt like a compliment.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Electronic Arts for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Electronic Arts.