The first time I really feel the power of the lightsaber in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is within precisely three swings. My hands-on sees me heading to a new planet called Zeffo, and as soon as I start exploring this world, I come across two rat-like creatures gnawing on different ends of a Stormtrooper. While I don’t feel bad for them, I have to act quickly as the Scazz (their official name) see hero Cal as the next meal. Three swings of the lightsaber sees one of the poor critters carved in half. While it’s a bit icky, it’s exactly how you hoped the lightsaber would feel.
But the buzz of playing this doesn't begin and end with the thrum of the lightsaber. It’s in the meticulously crafted levels that have paths that weave into unexpected places, the way Cal can nimbly move through the world, and in the way that Force powers become handy tools that help achieve the daydream of every Star Wars fan: Becoming a Jedi.
Let’s rewind a little. The hands-on starts early in the game, around Chapter 2, as Cal takes his first steps as a Jedi. He’s leaving the planet of Bogano, with Cere Junda, another Jedi who survived Order 66, and Greez Dritus, captain of the ship you’ll be using to explore the galaxy. After a brief bit of exposition, Cal is given a choice of which planet to head to next: Zeffo or Dathomir (a planet fans of the wider canon will recognise). I plump for Zeffo, and watch Greez put the ship into hyperspace, enjoying the crotchety pilot’s banter while admiring the view from the cockpit.
Once I land on the planet, it initially looks a little like The Last Jedi’s Ahch-To, with rocky terrain and hints of greenery underneath patches of snow. The task of exploring this new planet and finding an ancient Zeffonian Temple is quickly set, but any hope of finding friendly faces are dashed when I see the aforementioned Scazz trying to munch on a Stormtrooper. A few swings of the lightsaber sorts them out and I get to have a proper look around Zeffo.
Exploration is a key part of the game, arguably just as important as the lightsaber, and what makes these early moments engaging is how Zeffo winds off in so many different directions, some immediately accessible, others that need different Force powers to unlock.
An early example of how it pays to search for secrets sees me peeling off a rocky pathway and into a cave on the right. Cal can use his lightsaber to light up dark areas by holding the block button, allowing a path towards a secret upgrade to become visible. We creep along it and claim the upgrade that gives our adorable companion droid BD-1 an extra health stim.
While I almost stumbled blindly into this area, checking the map regularly allows you to spot places you may have missed, alongside areas you can’t yet access. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is very much a Metroidvania in that sense and lead level designer Jeff Magers explains how this will work in the game, “You gain new abilities on one planet that then feeds back into the other planets, unlocking whole new regions that are surprising and you weren't expecting when you first went to that planet”.
Of course, no matter which way you go on Zeffo, you’re bound to come across something you’ll need to fight. The good news is that it feels fantastic to wield a lightsaber in fights. One of the terms the team has used is ‘thoughtful combat’, and it’s a handy phrase to describe it. Mashing your attack button might land a few lucky hits, but it will leave you incredibly open to attacks and waste an incredibly varied system.
Take an early section where Cal wanders into an abandoned village. This multi-levelled area has dozens of Stormtroopers to take on, and the choice is yours on how to approach it. I decide to take one out early by sneaking up to a ledge and jumping down on them, with an insta-kill attack my reward. In the distance, two troopers notice their buddy's untimely demise and start blasting away, while more start to run over. The numbers aren’t in Cal’s favour.
Fortunately, he has a few tricks to even the odds. Firstly, our lightsaber can both block and parry attacks depending on the timing. With blaster fire, a block will see the bolt fly off at an angle, while a parry will take out the trooper who fired at you. Chaining a few of these together will make you feel like a Jedi Master as the audible fizz from bolt-on-saber pings away each time.
The troopers running over to me have shock batons that will give Cal something different to worry about. Both Cal and the majority of his foes have a white bar that shows how much block damage they can take. Blocking will decrease your gauge, whereas parrying will deplete your enemies’ bar, giving you a window to attack in.
Lead level designer Jeff Magers touches on this when I ask him what one thing the team had to get right on the game, saying “It has to feel good to swing your lightsaber. It was really important to us to make it feel authentic and what that means to me is a stormtrooper should die in one hit. The challenge of that from a gameplay perspective is that usually in melee game, you want to hit the character multiple times to feel good. [If it’s] one hit just going through everything, you'll feel overpowered and it'll be a little boring."
But what if the stormtrooper takes Cal out? A new system that this demo revealed is Restore. You’ll lose your XP (which is used for upgrades) to that enemy and have to get a hit on them when you respawn into the game to get it back, in a very Bloodborne-esque system. Yes, there are some clear From Software influences here, but that doesn’t mean this is derivative. It has a flow that is deliberate, demanding, and distinct thanks to the lightsaber, and the systems in play feel slightly kinder without being too easy.
Use the Force
When it comes to Force powers, I only have one at the start of my time on Zeffo, which is Slow. This enables you to temporarily freeze enemies and objects in their place. In a fight, it’s a handy way of buying yourself time to use a stim from BD-1 or creating a window of opportunity to build up to a stronger Force attack that takes a few moments to charge. While other powers will be able available later in the game, this one gave us plenty of ways of engaging with combat and exploring levels.
Those Force powers also play a part in the game's platforming. After clearing out the abandoned village and moving further into Zeffo to find the Temple, there are a multitude of tests that combine our Force powers and good ol’ dexterity. One moment sees Cal halting a turbine that is unhelpfully blocking a path. By slowing the whirring platforms, you can hop between the shuddering wheels, giving Cal enough time to find safety before hopping onto the next one.
That’s nothing compared to what puzzles you’ll face once you make it to the Temple you’ve been hunting for. While the first half of Zeffo is an open area that puts the focus on combat and exploration, once in the Temple of Eilrom, the emphasis shifts onto solving puzzles to unlock a new Force power, Push.
The imposing underground temple is full of ancient contraptions you need to figure out if you're going to progress. In the one I spelunk through, we need to master the wind that blows throughout the tomb. Sometimes, it means opening up valves built into the wall to push giant balls to the places they need to be. Other times, it involves lining up jumps in ways that a gust will take you onto the platform you’re aiming for.
This is all just a prelude to gaining a new Force power, and once I unlock Push, it completely changes what I can do in the tomb. This power does what it says, pushing objects (and later, foes) away from Cal, and can be used to open up passageways in the short term.
This also leads to more – pleasingly complex – puzzles that tie everything we’ve learned in the temple together. The whole section is a pleasing change of pace, and one that proves just as rewarding as the time spent slashing through enemies earlier.
If Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order can be easily summed up by its influences – a dash of From Software-esque combat, a pinch of Tomb Raider’s environmental puzzles, a splash of Respawn’s own platforming antics – that doesn’t mean it’s defined by them. Instead, all these elements add up to the Star Wars adventure that might well be the one we’ve been dreaming of for years, that captures the series’ spectacle and heart, while also being a great game in its own right.
And don't forget to get your Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order pre-order in before the November 15 release date.