A Blast from the Past special edition review
FBT remembers playing on the carpet with plastic toys.
The Star Wars Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series might be my favourite franchise of all time. Unlike most series’, JK just got better as it went; Dark Forces might have been just a Doom clone and Jedi Knight a serviceable shooter with some cringey FMV, but Jedi Outcast was a tour-de-force; a solid FPS with a brilliant story, great villain (a T-Rex with a lightsaber, come on!), lightsaber battles and force-powers turned up to 11. I recall realising I’d largely stopped using blasters and thermal detonators and was prancing about like a fully-fledged Jedi. The final entry, Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy was a little more uneven, dropping series regular Kyle Katarn for a Padawan sent on milk-runs, but the Lightsaber had been perfected. DF/JK knew what SW meant to you as a kid, playing as either Luke or Han - the series let you be both, it was childhood re-enactments come to digital life (dictated by which toys you got for Christmas. Still waiting on that Death Star with working trash compactor, Santa).
The JK series also pioneered moral choices; it was up to you how light or dark you became but it wasn’t sign-posted. You only found out after each level how light or dark you’d been, and each game refreshed and refined your descent or ascent. I always wound up being a goody goody, but Emperor Katarn had a ring to it … even if the next game always assumed you’d followed the Light path. Going back to replay them all has Blast(er) written all over it. May the fond memories be with us.
Still a Blast?
The rumour was that Dark Forces began when Lucas heard about the Doom mod StarDoom, and saw a chance at even more of our pocket-money. Lucasarts were ordered to reverse-engineer Doom and the result was Star Wars Dark Forces (1995).
Kyle Katarn, an ex-Empire officer turned Han Solo stan, is hired to recover the Death Star plans then discover the truth behind the rumours of ‘Dark Troopers’, shooting his way through various movie and extended universe (sorry, Legends) locations. It’s a standard Doom era experience, and while there’s some improvements over Doom that’s not what we want. I don’t care I can look up or down, I care that I’m not terrified, exhilarated. I do feel Star Wars-ey but I’m jonesing for Doom or Duke - it feels like a kid’s game; Doom was shared around the playground like rumours about the Faces of Death video - Dark Forces is clean, safe and your parents would approve; no demons or bleeding Imp anuses in sight.
Besides the blandness in attitude, DF is a bland game to look at for the most part. It’s very muted, claustrophobic and blocky as hell. Whereas Doom, Blood or Duke work well enough to see past the bad graphics and basic controls, DF isn’t Star Wars enough or Doom enough to get past how bloodlessly derivative it is. It tries to be Star Wars, giving us digitised clips from the movies, but once we’re past the kind of cut scenes that make you want to replay Monkey Island, its back to FPS-lite; it feels designed by someone who’s played Doom, but didn’t get Doom. By not being SW or Doom, it winds up being a bit nothing, trading on my memories of Star Wars as a kid – if it had set on a 1970s carpet it would have been a classic.
The series isn’t off to the best start and while I wasn’t expecting much, I expected more than this. Up next though is where things got real. Like FMV real.
Thankfully, DF was a huge success and Lucasarts listened to the fan feedback, dumping the Doom-cloning and let the series find its own voice. Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (1997) gave us what we wanted and FMV, which we didn’t. Fantastic in principle, Full Motion Video was intended to side-step the still basic graphics of the era, replace them with real actors. It was shocking, like 80s 3D bad and the problems weren’t just down to how they worked within video games – the budget, acting and scenes were classic Acorn Antiques; nowadays actors are used to being convincing during a greenscreen scene but back then, their lack of faith was disturbing. No even Lucasarts could crack it and it drains most of the drama when you’re watching actors looking slightly off-centre.
Our villain, Dark Jedi Jerec (who would be chewing scenery if there were any) murdered Kyle’s Pa while searching for the lost Valley of the Jedi, hoping it’ll imbue him with enough force power to kickstart the Empire (while Dark Forces was pre-Star Wars, the Jedi Knight series was Post-Jedi, no idea what Kyle got up to during those years). Kyle discovers he has force powers and must balance his new-found abilities with his desire for revenge.
JK is actually a cracking FPS. Way better than I remembered. I’d avoided it in favour of Jedi Outcast on replays, but I missed out. The first third is largely battling the extras from the Mos Eisley cantina, and no longer constrained by DF’s flat maze-runs, the levels are complex, with a huge amount of height and depth - scum and villainy are everywhere, alongside peaceful NCPs. We’re running through cities, cantinas, space-ports, warehouses; then later racing across parapets while tie-bombers take off, dealing with Stormtroopers, Officers, Interrogation and Probe droids in Imperial Bases with patrolling AT-ST. Some areas do drag, like Kyle’s family home which is largely platforming while being harassed by giant mozzies, and later levels aboard a Star Destroyer fall into linear run n’ gun, but for the most part, JKDFII is exactly what we want from a SW shooter – it’s perfectly balanced, ramping up the difficultly yet maintains the sheer fun of being in Star Wars. It’s great how purely exciting a twenty-year-old game can still be; CoD WWII takes up an eye-watering 90gb of disk space; JK is … 730mb and it’s 100 times a more enthralling, involving experience; volumetric dynamic shading whatevers don’t matter when you have a trusty blaster at your side, kid. And we had more than that this time.
The biggest change is the lightsaber. While it makes short work of the stormtroopers you are leaving yourself open; Kyle can deflect the occasional laser bolt but getting close enough to a Stormtrooper to cut him down usually means sacrificing your shield and since they’re rarely alone, it’s a dangerous tactic. Realistically, the saber is only for Jerec’s mini bosses and you’ll need more than a Lightsaber to take them out. You need the patience of a Yoda.
After a FMV cutscene hyping the mini-boss, we’re into a stand-off; who can button-mash the most. It’s not quite the balletic parry-riposte you’d hope for, besting the Dark Jedi is luck - but in my experience there’s no such thing as luck. Just a lot of reloading. But they’re all pretty cool opponents, using force powers as well as sabers and a standout is a MasterBlaster-like duo that’s harder than fighting with the blast shield down. Alongside the lightsaber, the force powers are also a little clunky; you have to chose to use force jump for example, but it’s not long before you’re force choking Stormtroopers, pulling their weapons away or shoving them about. Of course, all the fun stuff comes at a price.
Using dark Jedi powers increases your leaning toward the Dark side while not attacking NCPs and using light side powers keeps things Light. It’s a well done dynamic and the dark side is indeed quicker, easier. It’s inevitable that the more destructive powers are the ones you use the most, this is a shooter after all – no one’s going to use the Jedi mindtrick when you have force lightning at your fingertips and to be fair, the game focuses more on the consciously good/bad things Kyle does to decide if you’re Luke or Anakin. A meter at the end of each level tells you which way Kyle is leaning but no hint what caused it; it a really nice way of leaving it up to you to figure out.
For all its the distracting FMV panto, basic force use, wonky Lightsaber and age, you’re completely swept up in Kyle’s vengeance vs becoming a Jedi. When his choice comes, it’s Kyle’s not yours and the repercussions are pretty extreme; it’s worth a replay just to see how good/bad Kyle gets. It may look old and creaky, but all this bickering is pointless; JKDFII is a classic, and even better than I remembered.
Not long after JK, Lucasarts released Mysteries of the Sith (1998). The first quarter follows Kyle, now training fan favourite Mara Jade. When Kyle disappears while investigating a new Dark Side threat, Mara abandons her Jedi chores and sets out to discover her teacher’s fate.
I only played MotS once, having nicked it off a mate who nicked it back. But now I realise I should have bought it (Or hidden my mate’s copy better); MotS is a great, tightly-wound little Add-On and as much fun as JKDFII. It’s the same build and look but the best thing is what’s missing - no FMV this time. Instead, Kyle and co are animated and while it really shows the game’s age, MotS is cleaner and more detailed than JKDFII.
Mara gains additional weapons, including one that fires Carbonite with mixed results and a sniper scope, and she faces off against more nerfherders than Kyle did, including a Rancor. She has essentially the same Lightsaber and Force abilities and they’re more critical this time, but not a light vs dark path which is a shame; Mara originated in the Zahn series as an Empire Spec Ops looking to avenge the Emperor so she’d have been perfect for Dark side swaying.
One random thing that stops MotS being brilliant is the feet-tapping. It wasn’t this noticeable in JKDFII but it seems Kyle and Mara have a one-foot stride and wear tap-shoes. All you can hear is ‘tippy tappy tippy tappy’ and it’s so distracting I constantly jumped to avoid their feet on the floor – but instead you get ‘guh, huh, gah’ every leap; even when drowning they’re being dramatic, choking is a gurgle mixed with swallowing followed by throat clearing. Audio annoyances aside, MotS is a solid if dated game and there’s more than a few well-pitched levels - including a series-standout where Mara faces herself in a Dagobah-style greatest fear test. MotS can sit comfortably alongside the main games, not just as an Add-On. I’m really happy to honestly own MotS, it’s a great little game.
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002)
The gloves were off with Outcast. Before I even load it up I’m excited, refusing to even consider it might not have aged well or not be as good as I remember. This is one of my all-time greats. Come on Kyle old buddy, don’t let me down.
Kyle has renounced the Jedi way and returned to his Han Solo cosplaying, doing Senate odd-jobs with pilot-pal Jan. They uncover a new Empire-like force, the Remnant led by an ex-Empire General, Fyyar and a very evil Dark Jedi called Desann – a huge Komodo dragon looking dude who was a student of Luke’s before he turned to the Dark side. Desann and Fyyar have amassed an army but it’s not just the usual Stormtroopers and folks who like to party at Jabbas. Desann found a way to infuse people with the force, turning them into Dark Jedi – as well as force and saber-resistant Troopers. Great. Picked a hell of a day to give up Jedi-ing Kyle. Somewhat repeating JKDFII’s plot, Desann’s acts force Kyle to rediscover his Jedi faith and set him off on a personal mission to take the lizard down.
JO is one of the best FPS, best Star Wars adventures, one of the best games of all time. And that’s not just the force talking. Once Kyle’s force powers are high enough he auto-deflects basic attacks, and there’s just something so cool about swaggering along flinging laser bolts back at hapless Stormtroopers like it’s nothing. The force powers are refined and intuitive, and Kyle quickly becomes an absolute badass Jedi Knight, to the point you barely use your blaster. Using force grip, pushing stormtroopers off cliffs, directing your Lightsaber, flinging force-lightning about, it’s great. Stormtroopers are quick off the draw and they’re coming at you from all angles, keeping you on your now quiet toes, and when a Dark Jedi gets thrown into the mix, it’s a furious battle. You can pull weapons away from Troopers but whereas in JKDFII they would stand around, in JO they either surrender or take off running; they’ll even recover fallen weapons.
The level design is detailed and complex, and on occasion we’re helped by Luke and Lando in extended cameos, plus we even get to stomp troopers with an AT-ST. It really is thrilling stuff, but it’s not all fanboy beauty; battling the Dark Jedi and the Dark Troopers is more of a bind that I recall, and my Jedi training still seems to consist of frantic mashing. But it’s worth it with the Dark Jedi, who are all arrogant and excited about killing a Jedi; their slow-mo death scenes are very satisfying as is pushing them off a cliff mid-taunt.
The biggest surprise is the lack of light-dark options. I thought that was a constant, but like MotS, Kyle is a straight-shooter throughout. While Luke bangs on about Kyle being driven by hate (and he cheated by stopping by JK’s Valley of the Jedi to superpower his force ability), as well as Kyle’s acts being deliberately manipulated by Desann, there’s no slow lean toward the Light or Dark. Other disappointments include the story starting to fall into fairly standard Star Wars sequel territory (ex-military/sith looking to restart the Empire; the bread-and-butter of all post Return of the Jedi stories) and it’s very similar to MotS but still, JO is an absolute joy to play, one of those great early to mid-Noughties games like Max Payne 2, FEAR and NOLF that got everything right. I actually preferred JK for the story, but JO has the Jedi stuff down perfect. JO isn’t just a great Star Wars game, it’s a great game period. I am a Jedi.
Star Wars Jedi Academy (2003)
Jedi Academy is perhaps the bravest of the Dark Forces series. It relegated Kyle to sidekick NCP and sent us all the way back to the beginning, as a Padawan learner.
Enroute to Luke’s Jedi Academy, we pick our gender and species, what they look like, even what kind of Saber they have. The only thing you can’t change is the name – I’m a unisex Jaden. There’s no back story to Jaden, and although she’s the first Padawan to have built her own Lightsaber, it’s all left unspoken. Given the light/dark moral choice is sort-of back, guess this is to let you decide on her background, and what kind of Jedi she’ll grow up to be.
How we reach that moment is a departure too. Rather than a constant story, we’re given a choice of self-contained Jedi odd-jobs – do enough and you unlock a story mission, like a fenced in free-roamer. This time, the Dark side is The Disciples of Ragnos, a dark Jedi cult somehow draining power from Force-sensitive places (maybe they got the idea from JK and JO …) The chores are a Star Wars geek’s bucket list; helping Chewie escape a lockdown on Tatooine, exploring Hoth while battling Wampas and riding Tauntauns, investigating a Sand Crawler (including Jawas; utinni! Which means Wow, I just found out. Thanks Wookieepedia), helping Wedge take out a Bespin-like gas mine, a speeder-bike run, face off Boba Fett, distracting a Rancor so it’s ‘game’ can escape, repairing your ship while avoiding a Graboid, and a standout mission where you battle on top of an out-of-control train rocketing through skyscrapers. There’s even a mission to Vader’s weekend retreat; an acid-rain hellhole where Darth stewed in peace. He even had a statue of himself in the lounge, the narcissistic emo.
If there’s a downside, JA is JO reskinned. The story is starting to feel very reheated while the look and level layout is the same. Force powers are roughly the same too, but they’re a lot more powerful; fully powering up lightning can clear an entire room while grip means Dark Jedi are flung willy-nilly. Enemies are largely the same as in JO, but there’s some Super-Jedi that take a beating and they’re all good fun to battle with.
The biggest and best change though is Jaden herself; wickedly acrobatic, she leaps, somersaults and backflips through fights; I force jumped across an exploding bridge then electrocuted two dark Jedi off a cliff; ran up a wall, backflipped over a stormtrooper then cut him to pieces in slo-mo; I roll and stab, do leaping swings down on villains, sliding sabre tackles cutting them off at the knees (and hands, in a nice little movie nod) - JA is pure Jedi wish-fulfilment and the saber is equally awesome to use. You have three different attack styles and they do seem to make a difference; best thing though, Jaden has three types of sabers to pick from - the standard single sabre which maximises ability, two sabres which looks incredibly cool and the Darth Maul staff. The Dark Jedi have the same abilities, and use them effectively; choking is a favourite of theirs, but they never fling you off a cliff. That’s unsportsmanlike even for a Sith.
Although we’ve been nagged at by both Luke and Kyle for favouring the Dark side (again, I’m not going to use Mind Trick when I can force choke a Dark Jedi and drop him off a bridge), the Light vs Dark path hasn’t really shown itself during the game; instead, after a sudden but inevitable betrayal we’re given a moral choice. Unlike JK where my acts dictate if I fall to the Dark side, I just have the choice to calm my anger or let rip. It’s a bit of a letdown, but you barely have time to grumble because the final quarter is a near-endless battle with Dark Jedi and a huge, bordering on unfair final boss. Two bosses, if the betraying NCP pissed you off and you went Dark side on their ass.
JK is another classic. The short missions do make it feel a bit less epic and the main mission is too familiar, but JK is even more of a fanboy game than JO and all the better for it. If JO made me feel like a Jedi, then like Yoda JA makes me feel.
It’s time for the Jedi to end. Just like Jedi Knight span off from Dark Forces, Jedi Academy could have span off into a whole another series of Padawns being sent on adventures, but it was not to be. But at least the series ended on a high note. Kyle is one of those Legend characters that fans adore - there was outrage he didn’t appear in Rogue One and that says a lot about how much those games mean to the Star Wars fans.
The Dark Forces series still stands as one of my faves – it may have begun as a clone but it carved its own path and each is worth a replay; despite the wobbly FMV, Jedi Knight wins it, as it’s closer to Star Wars than the others, especially with the light vs dark plot. But Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are the adventures we imagined while lying on the carpet surrounded by toys; you can’t play them and not feel like you’re IN Star Wars. Even if the reheated storyline makes you feel like you’re in VII-VIII. Maybe pass on Dark Forces, but the force is strong with the Jedi series still. Those are the games you’re looking for.