One of the biggest challenges that Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order's developers face is creating a game that has engaging mechanics, but also fulfills the fantasy of being a Jedi. It may sound easy on paper but striking the right balance is tricky, and there's a long line of mediocre Star Wars action games that serve as a testament to that.
At E3 2019, the scuttlebutt has been that Jedi Fallen Order is a game in the same mold as From Software's Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. These games are mechanically demanding and deliver a potent sense of accomplishment, but it's hard-earned–not the kind of approachable experience that hooks an audience as broad as Star Wars'. And therein lies the challenge.
Respawn's solution is what it calls "thoughtful" combat, and this is also what is most reminiscent of From Software's games. At E3 2019 I got a chance to play Jedi Fallen Order, with the bulk of my hands-on spent in a combat arena getting a better handle of what this "thoughtful" combat entails.
The arena itself was no-frills, a plain open area where I could run around and swing my lightsaber to cut down any enemies in my path. Further out, there were walls where enemies could be placed to fire blaster shots from a safe distance. My opponents were a cannon-fodder Storm Trooper, a blaster-wielding variant, aggressive Purge Troopers, and surprisingly deadly KX-Series Security Droids.
Almost immediately, Jedi Fallen Order feels a lot looser than Dark Souls; the general speed of movement and responsiveness is closer to Sekrio, though its feedback doesn't quite feel as sharp and satisfying. The "thoughtful" part of combat comes in how you manage your enemies and crowd control, and then the efficiency with which you dispatch them.
To begin with, I went up against the vanilla, hits-head-on-roof brand of Storm Trooper, who like to stand at a distance and take potshots with their blasters. To take them out, I simply waited for them to fire a shot and then guarded at the very last second to deflect the incoming fire back and take out the trooper. The guard button can be held down to deflect all incoming fire in random directions, but to actually return the shot requires specific timing. These enemies are incredibly fragile and, if you get close enough to them, a couple of lightsaber swings brings them down.
The second variant of Storm Trooper was wielding an electric baton of sorts and, as such, was very aggressive, quickly moving into range to deliver up-close melee attacks. Here, I got to put the counter system to work and, as a strike was about to land on me, pressed the guard button to turn the table on the enemy and create an opening for myself. This will no doubt be familiar to those have played Sekiro, though, again, the timing feels a little more lenient. Like deflecting blaster shots, there is a simpler way to deal with these enemies, and that is to hold down the block button to nullify attacks. However, Jedi in training and hero of Jedi Fallen Order, Cal Kestis, has a defense bar and every attack chips away at it, so turtling for extended periods of time isn't an option.
Almost immediately, Jedi Fallen Order feels a lot looser than Dark Souls; the general speed of movement and responsiveness is closer to Sekrio
And that's where the dodge comes in handy. Pressing the B button on the Xbox controller while holding a direction made Cal dash, but with a second tap of the button, he'd roll away. This, it turned out, was particularly useful for getting away from the Purge Troopers, who are a considerably more formidable enemy. Taking them down involved a careful dance of landing a swipe and then dodge-rolling out of the way of their sweeping attacks. Occasionally they'd spin their double-sided energy weapons around themselves, but by pressing the dodge button without a direction, Cal could do a last-second dodge that narrowly avoids the incoming attack without disengaging from battle, slowing down the action. Occasionally, I'd pull these last-second dodges off in quick succession and be rewarded with a front kick animation that would create some space.
The final enemy, the Security Droids, were undoubtedly the trickiest customers. While slow, they would bear down on me and deliver powerful punches that, unless parried, would deplete Cal's health in just a few blows. They'd also throw in an unblockable grab, during which Cal would be slammed into the ground. These guys required a little more finesse to destroy, and by finesse, I mean using a very handy Force ability that would lock them into place to give you a good window to land a powerful Focus Attack.
Taken individually, each element of Jedi Fallen Order's combat is fairly simple and I daresay uninteresting. However, it's when the game throws a bunch of different kinds of enemies at you together that the "thoughtful" part of it really clicks. With Blaster Troopers dotted around, baton-wielding troopers closing the gap, and a Purge Trooper circling, Jedi Fallen Order's combat becomes a process of target prioritization and threat management. I quickly used my Force powers to trap the Purge Trooper in stasis, then double jumped away from the incoming attackers so I could get enough time and space to bait the troopers perched on walls to fire at me. I deflected blaster shots back to take them out of the equation, and by that time had enough breathing room to land a series of counter-attacks that left just me and the Purge Trooper in the field of combat. With the odds evened, I could carefully engage and disengage, dodging through its flurries and countering the slower, more telegraphed strikes.
And that's when it all clicked into place. At this stage, it feels like Respawn has done a good job of having a two-tiered gameplay experience, with the first being one that can be enjoyed by those looking for a simple but satisfying, almost button-mashy style of combat. The second, however, offers greater depth for those who want it, inviting them to consider how they approach each scenario, how best they can use their abilities and Force powers to give themselves the edge, and then executing in an efficient way. There were further considerations in combat that, sadly, we didn't get as much of an opportunity to experiment with, like Force pulling enemies towards you, which looked like it would be very useful for taking out the Troopers with flamethrowers, and the Force Push. On top of that, there was a skill tree that wasn't available in our demo, so it seems there's further depth. But, as it stands, Jedi Fallen Order feels like it could be a satisfying Star Wars action experience. It may even double up as an approachable entry-point into the world of Souls-likes.