Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order didn't launch in the best of states - or at least not if you were playing on the base versions of the PS4 and Xbox One. There were a few jitters here and there, a few crashes, and for me a couple of especially memorable, minutes-long hangs on those weird, Sonic-style slip-n-slides where I could genuinely get up and make a cup of tea and come back to the game just unfreezing itself again. But as much as the tea-break freeze was a novel feature, those things really aren't what stuck in the memory for me.
What stuck for me was the slides themselves, strange level design relics caught slightly out of time. And Oggdo Bogdo, the exceptionally-named, wild difficulty spike of a bog frog mini boss. And the byzantine, multi-layered holomaps. And all the weirdly edgy finishing moves Cal Kestis, a baby faced, good-to-the-core Jedi, would pull off when taking those mini bosses down. There is a word for this stuff, this scuzzy, late noughties not-retro vibe, but I can't find it. The lazy part of me thinks it's just "PlayStation 3", which makes sense when you realise much of the Jedi team at developer Respawn have PS3 action game pedigree with the original God of War series, including game director Stig Asmussen and design director Jason de Heras.
I imagine a developer reading the word "PS3" might feel a certain kind of pain, though, ahead of their new game's release for the Series S/X and PS5, but that's a fault of how we talk about games. Last-gen is an insult. Two generations ago cruelty. Three generations ago, and suddenly it's an all-time classic that you just don't get these days. Jedi: Fallen Order and now, I think, Jedi: Survivor too, are games that you rarely seem to get anymore - they're just of the kind that doesn't seem quite old enough to have become cool again yet.
But retro as they may feel in spirit these games are big, and expensive, and the money is absolutely there on screen - environments in Survivor are predictably up-scale, wider and fuller than ever with all the typical current-gen pinprick detail - but they're also thoroughly unpretentious, completely unconcerned with the faux-RPG loot treadmills, and prestige drama, and superfluous little circle-cursors of their modern peers. Instead they have 3D platforming and purely cosmetic collectibles. These are games from an alternate dimension, where Destiny never happened and "RPG-lite" still means nothing more than whacking things until you get points to put into a skill tree. So, PS3 games, yes, but wonderful ones. Popcorny, goofy, grin inducing, crunchy, moreish, openly approachable ones. There is no perfectly analogous game to liken them to, but you can feel them all bubbling up from below and you know exactly which ones I mean. The best ones.
For what it's worth, Asmussen expressed the "regrets" of the studio's, when talking to me about those technical hangups with the first game, but also emphasised the months of work Respawn put in to tidy them up post-launch last time - and the determination to have a tidier launch this April. "We do our best," he said, "and we did the last time around, and we were very determined and diligent about continuing to listen to the people that were playing and seeing the issues and fixing those issues - and we did that for probably six months to a year. And the experience that you have now [with Fallen Order] is a lot different than when we launched. And, you know, we have regrets - but at the same time, we did the best that we could, and we're going to do the same thing this time."
In my experience, a good two or three hours of gameplay on a PC, Jedi: Survivor felt sturdy enough, the minor tells of the first like your droid BD-8 not perfectly aligning itself with your shoulder, or the tiniest little skid of a character's animation still popping up here or there, but that's it. No tea breaks, and all of it reassuringly familiar. Like its general nature as a game, Jedi: Survivor is an almost old school idea of a sequel now. There are no major subversions, no seven-year development cycles or paradigm shifts: Survivor is like Fallen Order but it's a bit bigger and a bit nicer to look at. The rough edges have been smoothed over, and there's a bit of new stuff - a lot of new stuff actually, but nothing too threatening. Perfect.
The setup is this: five years have passed since the last game, Cal now has some facial hair and a slightly deeper voice, he's crashed his ship on a new planet called Koboh, and when mean bandits are terrorising the local prospectors outside their saloon on this crusty yellow frontier planet, he struts over with a thumb in his belt and a steely look in his eye to let 'em know a new sheriff's in town. This stuff is delivered with the straightest of faces, which is wonderful, for some reason landing far better than the agonising faux-Western shootouts of the Book of Boba Fett - maybe because it's such a perfect fit for Cal, his aged-up freshness making him the spit of Billy the Kid.
The rest proceeds much like Fallen Order, but expanded. This little town you park yourself in is now a bit of a hub, like your ship from the first game, evolving with new characters, conversations and storefronts as you effectively collect them from the wider world, presumably with new places to do all the wonderfully silly things of the first like planting seeds and painting droid parts. Ride out from here - Cal can now tame animals to ride them as mounts, both on land and in the air, although I couldn't do either during my time with Survivor - and you'll find the familiar spaghetti tangle of overlapping paths.
Survivor's holomap is, blissfully, somewhat improved from the first - I suspect in longer playthroughs it'll still be comically hard to read compared to most video game maps, but it's novel. There's a better waypoint system you can manually add, from spotting things through BD's visor, like in Breath of the Wild. The fuzziness has been toned down and the contrasting colours for locked doors and unvisited platforms dialled up. But none of the teasing nature of that original has been lost - I still found myself spotting untrodden paths way back towards the start of a level and making mental notes to return. Dive into those hidden corners and you'll find those good old chests filled with all kinds of wonderful, mysterious rewards, from lightsaber parts and fragments of ancient Jedi lore, to customisable cosmetics, like "Short Beard". Maybe someone left a clip-on razor guard in there?
The real, less silly (but no less joyous) changes come with Survivor's mechanics. You start out with three distinct fighting styles from the off, Respawn resisting the urge to reset Cal's progress during Fallen Order and instead adding another two in to be unlocked as you go here. You can only have two equipped at once with these changeable at specific places like workbenches or meditation points - the From Software-inspired version of bonfires that save your progress and respawn defeated enemies, and now fast travel points. The dual-wielding lightsabers have been dramatically fleshed out into an entire skill tree of their own, with a special kind of brief auto-blocking mode, and each has been broken down into little bars for comparison across things like damage, speed, and defensive strength.
"Some of the stances that you find in this game, some of the moves that you find in this game, were the things that we were working on on the last game," Asmussen explained, "and we never found the time to complete them. Twin sabres," for instance, "you do get in the last game - but it's something that we couldn't fully flesh out. So it was more like a special attack. And, but there was a lot more there that we just didn't release that we are able to hit the ground running with that we're already talking about," such as Cal's new blaster.
I saw this in action, although that wasn't unlockable in our section, starting from around an hour into the game - instead it was demoed quite masterfully by De Heras in a presentation at the end. There are some fun Force-enhanced moves for that, suping blaster fire up to explosive levels, and it works like a kind of space-revolver - did you know Star Wars was inspired by westerns yet? Has anyone reminded you in the last thirty seconds? - but more exciting and of course far more civilised in my opinion was another, fourth kind of lightsaber: a Kylo Ren-style crossguarded greatsword. This looks slow but powerful, the "two-handed blunt" of the Jedi world.
Finding a way to tie all this progression together with the first game has naturally been a balance, helped by the fact that Jedi seem to be the ultimate video game characters in many ways - orthodox progression systems, a range of moves, cool abilities - but also hindered, in the sense that Cal's done much of his progression already. (A tangent, but when teasing Asmussen with mention of another distinctly video gamey character in the Mandalorian, and whether that's something Respawn would one day be interested in, he answered, "Who wouldn't?!" but naturally emphasised focus is all on the Jedi for now.)
In practice, Respawn's solution has been to make early-game Survivor feel like late-game Fallen Order, with a range of abilities - this game has nine skill trees - to combo together and a bit of classic next-gen pizzaz to it all. More spins, some jump attacks, more elaborate crowd control, a kind of long-cooldown bullet time. Enemies can be dismembered now - a weird thing to celebrate but immediately more satisfying than the alternative, which is bopping them repeatedly until they crumple like you're armed with a fluorescent lighting tube - and more things are available to chuck about with the force, including droids and rocks and stolen shields from turtling foes.
Between the Force-whacking is more platforming like before, which felt very similar in the time I had with it, just slightly more refined. You can now hang from things above you, as well as climbing up walls. More interesting are the occasional side areas - buried beneath an embargo for now - reminiscent of Breath of the Wild's shrines, full of environmental puzzles that grant you a Perk as rewards. Perks change gameplay "significantly," you're told, with mine just giving me a bit of extra stamina gauge for the time being - but immediately you can see potential for a bit of extra depth.
You can see that with much of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, really. Respawn has smartly worked the end of one game into the beginning of the next, but crucially the first game's campy, slightly awkward teenage charm is intact. "I think that there was a lot of unfinished business on the first game," as Asmussen put it. "This game is like we're completing a stem sentence and we're actually turning it into a stanza. It's all of the ideas that we had kind of put together, in something that's bigger and more robust for the player, and hopefully it feels more refined." So far it does - but it's still the silly fun of the original at heart. It's Cal Kestis, with a beard.