Cal Kestis, the Jedi-padawan-turned-Jedi-Knight who does all the surviving in Respawn Entertainment’s new action-heavy Star Wars video game, Jedi: Survivor—and before that, in its predecessor, 2019's Jedi: Fallen Order—has had a rough few years of it. We know this, because he has a beard now.
Survivor is, in fact, weirdly reticent to let you forget about Cal’s facial hair, given how often it rewards players for completing challenges—combat runs, acrobatic gauntlets, the occasional puzzle—with new ways to style this particular bit of character development-reflecting scruff. After 20 hours with the game (or, as we’ve come to think of it, a dozen beard upgrades in), we found ourselves starting to wonder what Cal is actually pulling out of all these chests he finds, dotted across the galaxy, that pop up a little “New Beard Style Unlocked” notification each time. Ancient holocrons featuring the Jedi version of a salon stylebook? Facial contouring nanodroids? A big picture of a handlebar mustache with arrows pointing to the areas surrounding it saying “CUT THESE BITS OFF”?
If we sound fixated on this beard point, it’s only because Survivor kind of is, too. For a game that gets much of its run-time from exploration—tasking players with exploring a handful of massive, expansively laid-out planets in that oh-so-familiar universe, steadily accruing new movement abilities to allow them to plumb ever more nooks and crannies—it’s weirdly weak when it comes to rewarding that cranny-forward mindset. There’s nothing that kills motivation quite like looking at an elaborate puzzle or jumping course and knowing there’s a 50/50 shot that all that’s waiting at the end is a new haircut or shirt style. (This is a game that won’t let you fall to the Dark Side, but will let you wear Jedi robes over jeans.) A studio has to be really confident in the rewarding nature of its gameplay, in and of itself, to pull off that kind of move.
Which, to be fair: Outside of a few quibbles, the gameplay in Survivor is generally pretty damn fun, a welcome evolution of the run-and-saber combat and exploration that served as the bedrock of Fallen Order. The studio behind Titanfall still has a keen grasp on action-platforming, for one thing, allowing Cal to run across, leap over, and slide down a huge number of Star Wars-y objects with a dynamism that few games of this ilk can match. (If nothing else, the blessed decision to make Cal an improbably fast climber persists here; the relief the first time you cling to a surface and then rapidly ascend it in a handful of seconds, rather than a tedious upward slog, is hard to overstate.) New movement abilities are doled out regularly, Metroid-style, and while a few pull the irritating trick of simply serving as keys to locks the game itself threw in your way, several of them make for even more death-defying leaps—most notably a very satisfying air dash that perfectly complements the hard-won double jump from the first game.
Combat, the other half of Survivor’s gameplay equation, is somewhat more of a mixed bag. Survivor builds on the systems from the first game, giving you several more lightsaber styles to play with (and even the ultimate saber style: Gun, for when the bad guy is standing annoyingly distant on the far side of the room.) But while there are surface differences between them—dual blades allow for more aggressive moves, for instance, while the Kylo Ren-esque crossguard style lets you dole out slow, heavy hits—the differences aren’t so sharply articulated as to feel overly meaningful. The fact that you’re limited to only two styles at a time (changeable at the game’s regular
bonfires meditation points) also discourages the kind of flexible approach to combat the game seems to want you to be building, as it throws large hordes of enemies at you and expects you to adapt Cal’s tactics to them on the fly.
As we alluded to above, Survivor’s combat—like the first game’s—adopts at least the language of From Software’s Souls games, complete with an emphasis on breaking enemy’s blocks, parrying attacks, and even, in an explicit bit of copying, having the enemies that occasionally kill you absorb your “Force essence,” which you then have to go hunt down for revenge and collect, lest it be lost for good if you die a second time. But whereas the Souls games demand that combat be thoughtful, sometimes to a fault, Survivor doesn’t ever want to give up the kinetic power of constant action. Respawn has done a great job of making lightsaber fighting look good, and if it has to pull some of the more tactical punches of these fights in order to make the choreography pop, so be it. The fights are still fun; it’s still cool to toss battle droids around with Force powers, or deflect blaster bolts right back in a stormtrooper’s face, or manage the timing on a parry that turns the tables on a big attack. The most damning thing we can say about the game’s combat, though, is this: Once we bulked up Cal’s health, we were often at a loss as to what to do with the game’s fairly robust skill point system; very few of the moves it adds to Cal’s arsenal felt meaningful or exciting, or like we were adding new tools to the combat toolbox. (And since skill points were another way the game rewards you for engaging with the exploration…)
(Okay, actually, we lied: The most damning thing about the game’s combat is an early tendency to give certain bosses—all of which are optional, we should note, which did not deter us from bloodymindedly grinding on them—attacks that are both one-hit kills and aggressively difficult to avoid. This is mostly a consequence of the intersection between the game’s light “go where you want” open-world design and our own inability to walk away from a fight; suffice it to say, some of the freely available places Jedi: Survivor lets you go early on are freely available to cheap shot you again, and again, and again. This seemed to ease up the further we got into the game.)
So far, we’ve avoided talking about Survivor’s story, not because it’s offensive or any somesuch, but because it rather aggressively isn’t; Respawn has told a good Star Wars yarn here, trying, most especially, to take the character of Cal Kestis seriously. A child soldier from the Clone Wars who’s graduated to being a YA terrorist in the post-prequels era, Cal spends the game trying to find somewhere to be that the New Hope-era Empire can’t crush, eventually getting wrapped up in an old tragedy from Disney’s heavily promoted High Republic era. (Complete with an angsty, silver-haired villain who has an actual name, but who we could not resist saddling with the admittedly cruel nickname “Sith-phiroth.”)
Still played, with undeniable charisma, by Cameron Monaghan (with almost distractingly good motion capture, especially when you’ve saddled him with a man-bun and sideburns that dutifully appear in every single subsequent cutscene), Cal isn’t an especially deep character. But he has his moments; early on, we were pleasantly surprised to see him pause before dispatching a recurring foe from the first game, reminding himself that his enemy was a real person—a welcome Jedi touch for a game that has him kill dozens of people pretty much every time he walks into a room. None of this is Andor or anything, but it’s clear that Monaghan and Respawn have taken Cal’s journey seriously, grounding it in his feelings before getting into the more high-concept stuff. It doesn’t hurt that Daniel Roebuck, Tina Ivlev, and especially Debra Wilson reprise their roles from Fallen Order, bringing warmth and character to the inter-personal side of a universe still filled with stoic Jedi and wise-cracking battle droids.
The worst thing you can say about Survivor, really, is that it rather thoroughly exhausted us: This is a big game, with lots of little systems lurking at its edges, from tactical minigames, to fishing sidequests, to a whole weird little gardening simulator, all striving to give you more, more, more to do. If you’ve ever looked out at the vistas of a giant open-world game and felt the whole thing subtract down in your head into an itemized list of chores, you’ll know the feeling that eventually set in for us here. It hits with the more small-scale level design, too, which is packed to the gills with little tributaries that lead to more little treasures: more lightsaber parts, more droid paints, more pants and shirts and coats, and, of course, more goatees, all lurking behind just a bit of extra friction each time. Every cliff has to be hunted carefully for secrets; every hallway in every dungeon has to get the fine-toothed comb. An improved map makes all of this slightly easier, including keeping track of which doors are locked out by your current equipment. But the sheer number of these digressions—and the underwhelming nature of the rewards they promise—eventually wore us down.
Despite our grousing, though, the basic promise of Fallen Order persists here: This is probably the best game available about running around in the Star Wars universe, hitting dudes with lightsabers, and just generally being exactly the Jedi that the title promises. And while Survivor occasionally ascends past this—most notably in a fantastic mid-game sequence that sees Respawn cut back on the open-world elements and pile on the spectacle, sending Cal and his teammates acrobatically, and thrillingly, diving through the air of a canyon on an Empire-beset desert world—the idea we kept coming back to while playing was this: Loving Star Wars has, over the years, become an exercise in accepting that, 90 percent of the time, what you’re going to get is a modestly above-average action-adventure set in a well-textured sci-fi universe. On that score, Jedi: Survivor perfectly fulfils its brief (and then some), and should leave fans thoroughly satisfied.