Writing nothing but Star Wars reviews these past few weeks has been fun, and the tourney of said fun continues with a look at Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. Awkward arrangement of the title’s segments notwithstanding, Jedi Knight was well-received when it launched in ’97 and remains notable for being one of the first Star Wars games to let players wield a lightsaber. How well that and other mechanics have aged has been a subject of debate, and it’s one of the subjects of tonight’s review. That and, well, being able to slash people with lightsabers. Don’t worry, those people usually shoot first. Usually.
As can be inferred from the Dark Forces II subtitle, Jedi Knight is a direct sequel to Dark Forces featuring the return of Rebel mercenary Kyle Katarn. Jedi Knight is set one year after the events of Return of the Jedi, as the Rebel Alliance transforms into the New Republic and the Empire’s various leftovers squabble for Emperor Palpatine’s vacated throne. Sadly, this game’s story was classified as non-canon when Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, but that certainly doesn’t stop the game from setting out with its own vision of how things shook out after the destruction of the second Death Star.
Anyway, the story of Jedi Knight begins as Kyle receives new information on the death of his father Morgan, whose murder by the Empire was what convinced him to join the rebellion in the first place. Kyle learns that his father was killed by Jerec, a fallen Jedi who served Palpatine as an Inquisitor and struck out on his own after the emperor’s death at Endor. Unafraid of Jerec’s ruthless reputation or the dark Jedi’s skill with a lightsaber, Kyle strikes out to find his newest nemesis.
The Path Of The Force
As Kyle begins searching for Jerec, he receives a vision telling him that the dark warrior is searching for the Valley of the Jedi, a nexus of Force power that will make him invincible if he taps it. Kyle also discovers an old lightsaber left behind by a friend of his father’s and activates it, discovering that he has a connection to the Force. Kyle’s mission against Jerec becomes both a quest for personal vengeance and to stop Jerec before he becomes all-powerful and conquers the galaxy. With Jan by his side, he sets out to stop Jerec and his dark apprentices, all while learning what it means to be a Jedi.
Jedi Knight‘s audacious start helped get the game off the ground as much as its upgrade to fully 3D graphics and more dynamic gunplay than that of Dark Forces. Indeed, all three of these elements helped propel the game to dizzying heights when it first hit shelves in 1997. Audiences were smitten by everything from the 3D character models to the live-action cutscenes interspersed between levels (strange to think that such mundane things were once the toast of the gaming world). For every gritty investigative vibe that Dark Forces gave off, Jedi Knight has a much more character-driven narrative.
Jedi Knight is a shooter/slasher that can be played from either a first- or-third-person perspective, though generally it’s best to use the former for guns and the latter for the lightsaber. Kyle starts out with his blaster pistol, but he can quickly upgrade his arsenal with more advanced guns and grenades. Some of these weapons return from Dark Forces. The lightsaber is found relatively early in the game, and Kyle gets progressively better with it as the game goes on. Before long, the mercenary Jedi becomes pretty adept at deflecting blaster bolts and slashing enemies out of his way. Every so often the player can sever an enemy’s arm, which was considered ghastly and shocking in the 90’s.
Jedi Knight‘s other gameplay component is simple puzzles. After Kyle’s done shooting and stabbing his way through an enemy regiment, players have to solve a few simple physics conundrums in order to progress in the game. These include opening doors, balancing fuel tanks… nothing too mentally taxing but just varied enough to keep things interesting. Some levels are thinly disguised key hunts, but Jedi Knight puts enough variety into its level design to keep those from becoming too rote. Through puzzles and gunfights, Kyle has to find health and shield pickups to stay alive. Ammo is also ludicrously plentiful, even for top-tier weapons.
Jedi Knight provides a solid, unpredictable mix of shooting and puzzling, but that doesn’t stop a few glaring design flaws from, well, glaring out of the woodwork. The lightsaber is a bit OP, especially later in the game when Kyle can just deflect all the blaster bolts and cut down every stormtrooper between him and the next level. This can make the game a bit easy; even the Empire’s hardest-hitting troops go down in one lightsaber strike. This, coupled with a few basic Force powers, can make short work of even the hardiest Kyle-hating combatant. The initial fun that comes with cutting enemies to shreds with a lightsaber starts to feel old alarmingly quickly.
Jedi Knight also comes with a few platforming sections that could’ve done with more development and less reliance on micro-precise jumping. This is especially true of some of the game’s early levels, like Kyle’s father’s farm, where the player has to jump between precariously tiny ledges over an endless abyss. Similar jumping obstacles pepper many of the game’s levels, some of them with fans, anti-gravity, or something else to make hitting a square foot-wide target even more challenging. Even if Jedi Knight‘s level design sheds some of the convoluted corridors that plagued Dark Forces, its abundance of invisible walls and twisting paths can still leave players’ heads spinning.
Just as it would be a lie to say that the original Dark Forces‘ graphics have aged gracefully, so too would it be false to say the same of Jedi Knight. Make no mistake, the latter title’s 3D graphics are a tremendous improvement over those of Dark Forces, but some of the in-game objects are still pretty hideous. Blurry textures and awkward character animations are nothing in the face of blotchy in-game illustrations and some of the worst character model details ever devised by man or machine. Each character’s face, for example, looks like an orgy of colorful pixels with perhaps a semblance of normal facial features.
Jedi Knight manages to fare quite a bit better in the sound department, with a wide palette of crisp, impacting sound effects. Some of them reek a bit too much of static, but the sounds of blaster fire and the swoosh of the lightsaber have some satisfying weight to them. The same goes for walking on various surfaces and the rip-roaring sound of an exploding fuel barrel. The game’s score comprises the music of the classic Star Wars films, which, while a bit of a cop-out, also means that Jedi Knight isn’t hurting for great songs.
Use The Force!
The narrative at the heart of Jedi Knight is by far the game’s most admirable quality. It swaps out the investigative vibe of Dark Forces for a story that lets players get to know the real Kyle Katarn—not the quiet secret agent from the first game, but a stoic and rapidly evolving warrior finding his true place in the universe. Kyle’s mission to avenge his father’s death carries much more personal weight than his fight against the Dark Troopers in Dark Forces; this allows for a believable character development arc that takes him from detached mercenary to courageous champion.
…Or does it? Depending on certain actions the player takes during the course of the game, Kyle may very well be driven to the dark side in his quest for justice against Jerec. If Jedi Knight is to be believed, the path to darkness comprises killing every innocent bystander that Kyle happens upon during his journey. Unfortunately for dark side enthusiasts, though, the game doesn’t do jack to tell players that slaughtering random NPCs alters the course of the story. That’s a pretty crappy way to alter the story anyway, though; just cutting down NPCs who are otherwise unmentioned and have no bearing on the plot is a weird idea of changing the narrative’s trajectory.
Scum And Villainy (And Bugs)
Even though Jedi Knight is by all accounts a direct sequel to Dark Forces, the games’ stories are two very different animals. Dark Forces is a tale of investigation and subterfuge that has little to do with the player personally, while the other is simultaneously a revenge story and a coming-of-age narrative. Jedi Knight ultimately wins out in narrative weight because of the aforementioned character development in Kyle as well as his allies and enemies. His relationship with Jan continues to evolve, as does his adversity against the brutal, greedy Jerec.
It’s difficult to say that Jedi Knight‘s narrative is strong enough to make players ignore the game’s ghoulish visuals and bad level design choices, though. Worse still, most players won’t ever get the chance to find out, because Jedi Knight is difficult to run even on Windows 7. The Steam version of the game is dead in the water due to an embarrassing bug that makes the game request putting in a disc, which… wow. The GOG version is a bit more up-to-date but still rife with problems. Some players have gotten Jedi Knight to run after spending hours in the forums, but Jedi Knight might not be worth all those hours.
A Lost Opportunity
Unfortunately, these problems are also endemic to Mysteries of the Sith, an expansion pack that was released for Jedi Knight in 1998. The expansion is set five years after the events of Jedi Knight and follows both Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, an Imperial agent-turned-Jedi apprentice and one of the expanded universe’s most popular characters. Despite the implementation of in-game cutscenes and a few performance updates, Mysteries of the Sith suffers the same performance and running snafus as its larger counterpart. The Steam version of this game also asks for a disc.
It’s a shame that one of Star Wars’ most iconic expanded universe characters (and the future wife of Luke Skywalker, according to the old canon) didn’t get the video game debut that she deserved. The story of Mysteries of the Sith relegates Mara Jade to a few disjointed and ultimately forgettable mercenary missions that have little to do with each other. The expansion’s ending helps set the stage for Kyle Katarn’s next game, but that’s about it. Still, even if the expansion is underwhelming, it’s too bad that getting it to run so that players can decide for themselves is next to impossible.
Even if players manage to get Jedi Knight to function, the story at the center of the game isn’t quite enough to save it from a plethora of badly designed visuals and weird level-building choices. The lightsaber also neuters much of the game’s challenge, even in boss fights, and that only increases as Kyle gains powerful if clunky Force abilities. Mysteries of the Sith is similarly morose in its offerings. Ultimately, both games are better off avoided, at least until they’re patched to be able to run on modern systems. Until then, Kyle’s first sortee against lightsaber-wielding bad guys is probably better off floating in space.
You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II here.