Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Review: A Starbound Epic Held Back by Performance Woes

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor — out now on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series S/X — has the immense task of following what many consider to be one of the greatest Star Wars games in recent memory. 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order restored hope to the galaxy-spanning franchise with a daring story and robust souls-like combat system, rebelling against EA’s belief that single-player games were dead. It was a strong blend of FromSoftware’s risk-reward mechanics and the power fantasy of being a lightsaber-wielding Jedi, albeit with limitations in exploration.

That’s what developer Respawn Entertainment cranked up in the sequel — a sprawling semi-open world design with six planets to ping-pong across, a fast travel system, expanded combat, and more. But does simply making its scale bigger and grander equate to a quality Star Wars Jedi follow-up? Read on to find out.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor review – Story

We open to the Imperial city planet of Coruscant as a handcuffed Cal Kestis, now labelled a ‘terrorist’, gets shoved around its underbelly by a group of captors. In the five years since Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, members of the Mantis crew separated and spread out around the galaxy, while Cal grew into a powerful Jedi Knight, bearing battle scars and an even stronger resolve to topple the Galactic Empire. The sequel wastes no time dwelling on past events, simply offering a small recap cinematic to set newcomers on the right course — some of the jargon and references can still be rather confusing, though.

It’s soon revealed that Cal, in fact, wanted to get captured, as a means to get in close proximity with Senator Sejan and steal some valuable intel. This kickstarts an action-packed feature film-length thrill ride, as Cal storms through the tangled base — wall-running across glowing neon signs, slicing down Stormtroopers, shimmying along rusty pipes, and dodging explosive droids.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor functions as a smooth continuation of Cal’s saga, bestowing you with most of the skills he learned in the previous game. There is no immersion-breaking amnesia gimmick — as seen in most sequels — where the character just magically forgets how to perform basic manoeuvres such as double jumps. You’re essentially playing as the same Cal from before, with the game quickly doling out new equipment so you can set off on this mighty new adventure.

By the end of your thrilling escape, which includes a boss fight against the mind-reading Ninth Sister, you’ll have unlocked three fight stances and picked up the Ascension Cable, which lets you grapple onto high points. I really appreciate how the unlocks are structured as part of the story progression, ensuring you don’t miss out on anything and giving you ample time to experiment with the combat stances; I’ll get into its specifics later.

Unfortunately, the mission goes sideways, with Cal and new companion Bode Akuna, coming out as the only survivors. That loss is compounded by the awakening that despite all his efforts, the Empire has only gotten stronger, expanding its reach to the farthest ends of the galaxy. Even with such basic blockbuster Star Wars writing, actor Cameron Monaghan does a phenomenal job of expressing tonal shifts and the guilt that comes with dragging his comrades along for a suicide mission. As a character, Cal is a lot more reserved now, constantly mulling over whether he made the right choice in trusting the Force to lead future generations of Jedi. He’s basically a dashing cowboy starring in an intergalactic spaghetti Western, grabbing onto his belt buckle with a cold snare or grin, as he cautiously approaches dangers.

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Koboh is a massive, rocky field with tons to explore, sidequests, and collectibles
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

The ship gets damaged in the escape from Coruscant, urging Cal to crash-land onto the rocky planet Koboh — a large playing field with lots to explore, sidequests, and collectibles to track down. This desert canyon also serves as our base, where we’ll be gossipping with both old and new friends, resting up before further travel, and slowly renovating Pyloon’s Saloon. It’s a home away from home, so to speak. I also noticed that the general performance of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor improved by heaps, the second I stepped onto this new biome. This is odd, given how open and lively the environment is. In comparison, the closed-off and less chaotic confines of Coruscant and even the interiors of our Mantis ship were loaded with heavy stutters.

Stepping into the saloon, we’re reunited with our bearded old friend Greez Dritus, who scurries up and embraces Cal like a loving grandfather. “Lemme look at’cha,” he says while caressing Cal’s face with a big smile. “Ya look terrible.” It’s a small but beautifully written wholesome moment between the two, with Greez desperately coaxing Cal into staying at his cantina so he can catch up with him on lost years. He’s even been maintaining a spare room down in the basement, full of decorations and Cal’s old Scrapper outfit, highlighting how much the old geezer missed the kid. While the story often enters cliché territories, character relationships in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor are deftly handled — some of which bleed into gameplay via the new companion system. It’s a little inconsistent until you figure it out, though.

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We’re reunited with Greez Dritus in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Photo Credit: EA/ Respawn Entertainment

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor review – Gameplay

Allies like our mercenary bro Bode Akuna and returning romantic interest Merrin accompany Cal on specific story missions, aiding him in combat by drawing the enemies’ attention. Bode would fly around in his jetpack and blast foes to shreds, whereas Merrin uses teleportation to blink around the battlefield and pick off targets. These actions are completely automatic/ bot-driven, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your challenge preference. On one hand, these companions don’t get downed or take any damage, so there’s no additional babysitting for you to do. But this also makes it so you don’t have to care about their survival at all — almost as if their lives are devalued. Occasionally, you can ask them to target a specific enemy, but that’s about it — no major stakes.

Conversations with these characters are mainly limited to smaller, scripted segments where you ride around on creatures or walk up to them and trigger dialogue during moments of calm. They’re also pretty selfish. As you traverse through any given section — most noticeable on planets Koboh and Jedha — these companions would often just disappear for long periods and return for the final combat, occasionally popping up in a cutscene for narrative purposes. This leads to a rather lonesome journey, with BD-1 still acting as your constant companion, keeping you engaged with its robotic beep-boop noises.

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Bode Akuna is our new companion, with whom we form a brotherly bond
Photo Credit: EA/ Respawn Entertainment

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor expands on combat with five stances, all of which you unlock gradually. However, you can only equip two at a given time. Since the game doesn’t really encourage you to switch between them often, you’d often end up sticking with the two safe and powerful stances and blasting your way through scores of Stormtroopers. The first three basic stances are carryovers from Fallen Order, arming Cal with the standard but reliable single-wield, the dual-wield (two lightsabers), and the double-bladed stance which is incredibly effective to dispatch large groups of enemies, thanks to its long reach. Popularised by Darth Maul in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, the twin-blade can be spun around to deflect incoming projectiles, and can be upgraded for creative manoeuvres such as lunging into enemies while windmilling it. After dabbling in the base stances, I soon found myself more comfortable with the two newer ones.

First up is the Kylo Ren-inspired ‘Crossguard’ stance, in which Cal wields his lightsaber like a heavy broadsword, creating hard-hitting swings but at the cost of speed. Being a Dark Souls strength-build purist, I immediately took a liking to this high-risk high-reward method of combat, pulling enemies up close using the Force, then hammering a massive chunk of their health bar away.

Then there’s the hybrid Blaster stance, which equips Cal with a sidearm, so you can kill basic foes without having to close the distance. Feel free to pull off some wild combos or go full methodical by re-enacting a Bloodborne-like parry, where you time gunshots right as the enemy charges toward you. What I really like about this style is the limited ammunition, which can only be recharged by fast strikes of a lightsaber — encouraging you to switch between aggressive and ranged attacks. It’s like a regulated fencing match, where you dance in and out of combat in spurts, and is a lot of fun.

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The double-bladed combat stance is excellent for crowd control
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

Just like the first game, Jedi: Survivor borrows heavily from the Dark Souls formula in creating a robust levelling system. Progression and killing enemies add to Cal’s overall Skill Points, which can then be exchanged at Meditation circles for various upgrades. These are Star Wars’ version of a bonfire, where one could fully heal up by resting, partake in some training, equip perks, and even fast travel to previously visited checkpoints. The level design here is quite interconnected, full of shortcuts and locked-away areas to return to, so the fast travel system really eases the backtracking process.

Among the six planets, Cal will largely spend his time exploring Koboh and Jedha — beautiful rugged plains, flush with exotic wildlife and facilities that you could scour for hours on end. The levels themselves are intricately designed puzzles that’ll have you use all the tools at Cal’s disposal, be it hurling explosive orbs to open up pathways, holding up lightsabers like glow sticks to navigate in the dark, or asking your adorable droid BD-1 to scan and open unfamiliar crates. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor also has some slice-of-life elements to play with on the central hub of Koboh, essentially functioning as a space-set Animal Crossing minigame.

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You can purchase hairstyles for Cal Kestis from the shop in Koboh
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

Taking a detour from your destined path is great for tracking down NPCs who’ll agree to move into your settlement, upon completion of side quests. For lack of a better term, you’re basically collecting people who’d lend their skills to better Cal’s home base, be it the stables, a rooftop garden to grow plants, and more. None of these grant special skills or power-ups, and merely function as side activities to further immerse yourself in its beautiful universe.

Scattered throughout the world are workbenches, which you can access to swap out parts of your lightsaber and dress up your nimble BD-1 in some cool new drip. Modern AAA titles have trained our minds to associate these tables with gadget upgrades, but in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, these are completely cosmetic-focused. At first, I was confused as to why there were no stats or numbers informing me how I could improve the lightsaber to fare better in combat. But as I kept playing and collecting parts, I realised how hard Respawn was leaning into the heart of a dedicated Star Wars fan by letting them add a personal touch to their in-game lightsaber. It’s super in-depth, with different types of grips, vents, pomels, emitters, and blade colours to mess around with. It’s a risky, unconventional move from the developer, and I’m all for it.

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You can visit workbenches to customise your lightsaber
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

As great as all of this sounds, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is severely unoptimised. I played this on a system packing an AMD Ryzen 7 5800x 4.25 GHz processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Super GPU with 6GB of VRAM, 16GB RAM, and a 500GB SSD. Even after setting the game on Medium presets, the frame rate was worryingly inconsistent, to the point where it started to dampen my experience. The micro-stutters were clearly working against the 60fps cap, and the game would often freeze for a few seconds upon entering new areas. In my case, the performance got even worse in the ‘Low’ presets, dipping to 20fps in interior segments. There were no crashes though, so that’s something.

I also found it weird how Cal’s face always appeared incredibly blurry and unintelligible unless you were playing on Ultra presets. Toggling AMD’s FSR 2.0 to the ‘Quality’ setting certainly helped with that, but it was a short-lasting bliss until the performance woes slapped me back to its laggy reality.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor review – Verdict

Through intricate world-building and a layered combat system, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor proves to be a worthy successor to Respawn’s growing tale from the galaxy far, far away. While the core narrative is fairly decent, the sequel really shines when forming memorable moments with its characters and its locales that can be used as a creative playing field. The expanded world is certainly fun to explore, albeit collectible hunters might eventually face burnout with how cluttered the items are. Unfortunately, its positives are hampered by terrible performance — even with post-launch patches — making it hard for me to recommend until a few more patches roll through. Get it on sale if you’re very keen, but otherwise you might want to wait a bit.

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