‘Star Wars Jedi: Survivor’ Improves on the Original, but Falls Short of Full Potential: Video Game Review

Five years after the end of “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” Cal Kestis’ friends are scattered across the galaxy dealing with their own demons, while the young Jedi Knight runs guerrilla strikes against key Imperial targets. Reality tore his dreams of resistance into tatters of resentment, and he’s left trying to find a purpose for his life in “Star Wars Jedi: Survivor” — a journey of surprises that improves on the original in every way. However, like Cal himself, it still falls short of its full potential.

Cal’s story takes some unpredictable turns that end in intriguing possibilities for a third game. Much like the hero, developer Respawn Entertainment recognizes that it has little recourse against the Empire and its entrenched position in the galaxy and “Star Wars” canon, so both turn inward instead. Cal still fights the Imperials when he can, but “Survivor” is less about making a difference against an oppressive Empire and more about finding a place to call home.

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Cal is weary and even bitter this time, though Respawn’s close adherence to the usual “Star Wars” storytelling style, never delving too deeply into anyone’s emotions or relationships, makes for a shaky exploration of his character. At one point, “Survivor” goes out of its way to show Cal learning to deal with what resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, processing issues instead of perceiving every threat as fatal and resorting to violence.

The problem is that “Survivor” just isn’t consistent with these moments. Loss and grief play a significant role in the game, but Cal rarely spares more than 10 seconds and a few words for his dead companions before never thinking of them again. He struggles with guilt and anger, though has scant few chances to communicate his problems, let alone explore his emotions. Perhaps more memory sequences, thoughts clouding Cal’s mind before meditating or some other way to put the focus back on Cal would have helped make his struggles resonate.

“Survivor” might not tell Cal’s story with confidence, but it fares better with everyone else’s. Returning characters, including Greez Dritus and Cere Junda, along with new faces get plenty of attention and some interesting new developments.

However, the supporting cast steals the show. Cal meets a diverse range of misfits and loners with their own interesting, surprisingly deep stories to tell. Some of these, including a forgetful droid and a rancher with a penchant for shooting raiders who hurt animals, bond with Cal over a quiet sense of shared loss. They may not have bounty hunters seeking a price on their heads, but, like Cal, life hasn’t exactly been kind to them either. He gradually turns a saloon on an early planet into a haven for some of these new friends, a fitting complement to the theme of building safe places.

The result is that the galaxy feels lived in this time — less like a series of game levels and more believable as a set of complex societies with a range of problems. “Survivor” makes good use of its space and scatters side stories across nearly every area. Cal can interact with Force Echoes that tell some of these accounts; in “Dark Souls”-style, they tell the lore of “Survivor.” Others come from new characters Cal can meet, such as a standout Twi’lek academic who, in the midst of Imperial expansion and war, is living her best life by exploring ancient ruins before joining Cal’s gang of outcasts at the saloon.

Exploration and traversal in “Survivor” are more organic as well. While “Fallen Order” was rife with conveniently placed metal grates and features that seem a little too contrived, “Survivor” integrates these more closely into  the environment. Sure, Cal still gets around by climbing on scrap metal and vines, but their existence makes sense in the context of this game’s settings, like a High Republic fortress overtaken by nature or the stony ruins of an ancient cult’s temple.

“Survivor” splits its challenges between standard climbing and Force-push puzzles, as well as more daring acrobatic feats, the latter of which is where the game’s emphasis on movement really shines. Few moments compare to the satisfaction of making a risky leap off a zipwire, running breathlessly along a wall, and Force-pulling a rope at the last minute to swing over a gap. It doesn’t matter if the reward at the end was just another cosmetic, getting there is exhilarating in its own right.

That said, Respawn made some of these worlds too large and complex for their own good. The design is strong and movement is satisfying, but after 15 minutes of scrambling over rocks and running on walls just to see yet another set of similar challenges ahead, one wonders how much of it is necessary.

In most cases, some devious new enemy or combination of foes will appear and interrupt the monotony, though. Combat uses the same foundation “Fallen Order” established, with parrying and quick dodges at its center. Cal uses several lightsaber stances for different combat styles, including three from “Fallen Order” and two new ones. While some boss encounters feel designed for just one approach — usually the traditional, single-blade stance — nearly every fight in “Survivor” is open-ended and rewards imagination.

One could take a stealthy approach — confuse a foe and let them take out their allies — or pull everyone together with the Force and throw a double-bladed saber in a broad circle to end things quickly. In short, even standard battles are exciting in “Survivor.” It helps that the sequel introduces more enemy types and mixed mobs, from powerful droids to deadly wildlife, and moves away from predictable encounters and areas clearly marked as combat zones.

“Star Wars Jedi: Survivor” has unfulfilled potential, but it’s a significant step up in every way from its predecessor. A wider cast and heavier emphasis on storytelling make Cal’s second adventure more intimate and personal, and greater freedom in combat keeps encounters feeling fresh and vibrant throughout the 25-hour runtime. Here’s to hoping that Respawn remembers to give Cal some extra attention next time.

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