Video Game Review: Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

Dark Forces 2 cover

Kyle Katarn’s inclusion in the Expanded Universe might have started with Dark Forces, but he was cemented in fans hearts and minds when the sequel arrived two years later. From the debatable FMV cutscenes, the inclusion of Forces powers, a lightsaber, dark/light side endings, and multiplayer (which is still supported to this day) Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II significantly expanded from its predecessor’s now seemingly measly offerings. While not all the additions are executed well, I’m looking at you FMV and Force powers, Jedi Knight shouldn’t be passed up, especially if you’ve played any of the successive games in the Jedi Knight series.

Set just after Return of the JediJedi Knight follows Katarn on a journey to honor his father’s dying wish: stop a group of seven Dark Jedi from gaining access to the Force nexus known as the Valley of the Jedi. Guided by the recently deceased spirit of Qu Rahn, a Jedi friend of Morgan Katarn, Kyle uncovers his latent Force abilities in order to have any hopes of defeating the Dark Jedi. The seven enemies are led by Jerec, a Miraluka, who ripped memories from Rahn regarding Morgan Katarn’s knowledge of the Valley, and is responsible for both men’s deaths. With his father’s death on Jerec’s hands, Kyle must choose if he’ll go the quick and easy path to enact revenge or champion the light side to protect the Valley from being unleashed.

It all starts in Nar Shaddaa, where a droid by the name 8t88 betrays Kyle and steals his father’s data disk containing information on the Valley’s whereabouts. Kyle will chase 8t88 for half of the game (and, let me tell you, not being the one to dispatch of that droid is aggravating due to that) and then race to catch up and stop the seven Dark Jedi for the second half. Thanks to the gameplay and graphics improving immensely over the first game, you’ll want to see this game through, no matter how frustrating one or all the lightsaber duels might get for you.

Dark Forces 2 screenshotThe lightsaber: the weapon of choice for Force users and the most interesting addition to Kyle’s roster of weapons. While it’s a one hit kill for nearly all non-Dark Jedi enemies, drawbacks include limited range and (unblockable) incoming fire from behind. Rushing into a room full of stormtroopers, Trandoshans, Grans, or probe droids with just your lightsaber is an easy way to lose tons of health, but still survive the encounter. Most other weapons ensure keeping health, but make encounters unpredictable (and they haven’t changed the weapons much from Dark Forces). But the real test of being able to use the blade comes in combat with the Dark Jedi.

In the beginning, lightsaber duels will most likely cause you to throw your laptop/desktop/monitor across the room. Slowly, they’ll become walks in the meadows of Naboo. Blocking either lightsabers or blasterfire is largely automatic as long as you aren’t swinging the weapon or looking away from your attacker. The real issue comes in defending against your opponents Force powers. Yun is your first boss battle and you’ll have four useless Force powers at your disposal. At Yun’s disposal are Persuasion, the ability to turn invisible save for blue sparkles, and Blinding, where the screen blares white and it’s nearly impossible to see. With the abilities stacked against you, it’s a grueling repeat of your death and hope you win next time.

Dark Forces 2 screenshot (2)The second battle, which is against Pic (makes Yoda look big) and Gorc (a chubby giant), is arguably the hardest duel you’ll have until the end. Gorc can Force Grip you unless you’re near him or he’s dead, and at this point, you might not have any powers to block the devastating attack. Then when you’re trying to down the slow giant, leaping Yoda-wannabe Pic slashes your knees to death. Coming out on top is a resplendent victory and you‘ll be rewarded with new unlockable Force powers afterwards.

Depending on your dark or light alignment, available Force powers change. There’s the always accessible basic 4: Jump, Speed, Sight, and Pull, which don’t offer much help in combat situations but more for level progression. The dark side contains powers like Lightning (which is hit or miss, like real lightning bolts!) or Deadly Vision, where I guess you stare your enemies to death like the monkey in Chris Griffin’s closet. The light side contains…well, the only one that really matters is Protection, the game’s form of invincibility. Seriously, equipping this power is the easiest way to survive any situation, especially lightsaber duels, and that makes it feel more like a dark side power than a light side one. I beat Boc (Jar-Jar times a thousand) without barely lifting a finger. It makes the game so easy, it kind of feels like cheating.

Dark Forces 2 screenshot (3)However, progressing through the puzzles within the game’s long levels can’t be cheated. Whereas the first game’s levels themselves were confusing puzzles of hard to differentiate walls, JK is anything but. Each level is rather long, taking 20-30 minutes to beat on a first playthrough, but you never notice it due to little to no backtracking (something the first game was notorious for). Progressing is easier to keep track of for the player, making the experience more satisfactory. The only issue with the levels is their hints of linearity, something all games were/are/still progressing towards. Finding hidden secret areas not only reward you with health and ammo, but also extra stars for powering up Force powers. There’s still a sense of exploration, but it’s a funneled exploration. It’s not anywhere near some of today’s first person shooters, thankfully.

Speaking about creeping, it’s hard to find a word that could better describe the Full Motion Video cutscenes (FMV). For those not in the know, these are cutscenes pre-shot/recorded, instead of using in-game engine assets. In the case of JK, this means actors and rendered CG backgrounds/effects. As for the actors, if you have any gripes with acting in the Prequel Trilogy, please take a moment to watch any of this game’s cutscenes. Because it’s not the now shabby looking CG work that makes these FMVs hard to watch, it’s the lackluster acting.

Live Action Kyle Katarn

Jason Court plays Kyle Katarn, whose looks are the basis for all Kyle Katarn appearances since (video games, comics, action figures, novels, etc.), and he seems like one of the only ones to be having fun/doing a good job. I mean, when you play a Han Solo-ish character with Force powers, it can’t be too hard. Morgan Katarn and Qu Rahn, Jacob Witkin and Bennet Guillory respectively, also bring panache to their limited roles, as does Angela Harry as Jan Ors. But things go downhill with Jerec and the other seven Dark Jedi. I’m not sure if it’s just the material they were given (which doesn’t deserve any real accolades) or just their skills, but they all give varying degrees of pitiful acting. Jerec does this thing with his mouth that reminds me of Jim Carrey, while Boc makes Jar-Jar look like Obi-Wan. Their campy-ness is beat only by the 60’s Batman TV show, but that’s what makes these FMVs somewhat enjoyable. You’ll just never have as much animosity towards the PT ever again…you’re welcome.

Dark Forces FMV

Just as unfortunately, the choice between going to the dark or light feels rather arbitrary: killing civilians unlocks dark side Force powers and putting points into said powers might just turn you evil. In the sense of the story and character, the non-canonical dark side path is tacky, but it’s fun for a second playthrough (even though it happens VERY late in the game). More recent games, like the Knights of the Old Republic series, make both paths more worthwhile than Jedi Knight does.

But what’s interestingly strong is the continued support of the multiplayer mode. I didn’t get any time with the mode myself, but the sites dedicated to its survival are full of positive feedback. Next I’ll be reviewing the expansion to JKMysterious of the Sith, and will attempt to play some multiplayer. Otherwise, if you’re bored and wanted to give JK’s still thriving online community a shot (and tell me about it), this link has the specifics you’ll need: http://www.jkcommunity.co.nr/.

Here are a few other things:

  • The music is all John Williams recordings and even though they get looped and replayed across the entire game…it’s John Williams original Star Wars score, so no complaints here.
  • Interestingly enough, Bennet Guillory, Time Winters (Boc), Valerie Wildman (Sariss), Jacob Witkin, and Denny Delk (8t88) still have fairly active careers.
  • Any YouTube video containing Jason Court is full of comments about him being Kyle Katarn like, “OMG it’s KYLE Katarn!” Maybe he’ll get to reprise his role in a background shot at the Jedi Council in the Sequel Trilogy? I mean, it is what he is best known for and all. And he hasn’t really appeared in much since.
  • The civilians (NPCs) will run around aimlessly yelling things like, “What’s happening!” or “What’s going on?” It should be obvious with the blasterfire and the killing, but hey, AI can only be so smart. And weirdly enough, no matter what planet you’re on, it’s always the same thing.
  • You’ll spend tons of time in shafts/sewers/air ducts. Katarn even makes a comment on it.
  • The Valley of the Jedi backstory has been thoroughly expanded in the Darth Bane series of books by Drew Karpyshyn. They’re worth a read already, but learning how the Valley was created is a nice extra bonus.
  • The Katarn household is ginormous, but the deadly acid pits and water traps? Who has those? Must’ve been a really paranoid family.
  • You can switch between first and third person views at your own whim. I’m usually a third person view guy, but I’d stick with first person for this game.
  • Having owned this game from the original release, I can honestly say these recent playthroughs were the first I went without cheating or skipping a single level.
  • I own the disc copy of the game and played it on my four year old laptop with a Vista operating system (don’t ask why I still have Vista). I experienced glitches with the menus and the 2nd disc occasionally not being recognized as a game. A friend of mine purchased the game on Steam and hasn’t reported any real issues (he owns a similar laptop). So my advice to you is to get a copy from Steam.

 

Maybe it’s the campy acting, maybe it’s the level design, maybe it’s catharsis from vanquishing hard foes in limited lightsaber combat, or maybe whatever it is doesn’t really matter, because no matter the short comings, it’s hard not to find some sense of enjoyment from this game by the time the credits roll. If that’s not the definition of a classic, then call me Sly Snootles. So if you don’t already own Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, never played it, been holding out, or played Outcast or Jedi Academy, it’s worth your while to give this classic a shot. And to behold Kyle Katarn’s awe inspiring beard:

Kyle Katarn Beard

+ Expanded story

+ Level design

+ FMV

+ Katarn’s beard

 FMV

So-so graphics

Tough lightsaber battles

Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth. You can follow the website @MynockManor.

DARK FORCES/JEDI KNIGHT SERIES REVIEWS:
Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith
Dark Forces