Before Knights of the Old Republic became Star Wars fans’ and non-fans’ favorite Star Wars game, there was Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Developed by Raven Software (who are based out of my home state, Wisconsin) and released in 2002, Jedi Outcast follows two years after the events of Mysteries of the Sith, chronicling the further exploits of the bearded Kyle Katarn and his fight against the Reborn Empire. While it doesn’t inspire much faith from the slow to plodding opening, it’s once Katarn puts a lightsaber back in his hands where this game transforms into what I’d happily call the second best Star Wars game (for now).
But before I get to all the good things about the game, I want to point out my biggest disappointment: Kyle’s most pivotal moment up to this point, turning to the Dark Side and shutting himself off from the Force after he’s redeemed, was glossed over in the last game and largely forgotten in this one. If you played Mysteries of the Sith, you’ll know he’s currently Force-less in Jedi Outcast due to nearly killing Mara Jade after turning to the Dark Side. But MotS failed to show how or why he turned, making the whole Katarn without the Force just feel pointless and forced here in JO. Even worse, there’s not a single line of dialogue or a flashback sequence in this game explaining his reasoning for turning or why he’s currently Force-less, and so the ginormous Hutt in the room is ignored. While I know the decision for this was likely made to allow new players a jumping on point (the Prequel Trilogy was already two movies in after Jedi Outcast released and Star Wars was a hot commodity again) but playing this series all the way through makes this important point for the main character being glossed over saddening. However, this is largely a personal problem. And if that’s my biggest disappointment with this game, that’s saying something about the rest of it.
Minus the above issue, the rest of the story is pretty interesting. Set in the Legends version of 12 ABY (around the same time as the novel Darksaber) Katarn and his long-time partner, and lover, Jan Ors are back to being mercenaries-for-hire. Mon Mothma gives them a call to check out an Imperial Remnant base on Kejim on the New Republic’s behalf. Uncovering crystals that were being used to conduct experiments trying to give people the power of the Force, Katarn and Jan follow the crystals to a mining planet. There, Jan is captured and murdered off-screen (gasp! has to be dead for sure!) by Tavion and the Dark Jedi Desann. Realizing if he had the Force he might’ve saved Jan’s life, Katarn journeys back to the Valley of the Jedi to reconnect with the mystical lifeforce and vows vengeance on Desann. Desann covertly follows Katarn to the Valley and is able to start empowering the Reborn with the Force.
After Katarn retrieves his lightsaber from the Academy on Yavin IV, Luke Skywalker points him in the direction of a gangster on Nar Shaddaa who may or may not have knowledge about Desann’s location. From there you’ll meet and fight alongside Lando Calrissian (voiced by Billy Dee Williams mind you!), visit Cloud City, and get help from Rogue Squadron…to name a few things. While it has heart, it’s not the greatest story: lots of information regarding main characters is relegated to the pamphlet that comes with a disc version of the game, the whereabouts of several main players during pivotal moments is never explained, and at least one big villain only appears long enough to be killed by Katarn.
These oversights are disappointing, but it’s easy to gloss over the plot holes due to the sheer amount of fun this game makes wielding a lightsaber. No game before or since (minus the sequel, Jedi Academy) has had lightsaber combat this enthralling and masterfully done. Each lightsaber battle is literally a ballet of and to the death, ranging from hectic slashing to calculated strikes in seconds. It shines so bright, it practically obscures any and all issues you could even have with Jedi Outcast. I kid you not. For example: Sporadically spotty AI companions? Gives you more enemies to slice up with the lightsaber. Floaty controls? Relive your favorite encounters when you accidentally slip off the edge of anywhere and listen to Katarn’s one and only death scream.
Did I say AI companions? They make their first appearance in the Jedi Knight/Dark Forces series here in JO. With levels being larger, longer, and more complex than previous entries, exploring them alone can occasionally get boring (I’m looking at you Force-less opening levels). To save players from feeling lonely, companions come to Katarn’s rescue featuring the likes of Jan, the aforementioned Lando, Luke Skywalker (!), and several unknown Jedi. Jan and Lando are the more noticeably hit or miss AI buddies, as they’ll either assist you greatly with mowing down bad guys, or they’ll kind of just run around and regurgitate a handful of lines. Luke and the unknown Jedi, on the other hand, are an absolute blast to fight alongside. The moment you face 4 Reborn with Luke against your back is as epic as you might imagine it. But unfortunately, Luke and Katarn only battle together once. I luckily saved just before the encounter and replayed the 2 on 4 battle several times. The results were usually the same: Luke kills 3 and I got 1. Before Disney buying Lucasfilm, this was likely to be the only chance to see Jedi Master Skywalker battle, and it’s still awe-inspiring even with the Sequels on the way.
Less awe-inspiring are the floaty controls. Katarn will generally float more than walk, which really isn’t an issue until you’re running across catwalks and totally forgot to save recently, and lose 20 minutes of progress by flying off the edge just because you took a corner too wide, breaking your controller in frustration. I never actually broke a controller, but I did come perilously close to doing so on many occasions. On the other hand, this float problem actually seems to come in handy when you’re platforming by jumping, giving you lots of mid-flight control.
Another thing not to worry about is choosing Force powers and which to upgrade. In JO, you now have a set few Force dark and light powers mixed together that upgrade as you progress in the game, reflecting the game’s difficultly without ever making you too overpowered. I understand that this is meant to parallel Katarn’s duality in the Force as he feels the intention of using the power is more important than its supposed alignment, but I only learned that from the pamphlet. While I miss the choice on what to have for Force powers, the ones in the game’s singleplayer are the ones I largely used in the past entries anyways.
Lightning, speed, grip, push, and pull return, joined by mind trick and lightsaber throw, while lightsaber defense/offense also receive upgrades. Returning powers have been modified significantly, with the visual, audible, and physical effects more prominent and rewarding. Speed is no longer just a weird sound accompanied by fast movement, now the world around you warps and movement leaves trails because eyes can’t comprehend just how fast you’re moving. Pull can grab several enemies, bringing them right into your sizzling lightsaber to make stormtrooper steak for dinner. In fact, once you get to tier 3 for each power, it’s almost as satisfying as The Force Unleashed’s bombastic show of power.
Jedi Outcast seems to balance its power rather well, always giving you enough of a challenge, but never enough to completely overwhelm you. It’s not a hard game, I played through normal, but the risk/reward system associated with lightsaber combat can make the difficulty matter not. Katarn has three speeds of lightsaber swings at his disposal, from normal, fast, to strong. Fast can get lots of hits, but not a lot of damage, while strong has slow swings that leave you vulnerable, dealing tons of damage when a blow is dealt. However, at any given moment, no matter the swing speed, you’ll be able to deliver an instant death blow if you don’t just mash the swing button. As great and satisfying as that can be, your enemies can deal a one-hit kill in return. It’s annoying, sure (especially if you don’t save frequently), but that’s what makes the lightsaber combat so good: enemy AI is nearly on your skill level, making risk so rewarding…when things go your way.
I’d be remiss to mention multiplayer. Unlike singleplayer, you can choose from a wide variety of Force powers and also assign points to level them up. In the GameCube version, the multiplayer is limited to two human players though bots can join the fray. Around this game’s initial release, I didn’t have a GameCube (nor played many games on PC) so I relied on my friend and his GC. While I never beat the single-player back then, I can’t accurately give even a guess on how many hours we spent playing the multiplayer. Versing another calculating human being with the awesome lightsaber combat is an experience not to be missed. As for PC, there might be some dedicated servers still out there for anyone interested enough to take the fight online (this forum seems to be running a few), but it’s worth a shot since up to 16 people can play.
Here are a few other things:
- Force jump is now mapped to the dedicated jump button and this is quite the revelation. Switching from having Jump selected to another more important Force power in the middle of a lightsaber battle was a pain in DFII/MotS, and now a whole generation of gamers won’t ever worry about it.
- So, there’s this chick named Tavion in the game. You’ll battle her once. And that’s about all you’ll ever know about her.
- Speaking about underdeveloped characters: Galak Fyyar. There’s little to no mention of him throughout the game, but that changes once you get stuck on the Doomgiver, He’ll promptly show up, spill all his plans like a Bond villain, and be at your mercy seconds later.
- The Doomgiver is ginormous! The speed of which Rogue Squadron blows it up after the shields are taken down by Katarn is pretty unbelievable. I’ve been reading the X-Wing series of books and much smaller ships take a lot more damage before they combust and explode.
- They could make a book called ‘Where’s Luke?’ for his strange absence during Desann’s ambush of the temple on Yavin IV at the end of the game. If he flew himself to the Cairn station, couldn’t he have flow back and been there around the time of the ambush? The plot holes are strong with this one.
- I love the character design for Desann: it’s creepy and dinosaur-like. What I dislike is having to go onto Wookiepedia to get a better explanation of his role in the structure of the Reborn Empire. But I like that Waru’s involvement is only mentioned in Desann’s ‘pedia page and nowhere in the game. Darn you, Waru, getting into everything!
- The graphics aren’t much to write about (neither horrible nor great, just good) and make the cutscenes laughable from time to time. There’s a few CG cutscenes, but their just for ship flybys. Why CG wasn’t also used for strong moments like Jan and Kyle’s reunion (instead of the weird lifted hug they share) is beyond me.
- Not even two minutes after Kyle learns the love of his life is alive and well, they decide to split-up to get off the ship: “I spent the last 5 hours mourning you with vengeance, but it was nice seeing you again, goodbye.”
- A tricks and traps (fake walls, fire spewing totems, circus mirrors) section before actually facing Desann is probably the neatest part of the entire game. I wish there had been more sections like it.
- On Katarn’s approach to the Temple on Yavin IV, he’ll have the option to take control of an AT-ST. It controls decently, but the whole section brings the momentum of the story to a complete halt. While a nice addition, it’s not necessary.
- The usual assortment of weapons from DFII/MotS appears, along with some new weapons like an electromagnetic pulse gun, but I barely used them. You’ll forget about them too once you feel the fun of lightsaber combat, though the sniper rifle does have an awesome disintegration effect if you hit someone at full power.
- Cool and completely random moment: As you near Desann’s location inside the Temple, you’ll only ever face Reborn. Jedi will help you, but they’re nowhere near Luke’s abilities. I got stuck on a battle against 4 Reborn, where my surviving Jedi buddy was usually no help. In frustration on one try, I took out the rocket launcher, shooting a couple times at a Reborn in the distance. The Reborn deflected the rockets back at me with his lightsaber, but my Jedi buddy jumped in front of me and deflected them back. They had an awesome tennis match with my rockets before they finally exploded on the Reborn, killing him, and I was able to get past the battle.
Though it might be as full of plot holes as Aayla Secura is blaster holes (too soon?), I didn’t write my longest review yet just because I like to word vomit. No, fellow Star Wars gaming fans, I truly enjoy this game no matter its quirks. As I keep saying, the lightsaber dueling is so well done here, it’s worth dumping your cargo at the first sign of Imperials and picking this up instead. If you’ve played it before, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never given Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast a try, just do. Do go out and play it.
+ Lightsaber combat
+ Empowered powers
– Cookie-cutter villains
Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth.