– Spoiler review –
Following up on successful games is never an easy feat (like moderately unsuccessful sequels Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike and The Force Unleashed II anyone?), especially if the previous game was Jedi Outcast. While Raven Software had set the bar pretty high with its first game in the Jedi Knight series, instead of trying to emulate it, they set out to change expectations with their sequel. Thus we were blessed with a little diddy called Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, a game that expands on Jedi Outcast in numerous meaningful and critical ways and falls short in only a handful of categories.
Jedi Academy takes place in Legends 14 ABY, just two years after the events of Jedi Outcast. Instead of series stalwart Kyle Katarn, players control Jaden Korr (a lot more on him/her later), a Force-user who constructs a lightsaber without any formal training, which basically acts as an instant invite to Jedi school with Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately Jaden isn’t alone, being befriended by the (enormously) annoying Rosh Penin. On the flight in to Yavin IV, the shuttle Jaden and Rosh occupy is knocked down by unidentified Reborns with an unknown weapon. Under the tutelage of Kyle Katarn, it’s up to Jaden to uncover the nefarious deeds of the Disciples of Ragnos and the Reborn Empire, stopping them once and for all.
Jaden and Co. soon find out that the cult group Disciples of Ragnos, who knocked down the shuttle, has possession of a specter which can drain Force power from Force nexuses. The decisions by Luke and Katarn to uncover the truth are questionable and they catch on to the Ragnos’ cults’ scheme far too late, leaving seemingly everything in the hands of their newest apprentice Jaden. The story isn’t the strongest of the series (not like story or character development were ever very strong with this series anyways), largely due to the mission based structure compared to story based mission structure of the previous entries. Besides only four main story missions, time is largely spent on side missions (very) loosely tied into the overall narrative. Players have 5 selectable side missions (“official Jedi business”) to be played in any order and upon beating 4 of them, the option to either finish one more or continue the story is presented. Even though this new mission structure allows for tons of variety, it’s Jedi Academy’s most polarizing feature.
I took a week and a half break from JA to play a different game (The Last of Us nonetheless) and when I returned, it was as easy to pick up the game’s story as if I just unpaused the whole thing like some movie. The 15 side missions range from a few minutes in length to almost an hour, each one providing different experiences. Jaden will race swoop bikes, get stuff blown up by placing markers for Wedge to target with his X-wing, escape a mutated Rancor while battling multiple Reborn, be hunted by a self-appointed Imperial Warlord, go one on one with Boba Fett, and experience Tremors Star Wars style. As great as all the variety is, it’s all so disconnected with the narrative that the overall games feels like a smattering of experiences loosely held together by Katarn or Luke telling Jaden “this thing is important” and “the bad guys must be stopped” but tend to ignore their advice anyways.
In fact, the games pivotal moment where you choose either the light or the dark side of the Force revolves around Jaden’s friendship with the whiney Rosh. Outside a few cutscenes and one mid game lightsaber duel, there’s not nearly enough time spent with these characters together for it ever to feel like they were friends in the first place. Jaden is supposed to feel betrayed by his friend Rosh (due to his off-screen turn to the dark and subsequent setting Jaden up in a trap) and must choose to either forgive him or punish him, but you’ll feel like making a choice only because you have to, not because you want to. I just went ahead and saved the game, choose light, and returned after beating it to choose dark. There’s no other choice based gameplay (no matter how many times Luke chimes in after the main missions to comment on your Force power choices) to really warrant another full playthrough to experience the opposite ending of your first choice. Sure, all the random and unique missions do warrant playing again, but it’s to see how to play them differently, not to experience anything new. The previous games benefitted from a narrative push, while JA can be lazily tackled at your own will (which can be great if you lack tons of free time).
All the above doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun; in fact, it’s even more enjoyable than Jedi Outcast (I said it, so what?). Here’s where Raven’s changes to formula really paid off: the gameplay. Where JO had great lightsaber combat, JA has simply amazing lightsaber combat. From fancy acrobatic moves, a larger list of Force powers, and the ability to upgrade Jaden to either dual-wield or double-bladed lightsabers, things take a turn for the insanely fun. If each encounter in JO felt breathtaking and exhilarating to you, you’re in for a treat with JA: it somehow got even better. Nothing makes you feel more serene than dispatching 4 dual-wielding Reborn while a Force-only wielding Reborn pesters you on the outskirts. At the same time, nothing makes you feel more incompetent than being cut down by a simpler opponent. But the chance and skill required to come out top is severely addicting and the final levels, where you’ll be up against primarily lightsaber opponents, outshines any of the previous games.
The different enemy classes also help spice up lightsaber duels: Force-only, basic, shadowtrooper (single/dual/or double-bladed) and Juggernaut (no joke, they totally look like the Juggernaut right down to the large helmet, insane strength, and plodding moment). Each class forces you to change strategies on the fly as they appear. The first time a Force-only joins a battle, it threw me for a loop and I had to quickly decide who had to be dispatched first (later on, if you choose to fully level up lightening, killing Force-only is simple business) as either could be just as deadly to you. Juggernauts are arguably the hardest enemies you’ll face (minus the final dark-side ending boss) and any victory against them feels more like chance than skill. I could wax poetic about lightsaber dueling in JA all day, but to sum it all up: once you experience it, you’ll never go back.
The ability to choose which Force powers you want to have and power-up returns (though core powers still level-up progressively), some of which can change your experience throughout the game. Shield-type powers like Protect and Absorb are great if you’re a gung-ho, rush into encounters style player (that’s me!) or if you’re tired of being choked and unable to franticly select Push or Pull to counteract it in time and die too often. One thing I liked was how, true to their philosophies, light side powers are defensive in nature, while dark side powers are offensive which leads me to an interesting side-note: since Katarn is your teacher, he preaches early on in your one and only training session at the academy that no power is inherently one side or the other…it just depends on how you use it. I like that. You’ll have a hard time beating the game if you choose only defensive powers and by then end I was primarily zapping fools and throwing Reborn off ledges to their dooms instead of trying to Mind Trick anyone. You’ll be unable to level-up every power (unless you use cheats of course) but the only way to get the max amount of points in a playthrough is to play every mission.
Vehicles play a bigger part of missions in Jedi Academy, instead of the one AT-ST section in JO. You’ll pilot everything from swoop bikes (that look ripped right from Shadows of the Empire), AT-STs again, and even tauntauns. And no matter which one you’re in control of they all handle rather poorly, making their inclusion questionable. Swoop bikes bring the most fun out of all the vehicles you’ll use, as a simple side-swipe with Jaden’s lightsaber dispatches any foe and brings a whole new meaning to jousting. However, the random deaths of the AI pursuers highlights the difficulty of controlling as you’ll be stuck joining them plastered against walls occasionally.
But nothing can be more annoying than ADHD afflicted AI partner Kyle Katarn (well, okay, Rosh Penin can be). He’ll accompany you on several missions, but it’s not really till Vjun (one of Vader’s abandoned strongholds) that he finally fights by your side. He’ll flip from badass Jedi Master, roasting fools and chopping off limbs in his sleep, to standing around by enemies trying to chat them up for their Holonet numbers. Seriously, he’ll sometimes forget you’re in the middle of a battle and just go stand off in a corner, spouting the same line of dialogue in quick succession, “You’re joking, right?” in a flippant manner. Then, he’ll start taking your kills like some online troller. It’s hard to stay mad at him with that beard though. Also joining your side will be the occasional random Jedi in the final levels (if you choose the light side, of course) who are all rather competent or there’s even a level with Chewbacca, who is the only companion I’d have wanted for the rest of the game.
Enemy AI is rather aggressive, sometimes following you through levels, other times venturing no further from their spawn point as if they’re tied down to the spot. The only truly disappointing enemy AI is Tavion (yup, the still underdeveloped gal Kyle didn’t kill in JO) and being the final light side boss means she should’ve been more challenging, even when possessed by the spirit of Marka Ragnos. If you choose the dark side, you’ll face all the Reborn and Jedi in the final two levels, followed by the toughest boss: Kyle Katarn (beware of hand cramping!). Trooper AI, from the basic stormtroopers to giant Dark Trooper baddies is pretty hit or miss and just there for the slaughter. It’s the jetpack wearing dark troopers that’ll give you the most grief if you tend to forget about the other weapons in your armada besides the lightsaber.
But let’s not forget Jedi Academy’s online multiplayer offerings. I guess there’s a few different game modes, but any game I joined were mostly modded stages and game objectives. It seems the community is alive and thriving well though, much more so than Dark Forces II/ Mysteries of the Sith/ or Jedi Outcast and you’ll easily be able to hop into a multitude of games. My favorite mode played was Power Duel, where two players team up on one, with the lone combatant given more health and Force to help offset things. Since I love the dueling so much, this was a perfect mode for me.
And now some words on Jaden Korr. JA allows you to customize Jaden’s appearance, from the basic gender roles to a smattering of species, allowing you to personalize the experience. 7 years later, an EU/Legends book called Crosscurrent put Jaden in the main role and fleshed out his character quite a bit but made his canonical appearance the standard human male (go figure!). Despite that choice, I thoroughly enjoyed Crosscurrent and its sequel Riptide, written by Paul S. Kemp nonetheless, and they make Jaden an actually interesting character unlike in this game. I’d highly recommend these books, even if you never played Jedi Academy.
Here are a few other things:
- Jedi Academy had the misfortune of releasing in the same year as some little game called Knights of the Old Republic and seems to be overshadowed occasionally by it.
- The mod scene is strong with this one. I didn’t get around to installing any before this review went up, but here’s a list of ones I was/am considering downloading, especially the movie battle ones.
- The music is still awesome John Williams, but the lack of original compositions shows as the same musical pieces are reused across several levels. His score is amazing, but it’s not able to withstand the power of repetition.
- Marka Ragnos, who you’ll meet in spirit form briefly, comes off as a Scooby-Doo villain and nothing more (though the EU expands on him further). Why Tavion, the cult, or their Remnant buddies wanted to revive him is beyond me and, come to think of it, never really revealed in the game. Just chock it up to bad people doing bad/stupid things I guess.
- Force sense returns to single-player, assisting you with the (weak but welcomed) puzzles and allowing you to see enemy health, which can adjust your strategy for an engagement occasionally (at least it did for me).
- Unlike JO’s large levels that quickly felt empty, areas that you clear out of enemies don’t always stay empty upon return.
- I actually played Jedi Academy upon its initial release and I did have a weird sense of déjà vu through most of the game. But for some reason, the only level I remembered with any clarity was the Tremors’ worm level.
- Idle trooper banter is always hilarious.
- Some bosses are easily defeated if you simply find a spot where they are unable to hit you but you can hit them. It’s boss fight 101 but it’s possible more here than I’d like to admit.
- The good graphics highlight the different and distinctive environments across the dozens of worlds you’ll explore.
I’ll never tell if I cried, but I certainly was sad to see Kyle Katarn get put to the sidelines this time around (especially since his EU presence is relegated to cameos from this point on), but Jaden led a rather solid and fun journey anyways. Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy manages to outshine its predecessor’s high bar to an extent, and if you can look past the minimal and disjointed story, this is one of best Jedi action game experiences to date. And as this was probably the last Jedi Knight game to be made, you have to at least give Jedi Academy or Outcast a shot. Thank me later.
+ Lightsaber combat
+ Mission variety
+ Force power choices
+ Online still strong/mods
– Lack of narrative focus/push
– Vehicle sections
– Rosh Penin
Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth.