The 1997 PC classic may be growing long in the tooth, but it’s still one of the best uses of the Star Wars universe ever to grace gaming.
Star Wars: Jedi Knight Dark Forces II is a tie-in that’s much better than it ever should have been. A rare anomaly in the industry, the 90’s classic uses the Star Wars brand to full, lightsaber-swinging, effect while mixing in the DNA of 90’s era first-person shooter design with the power of the force. Though it isn’t always the smoothest experience, it still holds up remarkably well nearly two decades later.
DEATH OF AN EMPIRE
A sequel to 1995’s Dark Forces, Jedi Knight’s story begins in the shadows of Nar-Shaddaa’s criminal underworld as we find Kyle Katarn on a quest to track down his father’s murderers. Learning that Dark Jedi were involved with your father’s slaying, this catalyst unravels a thread that takes you all over the galaxy, to your Tusken Raider filled homeworld of Sulon to the outer reaches of the galaxy as a fringe Galactic Empire is gasping for its last breath in a post-Return of the Jedi, Star Wars universe.
As these new abilities are introduced, so too do the environments and sense of scale begin to broaden, allowing players to stretch their legs with force speed and jump to traverse the many growing spaces and combat engagements you’ll travel through. As the player becomes stronger and more capable, the world’s scope expands to match it.
And with those expansions, exploration becomes a more important element to players, tying directly into how powerful of a force user they can become. Hidden stashes of weapons and gear across each level unlocks redeemable “force points”, which can then be used to power up neutral, light, or dark side force powers. These points add customization to a player’s experience and allow them to build the Jedi Knight or Sith Lord out the way they want.
A DARK FORCE RISING
A morality system also plays into which side of the force you’ll eventually fall on, with a “behind-the-scenes” tally being kept of the player’s actions as they progress. If you go around killing everything in sight — innocent civilians and enemies alike — you’ll slowly be moved closer to the dark side of the force. Show caution and dispatch only those that require it, and you’ll sway closer to the light side. This morality system eventually crosses into the narrative later on, locking players into the light or dark side of the force and the abilities that come with those paradigms.
Though innovative for its time, the actual nuts and bolts of the morality system throughout single player is a bit too ambiguous for its own good. Lacking the moment-to-moment feedback players need to grasp how
their actions are affecting their attunement to the force, the system’s only representation in the game is a tiny bar seen at the end of each level. Since there’s never any mention that this meter is the deciding factor in sealing your fate as a Jedi or Sith Lord, it can come as a surprise later on when the wise-cracking Katarn you’ve been playing as suddenly takes a turn for the Dark Side and tries his hand at ruling the galaxy.
Execution aside, it’s commendable that the morality system creates a narrative that gives players authorship of their experience, offering gameplay paths that eventually lead to alternate endings and a sense of ownership of Katarn’s journey.
Once an alignment with the force has been made, the game’s level design also takes the liberty of becoming overly complex to try and match the now complete suite of abilities the player has at their disposal, with sections that become too convoluted and switch-oriented. Annoying door puzzles involving keys create backtracking headaches and tricky platforming sections put too much pressure on pinpoint landings, inviting insta-death pitfalls players will experience frequently. Realizing that you’ve only collected 3 out of 4 keys once you reach the fourth door halfway through a level is a tedious exercise in patience as you backtrack through an environment to find that one key you missed. Just as frustrating is if you’re force jumping to a platform only to hit the ceiling you didn’t see above you and fall to your death. Coupled with fall damage, players can sometimes be their own executioner if they force jump from a height tall enough to kill them, contradicting the ability’s use at times. And without an auto-save feature of any kind, prepare for many grown-inducing restarts, as levels will place you all the way back to the beginning of a stage if you die without recording any of your progress.
They don’t make them like they used to, and Dark Forces II encapsulates an era of the industry where games weren’t interested in holding your hand or slowing down the experience so you could keep up. Though some of its 90’s design tropes are thankfully left in the ether of the past, Jedi Knight withstands the test of time to still be an incredibly playable and enjoyable experience today. It’s rough around the edges in parts, but the force is still strong with this one.