Light side of the Force, or Dark? Blue lightsaber, or orange? Decisions, decisions...
What would it be like to be a student at Luke Skywalker’s school for Jedi? The return of the Star Wars Jedi Knight series to Nintendo Switch completes the September 2019 claim that a port of Jedi Outcast’s sequel, Jedi Academy, would launch in the first quarter of 2020. Aspyr presents this 2003 Raven Software title that originally launched on PC and Xbox, giving Switch a Star Wars action-adventure game that offers player avatar customization, an accessible suite of Force powers, and competitive online multiplayer modes. So, do more options allow for a better adventure or does it feel too forced?
In the Star Wars universe, it has been ten years since the end of Return of the Jedi. Following the events of Jedi Outcast and Kyle Katarn’s ascent as a powerful Jedi Knight, Jedi Academy allows the player to assume the role of Jaden Korr, a student who notably already has their own lightsaber weapon. Jaden can be male or female, depending on the player’s choice, but as they approach the Jedi temple on Yavin IV, Jaden befriends the recklessly over-competitive Rosh Penin. After the transport ship has to make an emergency landing, Jaden and Rosh discover a woman draining energy from the temple with a staff, which greatly concerns the legendary Luke Skywalker. Ultimately, Jaden and Rosh are assigned to train under Master Kyle Katarn, because they will soon have roles to play in confronting the nefarious Disciples of Ragnos cult.
Since Jedi Academy originally launched 18 months after Jedi Outcast, it’s understandably based on the same game engine, with many of the same gameplay fundamentals. The player will navigate a 3D world during missions with a variety of means to dispose of enemies, whether this is shooting weapons in a first or third-person perspective, or using a lightsaber and force powers in third-person. By completing assigned missions, players can spend skill points to access and improve additional Force abilities from the Light and the Dark side, allowing Jaden to become the Jedi that the player imagines. Weapon loadouts can also be customized going into each mission, which is especially important in earlier missions, as players will likely lean on shooting mechanics more, before Jaden’s lightsaber skills can handle enemy blaster fire appropriately.
Like Jedi Outcast before it, Jedi Academy is an especially engaging and believable Star Wars adventure for its time. From the music, to the character and location recreations, the LucasArts stamp of approval is easily apparent with the accuracy of the Star Wars iconography. It is also encouraging that the player’s interpretation of Jaden Korr—be they human or alien, in addition to gender choice—also begins Jedi training immediately in the game, instead of wading through tedious shooting levels, as Jedi Outcast’s first few hours did. The options for how to develop a wide range of Jaden’s powers, leading them more to the Light or Dark side of the Force, are welcome in this sequel. Not only does this simplified morality system change how the player can approach missions on future replays of the game, but the narrative also bends, depending on what kind of Jedi Jaden is becoming. Even the smallest touches, such as the limitation of cheap deaths, addition of reliable checkpoints, and a finger press icon to represent the interactivity of an environmental item, are greatly appreciated as improvements over the previous Jedi Knight game. Aspyr’s port work is also well done here as performance is stable; the portability and optional motion controls make this an ideal way for Jedi Academy veterans to experience the game today.
However, Jedi Academy also carries over much of Jedi Outcast’s baggage, in that it is a difficult sell for new players in 2020. Between slippery platforming, inconsistent hitbox detection for weapon fire, chaotic lightsaber combat, and questionable cutscene direction, the 2003 game experience does not hold up well, especially when young franchise enthusiasts are coming off of 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. As an example, players should prepare for a lack of a mini-map or compass for quest direction, especially when Jaden is wandering the snowy fields of Hoth or trying to escape the maw of a sandworm. Cinematically narrative action-adventure games have changed drastically over time and nostalgia can only fuel so much, when it comes to what audiences consider as a standard for how a game feels to control in 2020.
Additionally, it is also disappointing to only come across a handful of missions that directly advance the game’s storyline. In between those, the players are fed chunks of five missions to complete. While these are important to give players those Force skill points, they are the definition of busywork in both function and narrative purpose. As a result, these missions, which can be completed in any order, feel like padding and do not advance the story in any significant way. While Jedi Academy also includes a range of online multiplayer modes for those that want them, it is frustrating to find that these can only be played either solo against bots or against random human opponents. That’s right, it’s an online mode in 2020 that doesn’t allow for playing with your Switch friends, in addition to a lack of game customization options. What is ultimately an improved experience over Jedi Outcast can still be a trying game experience for new players on Switch.
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is a loyal interpretation of an early 2000s classic, now on Nintendo Switch. Once again with this series on this platform, the nostalgia is strong with those who stick by this as an example of what gaming should be today, but new players should be aware of what this game actually is, so that their expectations can be properly tempered. Jedi Academy takes the foundation of its previous game and uses player customization to provide polish and a deeper engagement with the story in a 10-12 hour experience, but it falls short in providing meaningful options in both side missions and online play. If that earns your purchase, then the question remains: what kind of Jedi will you become?