Darth Vader. You know him, I know him, and there isn’t another soul on the planet who doesn’t know him, which has become a real problem for the character. I often hear Star Wars fans excitedly describe Darth Vader as one of the scariest antagonists in all of pop culture, and I’m sure that, at the time of the original trilogy’s release, that was the case. However, as the decades have gone by and Star Wars seems to only grow into a larger and larger beast, those quaint little sci-fi films from the 70s and 80s definitely lose some of their magic. Unfortunately, I’ve never lived in a world that hasn’t been dominated by this mass-merchandised machine, so I’ll never be able to experience what Star Wars in its purest form, and similarly, I have never understood why Darth Vader is such a big fucking deal. Even as a kid, I didn’t feel threatened by this guy; he was just a funny voice and a goofy costume to my young brain. That being said, I can see why so many felt that way at the time. He’s a huge, foreboding figure, shown to be impossibly strong with the force and in a lightsaber duel. However, considering how dated those movies can be at times, I never got that impression myself. Now forty years on from the big boy’s introduction to the world, I had long since accepted that I was never going to connect with him the way I was supposed to. That was true for a while, until a little game studio named Respawn Entertainment changed everything.
WARNING: AWAITING YE BEYOND THIS TEXT ARE SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF JEDI: FALLEN ORDER, BEWARE ALL THOSE WHO ENTER THIS REALM
I’ll be quick on this point: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is really, really good. It’s surprisingly good, considering the number of factors working against it up to its release. Published by EA following the entire Battlefront II debacle, created in a worryingly tight development window, and appearing through gameplay trailers to be a fairly generic linear action thing, my enthusiasm wasn’t particularly high for this one prior to release, despite my love for the developer. However, after sinking a dozen or so hours into this gorgeously imagined universe, I fell in love.
I won’t go into too much detail since this isn’t supposed to be a review of the game, but one gameplay theme that I became attached to was that of combat mastery. Using the Souls-like structure of limited checkpoints and respawning enemies, you are often tasked with figuring out the most effective way to navigate each environment. The game is all about exploring and fighting a steady flow of fresh enemies, gradually escalating in difficulty over time. Throughout the game, you’ll unlock new abilities like force pushing and pulling, double jumping, and a range of lightsaber abilities as well, which adds to this feeling that, over time, you are gradually strengthening your connection to the Force and becoming a stronger Jedi for it. It’s gratifying on a gameplay level, since getting better at things is generally an enjoyable experience, but also in a story sense, since the player character Cal Kestis’s arc throughout the game is reconnecting with the Force and becoming a Jedi strong enough to be worthy of mentoring the Padawans of the future. That’s the entire hook, and it’s as good a reason as any to have a video game happen.
Throughout the game, you’ll encounter a recurring boss enemy: the Second Sister. You’re expected to fight her four times, though the initial three attempts are always cut short by a scripted cutscene. The first encounter pits you, an untrained, fresh-faced, emotionally turbulent Cal, against this powerful foe who just killed your only friend without a second thought. With your current moveset, you don’t stand a chance. This is the case with the second encounter too, which left me on my absolute last legs before being miraculously spared a quick, untimely demise at the last moment. The third encounter comes and goes almost immediately since the game requires the scene to go wrong for you and not much happens, but it was the final fight of the game, one last stare down that piercing red lightsaber, that blew me off my feet.
This climactic showdown was incredibly tough. The adrenaline that began pumping through my veins as I slowly but surely whittled down that massive health bar had me harkening back to some of the strongest fights in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (and if you know me, that’s very high praise). I probably had to retry this fight about two dozens times, every new attempt acting as an opportunity to learn the enemy’s attacks, the most advantageous openings, and most importantly, the most effective way to utilise the tools at my disposal. I had to bring together everything I had learned throughout the game in order to defeat the Second Sister, and defeat her I certainly did. By the end, hands shaking, heart pounding, I set down the controller as the following cutscene played – the game’s conclusion a reward for my efforts. I felt like a true Jedi Master, like there was nothing left to learn. That is, however, until Darth Vader made himself known.
The scene is patient with his arrival. First you note the terrified look on Second Sister’s face, a far cry from the intimidating confidence shown in her previous scenes. Something has reduced this assured badass into a scared child almost instantaneously. Then you hear the breathing, and you immediately understand the stakes. He walks into the room through a wall of smoke, positioned on a platform way above everyone else, establishing the clear dynamic of the scene. Even when he jumps down to stand beside the Second Sister, he towers over his subordinate. In a flash, he draws his lightsaber and strikes Second Sister down in a single hit, killing her instantly. This skilled, powerful beast of an antagonist who took me at least two hours to defeat is ended in a split second by someone even stronger. Then the game cheekily allows the player to fight Vader, though this is an unwinnable encounter. Every swing you throw is met with an unmovable lightsaber parry. He deflects your blows like a weightlifter fending off a toddler’s fists.
Mere moments after the most emotionally liberating moment in the entire game, in which you feel more powerful than ever before, that power is suddenly ripped away from as you helplessly attempt to save yourself. You get the sense that Vader sees you as nothing; a Rebel grunt merely inconveniencing his plans. There is no winning this fight, and this is shown when Vader immediately lifts you up with the Force, tearing control away, before tossing you aside like you’re nothing. He begins crumpling metal doors like paper and ripping up the floors to launch in your direction. The only way you are able to escape is by blasting a hole in the wall of the underwater base you’re in, causing sea water to overwhelm him, and even then a fate of drowning appears to be sealed before you’re miraculously saved by one of your crewmates.
There’s a palpable sense of desperation I felt throughout this entire sequence. Before Vader even appeared, I was riding an adrenaline high from beating Second Sister, so this entire situation transpired while I was in an emotionally heightened state. Allowing the player to fight Vader was a stroke of genius as well for a very particular reason which I feel was intentional. Throughout the game, you’ll encounter a number of touch melee enemies, but whenever the two of you clashed weapons, there was always a sense that they had to actively push back your attacks. You get the feeling that Cal is a pretty strong guy, evenly matched in a test of raw power. You’re normally evenly matched, and the winner would typically be dictated by whoever was the most skilled in other areas, either by exploiting enemy weaknesses, or by utilising force powers or parrying. However, when your lightsaber meets Vader’s, you immediately feel the power imbalance. The sensation is equivalent to hitting a cement wall with a stick. It’s utterly pointless; you’re never breaking through that. I loved this moment of realisation because it instantly filled me with dread. How the fuck am I supposed to beat this guy? What other ways could I possibly improve my abilities? Have I only starched the surface of my Jedi powers? All of these questions and more were racing through my panicked mind, not as a result of characters blatantly acknowledging it, but entirely through gameplay. It’s all well and good for a Star Wars movie to explain why Darth Vader is such a terrifying figure, but Respawn wisely chose to utilise the unique capabilities of video games, in order to make Vader feel terrifying instead. It’s a sensation that simply isn’t possible in other mediums, or at least not on such a strong personal level as this, and all of this shook me to my core. Suddenly, this bumbling idiot in a dumb costume became this very real threat, and I became fearful that my friends were not safe from his powerful grasp.
Bizarrely, the inclusion of Vader at the end of the game, executed in this particular way, became the best sequel bait I have ever experienced. I cannot wait to get my hands on Jedi: Fallen Order 2, because the Vader encounter taught me a valuable lesson: I am far from reaching my full potential, but I already know how good it feels to master what I have. I had a similar feeling beating Sekiro, like a drug addict desperately searching high and low for my next fix of deeply rewarding melee combat mastery. Jedi: Fallen Order scratched this exact itch for me, not just from a gameplay perspective, but a narrative one too. I want Cal to grow strong enough to take on Vader in a fair fight and win. I feel this burning desire to become the ultimate Jedi Master, and it was Vader that gave me the encounter. Most of all, however, I just want another Respawn Star Wars game. Jedi: Fallen Order is far from perfect, but the potential is certainly there, and when this team is clearly capable of crafting scenes of sheer perfection such as this one, I think we should be prepared for something truly extraordinary later down the line.