A long time ago… (1997 to be exact.)
Well, here it is, the retro reflection of my all-time favourite video game. For this one I’d like to start from the very beginning, if I may…
My very first video game experience was playing Wolfenstein 3D back on my dad’s old Windows 95. At the time I was about 4 years old and it was around the same time that I had just watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (the special edition one) at the cinema. This was, as it turned out, a seminal moment for me, as it sparked my lifelong love for video games, movies and of course Star Wars. I was totally engrossed in those films as a kid and when I wasn’t watching them (which I did several times a day), I was playing Wolfenstein. My dad seemingly noticed this and instead of telling me to go and play outside like a real boy, he decided to do quite the opposite – he bought me Star Wars: Dark Forces. Now, if you are unfamiliar with Dark Forces, it is similar to Wolfenstein and Doom but set in the Star Wars universe and because of this, I found it way more fun than either of those games. But this was nothing compared to how much I loved the sequel that this game spawned.
One of many masterpieces from the (sadly) now defunct development studio at LucasArts, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II was a revelation to me. It was the first video game I played that also had a gripping narrative. Set one year after the events of Return of the Jedi, it tells the story of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary who finds out his father has been killed by a band of ‘Dark Jedi’ over the location of the mythical ‘Valley of the Jedi’. The player then takes control of Kyle and guides him through a journey of self-discovery that ultimately leads him to the valley to confront his father’s killers. What I love about the story is that, however you want to sugar-coat it, it is essentially a tale of revenge and Kyle doesn’t abide by the strict Jedi code. Instead he intends to avenge his father’s death by any means necessary, meaning he is willing to tap into his own dark side (but more on that later).
Kyle is also the protagonist of the original Dark Forces game, where he worked as a spy for the rebels; but that was a much more straightforward affair, with not much of a narrative to speak of. Jedi Knight on the other hand, sees Kyle develop from a petty mercenary into; you guessed it, a fully-fledged Jedi knight. What I love most about his character is that he’s like a combination of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; he is the lovable rogue that becomes a Jedi – the best of both worlds, as they say. Most other Star Wars games at the time featured characters from the films or simply unnamed pilots; whereas when you meet Kyle, you don’t know his story and more importantly, you are unaware of his ultimate fate – which gives the player all the more reason to empathise with his cause.
Jedi Knight took the FPS system used in Dark Forces and revamped it to include mechanics for a Lightsaber and Force powers. Abilities such as Force Jump and Force Speed had to be utilised for the player to progress through certain areas of the game, which gave Jedi Knight more of a platformer feel than its predecessor. The Lightsaber also came in handy by cutting through panels and lighting dark areas, when you weren’t busy slicing through stormtroopers, that is. Although the game is primarily focused around combat, boasting a wider array of weapons than Dark Forces, Jedi Knight also has a heavy emphasis on puzzle and platforming sections. Where Dark Forces was extremely linear, Jedi Knight actually encourages exploration and features multiple branching pathways to access most areas.
The wide variety of enemies in Jedi Knight is staggering.
The wide variety of enemies in Jedi Knight is staggering. During the 15-hour adventure I encountered all kinds of Thugs, Bounty Hunters, Imperials, Robots and creatures of the night. The sheer excitement of turning a corner and not knowing what the game will throw at you is definitely one of Jedi Knight’s charms. The terror I felt the first time I was thrown into a dark pit with a Krayt Dragon was unforgettable.
Amongst the eclectic mix of bad guys are the aforementioned seven Dark Jedi. Led by Jerec, the blind master, they seek the galaxy’s most powerful surge of force energy located in the hidden Valley of the Jedi. They are a group of particularly nasty individuals that all have a certain special something they bring to the table. Maw has the ability to levitate for instance, whereas Boc, the joker of the group, possesses lightning fast speed; each of the seven have their own unique set of challenges for you to overcome and I must say, they are all insanely hard! Oh, and they travel around on a ship that’s 19km long called the “Vengeance.” Seriously, they’re bad-ass.
I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing
After each chapter of the story, the player is awarded a set number of ‘force stars’ that they can use to upgrade their arsenal of force powers or unlock completely new ones. There is a wide array of both light and dark side powers to choose from, such as Heal, Absorb, Choke and Lightning. However, your alignment with the force will change depending on which powers you choose and if you opt to aid or destroy civilians during the course of the game. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the player, these seemingly minor decisions culminate about three quarters into the story when Kyle is faced with a choice: does he walk the path of the Jedi, or take a route much darker? As it turns out, this decision is determined for you by the choices you made up until this point. If you turn to the dark side (as I did the first time), it completely alters the course of the story and you wind up with an entirely different ending. Even though I was annoyed at the time, I came to realise that this was such an ingenious addition to the game; it tested your personality and how you chose to deal with the challenges it threw at you. Many video games have since copied and expanded on this technique.
Sound is definitely one of Jedi Knight’s strong points. A special mention goes to the cast, especially Jason Court, who voiced Kyle and also portrayed him in the (awesome) live-action cutscenes. Court manages to play Kyle with just the right blend of seriousness and subtle humour that allows the player to really connect with the character, without the acting becoming too hammy. A lot of the sound effects are taken straight out of the films and even John Williams’ masterful score managed to make its way into the game, as oppose to the bleepy MIDI soundtrack from the original Dark Forces. All of these elements come together to create an incredibly immersive experience; whether I was racing through the Imperial City of Barons Hed or creeping within my father’s eerily still home on Sulon, the sound just made every atmosphere that much more tense and exciting.
The game also boasts a really fun multiplayer mode; granted I was a little kid when I used to play it, so I constantly got my ass handed to me, but it was thoroughly enjoyable none the less. It featured the usual tropes such as ‘Deathmatch’ and ‘Capture the Flag’ which was all well and good, but it was the character creation section that I remember most fondly. Along with the in-game characters, you could also play as characters from the films and comic books, running around as Boba Fett or Red Eye looked insanely cool back in the day. You could even customize the colour of your Lightsaber, seeing C3P0 running around with a pink saber never failed to put a smile on my face.
Who’s Scruffy Looking?[blockquote_right]This wasn’t due to jump scares, Jedi Knight is far from a horror game; it was because the atmosphere in each setting was so incredibly intense…[/blockquote_right]
The main reason I think Jedi Knight is so good, is it’s almost ‘accidental’ sense of immersion. Now, don’t get me wrong, the game was meant to be immersive; the music, sound effects and voice acting all did a fine job at making sure of that. However the limitations in technology back in 97’ meant that lifelike visuals were still pretty far away. Therefore, LucasArts came up with some genuinely inspired art direction to get around these problems; using vivid colours and lighting and shadow techniques, as well as some creative camera angles they managed to create aesthetics that actually did wonders for the game. I remember playing this when I was a kid and being freaked out as I crept around the dark alleyways of Nar Shaddaa, frightened to death that a Rodian would jump out in front of me. This wasn’t due to jump scares, Jedi Knight is far from a horror game; it was because the atmosphere in each setting was so incredibly intense, due to a combination of the excellent sound design and art direction.
Great, Kid. Don’t Get Cocky.
Now, the reason I have chosen to reflect upon Jedi Knight as opposed to its more critically acclaimed sequels, is that in my opinion – the follow-ups just weren’t as good. I simply cannot understand why critics praise Jedi Outcast as the defining game of the series. The story wasn’t anywhere near as engrossing; I mean, seriously, who thought that Desann was a good idea for a villain? A big, purple dinosaur; he’s just Barney with a Lightsaber!
Also, in my opinion the better graphics engine in Jedi Outcast was a double-edged sword, as although it ran a lot smoother, it was a very bland looking game, ultimately making for a less immersive experience. It simply lost the unique charm that Jedi Knight had.
LucasArts also developed an expansion for Jedi Knight, entitled Mysteries of the Sith, which is just as good as Jedi Knight. The only difference in quality is that MotS features no live action cutscenes, instead it just uses the in-game engine. This causes it lose a bit of the atmosphere and charm of its predecessor, but it manages to hit every other note perfectly. It introduced some key characters from the (now defunct) Expanded Universe such as Mara Jade (Luke Skywalker’s wife) and lets you explore all new locations as you take on the Empire, the Hutts and a whole host of space pirates. This expansion also features one of the greatest (and hardest) final acts I’ve ever come across; you battle abominations such as Sith zombies and what can only be described as ‘giant flying unicorn wolves’ in a swampy Sith temple on Dromund Kaas – with only a lightsaber in hand.
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is still to this day my favourite game of all time and is the reason I became obsessed with video games. I, along with many others, still hold out hope that the series will return in some capacity in the future. If you’ve never managed to play it before, it’s only about £3 on steam… So I urge you, to stop what you are doing and go and play it!