@SignalsAndLight on YouTube for video essays about game design, writing, and media. (^ link above)

Everything written here reflects my personal values. As long as I rate something above 2.5, even if I say a lot of critical things about it, I don't regret it and probably liked playing it.

Senior Combat Designer @ Crystal Dynamics 🎮
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I'm going to link my enemy combat design video series because so much of what's frustrating or disappointing in this game ties directly to what I care about most as a combat designer and why I created these videos in the first place.

Overall, Jedi Survivor takes the successes of Jedi Fallen Order and fans them with the hot flames of more and more gameplay scope, much of which does little to improve the established formula.

Performance Gripes
This game's performance sucks. It's not optimized. I waited a year to play it, hoping it would get better, and it did, but barely. The variance in how well the game could run in different areas (on an RTX 3080 and 12th Gen Intel i7) ranged from 15fps to 60fps, probably averaging 45 with massive slowdowns in certain areas (the worst was outdoors on Jedha, which was unplayable without me pausing the game to lower the graphics settings to the minimum temporarily, and it still ran at <45fps). It doesn't fully utilize my CPU or GPU (and I explored all the fixes players have tried to find), so it's a mystery how the studio employed Unreal Engine so poorly.

Environment Art
Aside from issues with clarity in level design and lighting (below), this game is GORGEOUS. The art is the biggest reason I did not stop playing despite my annoyance with its gameplay. The fundamental Star Wars identity is crystal clear, the fidelity and range of environments are beautiful to look at, and spaces feel engaging to explore even when the level design becomes convoluted or unclear. No complaints here!

Meh. It's not much of anything, it's barely even a story. The few meaningful plot beats are flimsy, the core motivation for the quest barely makes sense, and every time someone started yammering about "Tanalorr," my eyes glazed over. The characters are charming, I particularly liked Bode, but the game does very little with them. The immensely copious, mostly boring, and expository conversations with the various denizens that Cal can collect for his saloon also did nothing for me (other than stab me directly in the heart with the trauma of the KotOR Remake team I worked on having been dissolved). There's nothing positive to say here, but there's also not much negative to say because, frankly, there's nothing of substance going on in the first place, good or bad.

World Design
The maps are so big and jammed so full of collectibles that they border on being a 90s throwback. There are literally HUNDREDS of collectibles, most of which feel frivolous and time-wasting, with an imbalanced spread between the rare "Wow, that challenge was enjoyable to overcome to get this!" to the more common "Why on earth would you put this here? The environment is completely unreadable, and I don't feel bad I couldn't find it."

One of the core collectible types is just a faint blue aura, which, in some environments, looks exactly like everything else that is visible around the player at all times. One of the core collectible types is literally invisible and only conveyed through a response from the droid on Cal's shoulder, often tied to innocuous environmental objects that a player would have no reason to want to look at. There's a guy the player can meet who captures fish FOR the player, and one can only assume this was a fishing minigame that was reasonably cut from the game's absurd scope. Why can I plant seeds on a roof? This doesn't feel like a gameplay verb that is doing much of anything for this experience.

I don't have anything fundamentally against the overall design of adding a big hub world with lots of objectives to do, but outside of the critical path, Koboh honestly starts to feel like a huge mess the longer the game goes on. One big part of this is that the map is simply too big and becomes utterly unreadable other than "Did I go through this door before?" Beyond that, there are SO many "return to this with a new mechanic" moments that basically incentivize the player to ignore the entire planet until they're near the end of the game. At this point, I was exhausted with so many other flaws that the idea of trying to do meaningful side content (the actual quests, not just fetching hundreds of collectibles) felt like a waste of my time -- especially given the basis of PACING in a game, which is "evenly distribute side content alongside the main story."

It really feels like the scope of Koboh completely escaped the team, and they lost any sense of why a player would engage with it at any specific moment in the game. There was no basis from other games they were drawing on for this experiment, and I don't think the experiment was particularly successful.

The critical path in terms of level design, however, is generally... pretty good! The visual differentiation between various areas on Koboh was overall quite cool (though some are more boring than others), and the other planets the player visits at least have a clear visual identity, though were mostly less exciting for sci-fi locales. The level design of traversal was basic for most of the game until all the mechanics were unlocked, and from there, the game offered a few zones that felt engaging (though almost always straightforward). Some puzzles are fine but not impressive. There are a billion shortcuts, which feels convenient since I wouldn't want to replay most level segments even if I had to. They go out of their way to make everything so interconnected that a player who hates fast travel could never use it, which is certainly a choice in a game that's this big.

The level design would be best described as visually awesome but imperfectly conceived. The biggest flaws, as mentioned earlier, are in the side-path design of some areas where the environment art and lighting render certain paths totally unreadable, which feels like a knock-on from the game being too high-scope and the team not having time to refine their visual approach to player level design affordances.

Combat Design
The player has more abilities, attacks, and weapon styles, but all of these have some of the least refined animations and controls I've seen in a recent and well-received AAA action title. Combat is more chaotic than ever, with encounters involving up to a dozen enemies simultaneously attacking from all directions. However, only one of the weapons (dual lightsabers) can cancel from attack animations to block the constant staggered enemy attacks. The blaster and lightsaber combo is great for managing enemies (overpowered on lower difficulties, to be honest), but its sword attack animations are visually awkward and don't feel like something a Jedi would do. The "heavy lightsaber" is a neat callback to other action games, but it also makes zero sense given a lightsaber doesn't weigh anything, and Cal seems to be handling it like an 8lb claymore (it also doesn't feel well-balanced for any encounter with more than 2 enemies).

I personally played on the medium difficulty, which is trivially easy compared to the same difficulty in the previous game, after watching my roommate force himself through the highest difficulty with nothing but constant complaints. The team went from Souls-inspired deliberate animation-based gameplay with a good variety of enemies for the game's quick pace to something that felt more like pure chaos at worst and overly repetitive at best. Large encounters are just silly, with projectiles endlessly flying from 4 directions while 3-5 melee enemies take turns swinging within < 2-second windows one at a time, making the player's optimal actions "spam the block button and hope some of these enemies get parried and just throw out wide attacks as much as possible to try to break some of their stun meters." Small encounters are relatively fine but get pretty boring when the spread of new enemies stops growing less than halfway through the game.

Why does Cal have force powers when most enemies are immune to them for most of the game? The balance between "pure power fantasy" and "difficult and deliberate action game" is completely lost. On the highest difficulty, combat is just a slow attrition of throwing out safe attacks and ranged attacks because the enemies are utterly relentless, especially if fighting more than one at a time. It's optimal to mind-control enemies as often as possible, but then this feels like trivializing the experience and turning Cal into a coward even further.

In Dark Souls and Sekiro, the games that originally inspired this or were similar to it, most basic enemies have fewer than 4 animations to choose from, which are dead simple and easy to understand. Nearly every enemy in this game is capable of throwing out what feels like 5-10 unique melee attacks (potentially also ranged attacks, potentially also dodging) on top of having super armor as long as their stagger meter isn't empty as well as parry attacks they throw out after blocking multiple attacks. This means handling >3 enemies means tracking 3 completely different animations, and hitting 3 enemies means at least one of them will randomly pivot from blocking the player to attacking them. This whole "block and then parry and then attack the player" concept was brilliant in Sekiro where engagements are generally 1v1 (and the player can easily position enemies to fight them one at a time), but here, it's often optimal to use weapons with wide attacks to deal with weaker mobs of enemies and then just accept the punishment that one of them will probably super armor through it and hit you in the middle of your combo.

Oh, also...bosses? Mostly boring! Only the main boss was interesting. Otherwise, the animation quality and variety were just a step back from the first game. Most of the big creatures were very basic and largely annoying rather than engaging. They re-use "raiders who stole lightsabers" way too much, probably because it seems like they struggled to find an excuse to put lightsabers on screen with their story, but those guys re-used the same animations constantly and also had effectively zero weight in terms of story. I didn't bother looking for the bounty hunters because my friend convinced me they weren't interesting. VFX and animation timing clarity on many boss attacks also just isn't great -- all stuff that, again, feels like it suffered for the team reaching beyond their resources and time a bit.

Overall, the pacing and flow of player and enemy attacks just a mess. It's fine, it's playable, and it's not terribly boring or worth uninstalling the game over, but I just don't see a single improvement over the original game, nor do I feel like this team of combat designers has a great understanding of what makes the games that inspire them work so well.

I largely agree with one of my best friends on this: if the series continues on the path established by this game and keeps lacking refinement, insisting on a massive scope beyond what the team has the resources to polish, then I probably will not return to their games. There's a foundation of a great game between the cracks here, but it's remarkable how many steps back the team made from what was a BETTER foundation on the last game.

This is a game that feels like it demands a poetic and emotional review that captures what it made me feel, but the truth is I'm not super into narrative for those sorts of feelings. However, I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow breakdown like I normally do, since it does feel like a game that deserves more of an experiential reflection.

First, I must say...I am not particularly into witches. They're fine! I like them as much as any other fantasy trope or aesthetic, but there's a degree to which I find "real-world witches" kind of annoying. My own mom was one, so I think I'm allowed to feel that way without it being offensive to fellow queer people who happen to really get into "witchy vibes." I was drawn to the game on the art direction alone and hoped for something cool to come of it, but I was NOT expecting such a rapture of amazing worldbuilding. It turns out that mixing witches with sci-fi cosmic magic is MY FAVORITE? And while I might find it a bit misandrist that men can't be witches (and I also find it weird that there's an implication that a gender binary exists across the entire universe...), whatever, this was one of the coolest worlds to read through.

The characters had incredibly deep and embodied dialog, but it was their material existences in the world as it was described through them that immensely breathed life into them for me. This was taken further by the plot, wherein the protagonist impacts the lives of these characters in the most high-stakes and high-concept ways possible such that every time I played a card and picked a future for a character, at least one of the options available to me made me think "what the fuck?" or "that is so fucking awesome." Not every choice actually "changes the outcome of the player experience," but instead, every choice has so much intense dramatic weight and so much thought put into the personal and cultural implications for the character in question that it ALWAYS felt deeply meaningful to make a choice at all. This is definitely the most inspiring lesson I've taken away from a game in recent memory as it regards emotionally engaging narrative design.  

I'm not sure if I'll play it a second time any time soon. I've come to realize there's something about pushing at all of the choices in games like this that kind of makes the entire experience of immersion start to fall apart for me. Maybe I'll return to it one day, I am super curious how some of the other dramatic outcomes turn out. There are some REALLY radical choices the player can make, some of the most important being at the beginning of the game before they even have the context to understand the ramifications! Some might dislike this, but I thought it added an AWESOME dramatic irony to all of my choices, informing my later decisions with a level of investment I'm not sure I've EVER experienced in a choice-based narrative game before.

Incredibly cool, might go look for the other work by this team, and excited for anything they come up with in the future.

I may well one day write thousands of words resolving how this game is fundamentally opposed to every single value I hold dear in terms of writing and storytelling. The number of better works I've seen called boring or pretentious by people who would praise this game is nearly staggering enough to give me depression. It is what I feel is some of the worst writing I've ever seen praised in my entire life, and I would have truly felt I was trapped in a hell of my own making with how bad I think this is if it weren't for living with two people who thankfully agree with everything I see wrong in it. Beyond that, it may literally be the least fun I've ever had finishing a AAA video game (because normally I quit games I don't like, but I had to see this one through for reasons deeply personal to me)...but for now I'll just say this...

To me, this is as bad as a David Cage game, but if one took all of the deeply offensive conceptions of human beings, veiled hatred of women, and sloppy plot beats and traded them for a script that's 90% just the most bland exposition imaginable about the most boring story you've ever heard. It is utterly sterile, sanitized of any sincerely dangerous, risky, or unappealing emotion or human quality, saying literally nothing about human existence that isn't fit to tell a 10-year-old, all while being dressed up in enough Twin Peaks cosplay to trick someone into thinking it was actually remotely dark, horrifying, or interesting on its own merits. It is the epitome of a work demanding the audience finds it interesting while saying nothing interesting at all, and it's amazing to me how well that apparently works because it has good graphics and points a sniper scope directly at the specific weak spot in the human mind that says "this is really goofy and strange and weird, just don't think about it."

An award for "Best Narrative" is a crime against writing, and an award for "Game of the Year" is a crime against game design. Someone must get Alex Casey to look into this. I fear everyone who praises the writing or gameplay must have joined the cult that thinks Alan Wake is a good writer.