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Dark Forces was an unexpected pleasure in a lot of ways but I think the real surprise there is that it was genuinely innovative in its space when it came out, not just in its tech but in its approach to level design and narrative conveyance in the shooter space. This was especially impressive as Lucasarts’s first foray into a crowded genre. I theorized before that even though Dark Forces was in development before Doom came out, it was probably influenced heavily by Doom’s success, and it didn’t see its own release until after even Doom II hit store shelves – that’s a long time for a game like this to be cooking in the early 90s, even considering this license and its unique baggage. Playing Dark Forces II, then, made me feel like that hunch was uhhh extremely correct, because rather than feel like a real sequel to its predecessor, Jedi Knight is ALSO a game that has the vibe of a trend chaser.
This isn’t like, a dig or anything, of course; video games were changing very quickly in this era, and so were the tastes of their consumers. I imagine that in a post-quake world it would be a lot harder to sell another relatively straight Doom clone, even one that iterated on something as transformative as Dark Forces. The 3D-ness of the game omnipresent here, but I’m not also comparing it to stuff like Turok or Goldeneye, which it also arrives hot on the heels of, because it also has another strongly defining mark: PC Exclusivity. There’s shit happening here that would be just outright impossible on consoles in a way that even a compromised port couldn’t solve, like when Dark Forces 1 hid a lot of keyboard commands in a pause menu and scrapped most of the lighting effects on the PS1. Part of that is that there is a set of active powers that are if not necessary to completing most of the game, then at least necessitate real time action to implement properly. But everything being fully modeled, including your guy, for important reasons, puts a lot of demand on the game too.
That’s to say nothing of how much straight up video content is crammed into this thing; these cutscenes are already compressed to hell, they could not pull a Resident Evil 2 to put this on an N64 cart, I don’t believe it, Jason Court’s beautiful face would not survive. The mere presence of those live action cutscenes is itself a mark of the game’s inextricable Pcality. Jedi Knight arrived in this beautiful, crystallized moment in time between gamers foolishly deciding that pixel art was for losers but also 3D graphics couldn’t like, make a face look normal yet where a lot of PC and PC-adjacent console games were doing live action FMV instead of producing CGI cutscenes like they were doing on the PS1. Even as early as this game’s own expansion pack the following year we’ll stop doing this shit (that one might be a budget thing but 1998 is also the year of Metal Gear Solid and Half Life delivering at-the-time acclaimed stories entirely in-engine with puppetted models and it went fine!). So for only one beautiful game and what cane only possibly be a total of like 40 minutes of footage we get all these idiots rendered in beautiful live action, the closest thing to a Real Star Wars Movie this sleeping fanbase had tasted in fifteen years and buddy it fucking rocks.
Returning characters are definitely THEMSELVES but the VIBE is so so so different when I’m supposed to still take Kyle Katarn as the New Republic’s edgy buddy who does the dirty jobs but he is no longer the world’s most square craggy set of pixels but instead now 34 year old Jason Court with his feathery hair and loose shirt with a PERFECTLY TRIMMED neckline on his beard, saying all the same kinds of things he said in the previous game but looking vaguely confused most of the time and all gravitas totally consumed by an all-encompassing frat bro vibe that is iconic to the character now but obviously not intentionally and isn’t present in any other depiction of him. Every single character is like this, not at all embarrassing because of the complete and utter commitment that every actor brings to being a little bit silly. The very clear standout is main villain Jerec, played by British character actor Christopher Neame with an intense enthusiasm and dedication to just being a weird little freak, never saying words the way you would expect him to, getting WAY up in people’s faces, doing a lot of weird fucking sighing and moaning and just all around relishing being The Big Bad Final Boss guy in a way that truly you don’t get to see very often. But everybody in this game is like this, from his number two, the mysterious (and mysteriously accented) Evil Woman Sariss, whose choking gasp of “……….WHY” after she accidentally cuts one of her compatriots in half is burned into my brain; to Boc Aseca THE CRUDE (their appellation, not mine) whose thing is that he’s just a freak and whose actor is extremely dedicated to doing a Crazy Guy Laugh; to my personal favorite loser in the game – YUN, THE DARK YOUTH (again, I did not name him this), who is possibly the most homosexual character ever committed to Star Wars as a franchise, from Rafer Weigel’s smirking, foppish performance to the way Yun fights Kyle exactly one time and is immediately so committed to him that he would die only to give Kyle a chance to get murdered later rather than now, and Kyle spends the rest of the game fighting with Yun’s lightsaber! That’s gay, dude!!
All of these losers are introduced by a narration from uhhh, some guy? Some jedi guy who gets murdered by Jerec in the intro to the game and who is also guiding Kyle along his journey in spirit. The plot of this game is that Jerec extracts the location of the mysterious Valley of the Jedi from Kyle Katarn’s dad, and then kills him. This drags Kyle into a race with Jerec’s order of Dark Jedi to find the Valley, a burial ground for many ancient jedi whose residual spiritual energy Jerec vaguely plans to absorb so he can vaguely achieve godhood. Along the way Kyle is guided to resume the jedi training we didn’t know he had quit earlier in life and hone the force talents that Darth Vader comically hinted him to have at the end of the first game. There’s ultimately not much here, with basically the same structure of big cutscenes every three levels or so and occasional quips from Kyle during play, but everything is so endearing now that it’s performed with the verve of low budget CGI sets designed around real actors doing c-tier expanded universe novel plots that are kind of just playing the hits of what the residual Star Wars audience of 1997 would want to see, but it’s legitimately better than like, MOST live action star wars content including a lot of stuff in movies that have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars; more exciting, more entertaining, more fun to engage with, even as it’s also very simple and goofy. When Star Wars was nothing in the culture it could be anything too, and when it was this sometimes, that’s good for me.
It sucks how much I dislike everything else then. Level design is I think tangibly worse across the board, with the new engine affording an expansion in scope from what was previously possible and an iteration on some of the trends of the previous game but blown out beyond the range of what I can personally handle. I’m constantly lost in Jedi Knight’s bigger levels, partially because they are often bland to look at but also because they quickly become confusingly maze-like, less in a way that emulates Id design philosophies and more in a way that emulates motion sickness in me. This is exacerbated by the puzzle design, which was I think on the whole pretty well done in the first game, but is now leaning towards absurdity and obtuseness. There’s a ton of shit in this game that’s just there to Get You, and maybe that’s a timed level with hidden routes that make it much more doable or alternatively fuck you if you mess them up, maybe it’s hidden switches, or chutes that lead to a previous part of the level with nothing to do but wander your way back to the place you jumped down from. A lot more fiddling with switches without knowing exactly what they’re doing and making leaps of faith both metaphorical and literal in Jedi Knight.
Most offensive to me is the implementation of force powers. The powers themselves range from extremely situational to feeling borderline necessary to invest in. Some things come up rarely but in key moments like skills that specifically counter the skills that only the seven Dark Jedi bosses will use on you, but others like force speed and force jump fundamentally change the way you’re interacting with the world all the time and in a game where even with a lightsaber you’re gonna spend most of you’re time shooting guys in a late-90s engine, Strafing Faster is basically the best power up you can offer, while a fully upgraded force jump breaks the level geometry in ways that ARE intended but FEEL like you’re getting away with something, always a tricky balance for a developer to strike. This is all good. My big problem is that your upgrade points are directly tied to how many of the Level Secrets you find in each level and this sucks huge shit dude. Those things are deviously hidden a lot of the time and buddy I’m not gonna look up a walkthrough for Star Wars Dark Forces II Jedi Knight come onnnnn. This is the other half the puzzle design feeling more hostile, everything in the design feels just a little more hostile in that way that late 90s Lucasarts was just starting to get a little like, okay guys settle the fuck down. We all love the story and aesthetic in Grim Fandango but nobody’s acting like every single puzzle in that game doesn’t suck huge shit and the same thing is happening here.
The lightsaber itself is the biggest tangible addition to the Act Of Play and it slots itself into your repetoire beautifully; hugely empowering, completely transformative, and uniquely applicable to the way you interact with the world, it works on everything and everyone basically exactly the way you would hope that it would. They’re really smart about how they work around it, too, though. Creating a lot of situations with tight corners and narrow halls and enemy layouts where darting around in third person with a killer sword makes the most strategic sense and feels correct, often being subtly nudged into pulling the bad boy out, but just as often being so outnumbered or outgunned that the lightsaber becomes a liability and a more flexible set of weapons is more situationally practical. The lightsaber never feels like a crutch and it never feels useless, they tune the enemy distribution almost perfectly around it.
My last conflicted thought in the sack of conflicted feelings that is Dark Forces II is the game’s approach to its ludonarrative. I had a lot of praise for Dark Forces’ dedication to created a sense of place with the constraints of its level designs and game engine in addition to its cinematic elements. I’m less thrilled with Jedi Knight. There are levels here that are similarly impressive on that front, including the opening cityscape where you begin in the backrooms of a bar and make your way out of the seedy underdistrict of a busy metropolis that feels lived in, or a later level where you’re evacuating a ship that’s in the process of destructing. But then very shortly after this Kyle must visit his childhood home to, among other things, retrieve his father’s lightsaber, and we discover that Kyle was raised inside of a fuckin reality-defying labyrinth that would explode euclid's brain were he unfortunate enough to lay eyes upon it, one that barely resembles something people could live in at all, and that it's populated by dozens and dozens of tusken raiders, an offshoot of humans native to another planet entirely and not known to have ever left it, and you as Kyle will murder all of them. Really inconsistent with that shit!
That moment sticks with me as especially odd because this game does do something that I think is very cool and good, which is Have Two Endings tied to a morality meter. Unlike most video games at the time and still today though, Jedi Knight doesn’t tie your morality to big binary choices that you make for Kyle; rather it observes your behaviors – are you shooting the unarmed civilians that populate the game’s city levels? Which force powers are you using? You can see which way your meter is leaning but it’s entirely determined by this stuff rather than any big story moments where you’re an active participant. Then, when the big story moment comes along where normally you would make that choice, it’s taken out of your hands and Kyle behaves according to how you’ve been acting the whole time. You’ve already made the choice in your persistent behavior. That’s sick! So it is especially funny to have the friction of this stuff bumping up against the scene were a hologram of Kyle’s dad solemnly bids that his son use that lightsaber he’s just been given for the sake of good, as Kyle stands among the corpses of a ton of guys who didn’t really do anything wrong except move into a gigantic abandoned compound and then defend it from an attacker, having just committed basically the same action that only five years later will be implicitly depicted as the thing that cemented Darth Vader as on the path to nigh-irredeemable villainy in the short term of his life lol.
That kind of encapsulates my thoughts about Jedi Knight. There’s not nothing worthwhile here; there’s a LOT worthwhile here, actually. The game is really consistently doing cool and interesting things, it’s just that every one of those things is constantly matched or overshadowed by something that sucks or unfortunately the part where you have to play the game?? Which contains pockets of joy but the primary impression I’m left with is tedium. There’s fun to be had here but given the hoops I had to jump through to even get this bad boy to work on my computer I don’t know if there’s all THAT much more fun that you’d get from just watching all the fucking incredible cutscenes on youtube.
Next time - Mysteries of the Sith
Someday - Star Wars: Jedi Knight II - Jedi Outcast i think that's what it's called god the fucking numbering on this series goddamn
I’m a real fairweather Star Wars fan in the sense that I was deeply obsessed with it as a kid who was the prime age for prequel era stuff to be hitting real hard but how I interact with media and my relationship to concepts like fandom have radically changed over the years so that I’m not really the kind of person that big Disney franchise stuff appeals to. That said, I’m not like, anti-Star Wars; I had a great time with Andor and I’m the world’s only Cal Kestis liker (he’s nice! His ponchos are cool shut the fuck up!!). Something that’s really Activated the latent Star Wars fan in me like the world’s most annoying Manchurian Cnadidate, though, is that last year I started a podcast with a friend, a monthly book club where we read through all of the books by Matthew Stover, who has a lot of very good original work but is best known for the handful of Star Wars books he wrote, most famously the well-liked novelization of Revenge of the Sith.
So in the last three months I’ve read and talked about three really good books with my cohost who is a much bigger Star Wars person than me and they’re all occupying the old no-longer-canon extended universe stuff and man that shit really just scratches your brain. In particular was New Jedi Order: Traitor, the thirteenth book in its series set long after the original movies, occupying a similar narrative space that the current films and tv shows do but instead of interminable Disney franchise pipeline stuff they are trashy 90s sci fi schlock novels. Which is still generally very stupid, and very bad, but the WAY that they’re stupid is so much more unique, so much more propulsive and compelling as dumb art than anything anyone has made in the last decade for a franchise this big. It puts you in a mood.
This guy is that vibe personified. Kind of edgy but not really fake ass han solo luke skywalker in one dude ass guy in a doom game fighting What If Stormtroopers Had Black Armor And Were Big?? Fuck yeah dude this is the gamer’s star wars guy. His name’s fucking Kyle. But he does have a lot of character to him, even if it’s articulated mostly through voice lines during missions and the rare cutscene where he appears prominently. A lot of the story of this game happens around Kyle rather than to him or because of him.
But the fact that Kyle is such a distinct entity here is really noteworthy in and of itself. Dark Forces is a deceptively innovative game for something that looks like any other Doom II or Duke Nukem 3D like. A big part of that is how story driven it is. There aren’t actually that many cutscenes, maybe one every three levels or so, but they contextualize the missions well, and each individual mission has an extensive briefing beforehand that outlines everything in a lot more detail, written in character from your handler’s perspective (except for one mission where she’s captured by the empire and your goal is to rescue her – your briefing is absent because she’s gone it’s a great detail!). Missions have unique objectives and usually multiple per level that are all thematically appropriate to whatever you’re doing whether that’s stealing shit or looking for a guy to take hostage or planting bombs or finding evidence of a secret project or killing someone. This gives the game a different feel from levels that are purely Get To The End affairs, and the end NOT being get to the goal a lot of the time changes the way levels lay themselves out. Lucasarts was first and foremost an adventure game studio at this time and you definiteely feel that in the approach to puzzle design; you get a little bit of red key on the red door but there’s a lot of more esoteric navigational shit here too. Feels way more to me like Doom 64 than Doom II.
This game was actually in development BEFORE the original doom and coming out a year ahead of Duke Nukem, Dark Forces brings a lot to the mid-90s FPS table. It seems likely that Doom coming out would play heavy influence on this bad boy mid-development, but there’s a heavy emphasis on verticality in the level design here that’s explored really thoroughly through the 14 missions. Elevator puzzles, caverns, shafts, loops and cliffs, lots of different ways to explore this whole other axis of space. Platforming is a core part of this experience too and it works well. You can even like, point your gun up and down it’s wild.
The last way Dark Forces I think REALLY separates itself in this category of games (which I’m NOT an expert in and I know some of you reading are – please forgive me for not being a huge 90s shooter know stuff-er) is how aesthetically distinct it is. Levels very rarely reuse assets, and along with their distinct themes and objectives they all have distinct locations and visuals. More importantly than that though, they all try very hard to approximate real environments and the work pays off. These levels are abstract industrial spaces, they’re factories and mines and sewers and ships. Nothing like mind-blowingly innovative but it’s impressive how much these levels work as both 90s PC shooter levels and visibly true Places in a way that’s just not the case for most games like this.
It IS all in service of fighting guys called Darktroopers who are big stupid robots but that’s fine, really, that stupid shmooziness is a charm point, really. That’s the part that I WANTED from this game. The fact that on TOP of that it’s an extremely ambitious and completely successful shooter was a wholly unexpected surprise.
In 2021 and 2022 I made a project out of finishing every game I play, writing about every game I finish, and specifically reaching backwards for the games I was seeking out, trying to fill in some gaps in my knowledge and experience at the same time as I wanted to better my critical ability. I think I was more or less successful and this year I’m letting myself off the hook. I am still gonna play a lot of old stuff because I’ve found that I like all kinds of games, but I’m not gonna write about everything and most relevant to Secret of Mana I’m not going to force myself to get through everything just for the sake of completionism. I do like all my little series retrospectives and I find them educational and often fun projects, but goddamn. I don’t like Secret of Mana! Why would I do this to myself.
This is a big shock to me because I was absolutely enchanted by the first Mana game, a relatively simple but hugely dynamic work with a great central gimmick and just enough melodrama to match the restrictions of its platform. So for Secret of Mana to repel me so thoroughly that I gave it up after what a walkthrough would later tell me was only about a third of the game, a lot of stuff would have to really go wrong here.
These frictions are certainly not to be found in the presentation here – Hiroki Kikuta’s score suits the need for every moment and does it really well. It excels in the pensive bits but I didn’t hear a bad track in my time with the game. We’re really rockin’ it visually too, Square is famous for pretty much always bringing the heat on the SNES, and this game’s shared origin with Chrono Trigger isn’t just evident in its character designs but particularly its sprite work. The way people are built, the way their limbs flop, their emote animations, all hit the same notes that the sprites in that game do, and as cool as I am on Chrono Trigger as an experience you will never hear me say a single thing bad about how it LOOKS. Same thing here. Beautiful game to behold.
WHY is it LIKE THAT in my HANDS then?
Why does everything feel so sticky? Combat that once felt fluid and natural becoming awkward and stiff. The emphasis on dexterity in movement that was so valuable to the first game isn’t gone here but it’s so deemphasized by a doubled down emphasis on magic that is poisonous to the experience. It’s impossible to fully communicate how completely disastrous it feels to me to emphasize a system that fully pauses all of the action for five to ten seconds constantly to trigger effects that often also just remove characters from the fight for further periods of time. What are we doing. Why are the menus like that. I understand that they’re cute but they’re also a chore to navigate and more importantly the game is structured so that you have to juggle weapons and spells between three characters nigh constantly, so you’re constantly pausing to go through these awful menus on top of all the other ways the game slows itself to a crawl. Which is extra grating because THE Final Fantasy Adventure is a game I generally regard as like, extremely thoughtful about the way it implements items and menus. Perhaps the biggest indignity is that the attack bar fills SO slowly bro what’s up with that the gameboy game made that thing fill up faster as you progressed but that hasn’t evidently happened across several hours with this bad boy.
Not helping matters is that Secret of Mana, at least the way it was localized, does appear to be a game for like literal seven year olds in terms of the scope of its story and characters and the way it tries to deliver these things, which was just not true of its predecessor, which was on a hardware that limited both text and imagery and also made ample use of archetypal fairy tale aesthetics in its early goings but like very clearly was not so babying the way this game comes off as. And it’s COMPLETELY possible that Secret is waiting to spring some of the melancholy and starkness about how sometimes we have to live with the irreparable harm our fathers have done to us and to the world and that even despite this the world is worth investing in even as it must be mourned. But I think a lot of that sauce came from one really important guy on the FFA team and that guy was Yoshinori Kitase and when the SOUP that eventually spawned the projects that became Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV put Kitase in charge of one of those it was NOT THIS ONE and I think that’s like, immediately evident. My gut tells me that Secret doesn’t have a Marcie up its sleeve.
So that’s it. Secret of Mana broke my spell. I still like to do my lil projects but I’m not making myself do shit I don’t wanna do anymore and I’m not forcing myself to write about everything, life’s too short, you couldn’t pay me to write about every trails game are kidding me I would die. I sound mad but I’m not mad at Secret of Mana, I am only a hater. I don’t wanna take it away from anybody. But I DO wanna whine about how much I didn’t like the famous classic to my friends in private. Which I will continue to do. That’s kind of my last thought here I hope Legend of Mana is good lol