Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Hands-On: A Meditation on Improvement

Respawn’s second foray into Star Wars tries to reach a High (Republic) bar.

I remember playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order for the first time. It was at E3 2019—which currently stands as the last E3 event to ever take place—alongside game director Stig Asmussen. The gameplay demo wasn’t much more than its hero in combat against Empire Stormtroopers in a white box. A fuller look at the game had come a few days earlier, with a gameplay reveal at EA Play 2019. Still, it was a tantalizing look at a proper narrative Star Wars game.

When Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order hit later that year it hit some fantastic highs, telling the story of former Padawan Cal Kestis in the Dark Times between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. While I absolutely loved the game, it was clear that it came in hot. The mechanics pulled from other third-person games were roughly implemented and certain concepts were only half-formed. The concept of the Star Wars Jedi series wasn’t quite complete, standing as a Padawan rather than a Knight.

Four years later, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor doesn’t have the same problem.

Rebuilding The Jedi

Last week, I had the chance to take a look at Cal’s second adventure and talk once again with Asmussen, who returns as director for Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Not only is Cal older and more prepared for the world that stretches out in front of him, but Respawn likewise is presenting a more fully-featured version of the Star Wars Jedi experience.

Asmussen confirms this feeling when I talk to him about Survivor. “The biggest goal was to make sure that the team was focused on creating something that we could execute on, which meant building off of what we established in the first game. Not like dramatically changing anything, just kind of refining and elevating the things that we learned in the first game” he says.

He explains that the team didn’t want to tear apart the foundation established in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, instead preferring to lay new ideas on top. “We’re just going to keep on making what we’re making and just do a better job at it,” he says.

That’s immediately clear from the demo I played, which is a vertical slice that’s an hour into Survivor’s storyline. Following a job gone wrong, Cal and BD-1 crashland the Mantis on the planet Koboh, which seems to struggle on the galaxy’s Outer Rim. It’s immediately clear that Survivor’s levels are similar in construction to Fallen Order, but they’re much bigger.

It’s also clear that the shift to current generation consoles is paying off. When you crash land, the interior of the Mantis sports far more detail than its counterpart in Fallen Order. Koboh flips from the desolate crags where the Mantis rests, to a tar-covered ruin, to the crisp blue pools and green plains of the Southern Reach, and even a dense forest beyond. There are some amazing vistas that Respawn is obviously having fun showing off.

Survivor retains the gameplay of the first game, where you’ll move forward, opening shortcuts that double back along your path and encountering enemies and obstacles that you might not be able to tackle with your early abilities. Eventually, I found myself in the frontier town of Rambler’s Reach, the current stomping ground of Fallen Order favorite Greez which looks like it might become a home away from home for Cal. The entire location pushes forward the Western vibe that some of the best Star Wars is known about.


New Additions And Small Quality-Of-Life Changes

Some of the changes made in Survivor are small, but focused on improving playability. Cal is a bit more nimble than before. He begins the game with the double jump from Fallen Order, and he now has a wall jump that allows him to bounce back and forth between two parallel walls. Even better, you can combine the wall run with a brief jump or double jump, allowing you to use the same wall surface to gain immediate height. Basically, you can begin a wall run, jump, angle back toward the same wall, and continue wall running.

Cal also has the Ascension Cable, a new grappling hook that can be used to zip directly toward certain points on the map. Speaking of the Holomap, its clarity has been improved with your new BD Visor binoculars, allowing you to leave visible waypoints on the map to orient yourself. And you can get around that map much faster thanks to Meditation Points, which still refill your health at the cost of respawning all enemies, but let you also quickly teleport between unlocked Points as well.

Survivor is all about the bigger additions to Cal’s kit, however. In Fallen Order, Cal could switch between the single Lightsaber blade or the dual-bladed option, with Split Saber coming as a later tweak to the dual blade. Now Cal can equip two of any of the five available Lightsaber Stances: Single, Double-Bladed, Dual Wield, Crossguard, and Blaster.

“Each one of our stances, we want each one to have a unique personality,” says Asmussen. “Dual Wield is something that we brought on at the tail end of the game. It was something that we were planning on having fully in the first game, but we never were able to complete it and it was time to ship the game, so it ended up becoming a special. We knew right away that we wanted to feature that in the second game.”

Single is the jack-of-all-trades stance, able to deal with whatever the game throws at you. Double-Bladed is focused on crowd control and damage over a wide area of effect. Dual Wield is now the single-target style with the fastest attacks, allowing Cal to become a flurry of pain; the trade off is each attack is weaker on its own, meaning you need to be able to get a solid run on an enemy, and the style’s defense isn’t the strongest. There’s even a Force-powered auto-parry while you’re in Dual Wield. In the demo, the speed of Dual Wield helped me defeat a Rancor hidden deep within a cave system, as I could quickly punish every missed hit from the slow beast.

There were trees for the latter two styles in the demo, but they weren’t unlocked and instead Respawn gave us a combat demo of both. Crossguard has Cal’s lightsaber in the style of Kylo Ren, with heavy, powerful attacks that are super-slow, but can break guards.

Finally, there’s Blaster, which is the trickster variant in Cal’s repertoire. It allows Cal to deal damage at range, but also hit enemies with blaster attacks that trip them up. Respawn’s combat demo ended with a Blaster special attack, where our hero used the Force to raise a battalion of Stormtroopers in the air before marking them with targets and quickly blasting them all at once. Amazingly cool.

There are also a pair of additional Force powers Cal has this time around. He can use Force Confusion, which allows him to briefly turn one of his enemies against their friends. He also has Slow, which works as kind of a Force Super Move; Cal can charge the move up over multiple encounters and when it’s activated, it slows all the enemies in his vicinity. Both feel more like abilities aimed at giving more casual players tools to solve fights and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Customizing Your Cal Kestis

One thing that was readily apparent from the demo is that customization has been blown up to a whole new degree in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Lightsaber customization was a key feature in the first game, with players able to acquire different Kyber Crystal colors, Emitter, Switch, and Sleeve, and Materials to construct their own unique lightsaber.

This returns in Survivor, but now you can collect and customize the Emitter, Switch, Grip, and Pommel of both sides of the lightsaber, and it seems you begin with all crystal colors unlocked. Materials, which used to affect the entire lightsaber, can now be applied to each part separately. That means there are a larger amount of available forms your ultimate lightsaber can take. The only customization that’s lacking is you only get a single color for both lightsaber blades.

Cal himself also ditches the Poncho and Outlaw outfits from the first game. Now Cal’s outfit consists of multiple parts that can be mixed and matched, and the unlockable color patterns can be applied to each part. One costume set I noticed in the demo was “Outrider”, which looks like it was meant to evoke Dash Rendar from Shadows of the Empire. Keen!

“That was a lot of the feedback that we got from the players. They wanted more than just ponchos. I think the thing that we did really well in the first game is the lightsaber customization turned out well and players responded to that,” says Asmussen. “Those additions came in late on the first game, so we didn’t really have the opportunity to expand on it the way that we really wanted to.”

“Day one, we were like, ‘Okay, we’ve got four pillars of the first game: Thoughtful combat, Jedi exploration, Metroidvania design, and Star Wars story. Let’s add another one, customization.’ Those were the areas that we’re going to spend a lot of focus and time on, so we added on. We’re committed to making customization a big part of the game and that’s why you’re seeing it,” he adds.

Finally, BD-1’s customization is much stronger. In Fallen Order, BD-1 had a series of skins, but now BD-1 is like Cal and his lightsaber, with multiple parts, materials, and paint jobs. You can even set the wear and tear on BD-1, to make him look shiny and new, or old and busted. Basically, you have a whole bunch of ways to make Cal and BD-1 your own, far more than you did in the first game.

The High Republic Shine

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor still features Cal during the Dark Times, after the events of Revenge of the Sith and prior to A New Hope. Star Wars has grown over the past few years. Survivor takes place five years after the first game and 9 years Before the Battle of Yavin (BBY), which puts it concurrent with the Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+ and another four years prior to Andor.

Cal is clearly not in the best place during the events of Survivor. (It’s called “Survivor,” not “Thriver”.) He’s been fighting a losing battle, one that won’t be fully won for another 13 years. And the years have worn on him. In a conversation with Greez, Call himself admits that “Everything I’m doing seems pointless.”

It makes sense, because Cal doesn’t have his team behind him anymore, as they all went their own way. Only Cal remains in the fight, likely because of heavy survivor’s guilt. It felt like Cal’s story was complete in the first game, but this sends him on a new journey in a corner of the Star Wars universe that’s less explored.

Star Wars has also added the entire High Republic timeline to canon since Fallen Order was released. The period stretches from 500 BBY to 82 BBY, standing as a more fantasy-driven version of the universe. Survivor leans on the period, due to specifics of Cal’s new adventure and his unique psychometric ability, which allows him to relive the past by touching objects.

There’s also a new droid that hails as a relic for the period and I’m happy to say that the new addition is a lovely, lovely design that I think really sells the High Republic in a way that previous designs from the novels and comics have not. Respawn is getting the chance to play in and improve other playgrounds in the Star Wars universe.

“There’s always a conversation that’s going on. We’re constantly talking to Lucasfilm about other things that might be planned or in the works. Or things that we’re doing that could be used in other places. If we see opportunities, we take them,” Asmussen admits.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is shaping up to be a grand journey through Star Wars. If you liked the first game, this is more of the same, but bigger, better, and more confident. Fallen Order was Respawn grappling with how it was going to approach Star Wars, with a few tentative steps and hops. Survivor, at least from the few hours I played, is a Force-assisted leap forward. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is coming to PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series S/X on April 28, 2023.