Blog 880: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

If I said that Star Wars: Dark Forces would have made a perfect film, then it’s no surprise that its sequel basically just went ahead and made a film. Yes, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is the one with the live-action cinematics, supplanting the hand-painted characters of the first game’s cutscenes with proper costumed actors.

Dark Forces ended with a distantly observing Darth Vader asserting that “the force is strong with Kyle Katarn.” Let’s find out just how strong, shall we?

Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

While the fresh digital download I picked up off gog was broadly functional on Windows 7, I did see a lot of nasty graphic artefacts; most particularly the “Hall of Mirrors” effect anywhere there should have been a sky. While Dark Forces runs inside DOSBox and so is completely insulated from the vagaries of modern graphics drivers, its sequel, alas, is not. I’m sure you know how much I love a good game skybox, so I wasn’t willing to let this slide.

Traditionally this would have been time to break out the XP machine, but that didn’t like 3D acceleration at all! And was I about to play in software rendering, only 8-bits-per-pixel and unable to take screenshots? No way!

Eventually, it was dgVoodoo back on Windows 7 that got things running for me. I fully expect your mileage to vary — Dark Forces 2 is an absolute ballache to get “right” and 90% of the fixes mentioned in any forum thread are dead links. (The dgVoodoo website is completely blocked by my BT router because it’s falsely marked as a scam site, but I finally tripped over an alternative download in the archive of I am absolutely going to hold onto these files for future reference. If you have Dark Forces II, I recommend you do the same.)

I was unable to take any screenshots of the FMV cutscenes, so you’ll have to trust me that they’re great.

While Dark Forces took place some time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, couching it directly in movie canon, Jedi Knight catapults us years forwards to some time after Return of the Jedi — to the time of the fledgling New Republic. The lingering forces of the Empire have splintered into various sub-factions and are jockeying to fill the power vacuum, and today’s villain is Jerec and his Dark Jedi, who operate out of a special Super Star Destroyer and have access to all the classic Imperial toys.

Blaster? I ‘ardly know ‘er!

This is great stuff. While Return of the Jedi ends in celebration, it makes sense that despite cutting off the head of the Empire, the New Republic did not spring instantaneously into existence. There would have been a period of geat turmoil, and I might go so far as to say it would make for an amazing sequel trilogy of films.

Much as the story of the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire is a natural precursor to the original trilogy’s story of the fall of the Empire, it feels natural to finish the cycle with the rise of the New Republic. You flip the original trilogy’s premise on its head, by having the ex-Rebels as the ones in power and the Empire hiding in secret bases off the beaten track. You promote heroes like Luke and Leia to advisory cameos that, like Obi-wan before them, merely pass the baton to a new generation.

It’s a shame nobody made some films of that. Bah. At least we have video games!

When an Imperial Shuttle appeared in Dark Forces — merely 2 years prior — it was a couple of flat-coloured boxes and wedges, but look at it now! That is EXACTLY the shuttle from the films.

Confusingly, the game is titled Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, with its subtitle coming first — trying to simultaneously position itself as a sequel and as a brand new narrative. In practical terms, you don’t need to have played Dark Forces to play Jedi Knight. The story begins more intimitely with Katarn in a cantina on Nar Shaddaa just trying to find out who killed his father and escalates from there. The more grounded Rebel sabotage operation of the first game is replaced by a grand tale of an ancient Jedi temple, with Katarn being guided by visions from his murdered father’s murdered Jedi pal rather than the Rebel Alliance’s relentless intelligence services.

And it is very much a story. While Dark Forces padded most of its missions with small cinematics, each level still started with a traditional “briefing” — a description of what you need to do, and how and why. Jedi Knight dispenses with any pretence and lets the story completely carry the action, with those delicious videos cutting directly to gameplay with little intervening artifice. Katarn will even vocalise the occasional hint throughout the levels!

Probe Droids are simple enough to fight indoors, but when you’re outside and they’re hovering way up in the sky… ooft.

After a couple of levels of shooting up Nar Shaddaa, you finally get the lightsaber. This changes the game, but not as much as you’d expect. Despite the awesome power of everybody’s favourite sword and Kyle’s burgeoning force powers, there are still plenty of situations that are more elegantly solved at range with a gun. Specifically, rooms full of Stormtroopers.

I didn’t mention much about the guns of Dark Forces because, honestly, I spent 90% of the game using the classic Stormtrooper blaster rifle. Jedi Knight, however, has a much more distinctive and satisfying arsenal.

The blaster is useless at range owing to its inaccuracy but great up close for its firing speed (and abundant ammunition). The bowcaster balances that out with a single slow but powerful blast (or a charged multi-bolt spread). Thermal detonators are still useless — you’re more likely to hurt yourself because the throwing arcs defy sanity — but the Rail Detonator fires a precise and reliable missile, giving you a comfortable explosive for taking on… AT-STs?!

If the Rebels had packed a couple of these babies, the Battle of Endor would have been over a lot sooner.

What I’m trying to say is that, behind all the headline space fantasy magic, Jedi Knight is still a pretty decent shooter.

Once again the levels sprawl but remain mostly intuitive to navigate. The spectacular massive architecture we love this franchise for is out in force, you get the run of most of them with frequent side avenues and alternative routes to explore. The path forward is rarely clear so you will naturally see big swathes of level that aren’t strictly necessary and… I kinda love this. Jedi Knight is not prescriptive and it’s not obsessive about making sure you get maximum value.

(I imagine Jedi Knight is a speed-runner’s paradise — it’s great to meander around as a solo player, but if you already know where you’re going you can surely cut off huge swathes of level…)

Although the first couple of Nar Shaddaa levels drag on a bit, fighting the same gangster grans with blaster rifles, you can’t fault the variety of weapons and enemies that opens up — ironically — after you find the lightsaber.

Katarn is able to automatically deflect blaster bolts, but not perfectly, so Stormtroopers are best tackled from a distance.

Indeed, when I say the lightsaber changes the game, I’m not actually sure it’s for the better.

The lightsaber duels with each of the Dark Jedi are more often exercises in frustration than the dramatic swashbuckling duels of the films. Although you retain access to your arsenal of guns in these, the Dark Jedi seem to be impervious to all damage except from the lightsaber, so you are rudely locked onto the rails rather than free to get creative like in normal play. While it’s natural to see lightsabers deflecting blaster bolts, watching a Dark Jedi simply walk through a barrage of Thermal Detonators to the face feels a bit crap.

The lightsaber offers two attacks, a single heavy chop on the primary fire or a fast couple of swipes with the secondary fire. Dark Jedi fights are mostly picking which one of these to use and circling your opponent trying to avoid their own blade — there are no blocking or parrying mechanics, so keeping out of the way is your only recourse. Which is hard when half the bastards can go invisible too!

More like DORK Jedi, am I right?

The actual Force powers are also quite hit-or-miss. You earn stars to put into Force powers at the end of each mission; I don’t know if stars are dished out statically or it somehow measures your performance. I didn’t get remotely enough stars to max everything out, so I’m going to assume it’s all by design — so you have to choose which powers you focus on. Force Speed and Force Jump are necessary for some puzzles so are definitely fixed first steps, but after that you have some freedom.

Mind you, jumping in general is a bit sketchy, and Force Jump makes it a lot worse. If you jump too close to a wall, you end up jumping back a little, meaning even getting up to a traditional chest-high air vent is no sure thing. Now imagine you’re trying to get into a tunnel half-way up a wall, with Force Jump’s power varying with how long you hold down the button — timing and aiming can be a real pain.

Now here’s the real fun part — if Kyle jumps too high and misses the mark, he will land on the ground with a sickening crunch and lose some health. If Kyle Force Jumps and hits the ceiling, yep, that’s another sickening crunch as he mashes his head. Jumping is floaty and imprecise enough that any platforming puzzle is replete with the awful sound of poor Katarn’s shins being compacted.

Whether Kyle falls to the Dark Side or stays with the Light is determined by how much collateral damage you mete out on nearby civilians. Since they frequently stand around in rooms full of Stormtroopers, it’s probably best not to spray and pray. (Unless you want to be a villain, of course.)

After having finished the game, I’m a little bit on the fence. The sprawling levels are great, an paradise for explorers like me (obligatory “gosh I’d like to play an RPG in here”). The occasional puzzles can be obtuse but are mostly fine. The essence of Star Wars is stronger than ever and I love ancient temples, so finishing off the game in the Valley of the Jedi ticks all of my boxes.

But in all honesty, and this is probably a very spicy take, I think the Force powers and the lightsaber are what bring Jedi Knight down. There’s no denying that they had the technology to achieve everything they were aiming for — the technical leap from the original Dark Forces in just two years is truly stunning — but the Jedi gameplay lacks the refinement and finesse that might have made it… well, fun.

However, there was an expansion pack…

3 thoughts on “Blog 880: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II”

  1. For me it was a mix of the expansive levels that got me hooked and, for the first time, the crisp sound of the real movie soundtracks mashed up as you play through each level that brought up the game’s quality (especially the duel against the cut-in-half guy).
    The sabre combat was frustrating, but the novelty of it (at the time) counted for a lot. Exploration was how you gained extra stars to spend on Force powers: hidden areas (some of which could only be gained by killing civilians; many others which were frustratingly well-hidden). The replay value came in trying to find them all!
    For me, the worst aspect was the final boss fight. Jerec running off to meditate and heal over and over got old fast, and dragged out the ending long past the point where it was enjoyable.
    The two endings – light or dark – played out quite satisfactorily too!

    And thanks for tracking down those up-to-date links for getting the game to run properly! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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