Blog 882: Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

Where are we at for title-stack by now? Star Wars: Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith makes four, but maybe we’re dropping the Dark Forces II entirely since this is an expansion pack. (Although gog sells it bundled with Jedi Knight, it comes as a separate installer so maybe it’s one of those fabled expandalones?)

But the real question is: did a brand new suite of missions manage to address any of the more wobbly bits of Jedi Knight?

Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

Five years after Jedi Knight, our boy Katarn is a Jedi Master and he’s helping to train this new kid Mara Jade. Except… Mara Jade isn’t a new kid: she has been drafted in from the Admiral Thrawn novels. As an ex-Imperial, ex-smuggler and now trainee Jedi, her CV does seem a little bit bloated, though I suppose that comes with the territory when you draw in an established character from Somewhere Else. I hope the Thrawn novels contained a few Dark Troopers in return.

Mysteries of the Sith starts pretty full-on. Katarn’s happily sparring with Mara Jade in an outlying New Republic base when it is set upon by a fully-fledged Imperial assault. Holes have been blasted through walls and every clearing is flooded with Stormtroopers, with more dropships taking off as you peek outside. This quickly replenishes our arsenal of weaponry with all of our favourite Imperial weapons (the classic blaster and the Imperial Repeater), and shows the heart of Jedi Knight to be completely intact: the base is replete with side chambers and off-cuts to explore as you mow down various kinds of trooper, and Katarn starts with enough Force Jump to get around.

After Katarn repels the attack, he mumbles something about an ancient secret on a far-off world and disappears off to explore it — so we switch perspective, and from now on, we play as Mara Jade.

While Jedi Knight used unarmed civilians as a way to sway you to the Dark Side, Mysteries of the Sith frequently gives them guns and lets them fight alongside you. To be fair, the Republic soldiers aren’t much use in a fire fight, but at least they take some heat off while you do the important stuff.

Mysteries of the Sith has a slightly episodic structure. Our first mission with Katarn is four or five levels long, taking us through the Republic base and then up into the invading Imperial asteroid base in orbit. Mara’s first outing is a seemingly innocuous task to negotiate a supply deal with a Hutt, taking her from battling into the Hutt’s palace to doing him a favour by beating up a rival crime lord and his pals — another self-contained sequence of maps. On her return from that adventure, we have another time skip and she’s defending a Jedi Holocron from pirates…

This episodic format is kind of cute, though maybe it robs the series of its customary grandeur. Most of Mara’s jobs are side quests, which, given that she’s not the mainline protagonist, does make some sense. There’s no sign of the Valley of the Jedi and no big name cameos, but instead we can explore much more varied locations; Jedi Knight only flips between something like four planets, while Mysteries of the Sith barely sits in one place for a second map.

They’ve added a security camera system, which is very cute but doesn’t really add much.

Indeed, the maps of Mysteries of the Sith do feel much more alive than those of Jedi Knight. Mara’s second level, for example, is a bustling (… uh, for the time…) spaceport full of civilians that you can explore before even alerting the Imperial guards that you’re no innocent bystander. Taking pickups from a shop has the shopkeeper call you out. The cantina has a drunk passed-out in the entrance hall. A Corellian freighter takes off while under fire from Stormtroopers. (“Pirates. I wonder if it’s anyone I know?”)

There are even some options for avoiding fights. In one mission you can walk right past some enemies by wearing the clothes of a Tusken Raider (that is, if you don’t instinctively start shooting… ahem). Or you can use the Electroscope, which turns the Blaster into a sniper rifle, to pick enemies from a long and safe distance.

Sure, we haven’t reached “this is actually an RPG” status, but you can see it from here — the pacing is much more pleasantly unpredictable and the landscape more subtly responsive. Mind you, I should mention the cost of all this in-game detail: we’ve lost the FMV cutscenes.

Mission objectives are sometimes updated by bumping into characters who then speak to you. Incredible!

Yes, there are still voiced and pre-rendered cinematics between missions, but they’re acted out in engine with exactly the game content you get to play through. This does seem markedly, well, cheap, compared to the base game — the 3D characters don’t do anything more than wobble their heads to indicate speech. On the other hand, all those spaceships and control rooms you see in the cinematics are almost directly reproduced in whatever level follows; classic fighters like A-wings, Y-wings and more are scattered about with wild abandon.

The slightly puzzling element of all this is that there are some true, real-time cinematics in the game, where camera control is stolen from you in order to swoop — and somebody might even say a line. While the pre-rendered cinematics can only be running at 10 or 15 frames-per-second, the little in-game swoops are perfectly natural, so it seems odd that they’d build all the systems to play out cinematics completely in-situ and then… not use them very much.

Every time the rancor kills you, you are indeed treated to an unskippable cinematic of Mara being eaten.

I was all set to give Mysteries of the Sith the all-clear, because I think it does broadly improve upon Jedi Knight — the livelier levels are a joy to explore, and the episodic structure gives them room to be more varied even if we’ve lost some of the narrative build we had with the single, focused thread.

But then I reached Mara’s final mission: the swamps of Dromond Kaas and the Sith temple within.

Don’t get me wrong: these levels are incredibly atmospheric, thematically appropriate and beautifully eerie. The pulsing purple lights of the temple and the echoing calls from the weird monsters ancient Sith guardians that populate it make for a perfect tense climax… In spirit. In mechanical terms, though? This finale is a reversion to the worst parts of Jedi Knight and it doubles down hard.

More games should be composed of brutalist temples looming out of dank swamps.

The swamp is full of obtuse puzzles for which there are no clues, either environmental or spoke aloud by Mara. The ysalamiris dotted about negate your Force powers until they’re chased off. There are fun features like sinkholes under the water’s surface that present no warning unless you literally have the map open. Oh, and did I mention that all of your weapons are disabled, leaving you only with the lightsaber?

Most enemies at this point are wild animals whose physical attacks ignore your shields, so everything can kill you in two hits. Dianogas lurk in deep water, wampas lumber about on land, but worst of all is the vornskr — a leaping wildcat that seems to half your health if you just touch it, let alone if it plays a biting animation at you.

At least the Sith guardian statues go down in a couple hits… assuming you can get behind their sabers.

And — of course — there is a battle with a mirror Dark Mara in a very cramped chamber. This is one of those moments where that Force power system being based on finding secrets is a real downer. I found what I’d consider to be a fair number of secrets throughout the game, but it was not enough to earn me the most powerful Jedi abilities by this point. Which left me with just my plain old lightsaber to fight the evil doppelganger, who of course uses Blindness and Lightning with wild abandon. I had a low level Force Healing with which to retreat and recover, but needless to say, your Force meter charges rather slowly and this area is not generous with pickups.

In another game with stronger lightsaber combat and more intuitive Force powers, this descent into a Sith temple would have been amazing. It is incredibly Star Warsy in tone, and it’s a fitting mirror to the Valley of the Jedi in the base game. There’s a cavernous central chamber to work round, all grating stone doors and ominous carvings. It’s a really cool place to explore! It’s even got a decent amount of voice-over from Katarn as you follow him around, keeping some of the liveleness from the earlier levels despite the grim setting.

Unfortunately, Mysteries of the Sith does not really have strong lightsaber combat or intuitive Force powers, so this conceptually amazing finale is tortured into an exercise of pure frustration by its bullshit enemies. It spoils what is otherwise a very satisfying swashbuckling adventure.

Don’t I know it.

2 thoughts on “Blog 882: Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith”

  1. I remember finding this immensely frustrating – the conclusion to the intro missions was something I could never get past without cheat codes – and although there was more variety in the levels, the game somehow felt cramped and claustrophobic compared to DF2:JK with a dull ending.


    1. Yes, I struggled with the asteroid base too — there are a couple of control panels that are interactive but don’t necessarily _look_ interactive in amongst all the other flashing lights and decorative monitors. Ran around in circles quite a bit there until I worked out which button to press.

      Liked by 1 person

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