I’d never played Jedi Academy before. This seems remiss of me, given how much I love Jedi Knight II. What could have happened in 2003 to distract me so?
Anyway, better late than never.
Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
I get the curious feeling that somebody has been listening to all those times I just said “I wish this was an RPG” about prior games in the franchise. Jedi Academy is not billed as Jedi Knight III, which makes sense seeing as you do not play as Kyle Katarn and, more to the point, the game has a markedly different structure.
The cost of this is that it feels more like a videogame and less like playing through a film than previous entries. I won’t say this is a bad thing or a good thing, because I love both films and video games for different (albeit sometimes overlapping) reasons; it’s just different.
In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay though, it is more of the same. Grab your lightsaber and let’s go!
It’s now ten years after the Battle of Endor. Kyle Katarn is a Jedi Master (again) and running the Jedi Academy with Luke Skywalker. Enter Jaden Korr, a fresh-faced padawan who somehow managed to make their own lightsaber without any training.
The first RPG part is how Jaden’s identity is… well, fluid. You can play as a human male or female, or if you want to go nuts, a Rodian or a Twi’lek or… some other less famous kind of alien. Their name is always Jaden, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing species- or gender-specific in the plot either, but you do get alternative voice acting. (I am starting to feel like I know where Mass Effect got some more of its tricks from.)
Whatever form Jaden takes, on your way to the Academy, your transport is shot down and the action begins.
The difficulty curve of Jedi Academy is much smoother than JK2. On your first mission of JK2 to the remote planet of Kejim, there are lots of Stormtroopers and they open fire with wild abandon, using both the slower but more accurate (ha) primary fire of the Blaster and its spray-and-pray ultra-rapid secondary fire: you are immediately hosed with a rain of bolts in any battle. Similarly, your first encounter with a Reborn on Bespin has them jumping and twirling with all the mad tricks of a fully armed and operational lightsaber wielder. These things do not give you much time to acclimatise before you get dunked right in it.
Jedi Academy starts you against some wild animals. Then it introduces a single villainous Sith cultist with a lightsaber, who attacks slowly and reliably — suddenly you can see openings for attack amidst the maelstrom of whirling glowsticks and you feel much less likely to just die. Even the early missions with Imperial troops has them in smaller numbers, shooting a little more slowly, a little more steadily, so you can dodge and circle-strafe without being pelted from all angles.
Then, as you progress and meet stronger Sith cultists, you can feel them getting stronger. Better armoured, using different combat styles and Force powers, dual-wielding or using Darth Maul-style double-ended blades — there are even some Force users without lightsabers, who run interference for the main swordspeople with Push and Pull and Lightning.
After its introduction, Jedi Academy reveals its second RPG-lite element: you get to choose which missions to take on. Each “tier” of the game has five, some of which are straight side quests, and some of which suggest they might progress the main story (without actually doing so). You only need to complete four of them to advance, but obviously I chose to complete all of them.
After all, starting a mission nets you a Force point to spend. The mainline Force powers are locked in and only upgradeable by advancing the story, which makes sense because Jump has such an impact on level design, so these points are limited to a selection of optional Light and Dark powers. Healing, Lightning, Grip and whatnot.
Making a return from the original Jedi Knight is Force Sight, which rather than being just another way to see in the dark, has become a mix of X-ray vision to reveal items and enemies and a puzzle tool that reveals special markings for non-obvious Force-powerable interactions. It makes the same noise as it did in Jedi Knight so, despite having no actual childhood affinity for Katarn’s second outing, I am still feeling the warm glow of nostalgia from having played it… about a month ago.
Actually there are quite a few callbacks to earlier games that have crept in. As well as returning Force powers (including Protection and Absorb, which give you reliable ways to not get instagibbed in a Force duel), the Concussion Rifle makes a glorious comeback. The Concussion Rifle is basically unusable in Dark Forces and Jedi Knight: its primary fire is a massive explosion that sends everything flying, but it has such a large blast radius that you can barely use it without nuking yourself. Its secondary fire is a railgun blast with pinpoint accuracy, but it drinks ammunition like water.
But oh, it feels so powerful — and with lots of airy corridors and wide-open chambers, this time you have ample space to safely deploy that delicious primary blast. It is, crucially, one of the only weapons that has the potential to take out at least low-ranking Dark Jedi at range. Yes, those evil Force users still negate almost every weapon barring the lightsaber — they push explosives back at you, deflect blaster bolts and mysteriously anticipate instantaneous Disruptor Rifle shots to either duck or jump out of the way. They can deflect Concussion Rifle bolts, but with that blast radius, you have a good shot at knocking the bastards around… if you don’t kill them outright in a couple hits, there might be a nice abyss nearby for them to fall into.
The conceit is that as a trainee Jedi, you are sent out on missions to learn by doing rather than by quiet contemplation and study. This gives the game a natural way to escalate: as you advance in your training, and discover more about the villains of the piece, the missions get tougher and/or more interesting. It also means that, since you come and go from the Academy, you have an excuse to start each mission with full health and shields and plenty of ammo, rather than stumbling between levels with whatever rags have survived the last onslaught.
The slightly wobbly part of this is that all the students at the academy — and even Katarn himself — are off on missions at the same time as you. This means there is a lot of action that happens entirely off-screen, which feels a little bit weird. This is a video game — why can’t I play through Kyle’s missions? I’ve done it before, after all! (Three times!)
This is one of those other elements that makes it feel more clearly and structurally a game than a film like prior entries to the series. Of course the films have things happen off-screen and heroes arriving at the last possible moment to save the day, but it’s never so on-the-nose that somebody has been away doing a load of cool stuff while you’re busy.
Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few Katarn interludes with all maxed-out Force Powers to get you excited about amping up your player character? Or what about an inversion, playing a couple missions as a New Republic commando of some sort who only has guns and no Force powers? (Obviously it’s because of budget and project scope and whatnot… but still!)
The missions are at least incredibly varied, both in location and scope. There’s a speeding train level. You get to ride a taunton on Hoth. There’s even some speeder bike action! It sometimes feels like they had a thousand ideas for missions but no particular plan on how to tie them all together into a single coherent story — so they just came up with this Academy format, tossed everything in and let there be side quests.
This means that while there are lots of individual missions, there are actually not many main plot beats strung between them. This robs the story of the momentum that carries the other games. It doesn’t help that the story is almost solely advanced by Luke and Kyle chatting rather than you. (Yes, of course the whole series is entirely on rails, but playing directly as the one setting the goals makes you feel more like an active participant, even if you… aren’t.)
Which kinda makes it feel more like an expansion pack that got out of hand than a true sequel. Lots of features — like the aforementioned lightsaber combat — have been expanded and refined, sure, but all of the weaponry is reused verbatim, and much as I love the new Concussion Rifle, a single new gun doesn’t feel like much for a sequel.
Perhaps more importantly, although the story is functionally stand-alone, the villain does have a direct link to the events of JK2, in a way that JK2 does not have to previous stories — so it feels peculiar that this isn’t an expansion pack.
All of that might sound damning, but I actually don’t mean it to be — Jedi Academy is a really solid, thoroughly good time. There are loads of missions, a huge variety of dramatic locations, a much better variety of enemies, and the lightsaber combat is properly brilliant now. It’s just that, as a whole, it doesn’t quite stand out much compared to its predecessors. We may have successfully shaved off the lows of prior games, but I think we might have lost the highs along with them…
2 thoughts on “Blog 884: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy”
An incredibly fair review! At the time it came out, I simply appreciated the variety, better level design, and sense of progression that was missing in Jedi Outcast; but the villains seemed awfully diluted compared to previous entries. Like you I missed the grand storytelling, but for me the gameplay made up for it. Overall, I simply have more fun/replay value from this game (you can dip in and out).
And, of course, this ends the Dark Forces storyline – finishing with Kyle passing on what he has learnt, which is the Jedi way…
(I’d like to have seen a prequel-era game with his father, Rahn, Jerec and that droid from Dark Forces II, but I’m happy enough with the games we got!)
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Aye, I’d absolutely have liked to see more built on this tech even if it had fresh heroes — they really did nail the engine this time around.
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