Last week two of the biggest games of the year, arguably the last two big games of 2019, finally launched. But since Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Pokemon Sword and Shield don’t compete in terms of platforms, these two alpha dogs can coexist. Not to spoil my own game of the year list, but after playing these two games I wound up having to reorder some of my picks. And the reason why I think these games both work so well is that they take these huge beloved properties and nearly deliver on the dream games we’ve imagined from them for years.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is hardly the first good Star Wars video game. There have been great Star Wars video games for almost as long as there have been great Star Wars movies. The dream that Fallen Order fulfills then is the hope the franchise could become good again under the care of EA. While Disney has made Star Wars more omnipresent than ever, in gaming the property had been run into the ground through financially successful but critically reviled games so loaded with microtransactions they were borderline illegal.
As a solely single-player experience from the Titanfall developers at Respawn, Fallen Order immediately had the potential to be the antidote to all of this. I walked away from my first preview even more convinced of this potential. My final playthrough wasn’t perfect. Perhaps I would’ve had a better time if I played on a beefier machine and avoided occasionally gamebreaking technical issues. But I ultimately felt Fallen Order was a video game counterpart to The Force Awakens, a blend of ideas that are perhaps too familiar but executed with enough craft to make you forget the true boondoggles that came before.
If anything, that sells the game a little short. It at least takes ideas from a variety of video games, from Tomb Raider to Metroid Prime, unlike how Force Awakens mostly cribs from A New Hope. And as a Star Wars tale, it has more in common with the tortured side story of Rogue One complete with gratuitous cameos and prequel memes. But despite the abundance of lore and lightsabers and lightspeed, Fallen Order mostly impressed me as a video game first and delivery mechanism for Star Wars action second.
The nonlinearity teased in my first demo doesn’t quite fully bloom as there’s a pretty obvious flow between the handful of planets. It’s more like a smarter AAA campaign than a full-blown Metroidvania. Still, I loved returning to new worlds, traversing them with my nimble Jedi abilities like wall-running or Force-pulling swinging vines, hacking Imperial tech with my droid, and uncovering small secret upgrades and bosses or whole entire new areas like a Wookiee pilgrimage. The twisting 3D level design, from platforming sequences to dungeon puzzles, is immensely clever and fun to figure out for its own sake.
In the end, the intricacies of the combat never quite clicked with me, most likely because it draws most of its inspiration from famous bad series Dark Souls. I ended up tossing and twirling around a lot with the double-bladed lightsaber I of course snagged from Darth Maul’s planet. But the game is confident enough in the rest of its appeal that it offers a variety of difficulty modes, knowing that the experience is still worthwhile even if you play as a nearly invincible killing machine.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Beyond the technical issues (and boring protagonist) my only let down was that it didn’t go further with its own great open-ended exploration ideas. But that’s the sign of a promising, innovative first entry. And while Pokemon Sword and Shield, is hardly the first entry its franchise, as the first entry to take the leap to consoles it has a lot of this same revolutionary spirit.
First things first, I don’t care at all about the missing old Pokemon. There are already too many, 400 is plenty. This is clearly the game where the tension between the desire to maintain past continuity and the needs of modern technology became too much to bear. So they should’ve just cut their losses and rebooted the whole thing since these games are mostly for kids anyway and not freaks on Reddit.
That said, I do sympathize with some complaints about this game. I agree that it’s odd for a franchise this profitable to have such seemingly low production value for its mainline products. Parts of Sword and Shield look really nice. The grass, certain towns, the ridiculous Kaiju spectacle for the dumb fun giant Pokemon Dynamax battles. But the jump to HD that hit so many Japanese developers so hard like 12 years ago finally caught up to Game Freak. And they’re just too tethered to their handheld roots.
However, the one exception to those constraints feels like such a dream come true in this series that in practice it overshadowed all the issues I had in theory. The Wild Area is just too cool! When you think about what you want from a Pokemon game you can play on a TV, especially on a system like the Nintendo Switch that also has The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you think of exploring a lush open landscape full of monsters visibly roaming around to battle and catch. Modest visuals aside, the Wild Area is exactly that and it’s incredible. Even the music is more epic.
Wrapping around the game’s various cities, you’ll revisit different sections of the Wild Area throughout your journey, naturally seeing its different biomes and shifting weather patterns. But there’s nothing preventing you from trekking through the whole dangerous thing on your own when you first get the chance. There’s nothing stopping you from challenging a level 50 Snorlax with your team of babies and getting absolutely wrecked. You can set totally set up camp, play with your team and heal them with curry, and try again. It’s the best gameplay expression of Pokemon’s imaginative youth adventure fantasy that’s been otherwise locked behind rigid JRPG mechanics. You can finally move the camera like it’s a real video game.
Like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, my only issue with Pokemon Sword and Shield is that it doesn’t expand on its great open ideas even more. If it was up to me I would hang out in the Wild Area the entire day, joining Max Raid battles or just chilling with Sirfetch’d and Galarian Weezing. But to actually progress you need to go through the otherwise standard (if more streamlined) Pokemon journey. The Wild Area should’ve been the whole game. And going by Game Freak’s previous history of iterative ambition, in a few years it probably will be. But you know what they say about dreams deferred. So we’re hoping it’s not too long before console Pokemon truly explodes.