Become a Padawan learner at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy.
PC Release: September 17, 2003
By Ian Coppock
Well folks, we’re coming up on the end of Star Wars Month. How fitting that tonight’s game is the fourth and final chapter of the Kyle Katarn saga. It’s a bittersweet moment, because Kyle Katarn’s adventures are regarded as some of LucasArts’ best work before their eventual shutdown years later. At the same time, Jedi Academy shares a contentious rivalry with its predecessor, Jedi Outcast, so part of tonight’s review will also settle the question of which game is better. For now, though, get ready for blastoff into Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.
Some old-school fans might take issue with calling Jedi Academy a Kyle Katarn game… and that’s because he’s actually not the player character this time. Players instead assume the role of Jaden Korr, a Jedi initiate who’s admitted to Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy after building a lightsaber with no prior instruction. Though Kyle is not the star of the show, he takes Jaden on as his Padawan and appears in many missions as an allied NPC. Jedi Academy can still be considered part of the Kyle Katarn series because it was built in the same engine as Jedi Outcast, features much of the same gameplay, and picks up from a few narrative threads left behind in Outcast.
Anyway, Jedi Academy is set 10 years after the Battle of Endor and two years after Jedi Outcast. Following his battle against Desann, Kyle decides to become a full-time Jedi again and takes a teaching job at the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. Jaden Korr, the player character, can be customized from the ground up to be male or female. The character can also be human or one of several alien races, some of which are restricted to one gender or the other (of course the Twi’lek can only be female, and comes with some pretty risque clothing options). Players can also create their own lightsaber from a broad selection of blade colors and hilts.
After creating their Jaden, players arrive to Luke’s academy and are taken on as Kyle’s apprentice. Players learn a few basic abilities in the tutorial before selecting from a wide variety of missions set all over the galaxy. Some missions have to do with investigating a mysterious Sith cult that’s suddenly cropping up everywhere, but others are the type of benevolent superhero work that the Jedi have always been known for. Jedi Academy presents its missions to players in batches of five (playable in any order) followed by a story mission that closes off that act of the game and opens another. There are about 20 missions in total.
Jaden is not alone in his/her journey to become a Jedi. Kyle features prominently in the game as Jaden’s Jedi Master, and when he’s not giving orders over a comlink, he’s there fighting alongside the player. Rosh Penin, a fellow student, quickly becomes a passive-aggressive rival to the player and is the only other named student character encountered in the game. Jedi Academy also features cameos from Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Wedge Antilles, and other iconic characters from the Star Wars films. To further establish its place in the Star Wars universe, Jedi Academy uses a mix of iconic songs and sound effects from the films.
On the surface, Jedi Academy‘s gameplay is nigh identical to that of Jedi Outcast. Players can use their lightsaber to deflect blaster bolts and cut down foes, but they can also use ranged weapons to keep the action at a distance. Jaden can use grenades (excuse me, thermal detonators) to blow s*** up, which, while not a very Jedi-like thing to do, is a great way to give a stormtrooper a spontaneous skydiving lesson. Players can also use the Force to jump higher, run faster, and get around the environment much easier than their non-Force-sensitive foes. Just don’t careen into a wall or over any cliffs.
Though all of that gameplay is borrowed from Jedi Outcast, Jedi Academy makes some hefty retrofits to it. Lightsaber combat has been refined and smoothed out to give players more control of their blade, which is especially important considering all of the Sith cultists running around. Jedi Academy also introduces new Force-powered acrobatics that allow players to wall-jump, cartwheel, and perform other elaborate gymnastics at the touch of a button. Not only does this make the combat far superior to that of Jedi Outcast, it also gives players much more freedom in navigating the battlefield. Outcast let players decapitate enemies. Academy lets players decapitate enemies by wall-running and then front-flipping over them.
Just as Academy gives players more physical freedom than Outcast, it also gives players more freedom in shaping their characters. Whereas Outcast dropped players off with a random assortment of weapons and Force powers, Academy allows players to pick their loadout of guns and grenades before each mission. Even better, Academy lets players select which Force powers they want to upgrade instead of upgrading predetermined powers a la Outcast. Some core powers only improve with each set of completed missions, but players are still free to upgrade powers like Force Lightning and Force Healing as they will. It’s a great way to let players shape their ideal Jedi.
Finally, and most awesomely, Jedi Academy eventually lets players trade in their lightsaber for a double-bladed one (like Darth Maul’s) or learn how to use two lightsabers at once. Want to recreate the final fight scene in the Phantom Menace with two unlucky Sith, or just chop everything up with dual blades? Jedi Academy lets players have at it. Each style of lightsaber combat comes with its own moves, which are further diversified with a selection of strong, medium, and fast fighting stances. Not only is this system versatile, it feels fluid and badass, and it remains one of the most fun melee combat systems in gaming despite being 14 years old.
Jedi Academy also dramatically overhauls one of Jedi Outcast‘s less admirable features: the level design. Academy replaces the maze-like, confusing level design of Outcast with much more intuitive set pieces. Despite being more linear, these levels are far easier to navigate and still allow for lots of fierce combat. It’s far easier in Jedi Academy to know where to go and what to do, especially when combined with a plethora of environmental hints that point the way. Most of Academy‘s levels still allow for some exploration off the beaten path, but finding the beaten path again is easy once the player’s ready to move on.
All of that said, Jedi Academy was built on the exact same engine as Jedi Outcast, so it shares its predecessor’s awkward character animations and muddled textures. Even the new animations added for using a new kind of lightsaber remain a bit stiff. It’s not a huge surprise that Academy had little time to innovate, since it was released only 18 months after Outcast, but players hoping for an improvement over Outcast‘s stilted designs will find no such thing in Academy. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but players won’t have to look at the packaging to see that this game came out in 2003.
It might seem like Jedi Academy has Jedi Outcast beat at this point, what with its overhauled gameplay and far superior level design, but that’s not quite the case. For while Jedi Academy does gameplay and level design better than its predecessor, it comes up short on storytelling. Sure, Academy has a central plot, but it has less to do with evolving a character and more to do with tying up a few narrative loose ends from Outcast. At least half of the game is also spent on one-shot missions that have less to do with stopping a Sith cult and more to do with the Star Wars equivalent of helping an old lady get her cat out of a tree.
As a character, Jaden Korr is far less interesting than Kyle Katarn. He/she is little more than a blank canvas with a few token sentiments about bravery and selflessness to boot. Sure, the character cracks the occasional joke, but it’s usually in response to the far more jokey Kyle, who retains the gruff likability that made him a star in previous Jedi Knight games. Jaden’s remarks are propelled entirely by observations of the world around them, and both the male and female voice acting for the character is… uninspired, to put it politely. Funnily enough, the character retains human voice acting even if they’re, say, a Rodian.
So yes, while Jedi Academy provides fun gameplay and level design, it does so at the expense of the narrative grit that put its predecessors on the map. Even though Outcast‘s game design had some problems, the game still presented a compelling story with an acute sense of character development. Jedi Academy lacks that narrative cohesion, preferring instead to be more of a Skywalker-era Padawan concept piece. The game’s central story isn’t bad, but it’s certainly several steps down from the deeply personal storytelling that characterized Jedi Knight and Jedi Outcast.
As with many video game disputes, it’s not that Jedi Outcast is better than Jedi Academy or vice-versa; they each do some things well and some things not so well. Jedi Outcast has a great story but confusing level design and alright gameplay. Jedi Academy has great gameplay and level design, but a much less interesting story and main character. Games are like that sometimes; developers see what made their first game popular or unpopular and compensate for it in the next title. Jedi Academy is a clear-cut case of a studio that did a great job of fixing what was wrong with the previous game, but at the expense of what made the previous game decent despite those problems.
The main takeaway from all of this is that Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are both good games, for different reasons. One has a great story, the other has some of the most fun Star Wars gameplay ever devised. Because of that, Jedi Academy is worth any Star Wars fan’s time, and still provides a hearty conclusion to the Kyle Katarn saga even if he’s not the star of the show. The star of the show is able to take on a horde of stormtroopers with a double-bladed blue lightsaber and lots of Force Lightning while wall-running over a waterfall. If that doesn’t sound fun, then nothing will.
You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.