Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Review (Switch eShop)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Disney had yet to purchase the Star Wars IP and George Lucas was still somewhat involved in its ongoing success. One of the last major initiatives before the Disney purchase was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a multimedia project that aimed to bridge the two movie trilogies at the time. One of the pillars of this project was a planned line of video games that aimed to immerse players in the world of Star Wars in a way never done before, the first of which is now re-releasing for the Switch. Over a decade later, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is absolutely showing its age, but those who played it in younger years may want to give it a revisit just for the trip down memory lane.
First, let’s go over a brief reminder of which edition of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed this is, because originally there were eight different versions (remember the iOS port?) that all had distinct content and features, to the extent that some versions were almost entirely different games. This port is an upscaled version of the entry that released on Wii, which was largely the same as the versions on PS2 and PSP, but with the addition of motion controls and an exclusive PvP local multiplayer mode. While it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity that there wasn’t an attempt here to create a ‘definitive’ version that would unite all the exclusive elements of each port from the PS3/360 generation, this is at the very least a competent port of the game you may remember from Nintendo’s home console at the time.
The story is set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and places you in the role of a Force-sensitive named Galen Marek (AKA Starkiller). After killing Starkiller’s father, Darth Vader takes on the young boy to train as a secret apprentice he intends to use to help him eventually overthrow the Emperor. Years later, Starkiller’s days are spent being sent on various missions to track and kill some of the remaining Jedi still hiding out across the galaxy and to solidify Darth Vader’s position for when he’s ready to take his shot at the Emperor. The events that transpire here ultimately end up neatly bridging Episodes III and IV while establishing some interesting origins for later subplots, although it must be said that all the events here are now officially non-canon ‘Legends’ tales since the Disney purchase of the Star Wars IP.
Gameplay takes the form of a linear hack ‘n’ slasher, where you travel to various worlds and cut through a whole lot of robots and aliens with your lightsaber and force powers. Your lightsaber has a variety of combo attacks you can chain together while you slowly unlock a broader variety of force powers throughout the eight-or-so-hour campaign. Combat is competent enough, but doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as it should given that it’s nearly the sole focus of the campaign. You’re evidently wielding a super powerful plasma sword, yet it feels like you’re using a wooden stick when everything from Stormtroopers to Wookies usually take several blows to take down.
It doesn’t help that Starkiller’s repertoire of combos and force powers is rather lackluster, and there’s a strange kind of intertia to the combat animations that just feels off. Some attacks will feel like they should send an enemy reeling, only for them to barely stumble when it connects. Some attacks feel like they won’t do much damage on their own but send the enemy flying. Having that frequent mismatch between attack animations thus makes combat feel weightless and floaty. And though there’s a decent amount of enemy variety as you travel the galaxy, it doesn’t take long before they all start to feel like damage sponges that exist only to slow down your trip to the boss at the end of the level.
Killing enemies nets you experience points, which you can then put into an upgrade system that feels rather stripped down. Various attacks and powers can be upgraded via investing points into them, while you can swap out the crystals in your lightsaber to bump up the effectiveness of certain attacks. Given how easily most foes go down even with your base kit, the upgrades don’t feel like meaningful improvements. Still, it’s nice to have some limited agency over Starkiller’s growth, and the experience points give you a good reason to fight legions of foes that you could otherwise run past with zero consequence.
Unfortunately, this game was released during a time where many game developers thought that players love an action game stuffed with quick time events, so nearly every major boss fight requires one to finish them off. None of these sequences are too difficult to hit, but if you miss any of the prompts, the boss is healed up a little and you have to start all over once you get them down again. At best, these Quick Time Events are a mindless way to finish off a fight with a few button presses; at worst they’re an irritating hindrance that needlessly draw out the last minute of a fight. Either way, they don’t add anything positive to the experience.
To top it all off, the camera is often fighting you as much as your foes are. If Starkiller gets blasted back by a powerful attack, the camera has this weird tendency to instantly snap behind him, often obscuring the foe that just hit you. Sometimes it gets stuck behind various destructible pieces of the environment, temporarily blocking your view of the action. It’s not all bad all the time, but there are enough instances where the camera is goofing around that it becomes another irritating hindrance to an already shaky combat system.
Another major issue is that the level design is uninteresting, mostly sticking to a rote combination of hallways and arenas with no distinguishing mechanical characteristics. Levels are generally a matter of running into a room with a locked door, killing the requisite number of enemies to progress, then doing the same thing in another room. There’s some light platforming here and there, but nothing approaching a meaningful challenge, and puzzles are non-existent. Meanwhile, you can collect holocrons along the way that boost up your health and force powers or unlock concept art, but these are about as difficult to collect as picking up a penny from the sidewalk.
The problem here is that there’s not enough gameplay diversity to meaningfully differentiate levels from each other. Whether you’re running through the brightly lit halls of a Star Destroyer or across the treetop bridges of Kashyyyk, it feels like you’re merely redoing the same level with different set dressing and some reskinned enemies. Most games typically find ways to thrill and impress the player throughout the campaign by an ongoing introduction of new gameplay elements or enemy types to make each level feel novel and uniquely interesting. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed doesn’t do this. Instead, it’s content to be a one trick pony—a game that’s as wide as the galaxy but only an inch deep. Bashing away at foes and throwing them around with force powers is fun for an hour or so, but then you’re left wondering if there’s any more to the experience. Unfortunately, there isn’t.
In terms of its graphics and sound, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is simply okay. Some of the environments have solid atmosphere, such as the mushroom-laden surface of Felucia, but it’s abundantly clear that this is a game which was originally released on substantially weaker hardware. The solid frame rate, reflective surfaces, and higher resolution showcase that this is running on modern hardware, but the muddy textures, cheap animations, and empty-faced character models have aged poorly. Luckily, the soundtrack has aged well, and this one is packed with all kinds of stirring tracks that sound as though they’ve been pulled right from the movies.
It also needs to be said that there’s really not a whole lot of meat to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. You can beat the campaign in a little under 10 hours, and maybe add another 3 or so if you go back to collect everything. There’s always the exclusive duel mode to help pad this out, but it amounts to a relatively simplistic battle mode where you and a friend pick characters and then see who can spam force lightning more. Low replayability and short campaigns aren’t necessarily a negative if the core experience is well-paced and consistently high quality, but neither of those things describes Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
Ultimately, Star Wars games have come a long way since The Force Unleashed, with the excellent Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga being the most recent on Switch. While there’s some limited fun to be had here, anyone who’s played a more modern interpretation of lightsaber combat — Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order being the prime example — will likely have a tough time going back to 2008.
Is Star Wars: The Force Unleashed worth picking up? Eh… potentially. What we have here is a shallow, short, and rather mediocre action game that’s relying awfully hard on nostalgia and the popularity of the Star Wars IP to draw in players. Based solely on its own merits, there’s little here that’s really worth your time. Simplistic level designs, weak combat, frequent quick time events, and low replay value make this one hard to recommend. It’s got a decent story and soundtrack, but neither of these things are good enough to outweigh the negatives. If you’re just looking for another Star Wars game to add to your collection, this certainly fits the bill; if you’re looking for a high-quality hack ‘n’ slash, it doesn’t. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is simply a passable game; not one we’d actively avoid, but you’re not missing much if you choose to skip it.