Back in the mid 90’s, the Lucasarts game studio was a powerhouse of great games. The Monkey Island series, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle and many other adventure games, as well as of course Star Wars. Star Wars games have sadly become both less common and often pretty poor, but back then most of the games released were of a high quality.
Lucasarts’ previous first person shooter, Dark Forces, was an early game with 2D sprites for the ingame characters and enemies, much like Doom and other games of the time. PC games evolved fast at the time, and so when the decision was made to release a follow up it was developed in full 3D, the first fully 3D game for the studio as well as one of the earliest games to support hardware 3D acceleration through Microsoft’s Direct3D.
Jedi Knight follows Kyle Katarn, last seen in Dark Forces, as he battles to stop the Dark Jedi Jerec from finding the lost Valley of the Jedi and bring him to justice for murdering his father.
Initially Jedi Knight is a fairly straightforward first person shooter like its predecessor, but that all changes a few missions in when Kyle discovers that he is a Jedi and gains a lightsaber and begins learning various Force powers.
The lightsaber has an option to switch to third person view while using it, which I tend to use as it makes it easier to use with a wider view. Aside from combat, the lightsaber can also be used to deflect enemy shots and also break through various vents and surfaces.
The rest of the weapon selection is fairly standard first person shooter fare, just in a Star Wars way. You have a selection on pistols and rifles, a rocket launcher, grenades, mines and so on. My favourite always used to be the last weapon that you get, the concussion rifle, which fires a blast with quite a large radius of splash damage, which is great for taking out multiple enemies at once. Most of the weapons work quite well, but I hadn’t remembered how inaccurate the Stormtrooper rifle was at range, making it almost useless at distances greater than a medium sized room.
Kyle’s journey takes him through a range of different locations, starting off in a spaceport on an heavily built up planet, his father’s farm, an Imperial occupied city before ending up on the planet where the Valley of the Jedi is located, which takes up the last third or so of the game. One particularly exciting level that I had completely forgotten about has you needing to escape a spaceship before it crashes into the surface of the planet. The entire level is played at a skewed angle, with only a couple of minutes to escape.
The boss battles are to me probably the weakest part of the game. After you’ve found the lightsaber, you begin taking down Jerecs team of Dark Jedi. Every few levels you’ll come up against one of them, and you’ll have to fight them mostly with the lightsaber. I found the first fight against Yun to be particularly tricky, as up until that point there hadn’t really been an opportunity to use the lightsaber in a fight like that, and I died repeatedly before working out how to beat him. They do tend to get easier as the game goes on, as you learn more Force powers that come in handy. Generally though, I found the best technique for all of them was to circle strafe around them hitting them reapeatedly and just rinse and repeat. By the time you get to Jerec, who is the 6th and final boss, the whole thing feels a little tired and it would have been nice to have a bit more variety in the boss fights, such as maybe some Imperial vehicles or ships that you get to fight with other weapons.
While it's standard procedure for Star Wars games these days, Jedi Knight was the first to give players a choice between either being light side or dark side, and is the first game I remember playing to give that kind of morality choice to at all.
Being an early 3D game, the graphics are of course fairly primitive by modern standards. One problem I find a lot is that 3D games from this era typically have held up much worse than contemporary 2D games, as even in a lower resolution good 2D art is still good 2D art while many 3D games now have stiff and lifeless character animations and really low polygon models.
There’s a really strong sense of design in Jedi Knight though, and overall the look of the levels is still pretty strong – sure, there are some textures that really suffer from higher resolutions and the cityscape from the top of the Barons Hed tower is really bad, but the majority of the levels I feel still look strong. I think the character models haven’t aged quite as well, and the Kyle model has always bugged me by not being consistent with how the character looks out of gameplay.
Many levels are almost like puzzles in their design, with a lot of sections requiring backtracking and working back through as you open up new doors or deactivate forcefields. It never feels like a forced retread and it’s more of an ‘aha, that’s how you get through there!’ feeling.
Jedi Knight is also an early example of full motion video cutscenes, with fully acted videos playing between levels. I remember first watching the introduction movie and being blown away as it really felt like more Star Wars in a time when there had only been the original movies and next to no new movie material for well over a decade. The acting in them is.. well, it’s not great and is pretty cheesy at times but that feels fairly appropriate for Star Wars. The live action actors are backed up with computer generated effects and sets of uneven quality, but overall the cutscenes are good fun.
It’s worth noting that the version of the game available on Steam currently is not at all optimised for modern computers. It took a combination of a number of fan made patches as well as an update to add the music back in (which is missing completely off the release due to it originally being CD audio) and Windows’ built in backwards compatibility feature to get the game working correctly with 3D acceleration – initially the game wouldn’t even load. Even after this the menus and cutscenes play in a 640 x 480 window when launched from Steam and it was quite prone to crashing when changing levels or going back into the game from the menu. Those less tied to their Steam accounts or not wanting to spend time messing about to get the game working would be worth buying the game from GOG www.gog.com as it comes pre-patched and usable as well as having the Mysteries of the Sith expansion bundled in.
Running the game in a modern 1920 x 1080 resolution also has its drawbacks however, as the HUD is all pixel art which doesn’t scale – you can see just how tiny it all is on the screenshots which can make seeing your health a bit tricky. There are mods out there to replace the HUD, but given the difficulty in getting the game working at all, I didn’t want to start messing with it.
Technical issues aside though, I found Jedi Knight to still be great fun, so much so that I immediately carried on into the expansion, Mysteries of the Sith (which is also broken in the same way, but can be fixed in the same way) as I wanted more. Nostalgia for the Star Wars boom of the 90s definitely had an impact on me while I was playing, but to me it’s still held up remarkably well and is something I would totally recommend to anyone who enjoys a good first person shooter and isn’t too held up on modern graphics.