I’m not really a fan of the Star Wars films, but the video games are a completely different magical creation (most of the time). With the recent release of Jedi: Fallen Order, I wanted to jump back and try an older title for the franchise, and I am always up for some first-person shooter action, so Star Wars: Dark Forces on the original PlayStation seemed to be a great option. This is a title I kept hearing about from friends, as it spawned the beloved Jedi Knight series, but not all space epics hold up.
Released in 1996, LucasArts would develop and publish Dark Forces with an original story in the hit universe, starring a cool mercenary named Kyle Katarn. I knew nothing about this character other than that I recognized the voice actor, but that was because Nick Jameson voiced Morbius from the 90s Spider-Man cartoon as well as appearing in several other Star Wars video games as various characters. The game was originally going to star Luke Skywalker, but the development team knew that choice would limit what they could do with the story, so an original character was much more appealing. This is what I like to see, new lore in an already fleshed out universe. Luke has been in too much stuff anyway.
The story isn’t bad, especially for the time, just incredibly straightforward. The first mission has him retrieving the plans for the Death Star. Rather than sacrificing a bunch of Bothans, they sent one badass. Though Katarn seems quite capable, it is the easiest part of the adventure and makes it look like getting these super-secret plans was kind of a cakewalk for him. From that point on it’s about him investigating a new type of Stormtrooper, the so-called Dark Troopers, and he needs to stop the Imperial officer behind this project before more Rebels are killed by this new menace. It’s simple and clean, perfect for the FPS genre of the time. My only question: is his ship actually called The Moldy Crow? Why?
There are some delightful cutscenes after the first mission that helps to tell more of the story and introduce the villain. These look neat for the time with their weird hand-drawn aesthetic, reminding me of some old point-and-click adventure games, but that was most likely used to match the hardware. The voice acting is good and it was neat to hear Vader sound like he should, even if it wasn’t the original actor.
There will be some familiar-looking environments and names of locations thrown around that fans will recognize immediately. One aspect I feel a bit let down about is that I’ve come to enjoy Star Wars titles showing off different environments, strange worlds, fleshing out the universe more and letting players explore. Dark Forces doesn’t deliver in the levels department, having some bland areas, a lack of detail, and not doing much with color other than the occasional purple sky. This probably has to do with the engine or just technology of the time, but I didn’t get that cool feeling at any point during the gameplay. Shadows of the Empire was released on the N64 that same year and does a much better job with most of the previously mentioned design elements.
Each of the stages has a very maze-like construction, mostly circular in the beginning, and some of them feel a bit messy. It was nice to see the levels have multiple floors with areas that can be seen from the ground, but the overall structures are clunky (or maybe maclunkey) and it is easy to get lost because nothing feels intuitive. The map isn’t too helpful, with thin lines of sickly green and yellow being hard to read, but being able to overlay it on the action is helpful for some. The levels can be long, but the true pain is that there is no way to save during them, and each mission has a limited number of lives.
Gameplay offers the traditional shooting one would expect as well as some basic environmental puzzles. LucasArts made a new engine specifically for Dark Forces, the Jedi engine, which allowed for the multiple level stages and more floor designs that didn’t have to use tricks to simulate this effect. It also lets players look up and down when finding their targets—an aspect that wasn’t common in the genre. Dark Forces was often referred to as a DOOM clone—like many shooters at the time—with ducking and jumping through the levels making it feel more like an action-adventure. Visually, the new software also helped to create atmospheric effects stand out, such as fog shading and other animated textures. The developers wanted the stages to look more like active environments, like Katarn’s ship flying in and leaving, offering little touches that are easy to miss.
The shooting itself isn’t too bad, but often feels a bit like luck when hitting far off targets. Maybe it’s that Stormtrooper curse. There are several weapons for our Rebel scum to use, a couple made specifically for this game that otherwise didn’t exist in the universe, most with an alternate fire mode. I found myself relying primarily on a couple of the main weapons, not switching unless I ran out of ammunition, which did happen a good bit. The thermal detonators were hard to aim but particularly fun to use. There are also a good number of power-ups past the traditional health and shields, the ice cleats for snowy terrain, a breathing mask for poisonous areas, and infra-red goggles to see heat signatures as well as a headlamp for lighting dark corridors, but many of these items require batteries.
There are plenty of Stormtroopers to shoot, which is great because they are a lot like space Nazis, where no one feels bad slaughtering them en masse. Other enemies are introduced, like stronger troopers, droids, and beasts, but the newness of a different target to shoot wears off quickly. Bosses are sadly forgettable as well, minus one guest star.
Controls don’t help with that. Everything feels stiff when moving with the D-pad—since there is no analog support—making aiming and precise movements incredibly awkward when the lasers start flying. I fell off my share of ledges, among some other embarrassing deaths. The game also doesn’t tell the player how to do several basic things, like accessing inventory or how to activate some items. Some experimentation will be required, seeing as there are no tutorials and a few things need button combinations. I’m not a keyboard and mouse person, but the controls alone had me thinking I should have played this on the original DOS.
Another strike against the PS1 port is the horrible framerate, causing the game to chug at some points. There were a couple of sections that also looked like the lighting wasn’t coming in right. Even if it may have some visual problems, the music for the game is good, hitting the classic notes from John Williams’ score, while branching out a bit on its own, but it can get a bit repetitive on some of the stages.
Whereas the PC version of the game was praised for its advancements, the PlayStation port was heavily criticized for making the graphics and performance a worse experience. Overall the game did well enough to generate a sequel and is still lauded by fans. Everyone seemed to like it to some degree, as aspects from the story would inspire later games, toys, novels, as well as various other merchandise. Many fans were upset when the story was no longer canon after Disney purchased Star Wars and especially following the Rogue One movie. As most of Dark Force’s legacy was in the Extended Universe, I can understand the changes to simplify things, but there are probably some fans who still haven’t let that go.
I had wondered if Dark Forces would have made it without the huge Star Wars name and license attached, but I honestly believe that what it was doing for the genre at the time and its innovations would have at least made some impact. As it stands now, it’s still a cherished gem for fans of the property and worth checking out for some space opera fun, just maybe not on the PlayStation.