As Star Wars games evolved and adapted throughout the late 20th century it was inevitable that eventually the games would take on a life of their own and become almost totally independent of the film series, and nothing is more telling of this than the success of the Jedi Knight series that focused almost entirely on characters that were never even mentioned in the original trilogy. Yet characters like Kyle Katarn, Jan Ors and Tavion have become just as synonymous with Star Wars for many fans as the likes of Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker are for fans of the movies.
Both Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy have fantastic storylines set deep within the now ‘Legends’ canon – both games follow the story of Rebel Agent-turned-Jedi Kyle Katarn and his fight against the Reborn faction, led by Desann and later Tavion. The development of Katarn’s character is one of ‘Legends’ canon’s greatest achievements, and makes these games all the more interesting as we follow the adventures of one of the Galaxy’s most legendary heroes. The main antagonists of both games are the various Dark Jedi associated with the Reborn faction, notably Desann, Tavion and Alora, and games are also filled with various minor antagonists, obstacles and puzzles to overcome as the player explores the world of Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi. An interesting feature in Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy allows the player to create their own Jedi, who trains under Kyle Katarn in Luke’s new Jedi Temple on Yavin IV. Whilst Outcast‘s story is more linear, Academy allows players to choose their own missions whilst unravelling the game’s story and decide whether Kyle’s apprentice should stay on the path of the light or embrace the dark side, which gives Academy’s story two very different endings.
By far one of the most memorable aspects of these games was the multiplayer, with maps like Death Star, Nar Shaddaa Streets, Vjun Sentinel, Taspir, Yavin Hilltops, and Coruscant Streets being among the more enduring and iconic maps in the series. Players have been able to use the game’s well-designed lightsaber combat system to create some quite interesting moves and strategies, which was further enhanced by Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy’s improved engine that allowed for double-bladed lightsabers and more advanced gymnastic Force abilities. Every map has a vertical element that can be used in conjunction with the almost limitless freedom that the hilariously overpowered Force Jump provides to take unsuspecting players completely by surprise, which is particularly rewarding in open maps with lots of ledges and platforms. As for the multiplayer setup, there are many different game modes to try, from Free for All to Capture the Flag, as well as modes designed around Star Wars battles in the movies like Power Duel and Siege. Even when playing solo, the game’s bots are challenging enough that it is still great fun.
A notable aspect of the campaign and multiplayer of the Jedi Knight series is the vast array of characters – particularly in Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, in which an entire team can be made up of the various types of Stormtrooper in the game – and there are a fair few familiar faces from the Original Trilogy like Luke Skywalker, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and Mon Mothma. Like all good contributions to the Star Wars lore, however, the Jedi Knight series also has its own large cast of recognisable characters and this, coupled with Jedi Academy‘s character customisation option, means that players are never short of choice in multiplayer when it comes to characters. The voice acting in this game ranges from genuinely good to downright hilarious, particularly in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast that has some funny dialogue but even funnier combat dialogue for the enemies.
It has to be said that one of the greatest assets of the Jedi Knight series is its combat mechanics, and even later Star Wars games like The Force Unleashed were never able to capture the simple-yet-effective approach that the Jedi Knight series took with its combat system. Lightsaber battles flow well and feel authentic – rather than having the player and the AI simply bashing sticks at each other until one of them drops dead, the combatants will lock blades and scoring direct body hits requires skill and precision. This means that each combat encounter feels like a mini-duel in itself, making the Jedi Knight games one of the quintessential Star Wars experiences for lightsaber combat.
There are other forms of combat present in the game too, however, and in some levels weapons other than the lightsaber are useful or even necessary. Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy feature a diverse sandbox of weapons and each has a specific function – a Star Wars equivalent of a shotgun, sniper rifle and rocket launcher are all present to make the games accessible to fans of the first-person shooter genre. Like all good FPS games, gunfights in the Jedi Knight series are dependant on movement and good aim, but many of the guns are useless against lightsaber wielders. The game’s weapon sandbox truly shines in the campaign mode, particularly since players can either mince through legions of Stormtroopers with their lightsaber, use the various Force powers to easily sweep through encounters, or choose to play more fairly and switch to gunplay for a more challenging (but ultimately more rewarding) combat experience.
Many who played the Jedi Knight games regard them as among the best of the Star Wars video games, and for good reason. Whilst it may no longer be part of the Star Wars canon, Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy remains an essential Star Wars experience.