LEGO® Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be… [Guest Review]

Like many people of a certain age, I grew up watching the Original Trilogy of Star Wars Movies as they rolled out in the cinemas. I then set watched the prequels as they played out, around the same time as my kids were born and in their early years. Finally, their first exposure to Star Wars came: not through the movies in the first instance, but through playing the TT Games – LEGO® Star Wars (covering episodes 1-3), LEGO® Star Wars II – Espisodes IV -VI, and then picking up the omnibus Complete Saga, on an alternative platform. This also served as part of their introduction to video games, and as a parent, I preferred this style of gameplay – mixed puzzles and cartoon gunfire, while tethered to each other, and taking the journey together. To be honest, I would have never completed episode VI if it were not for the cooperative play afforded by my son.

Now, 15 years is a long time in video games, but it might have even been a bit longer. Our kids have pretty well grown up (but are still at home), and the closest thing we now have in our house to cooperative regular game play is a game of Trivial pursuit (either via a Nintendo Switch or going old school, using a board, actual pieces and a 6-sided die.).

So part of me was quite excited about the prospect of sitting down again and replaying LEGO® Star Wars, covering the entire saga and spending some quality couch time with Harry. He has spent a little bit of time contemplating Games And Interactivity at university, while focussing on creative writing. I figured I could get him to write a review.

So, having failed to preorder the game, and thus missing out on the Blue Milk Luke, we went up to the games store on release day and picked up a copy for the Switch (“But Why, Dad? The PC is a superior gaming platform,”he insisted. “Do you want me coming up into your bedroom every time I want to play the game?” “You raise a fair point!”).

And so we have spent a couple of evenings playing it. And work got busy again. And then the cutting remark: “Dad, if you want me to review this game, with any sort of positivity, I need to complete it single player…”

It’s a fair cop. And so, I retired hurt.

Harry has completed the core storyline, and as such, it has become apparent that he has developed some Strong Opinions about the game during the last few weeks. And so… here they are…

Before I begin reviewing LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, I should state that if you’re looking for an objective review, you won’t find it here. I have significant nostalgia not only for the original Star Wars trilogy (and to a lesser extent, the prequels, albeit mostly retroactively thanks to The Clone Wars) but also for the older LEGO Star Wars games, which I still have fond memories of playing with my dad as a child on the rare days when he didn’t have work and I didn’t have school or homework, slowly chipping through the story of A New Hope or The Phantom Menace as told through the medium of exaggerated pantomime and slapstick. Additionally, prior to playing the game I also stumbled upon this article (https://www.polygon.com/features/22891555/lego-star-wars-the-skywalker-saga-has-led-to-extensive-crunch-at-tt-games) by Jack Yarwood which also colored my opinions of the game.

I really wanted to like this game, readers, I swear. It’s a game whose target audience is largely in the 8–13-year-old range who’ll be saving up pocket money for it or asking their parents to get it for their birthday, so it brings me no pleasure when I say that Skywalker Saga is more of a disappointment than the sequel trilogy, both as a game and an interpretation of the mainline Star Wars movies.

Okay, the Mirror Cave bit in The Last Jedi had some interesting puzzles but it was still way too short

First up, let’s talk about the gameplay. It might just be that my memories of the older games are coloured by the fact that couch co-op in Lego games used to essentially chain the players together, my dad is, to put it charitably, not especially video-game-literate, and I was also approximately eight the last time I played them, but I could swear the levels used to take about half an hour to get through even without the faffing about with co-op partners. They used to be puzzle games that occasionally asked you to beat up some lads but now the values have flipped, and it’s become a game about beating up some lads in which you are occasionally and almost begrudgingly asked to solve a puzzle. The older games understood that LEGO games being puzzle games rather than combat-focused made sense, because they were catering to a younger audience whose parents didn’t let them play shooters and otherwise LEGO just became a visual style rather than a mechanic. Most of what you build in Skywalker Saga is chest-high walls for cover shooting, and the whole thing could have worked just as well (or at least, wouldn’t have worked any worse) if it had been a non-LEGO game.

The worst part is that the combat is, with a handful of exceptions, tedious. They implemented a bunch of cover shooting mechanics, such as the over-the-shoulder camera view that means couch co-op reduces your field of view so much that neither you nor your partner can see anything not directly in front of you, the ability to aim down sights in such a way that half the time it seems like your head is completely obscuring whatever it is you’re trying to shoot at, and upgrade trees for blaster damage and health, but there’s no reason to engage in any of it because they also made the melee combat a Devil May Cry-esque spectacle fighter where you can stunlock enemies by juggling them with aerial lightsabre combos, and even without upgrades these do way more damage than blasters and don’t need precision aiming (which on a controller is like trying to bullseye a womp rat in a T-16). Even non-lightsabre melee combos do more damage than blasters, so unless the enemies are on a separate platform or you’re trying to hit a target as part of one of the rare actual puzzles, there’s no reason at all to use a blaster. I’ll grant them this, the melee combat was actually alright once I got the hang of it (which wasn’t until around the Count Dooku boss fight at the end of Attack of the Clones going through in release order, but ho-hum) but it feels slightly baffling why it’s there when even their internal playtesting shows that most people just spam the one button to attack, and for the first few episodes I didn’t even realise you could attack with the jump button when you’re combo-ing and in range.

Another mechanic the presence of which vexes is the upgrade tree. You start out with a sprint speed that a GONK droid would laugh at (were it capable of saying anything other than “GONK”), and to upgrade it you have to earn Kyber Bricks from completing levels, finding collectables in levels and the overworlds, and completing esoteric challenges in the levels that it doesn’t actually tell you about until after you complete the level. Alternatively, you could look for the Kyber Comets in the space sections above each planet which reward five Kyber Bricks for just shooting apart a big rock that’s easy to find and doesn’t shoot back or pose any threat or challenge to you. There are a few upgrades which do make life easier; sprint speed, melee damage, extra health and ship damage in the main tree, and the class upgrades for scavenger abilities and bypassing the astromech and password minigames (although you have to hold the button for almost as long as it would take to just do the minigame normally, so one wonders why they bothered).

This brings me to the next brick underfoot, the class system. Rather than previous games where if you needed a certain ability to get a collectable or solve a puzzle, you’d need to remember the characteristics demonstrated by characters in the movies, they’re all consolidated into classes now which each have a (mostly) unique skill, with some overlap; villains and bounty hunters both throwing different types of grenades, for instance, or Sith and Jedi having basically the same force powers except Sith can lift people as well as droids (not that it actually comes up in the story because you literally only get to play as a Sith character twice in the entire saga and both times it’s Kylo Ren in a boss fight which lasts all of five minutes and doesn’t provide much, if any, opportunity to use that power).Once you have one of each class unlocked, there’s not much reason to bother with unlocking extra characters since you can’t use them in story mode and the only real difference they offer outside of a cosmetic change is their fighting style and combos, which doesn’t really come up in the open world segments where you’d likely be using them and unless you’re really into action fighting games you probably won’t even really notice that.

The gameplay all around feels quite anaemic, so ironically this section will be quite lengthy. I spend five minutes wandering around the level hub trying to find the patch of floor I have to stand on to actually start the bleeding thing, as opposed to just having a convenient ‘next level’ button like the previous games had, I spend a minute loading in (this is likely due to the limitations of Switch hardware, along with the occasional framerate drop during combat segments with more than three ranged characters and the low resolution on the menu screen) and when I finally do, I’m back at the level hub inside of about five, maybe ten minutes.

Just when I think Rise of Skywalker can’t disappoint me any more…

There are entire levels in Attack of the Clones where all you do is follow a character walking faster than your walking speed but slower than your sprinting speed from point A to point B while they exposition dump, and I wonder why it couldn’t have just been a cutscene, and on the other end of the scale you have segments like the Reactor Run against the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi where I wonder why it couldn’t have been a playable level, especially given I know for a fact that it was a playable level in previous iterations. The ‘lightspeed skipping’ sequence at the start of Rise of Skywalker could have been an interesting level, a way to add some positive feelings towards what is by far the weakest movie in the saga, by having us need to pilot the Falcon through the rapidly changing scenery, but nope; it just cuts to a view from inside the cockpit and makes it a Quick-Time-Event, and calling that gameplay is like calling a single crumb a cake.

Don’t even get me started on the Gungan dialogue, Episode 1 made me glad of the short levels

Even when TT Games have deigned to grace us with an actual level, the decision-making process for which parts get adapted seems incredibly arbitrary. For instance, we all remember Phantom Menace being insufferable because of Jar Jar, right? Well, apparently TT Games didn’t think so, because before you can play the fun space battle level against the Trade Federation control ship, you’ve got to get through not one, but TWO levels playing as Jar Jar and another Gungan. The first is just running around the Naboo swamp to find the explosives that fell off the cart with no actual combat or puzzles, and the second is the big setpiece fight between the Gungan army and the battle droids which consists of beating up a few battle droids who get through the shield before switching to a God’s-Eye-View tower defence game that doesn’t seem to have a fail state, so it just makes you slowly drag the cursor and launch explosives at an arbitrary number of tanks and droid squads before going ‘yup, that’ll do,’ and through the entire sequence I kept thinking “I’m sorry, are you seriously holding the plot hostage for Jar Jar [redacted] Binks?! The Death Star 2 Reactor Run is reduced to a cutscene and lightspeed skipping is reduced to a series of button prompts which may as well have been a cutscene, but THIS gets two levels?!”

Now that I’ve finished griping about the gameplay, let’s move on to the story (or at least, the cutscenes). Of course, being a TT LEGO game without comedy would be like a Charlie Chaplin film without witty dialogue. “But Harry,” I hear you saying, “Charlie Chaplin famously did silent slapstick movies!” To which I say, dear reader, Exactly My Point. The LEGO games used to be quite reliably funny back in the days when they had to convey the plot of an existing franchise through only exaggerated gestures and slapstick comedy, but ever since they added voice acting, they’ve sped downhill towards the city limits of Joss Whedon Quipville.

[Young Anakin voice] “Now THIS is comedy!”

Credit where it’s due, a couple of Skywalker Saga’s gags made me laugh; the recurring bit where Palpatine uses force lightning by holding out the minifig accessory lightning which doesn’t do anything and then throwing them away so he can use actual particle effect force lightning, the classic Hot Tub Trooper easter egg in the Blockade Runner level, and the reference to the swordsman bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark in The Force Awakens where Han starts to aim his blaster at the melee trooper while he’s doing a bunch of flourishes.

Not everything has to be a ****ing quip, let sad bits in the source material be sad

These bits of classic gold are overwhelmingly outnumbered by bits that are clearly meant to be funny, like the extended ‘No, I’M Spartacus!’ bit that Padmé’s doubles do towards the end of The Phantom Menace, which drag on way too long to be funny, to those where you wonder if they were really funny in the first place: like the fight between Rey and Kylo in the Death Star wreckage where Kylo won’t shut up about how ~cool~ it is that the grandkids of Darth Vader and Palpatine are fighting on the Death Star, or Order 66 which goes quite jarringly from anticipation of tragedy to a gag about order 67 being to start a dance party, to Order 66 actually happening, to Yoda being passive aggressive about none of the dead Jedi picking up their comms. 

In truth, LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is exactly what we should expect from a franchise that has remade most of these movies multiple times and was forced into crunch to get the job done. The reason behind a lot of the features I’ve mentioned where I’ve gone “Why is this here?” is likely something to the effect of “Because we included it in previous games to justify making you, the player, spend another $70 on another variation of mostly the same source material as the last game and we have to be able to say that the sequel has even more stuff in”. The shorter levels and emphasis on combat that can be dragged and dropped into any environment rather than puzzles which need to be tailored to a particular level, everything makes sense when you consider that the developers were under strict scheduling limits and pressured into undercompensated overtime work to get the game finished.

Seriously, who buys a LEGO game for the graphics? And why is this in crisp HD but the main menu is compressed like I’m pirating it on YouTube?

It makes sense when you consider the technological limits put in place by the need to have impressive graphics for marketing which take up a lot of storage space on physical media (A Nintendo Switch game cartridge can store 32GB, and the discs used by Xbox and PlayStation are 50GB). It makes sense when you consider how many people pre-ordered the game to get the blue-milk-moustache Luke Skywalker minifigure, allowing the company to recoup their costs before the game even came out and therefore not need to give a half ounce of Bantha dung whether the finished product was any good. It makes sense when you consider employee’s complaints about the game engine being a pain to use and limited in what they could do with it but not being allowed to switch to Unreal Engine because the execs didn’t want to pay its licensing fees. If you want a LEGO Star Wars game, you’d be better served hunting down a copy of The Complete Saga; it’s not perfect, but it has all the same nostalgia for cheaper, with actual puzzles and the added bonus of not having to acknowledge the existence of the Sequel Trilogy.

Thanks for bringing us you insights, Harry.

So, do I feel he has been a bit harsh? I really wanted to enjoy playing the Skywalker Saga, but I found that it lacked a lot of the charm of the gameplay I remember. Is this because in the meantime, we have seen TT games refine the formula time and time again with different LEGO Games? Do we now see too much emphasis on the ’LEGO Jokes,’ at the expense of gameplay? Would we have had more enjoyment if the game just set out to remaster the original levels for contemporary consoles?

Do we really need this game to include an open galaxy to explore, with an inability to gain all of the available characters in the absence of purchasing the downloadable character packs?

I have to admit, ultimately I agree with Harry – as a fairly casual game player, I found this game failing to live up to my nostalgic feelings for the original games: plenty of shooty bits, not enough thinking bits – as if they were setting out to provide a long collection of cut scenes which can later be stitched together and rereleased on DVD with another exclusive minifigure, as they have done with the superhero games. While hoped I would enjoy playing it, I am yet to complete Revenge of the Sith. Should I have started with the levels that were ’my’ Star Wars? Perhaps. My inner collector is frustrated: Our family own all of the LEGO Star Wars games, BUT not the exclusive minfigure. My inner game player is frustrated.

But at least Harry and I were able to spend some quality time together reliving happy childhood memories, exchanging points of view, and generally developing our relationship. Which is what LEGO Star Wars was all about to most of us anyway! So, indeed, from a certain point of view, it does its fulfill its brief as an adequate LEGO Star Wars game. A Certain Point of View…

Have you been playing LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Skywalker Saga? Did you grown up on the original games? Did the nostalgia overwhelm the updated experience? Why not comment below, and until next time…

Play Well!

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