Barring the lukewarm reception of their latest big movie release, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, LucasArts is one of the most prolific and respected creative forces in the entertainment industry today. Unfortunately, its games division (of the same name) stands to tarnish the reputation of its parent company with every release. Sure, it has had successes like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and X-Wing, but it is also responsible for even more forgettable releases like Force Commander, Shadows Of The Empire, and Star Wars: Pit Droids. What's worse is that some of their best games were actually created by other companies: like the Star Wars series (developed by Capcom) on the Super Nintendo and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (developed by Factor 5) for the Nintendo 64. It's likely that the potency of the Star Wars license is why this division continues to exist. Their latest is a side-scrolling fighting game called Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles and it's close to being a game that LucasArts finally got right.
Jedi Power Battles has a lot going for it and when I first started playing, I immediately liked what I saw—and heard. The character models, from the Jedi themselves to the battle droids, are convincingly rendered despite a low polygon count and they all animate fluidly. The environments, which are quite expansive considering the PlayStation's memory limitations, were full of details and nuances that were true to the Star Wars universe. Videogame soundtracks have always been a strength of LucasArts so it was no surprise that Jedi Power Battles had some great recreations of Phantom Menace tunes to add to the movie-like atmosphere.
Other games released under the Star Wars license (i.e. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II and Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace) may have also allowed gamers to fill the role of a Jedi, but I had a better time reliving my Jedi fantasy in this game than in the others. That's because this game has gameplay and objectives that are more focused and is worried less about being a role-playing game than its predecessors. Jedi use of The Force is now essentially reduced to special moves specific to each Jedi; some heal themselves with it, some use it for defensive purposes, and others use it offensively. Although, they can't use the force to pull weapons away from opponents, they do brandish their light sabers like "real" Jedi would. That, of course, means a lot of laserfire reflection and deflections with a simple flick of the wrist. It has to be one of the best parts of the game, because it got me out of plenty of jams and, no matter how you look at it, it's just plain cool. There is also something to say for the two-player mode in the game; plowing through battle droids with a friends is always a blast.
However, problems popped up the deeper I got in the game or, I should say, the deeper I tried to get. That's because, for whatever reason, Jedi Power Battles shipped with serious—and obvious—flaws in gameplay that taint an otherwise promising effort. The controls are so unpredictable at times that I wondered how LucasArts' play testers could let this game make it to store shelves. Whether I was using the D-pad or the analog joystick, getting my characters to move in a straight line was burdensome when it should have been the easiest thing in the game to do.
Adding to the game's problems are certain gameplay conventions that can make the gameplay feel almost oppressive. In an attempt to add "dimension" to the standard side-scrolling action, LucasArts decided to add platform jumping into the fray. Its implementation, though, is a clue that the developer was oblivious to the game's control issues. I wasted many continues by missing landings or slipping off ledges I worked hard to reach—and yes, falls can kill your character even if the height is not that great. Equally unforgiving is the camera system, which worked against me in certain areas. Sometimes there were ledges positioned off-screen and I had no way of seeing them until I took a literal leap of faith. It got worse with two players because the camera would focus on whoever was the furthest ahead—if I jumped first, the camera would follow me and leave the other player off-screen and vice-versa. None of this would really be an issue if Jedi Power Battles was a single player game, but this genre was made specifically for two or more players and, for that matter, LucasArts billed it as a multiplayer game.
So why am I giving the game such a relatively high score despite its obvious failings in gameplay? Well, enough of the game's visuals and sounds came together to make Jedi Power Battles an "enjoyable" experience. After enough practice—lots of practice with a buddy tagging along—I found that I could breeze through most of the levels. Once a level was perfected, I was eager to go on to the next. Plus, there were nice bonuses like being able to pilot enemy vehicles like the AAT and STAP and, at the end of every level, I was rewarded with extended health or power-ups depending on how well I did. And let's not forget that destroying enemies by reflecting their laser blasts never got old.
Jedi Power Battles could have been a lot better than it is. It has nice graphics and commendable level design, but is marred by the lack of tight controls and manageable jumping. Still, I wound up playing through the game as frustrating as it sometimes got, mostly due to its fun two-player mode. When I wasn't trying to make precise landings, I genuinely enjoyed the action. It may not be the breakaway hit that LucasArts may have been hoped for, but it is Star Wars after all and I'll admit that that is a draw in and of itself.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation version of the game.