I will to no end hate the inconsistent titles of these games. Who thought it was a good idea to not just neglect the numbers in the end, but to change the title of the series entirely? It is a bizarre decision, but regardless: the Jedi Knight/Dark Forces series has some of the most well known games in the Star Wars-universe. Licensed games have had a poor track-record, but many game developers have shown clear love for the Star Wars universe. That is a feat few can hold and I still remember how big of a deal these titles were. Being able to play an action-oriented Star Wars game that wasn’t a space-shooter wasn’t common. Sure there was the SNES-trilogy and Shadows of the Empire, but neither I heard as much praise for as this quadrilogy.
From aiming down to striking down
Dark Forces came out in 1996 when the Doom-series was still the king of shooters, and the Duke would follow shortly with his third installment. While many would, at first, refer to Dark Forces as a clear mod or clone of Doom, it had a lot of improved elements and differed a lot compared from the hectic shooter. Dark Forces was more about exploration and mission-setup, with level-designs taking advantage of higher and lower grounds. This concept of exploration was a focus for the developers at LucasArts, as they wanted to make this into more of an adventure game as well as a shooter. The game even got platforming implemented because of this, which was a new thing back then.
Dark Forces became a success and a sequel was to come, but with a twist. Dark Forces 2 added more to the technical aspects and even experimented with the way of the Jedi/Sith, with a lightsaber and force-powers being unlocked after the first couple of missions. However the most recognizable one of the series was yet to come. Jedi Knight 2 was made by Raven Software. A great choice, seeing as they worked with the Quake 3 Arena engine and made a highly praised Star Trek-game, they could offer something similar to what LucasArts wished for in a Star Wars-game. In Jedi Knight 2, the lightsaber-fights and force powers got much more evolved, and had plenty of improvements to the enemy AI and stage-layout. It is still to this day considered to be the best Star Wars-game by many and seeing how many great ones there are, this is no small feat.
Finally came Jedi Academy, which was a major shift for the series, as it had many design-choices that differentiated it from other games in the series. The biggest question during development was if this game was going to have Kyle Katarn as the main protagonist or not. Due to wanting to take more locations from the movies and make characters be able to become progressively stronger, not to mention more personalized, they made the decision to make the main character one representing the player. Due to wanting to focus more on the Jedi-aspects of the game, the setting became the school, with Kyle as your master alongside Luke Skywalker.
Throughout these 4 games, the developers were concerned with two things: how to make something feel adventurous and close to Star Wars.They wanted to make huge worlds set in different locations for each installment, as well as making the player feel as if they were in the world of Star Wars. Because of this, not only are many locations both from the movies and certain novels, but this was also why you started out as a rebel in the beginning, working closely with characters from the movie. Force-powers and the lightsaber were implemented after the first game, since Jedi are the first thing one thinks about when you mention Star Wars. This is why they shifted the focus so quickly from the Dark Forces name and onto Jedi Knight, since they wanted to create the ultimate Jedi-game after the first installment. Still hate the confusing titles.
A great beginning and end
The first game was definitely inspired by Doom, but also showed that it wanted to be something unique. The stages had a mission-based setup and huge areas that were fun and intriguing to explore, with enjoyable shooting to boot. One of the cooler elements kept throughout the series was that guns could have two different kind of shots, making combat more interesting.
We can also see that the second and third game followed a similar idea, at least with grand places to explore, many returning weapons, and had an idea for the Jedi-concept that was progressively getting better and ended with a bang with Jedi Academy. In the last couple of games the sword combat was based on your movement with both mouse and keyboard, similar to Smash Bros, with force powers being at your disposal. It really is intriguing to see it start out well, stumbling a bit, but learning from its mistake to create something beautiful by acknowledging what works and what doesn’t. Not to mention the fantastic multiplayer for both the third and fourth entry made it easy to pick it up for fun matches, which also was experimented on with the second installment already. While the series had its downs, the good was well worth your time.
Lost in space
However, while the first and the last game in the series are enjoyable, the 2 in the middle are harder to recommend. Dark Forces 2 has aged poorly, as it felt mostly empty and downright unfinished at times. Poor enemy-designs, dated visuals and leaps of faith for progression, are only minor elements that add to a frustrating experience. It was bizarre for me to see how much praise it got at the time compared to the first installment, but I suppose it is a good example on how something can age like milk. Jedi Knight 2 could be easier to recommend thanks to the lightsaber-fights being fun and the multiplayer being a blast, but it too struggled more than it should, especially due to progression being confusing. Besides: when Jedi Academy is pretty much a fixed version of Jedi Knight 2, it becomes harder to recommend it. They got high critical acclaim for their time, but time has not been kind to these two.
For the impatient ones: in 3 out of 4 games in the series it could be hard to find the right path forward, but at least the first one had a focus on the exploration and was not a mess similar to Dark Forces 2 and Jedi Knight 2.
Will the saga continue?
Being such a highly regarded series, there should be the possibility for a fifth installment, right? Unfortunately, Raven Software was acquired by Activision, and is now supporting in plenty of modern Call of Duty games, which I frankly find sad as they had so much potential. Not to mention that now EA has the rights to make Star Wars games for the time being, it is a bit uncertain if we will get another Jedi Knight-game. However, since we got Battlefront (2015) from them, there is a possibility for another installment, but I really hope not, as Battlefront was a poor excuse for a game. Maybe it is better to be happy with what you already have, instead of demanding more. Besides: 2 out of 4 games being worth your time and one being recommendable to a certain degree, is not bad. There are also plenty of Star Wars-games already, so I do honestly not think we need many more.