Just as I did for Dark Forces' twentieth anniversary a few years ago, so I will now do for my favorite game in the world, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight and its companion, Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith, on the occasion of the latter's twentieth anniversary. Once again, I am sorry for the whitewashing of the text--this seems to happen when I copy from Facebook and past it on Nightly. (Nightly has a lot of goofy problems, like when I'm viewing it on my computer at work I can't copy-and-paste at all, and the quote button does not function.)
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Today is a landmark day! Have you ever heard me talk about my favorite game in the world, Jedi Knight? Well, today, February 17, marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of its expansion, Mysteries of the Sith. Jedi Knight celebrated its twentieth anniversary back in October, but I missed it because I was in the hospital and trying not to die from sugar shock, so I was a tad preoccupied. Thus, I will use this opportunity to talk about both games, which are near and dear to my heart.
My dad bought me Star Wars: Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight for my birthday back in 1997, along with the official strategy guide you see there. I was still in Star Wars mode that year, with the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition having been released in theaters earlier that year.
Jedi Knight picks up where the first-person shooter Dark Forces (which I would not get the chance to play until many years later) left off. You take control of the protagonist, a hardened mercenary named Kyle Katarn, in his quest to find the Dark Jedi Jerec who murdered his father, assisted by his pilot and romantic interest, Jan Ors. Along the way, Kyle is visited by the deceased spirit of Qu Rawn, a Jedi Knight and friend of his father, who informs Kyle that Jerec seeks the Valley of the Jedi, a lost Jedi battleground where thousands of Jedi souls remain trapped from an ancient battle.
Along the way, Kyle recovers his father's lightsaber and begins to learn the ways of the Force, learning useful Force powers along the way. Force powers come in three categories: neutral (jump, speed, sight, and pull), light side (healing, persuasion, blinding, absorption, and protection), and dark side (throw, choke, lightning, destruction, deadly sight). The Force powers can be manually strengthened by assigning experience stars, which are accumulated automatically by finishing every third mission. If you find every "secret area" in a level, you receive a bonus star for that level.
The game is the first of its kind in that it makes use of a morality scale, which fluctuates between the light and dark sides of the Force. Assigning stars to light side powers will tip the scale toward the light side of the Force, whereas assigning stars to dark side powers, or simply by killing innocent civilians and droids, will tip it toward the dark side (it is the quick and easy path, as Yoda said). Eventually, the story reaches a point of no return, where Kyle's alignment will permanently swing to one end of the scale or the other, which affects the game's ending.
The seven Dark Jedi serve as boss fights every few levels, which unfortunately means that there isn't a whole lot of incentive to use your lightsaber in combat against any of the other enemies who are all armed with blasters (aside from it being really fun).
The game features fully-rendered cutscenes with real-life actors shot against green screens with fully-rendered CGI environments. Sure, the effects look cartoonish and unimpressive by today's standards, and the acting is rather lacking, but it was very impressive at the time. The light and dark side paths offered two entirely different endings, with only the light side ending being canon. (This would become the standard for Star Wars games moving forward, because Star Wars is all about virtue and redemption.)
The story of Jedi Knight would prove important for Star Wars lore, even affecting the harmony of the movies themselves: in The Phantom Menace, it is revealed that there only exist two Sith at any one time, whereas previous Expanded Universe stories--particularly the Tales of the Jedi comics--depicted the ancient Sith as a rival faction to the Jedi, numbering in the thousands; and in Attack of the Clones, Chancellor Palpatine mentions the Galactic Republic having stood for a thousand years, whereas it had been established in the EU that the Republic is 25,000 years old at the time of the films (interpreting Obi-Wan's "a thousand generations" line in A New Hope literally). Naturally, the quick-thinking EU writers worked their magic to correct both of these issues with retcons (retroactive continuity), using the lore from Jedi Knight as its basis. By way of a short story, and then a comic series, and finally a trilogy of novels, they established the planet where the Valley of the Jedi as Ruusan, with a battle between the Jedi and Sith taking place a thousand years before the films, obliterating the entire Sith order and a good portion of the Jedi, entrapping their souls in a coccoon that would eventually come to be known as the Valley of the Jedi from the game. One Sith--Darth Bane--would survive, and would proceed to take on an apprentice to establish the Rule of Two, mandating that only two Sith--a master and apprentice--can exist at any one time, with the apprentice rising up and slaying the master when becoming powerful enough and then taking on an apprentice of his or her own, continuing in this fashion until the time of the movies. The Republic also underwent major governmental changes known as the Ruusan Reformations, to the point where it bore little resemblance to the previous 24,000 years. Thus, the continuity issues were resolved thanks to Jedi Knight!
I spent many days playing this game, often with my best friend, Shawn. Many fond memories were created by this game. The default quick save key (there were no automatic checkpoints to save your progress) was F9, and every time we pressed that button to save our games we would shout, "F9 on ya!" To this day, when I play any PC game, I always reassign the quick save key to F9 in honor of those days, sometimes even yelling the phrase out loud.
Fast forward to early 1998. After a few months of pure Jedi Knight bliss, I was at Costco with my parents and came upon Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith, with a mysterious (no pun intended) woman on the box wielding a purple lightsaber while fighting a rancor. Needless to say, I was excited. More Jedi Knight! Well, I didn't end up getting it that day, but Dad was kind enough to purchase it for me the next time we were there, and we had Shawn with us as well. He and I poured over the box and instructions manual in the car, reading about this woman, Mara Jade, who was introduced in "Timothy Zahn's award-winning novel Heir to the Empire." I made a mental note of it for later.
We took it home, played it, and were amazed. While we were a bit disappointed that this entry featured cutscenes rendered by the in-game engine with the blocky characters instead of real-life actors, and that Kyle's voice actor was different, those reservations soon passed as we became enraptured in the story and gameplay. You resume control of Kyle Katarn for the first few missions, and then switch over to Mara Jade (whom Kyle has been training in the ways of the Jedi) once Kyle discovers references to an ancient Sith temple on the forgotten world of Dromund Kaas and pursues it, believing it to be part of his destiny. As Mara, you must redevelop your Force powers as you tangle with a Hutt named Ka'pa (bitter over the death of his friend Jabba), battle a fearsome rancor, and rescue a Jedi holocron from a smuggler before pursuing Kyle once it appears he has been gone too long.
Mysteries of the Sith features no morality scale and only one ending, and considers all Force powers neutral instead of grouping them according to the dark and light sides. Several new Force powers are introduced (including far sight, which allowed you to exit your body and travel anywhere you wished), and unlike Jedi Knight, which was possible to play through without ever using the Force (but who would want to do that?), Mysteries has areas of the game that can only be progressed through using Force powers. Once your character finally makes it to Dromund Kaas, you find that none of your weapons are functional other than your lightsaber, making lightsaber combat mandatory.
I was so impressed with Mara Jade that I went out and bought Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy and learned all about Mara's origin. Yes, this means that these games were what got me into the Expanded Universe, so as you might expect, they are very near and dear to my heart. Imagine how shocked I was to learn that Mara eventually goes on to marry Luke Skywalker!
Both games do an excellent job at capturing the feel of the original Trilogy, especially Jedi Knight. They are accompanied by John Williams' masterful scores from the films, really working wonders to set the mood of any particular setting, whether it is the dark, dingy alleys of crime-ridden Nar Shaddaa or the panic-ridden chaos of the falling cargo ship. As iconic as the soundtrack is, my only wish is that these games could have featured original scores composed by Skywalker Sound just for the games, like we got with Dark Forces albeit in midi format. I would love to have heard an orchestrated version of Kyle's theme, or Jerec with his own theme, possibly providing for a more fitting final battle score. I found the Williams track they selected for that battle to be rather inappropriate, doing nothing to instill a sense of excitement and climax but achieving just the opposite: anticlimax.
They also feature a multiplayer mode which takes a Ph.D to figure out how to find and connect to available games on servers. Personally, I was never successful at joining someone else's game or attracting people to my own, so my experience with the multiplayer has been a rather boring, consisting of just me running around by my lonesome without anyone to battle. No matter: I have never had much interest in multiplayer modes anyway. But I know that many people's fondest memories of these games come from the multiplayer.
As I mentioned, these games were my introduction to the Expanded Universe, so they are very special for me. Indeed, they are the reason why I am still a Star Wars fan, having renewed an interest from my childhood that was fading, and for that I am grateful. They hold an especially important place in my heart, which is part of the reason why the EU, in its original continuity before the Disney buyout, will always be the true continuation of Star Wars for me.
So I have been typing this post on my phone all day long between calls on an unusually busy Saturday. Sorry in advance for any typos. I will correct them once I get to my PC when I get to my PC. I encourage all of you to download, play, and enjoy Star Wars: Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight and Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith on Steam or GOG.com.
May the Force be with you.