TCW 7.7: “Dangerous Debt”

This episode is an action-packed extended prison break and chase sequence, with a lot of visual and musical references to the classic films. It feels very Star Wars, and it’s fun to watch, even though not all that much really happens, and our heroes more or less wind up back where they started.

Sure, now we can see how things might lead back to Mandalore, and Trace and Rafa reveal more about their tragic backstory (although Rafa’s narrative felt bizarrely scripted, as though she was reading an especially florid bit of prose from her diary). And I enjoy the dynamic between Ahsoka, Trace, and Rafa so much that I sure don’t mind spending more time with them. But this episode, while fun to watch, felt like the show was spinning its wheels. If I learned anything from The Mandalorian, though, it’s to trust that even a seeming filler episode can pay off in the long run.

The Jedi Academy Reopens

I was quick to pick up, and play through, the Nintendo Switch ports for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Outcast was a title I’d never really played before and didn’t have much of an attachment to. Academy, on the other hand, was the game I had played a lot in high school. It didn’t get as much multiplayer time as the Halo games or Far Cry, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lightsaber combat and the sense of deep immersion within the Expanded Universe.

I had great fun with both games in their new lives as current-gen console ports by Aspyr. But my nostalgic connection to Jedi Academy made this the game I was more excited to revisit. I found that the lightsaber combat was a little more frustrating than I remembered, although after spending so much of Outcast without a lightsaber, it was great to come into the game with that signature weapon and some basic Force powers readily available. And I have evolved as a person and as a Star Wars fan, so while I still liked the cute references to the old continuity, I wasn’t as enraptured by these nods and winks, and I focused more on the story itself. It’s too bad, because the story is very mediocre.

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Academy hits many of the same beats as Outcast. You’re improving in the use of the Force while hunting down a band of Dark Side cultists preparing to take over the galaxy. There is a pivotal duel with a secondary antagonist in which the protagonist must wrestle with the temptation of the Dark Side. There is a final battle within a temple as the primary antagonist attempts to tap into an ancient power. And there’s weird stuff about pulling the Force from people/places. The secondary antagonist of Outcast even becomes the primary antagonist of Academy. Plus, Kyle Katarn remains sarcastic and bordering on the edge of having a real personality, though he moves from protagonist to mentor/support character.

Academy mixes things up by focusing on customization and choice. That plot point about facing the Dark Side is actually a player choice in Academy, resulting in a Light or Dark ending–which had been a feature of Outcast’s predecessor. (I don’t think I’ve ever played through the Dark Side ending, because the choice is either killing an unarmed and pathetic former “friend”/rival or sparing him.) And the larger plot is told over just a few bigger levels, with the majority of the game coming in the form of available missions that you choose from. Before each mission, you pick your starting weapons and level up Force abilities. And you can choose to complete all the missions within a given chapter of the story or skip the last one to go onto the next big story quest. These choices are meant to provide a sense of customization and non-linearity, but they result in only trivial variation in order rather than real impact (and as far as I can tell, you’re just missing out on an extra Force point by skipping a mission).

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The biggest player impact on how the game appears is through customization of the protagonist. You can choose the gender and species of your character, Jaden Korr; can select from several face, torso, and pant options with clothing trim color choices; and can pick a lightsaber hilt and color. Later on in the game, you can even choose to dual-wield lightsabers or carry a double-bladed saber. But while your lightsaber choices at least feed into combat, the other choices are purely aesthetic. And for that reason, it’s very bizarre that the game limits you to certain races for men and for women. You can be a human male or female, but you can only be a female Zabrak or Twi’lek, while you can only be a male Kel Dor or Rodian. On top of that, there’s only one male voice and one female voice. This means that, when I played through the game this time as a Kel Dor, the wry, clear voice of a human male was jarringly inserted, without any sort of filtration or mechanization, over the blank staring of my protagonist. With Plo Koon’s deep, muffled voice in mind, it was quite the disconnect to hear a voice apparently unrestrained by the respiratory apparatus over Jaden’s mouth, and a lot of character moments were oddly muted–especially since the graphics don’t allow for any expression of emotion in the character’s brows. If you’re going to just assign the same voice to every race of the same gender, why limit the race/gender pairings at all?

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This game feels very much of its era, down to female characters in skimpy and outrageous outfits, including a Zabrak woman wearing boots with heels as displayed in many of the loading screens. As one might imagine, hetero teenage me didn’t mind that so much, but now, it’s some uncomfortable baggage.

But importantly, even with my critiques, and even with my occasional frustrations with a particular opponent or scenario in the game, I still had a lot of fun. I liked playing a Kel Dor hero. I liked exploring planets from the movies and the EU. I liked the references to Luke’s early students like Corran, Tionne, and Streen. I liked the goofy weirdness of the plot and its insistence that players be familiar not just with the previous game’s story but with a dozen other stories and characters as well for maximum appreciation. The New Jedi Order series ended in the same year that Jedi Academy came out, so this was the peak for wild, weird, edgy, self-referential Star Wars, at the very edge before I finally got burnt out. I was reminded of that feeling and that setting when I played the game again. And I got to swing a lightsaber a lot, so it was still worth my time. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to sell you on it. And if you’re not a fan, the loose controls, dated graphics, and casual density of background lore might not be appealing. I guess this post was just for me, and others like me, who maybe could use a little escape into nostalgia during a particularly dark time for America.

TCW 7.6: “Deal No Deal”

I’m really liking Trace and Rafa. They’re more interesting and three-dimensional characters than I was expecting. Trace is pure-hearted, overconfident, and desperate for something more in life. She shares that last attribute with her sister, who is amoral, manipulative, and always out for the next get-rich-quick scheme–even as her debts pile higher and higher. But Trace is a little foolish and rash, and Rafa seems like someone genuinely protective of her sister, so it’s maybe not as simple a dynamic as I initially thought, and it promises to continue evolving. It looks like theirs was a slowly fraying relationship by the time Ahsoka showed up, but she’s certainly added to their dysfunction, and I’m not sure yet if she’ll push them apart or actually manage to mend their fractures and put them on a path that’s different than their scrounging, scrabbling lives lurking on the periphery of the galactic underworld.

I like the structure of this arc within the season, too. It’s a little more character-focused. It’s certainly less brass and violent and loud so far, even with the action scenes that have been interspersed throughout, as we’re focusing on the forgotten members of everyday galactic society, civilians just trying to make ends meet as the war rages elsewhere. This episode in particular felt rather like an early adventure for an RPG party. The heroes are now assembled, and they finally have an operational ship that can broaden their horizons, but their first job is a simple delivery mission. Until, of course, they overthink it and it all goes to hell.

The additional emotive expressiveness on the character models goes a long way to selling their interactions. And the emotional weight of every scene is heightened by a score in this episode that represents some of the best musical accompaniment in the whole series.

In one of my favorite moments of the episode, Trace takes her new starship into a military lane over Coruscant, ignoring the frenzied guidance of Ahsoka and Rafa. They are soon contacted by a familiar voice: Admiral Yularen. He assumes they’re just a bunch of amateurs taking stupid risks and intends to deploy some troops to arrest them. But Anakin, aboard Yularen’s Star Destroyer, asks what’s up, and when Yularen explains, Anakin reaches out with the Force and senses Ahsoka’s presence. He tells Yularen to let them pass. It’s really sweet, another great emotional moment from this final season, and it’s of course also a nice nod to Anakin and Luke’s Force encounter over Endor in Return of the Jedi.

The season is forming into a perfect brew of great ingredients, and I’m so happy for it. It’s a fun weekly escape.

TCW 7.5: “Gone with a Trace”

At some point, my episode descriptions for this season of The Clone Wars can all boil down to some variant of, “I loved it!” Same is true for this episode, which picks up with Ahsoka after she left the Jedi Order. The Order doesn’t exactly have a severance package, and she’s down-on-her-luck with some small reserve of credits and a broken-down speeder bike the only things left to her name.

Ahsoka sees more than ever what the state of affairs looks like for those left behind by the Jedi when they went off to fight their war. And she also finds that there are kind, good people still trying to do the right thing even at the bottom of the heap.

My favorite moment in the episode was another single line, when Ahsoka admits that she learned how to fight from her “big brother.” It’s a nice enough cover, if a bit flimsy, but her delivery sells me that that’s exactly how she viewed Anakin. Heartbreaking, especially knowing not only what came before but what will ultimately become of their relationship.

Final thought: the sibling relationship of older, unreliable scoundrel Rafa and younger, goodhearted Trace reminds me rather strongly of Mission and her big brother Griff from Knights of the Old Republic. And I get the feeling that Rafa is bound to let Trace down in a big (or even bigger) way, too.

TCW 7.4: “Unfinished Business”

This was another episode in which I lost it over a single, character-defining line:

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Over the course of The Clone Wars, we saw Anakin come to embrace his role as war hero. Violence became the easy answer. An early example of that can be found in “Voyage of Temptation” (season 2, episode 13): Obi-Wan and Satine hesitate to stop a traitor, saboteur, and terrorist sympathizer as he taunts their noble ideals. The villain even mockingly asks, “Who will strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” At that point, Anakin handily shows up to stab him in the back. Under the disapproving gaze of Obi-Wan, Anakin retorts, “What? He was going to blow up the ship.” Then, in the season three Citadel arc (episodes 18-20), Anakin is introduced to Tarkin, who challenges him with the idea that the “Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win,” which Anakin finds he agrees with based on his own wartime experiences (season 3, episode 19, “Counterattack”).

Following Ahsoka’s departure from the Jedi Order, Anakin is left reeling, doubting more than ever his relationship with the Order and the inherent rightness of its ways. In “Unfinished Business,” Anakin is close to unhinged, willing to do anything at all to achieve victory. Even though his actions are intended to save lives, it’s clear enough that the Dark Side already has a strong hold on him. And yet he gets results, and he remains a hero to the Jedi and the Republic, rewarded for the lengths he’ll go to. At this point, Anakin sees the virtues of the Jedi as weaknesses, hindrances. It’s not a far moral step from what he does to Trench to his disarming and beheading of Dooku. Another reminder that The Clone Wars did (and still does) an excellent job of deepening the characters and better illustrating their moral journeys from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith!

 

TCW 7.3: “On the Wings of Keeradaks”

Okay, this is a super-short post. The episode was entertaining to watch, I’m glad to have Echo back, and I like the Bad Batch, but we’ve sort of seen this plot many times before on this show. Daring mission goes sideways, and the Jedi/clones have to convince neutral locals to fight back–conveniently just in time for the Separatists to track them down and rain fire on everyone. Don’t get me wrong: this was another enjoyable episode. I just don’t find that I have anything to say about it. Rex and especially Echo have been through a lot. I don’t know how much time the show will have to address Echo’s trauma and apparent difficulty with readjusting, but I’m confident we’ll get to see something approaching a conclusion to Rex’s arc from inexhaustible loyalist to rule-bending, free-thinking, war-weary veteran.

TCW 7.2: “A Distant Echo”

I have a very narrow reaction to this latest episode. There is plenty to say if I wanted: it’s a beautiful, emotionally powerful episode with a fun adventure/thriller plot that ends in a heartbreaking revelation. It’s good Star Wars and good storytelling. And it looks and sounds great throughout. But the only thing I really want to say is, bless The Clone Wars for coming back, if only for this moment:

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It was always easy enough to read in Attack of the Clones that Obi-Wan knew about how Anakin felt for Padmé. And of course Obi-Wan deduces that Anakin is the father of the unborn child(ren) Padmé is carrying in Revenge of the Sith. But I love how The Clone Wars has teased out how much Obi-Wan knew, how much he understands Anakin’s affection for Padmé and how that could pull on his loyalty to the Jedi Code. Obi-Wan had experienced that competition himself with Satine Kryze. Obi-Wan and Anakin often have veiled conversations about Anakin’s feelings, even though Anakin insists on hiding the truth, even though Obi-Wan refuses to admit how much he knows, or suspects. This little moment in “A Distant Echo,” so close to the events of Revenge of the Sith, is such a delightful exchange. Obi-Wan comes as close as he probably ever was able to in laying out all he knew. And even in this moment, he doesn’t condemn Anakin or force the conversation. And Anakin’s look back to Obi-Wan…

Look, a lot of people don’t like Revenge of the Sith. And like all Star Wars, it’s not perfect. But the fraying of relationships between Anakin on one side and Obi-Wan and Padmé on the other has always twisted at my heartstrings. And moments like this just add further emotional nuance and dramatic irony. The Clone Wars gave so much depth to the prequel trilogy and to the Star Wars galaxy as a whole. I’m glad to see that it came back firing on all cylinders, ready to continue revising and refreshing our understanding of that galaxy and the characters who populate it.