Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster Review

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It might not be obvious nowadays unless you’ve read up on your boomer shooters, but DOOM kind of changed everything. I didn’t grow up playing retro first-person shooter (FPS) games, but I have a long-running appreciation for the genre that has led to me spending my time in the 2020s researching their history. I wouldn’t say I’m especially good at them, but I respect the ’90s era of shooters for pushing the entire industry forward into the era of 3D with confidence. Star Wars: Dark Forces was LucasArts’ attempt to take this popular “new” genre out for a test drive. It kicked off a line of Star Wars shooters and a spin-off series (Jedi Knight) for about a decade, but with Dark Forces being an old PC game I never really got a chance to play it.

If you know even a little bit about retro revivals, you’ll probably also know of the name of Nightdive Studios. They’ve been bringing back classic FPS games for years, and their track record has been pretty consistent. I had high hopes for them bringing back Dark Forces since the announcement, but just playing it made it clear that they were the perfect ones for the job. There are some aspects of this package that haven’t held up as well as others, that’s natural with a game so old, but overall Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster might be one of the finest retro FPS revivals we’ve ever seen.

Dark Forces has you playing as the now non-canon (at least I believe so, this gets confusing) action super-star and future Jedi Kyle Katarn. Every mission involves him storming some kind of Empire base with a series of objectives, taking place around the time of the original trilogy. The very first mission in the game involves him single-handedly stealing the Death Star plans, painting Kyle as someone immensely capable as a FPS protagonist. There’s an innocence to early Star Wars expanded universe material that makes it so appealing, and Dark Forces does a great job of feeling like just another entry in the classic Star Wars series. It helps that Kyle never whips out a lightsaber, at least in this entry.

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster Review Screenshot 1

The story of Dark Forces is fun, but I think a lot of the value from it comes from just how it was told. The Star Wars games following this would either utilize live-action FMV or awkward, early 3D. This was released at just the right time when LucasArts’ point-and-click adventure games were at their best, and Dark Forces features the animated 2D cutscenes you’d find in the early Monkey Island games. Nightdive has recreated these beautifully, offering them in gorgeously redrawn HD with widescreen as a toggle.

That’s actually something I appreciate with this port. All of the changes made to the visuals to clean up the experience are entirely optional. All of the assets were faithfully remade to work on modern displays, with every single texture and sprite redrawn by hand. They made a big deal about no AI upscaling being used, and the absolute masters over at Nightdive could not have flexed their talent more. There’s a personal touch applied to this remaster that makes it stand out a lot compared to even the nicest AI-upscaled efforts, and this really sets a new bar. I love getting the raw pixels scaled up beautifully, but the redraws are just worth endless praise. If you want a more classic experience, you can also just switch over to Software Rendering to get it in the original style and (low) resolution. My only qualm with this is that you have to go into the pause menu to make the switch, when it feels like there could have been a free button to use instead.

While the visuals are great, I do wish the soundtrack had gotten the remaster treatment. The MIDI representations of classic Star Wars music is a bit awkward in spots, but there is a charm to it that I wouldn’t want entirely redone. The MIDI music sounds are high quality, but more options would be nice.

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster Review Screenshot 2

Performance holds up really well on the Nintendo Switch, with one complicated caveat. Old games like this wired their game speed to specific frame rates. There’s a 70hz refresh rate for a game like this, so there’s bound to be some discrepancy in how it displays when forced to the modern standard of 60 frames per second. I think Digital Foundry described this “juttery” experience best in their video on the remaster, but I actually found it largely unnoticeable. Granted, I don’t have years of experience with the original PC release, but I think most people are going to be okay. The Switch version in my experience holds up tremendously well while maintaining a fantastic picture.

In terms of gameplay, this falls in line with the search-and-destroy structure of classic FPS games. Levels are complex labyrinths that required me to pull up a guide more than once because of a general lack of conveyance. Shooting enemies is always a treat thanks to how good all the weapons feel. I’d say I’m pretty decent at aiming in this game, and the gyro controls help a lot, so I think it’s fair to say that the ammo balancing keeps you on your toes. I ran out of ammo often for my main Storm Trooper blaster rifle early on, requiring me to experiment with a lot of the different kinds of weapons like this game’s version of the shotgun and rocket launcher. A life system also gives you enough room to experiment with the enemies.

I feel like I should highlight the level design again because it was the only thing that really dragged down my time with the game. The sewer level is especially bad, and the Gromas Mines have a lot of confusing mechanics that make progress confusing. A lot of the levels have something frustrating like that, and I think people who didn’t grow up with this era of games or don’t have an appreciation for “outdated” game design might struggle. I set my expectations in line, and just let the gamefeel take over so despite frustrations I had a great time with Dark Forces. 

While I think the game part of level design is weak, it is worth mentioning just how impressive this was for its time. This is getting into the weeds, but creating 3D space with layers like this in 1995 was wildly ahead of its time. LucasArts built its own 3D engine just for this, coming out before the widely accessible Build Engine that made this much easier. This game is really special for the advancement of the shooter genre in a lot of ways, so I’m pleased that Nightdive respected the legacy.

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster is a fantastic remaster of an all-time classic FPS, but I think mileage will vary. I find games like this to be fascinating time capsules of a foundational era of the industry. While there is a good amount of content in this package, and the classic visuals have been preserved beautifully, the price is also pretty steep. If you’re more of a Star Wars fan than a classic shooter fan I’d say maybe give DOOM or DOOM 2 a shot, which also have solid ports on the Nintendo Switch. While I think this gameplay is more approachable than those two games in some ways, it’ll give you a good idea of how they play and if you’ll like this kind of design. I’m not as much of a Star Wars fan as I used to be, but this ended up being exactly what I wanted out of the franchise right now. I have qualms with the game, but they’re minor and overshadowed by all of the love put into the remaster. I’d love to see a modern port of Dark Forces II, which is apparently a bit notoriously difficult to run on modern machines. I’ll at the very least take a look at the Kyle Katarn games currently available, because this left a great first impression.

Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nightdive Studios

Total Score
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