Review: Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster is yet another NightDive retro triumph

star wars dark forces remaster

Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, in 1995, LucasArts shook the very foundations of videogames with a little game called Star Wars Dark Forces. It was not only revolutionary for first person shooters as a whole, then called Doom-clones, but it was a dream come true for fans of the franchise, which in the 1990s was at its lowest point in popularity.

Dark Forces set the stage for its story between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, when there wasn’t much a hint of what was to come with the prequels. Also, the expanded universe was still a thing then, but only books and comics really added to that. This was the first game that tried to do the same, and it truly succeeded.

It stars Kyle Katarn, a former Imperial agent turned mercenary who finds himself in the midst of the Rebel’s struggle to free the galaxy from Darth Vader and the Emperor’s iron grip. During the opening sequence, Kyle steals the Death Star’s plans, which eventually led to its destruction at the end of the first movie, but it’s soon discovered that the Empire had an even more sinister trick up its sleeve.

star wars dark forces remaster

General Mohc, under Darth Vader’s supervision, developed a new type of stormtrooper called the Death Trooper, something so powerful that only a handful of them are enough to bend an entire planet to the Emperor’s will. After learning about this from Crix Madine, an Imperial deserter wishing to join the Alliance – he can be seen in Empire, during the invasion of Hoth! – Mon Mothma quickly gets hold of Katarn and entrusts him with the mission to find out how to stop Mohc in his tracks.

Dark Forces takes us on a merry ride across the galaxy, to known locations that were merely mentioned in the films, to others created specifically for the game, and some key characters from the franchise also pop in for good measure, like Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. Weapons are faithfully recreated, like the stormtrooper rifle, equally as imprecise here as it is in the movies, with many new ones to boot. You can expect to shoot a whole bunch of known Star Wars goons too, of all shapes and sizes.

What set this game apart, though, besides its faithfulness to Star Wars, which certainly helped it garner the love of critics and public alike, is how different it was from any other shooter that came before it. Until then, Doom had set the standard for how they played, and others that followed it stuck to the formula of having levels be hunted for keys and shooting the ever-loving crap out of everything while you’re at it. For as intricate as some of Romero’s levels were, they were limited by the technology and had to fit the mold set by its engine.

Dark Forces, on the other hand, brought in plenty of improvements. First and foremost, it had verticality. You could aim up and down, side by side, as well as jump and take stairs to higher sections of the map, and its levels really took advantage of that by offering objectives that strayed far from merely finding the right key to a door. For instance, its infamous sewer level has you raising and lowering the sewage level before you can reach its main goal, all the while having you deal with a bunch of enemies and hitting dead ends.

star wars dark forces remaster
The sewers level, man… you either love it or hate it.

It’s a game near and dear to my heart, someone who enjoyed it immensely as a kid growing up playing on DOS and Windows 3.1 whenever I had a chance to do so, since my family only got a computer capable of running it a couple of years after Dark Forces’ release. Because of that, my favorite memories of it are from when I snuck a few minutes in at a store’s demo machine which conveniently had the game installed. It was awesome!

So it came as a joyful surprise that Nightdive Studios, masters of retro videogame modern revivals, were working on a remaster. Having heard amazing things about their work on the Turok games and the criminally overlooked Nintendo 64-era gem Shadow Man, I was counting the months until Dark Forces Remaster finally hit. And it was certainly worth the wait. It’s not perfect, mind you, but it comes dang close to being the best treatment of an old game I’ve ever got to play.

First and foremost, Nightdive updated the visuals, reworking textures and upping the overall resolution to more current standards. It’s worth noting that the textures especially aren’t razor-sharp, still retaining a look that’s very close to the original’s, but still beautiful to behold. Alongside the visuals, the controls were also updated and are amazing, regardless of how you play the remaster. Back in the day, looking up and down were relegated to ‘page up’ and ‘page down’ on the keyboard, which thinking back was quite cumbersome. Now, you can do it just like any shooter, by tilting the right analog stick or with a mouse. 

In fact, Dark Forces Remaster is so clever of a redesign of Dark Forces that it triggers a Mandela effect of sorts in my brain: this is how I see the game in my mind, looking as good as it does now, and controlling just as well. It’s only when I pop back to the old visuals that it dawns on me how much of a difference there is between the two versions. That’s proof enough of Nightdive’s incredible work bringing back this classic for an entirely new audience to enjoy.

As I briefly touched upon, it’s not perfect. My main gripes comes in the sound department, where the studio opted to include the MIDI version of the original’s musical tracks, along with a more ‘beep’ and ‘boop’ sound card rendition of Dark Forces score. Given the infancy of CD-ROM and sound cards back in 1995, there were a number of iterations of the game’s music, as well as the ports that hit the PlayStation and Mac, all with their own unique spins. It would’ve been nice to see them in the remaster and hopefully Nightdive will somehow do so with an update, but as it is, their absence makes the package feel a bit incomplete.

Then again, in terms of extras, there is much to be enjoyed, even more so if you are curious about videogame development as I am. As an animation nerd especially, it’s fun to see how some animatics took shape, and the way that the art team approached the prep for scenes where rotoscoping came into play. But the biggest bonus is the show floor demo of the game that was previously unreleased to the public, an exclusive level that was deemed too difficult and ended up on the cutting room floor.

It’s really cool to get to see these little retro nuggets, as well as other docs like CAD files and rough sketches of some of the characters, showing how differently they ended up looking in the final game, including Kyle himself. I’m a sucker for this kind of content, and it’s something I always look for in compilations and retro re-releases like this, as it helps form a historical archive if you will, cementing their importance as more than just consumer products.

star wars dark forces remaster
No need to aim with the stormtrooper rifle, it’ll get your shots in… sometimes.

In that regard and the whole treatment that went into updating the game, Nightdive is to be commended for their work in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster. It is most certainly one of the best of its kind. While I would’ve loved to get some sort of mid-level saving the same way other re-releases were sure to include, it’s not that big of an issue gameplay-wise.

Admittedly, that’s more of a convenience one to be sure. It’s cumbersome having to suspend the game on Xbox, the system I reviewed the game in, where I’m never sure if it’ll be there when I come back to it. On Switch I assume that’s less of a problem, but having saves would have avoided this slight annoyance completely.

Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with Dark Forces Remaster. Even if you aren’t a fan and have no nostalgia for the game, it’s a worthwhile package. In case you’re in my camp, it goes without saying that it is indeed a great way to relive the game, plus getting to see some of the work that went into the original is a fun bonus that is never unwelcome in remasters like this. 

Now, will Nightdive do the same with all of the sequels to this? Given the weird licensing that LucasArts games have with Aspyr, I’m curious to see if there’s any chance that both Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and even Jedi Academy would get the same treatment. I for one am DYING to get a behind the curtains look at the making of JK’s cutscenes in particular!  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *