“The New Jedi Order: Traitor” Thoughts

(This was originally posted on my personal Star Wars Tumblr in October of 2018)

When I started reading the New Jedi Order series a few years ago, I knew enough about it to know which books were going to be the Big Ones™. Vector Prime (obvi), Star By Star, and Traitor were all ones that I was looking forward to since I knew they were all huge for their own reasons, and none of them disappointed me. Traitor is the one that I’ve read most recently (I just finished it a few weeks ago), and while I had a LOT of feelings after Star By Star, Jacen Solo has always been my favorite Solo kid and the one I identify with the most, so Traitor really got to me for a lot of reasons.

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I think even if I hadn’t known that Jacen wasn’t actually dead after the events of Star By Star, I wouldn’t have believed it. He just winked out of the Force with no explanation of how that actually happened? Not buying it. While I didn’t think that this major character was killed off-screen, I was definitely wondering what happened to him, which was most likely the real purpose of his supposed “death.” Why would he just disappear from the Force? It was honestly a little distracting from the books between Star By Star and Traitor, since I spent so much time wondering what had happened to him. I think I succeeded in not rushing through Dark Journey or the Enemy Lines duology, but it was a relief to finally get to Traitor.

I had heard SO many good things about this book and Matthew Stover’s writing in general, and I was excited to read about Jacen (finally), but I’d also heard that this book is very “gray” in a lot of ways (namely the Force), which had me apprehensive, to say the least. Anyone who knows me personally or listens to my podcast knows that I tend to have a strong distaste for the concept of a “Gray Jedi” simply because I don’t think that that’s how the Force works.

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I won’t go into my personal beliefs regarding the Force in much detail here since I could do multiple posts about it, really, but the long and short of it is that the Jedi way teaches passivity and communing with the Force and allowing it to act through you, and the Dark Side encompasses any action that exerts pressure on the Force through someone attempting to bend it to their will. Obviously there are exceptions and nuances within that philosophy, but that’s the best way to sum it up. Seeing as how I believe that Dark Side is always selfish and addictive, I don’t see much room for an individual that can utilize the Dark Side with no consequences.

With this set of beliefs, I knew that Traitor was going to be challenging for me before I even started it. The entire book focuses on Jacen being cut off from the Force by Vergere and him eventually overcoming that hurdle to not only regain his connection, but to obtain an even greater understanding of the Force that allows him to even sense the Yuuzhan Vong and their biological creations.

Throughout the book, Vergere is acting as a sort of mentor for Jacen not only during his period of captivity on board the Yuuzhan Vong worldship, but also during his escape on Coruscant. She feeds him questions that appear to make little to no sense at the time, but eventually lead Jacen to discover this greater connection to the Force of his own accord, and eventually unleash its power quite destructively. The utilization of the darkness inside of him even to save his life leaves him questioning everything he’s ever known about the Force before he eventually becomes this sort of messianic figure near the end of the book, bringing salvation to the New Republic and the Jedi. He almost doesn’t even feel like the same character after his encounter with the Yuuzhan Vong World Brain.

Needless to say, this WAS all very challenging for me. Coming to realize that the Yuuzhan Vong exist not outside of the Force but on some other sort of “Force wavelength” was a very strange idea at first, but the more that I thought about it, the more I became okay with it. I think I can kind of see where this expanded understanding of the Force that this series develops is going. Rather than being “gray” and allowing for use of both sides of the Force with no consequences, it posits that literally everything in the entire universe is connected through the Force, and nothing is more evil than anything else (at least that’s how I understand it). Everything just is, and it all belongs to the Force. There is no “light side” or “dark side,” it’s all just the Force.

Don’t get me wrong. I still don’t agree with this. But I can learn to live with it, if nothing else. At this point in time, Star Wars had to evolve and change, and the New Jedi Order gave it plenty of chances to do that. In the grimdark and morally-ambiguous era of media in the 90s and early 2000s, it only makes sense that something like this would happen at some point. The difference between “using both sides of the Force” and “the Force is everything” is super, super fine, but to me, it’s very important. Having a character walk the middle line with the Force is dumb, but a character who reaches a new understanding of the Force and uses it accordingly isn’t. Maybe I’m just nitpicky, but I’m glad that things ended up working out the way they did.

Honestly my bigger issue with this book is Vergere. As a character, I think she’s fine, but we’ve gotten hints about how powerful she is through not only her abilities, but also through how much she knows about the nature of the Force and the Yuuzhan Vong. She just seems so overpowered and it bugs me. This is totally coming from a place of “no one can be more powerful than my favorite characters and make them look like babies” but so far she’s saved both Mara and Jacen, and she’s acting all ambiguous about everything!! I will say, however, that stories and mysteries like the ones she’s at the center of make me happy that I only know major plot points from the series because I am very curious to see how she affects things in the future, even if I kind of hate her.

Let’s Talk About Sewer Levels

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(This was originally posted on my personal Star Wars Tumblr in February of 2016)

This game.

To the untrained eye, 1995′s Dark Forces looks just like Doom with a Star Wars skin. In fact, there were some Star Wars mods for Doom that arguably looked better than this game. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of my favorite Star Wars games of all time (despite the fact that before it came out on Steam, I had to screw around with DOSBox to get it to work). Part of the reason I love this game so much is that it’s the first appearance of everybody’s favorite Expanded Universe character Kyle Katarn, who will undoubtedly be written about in the future. Along with that, it just feels like Star Wars, if that makes sense. There’s something about being a Rebel agent on a secret mission to an Imperial base that gets my heart all fluttery.

With that said, despite all of the love that I have for this game, I also harbor an immense amount of hatred. The first level has you on the planet Danuta, where Kyle has been sent on a mission to steal the Death Star plans by Mon Mothma. That one is pretty straightforward. Kill some Imperials, get the plans, and get out. Mission two puts Kyle on the planet Talay at a Rebel base that was annihilated by an unknown Imperial force (which turns out to be Dark Troopers). While Kyle is investigating the destruction of the base, he finds a huge gun that no human could realistically wield, which he brings back to the Rebels. The Alliance traces the blaster back to an Imperial Moff/weapons designer named Rebus. Again, pretty easy.

Mission three, though. That’s when things start to plummet into hellfire. This time, Kyle gets sent to Anoat City on the planet Anoat, which is where Rebus has made his base. Anoat is basically a polluted wasteland after some miners screwed up the fragile ecosystem on the planet, so the city has been abandoned for some time by the time Katarn shows up. The mission begins in the ruins of the city, and then quickly shoves Kyle into an impossibly maze-like sewer system beneath the city. This is where the fun begins. If you aren’t being shoved into walls (and, by extension, down pathways that bring you back to the starting area) by torrential rivers of green poop, you’re probably lost. If you aren’t lost, you’re getting killed by a member of the seemingly-endless hordes of dianogas that inhabit the sewers or one of Rebus’s many droids. Did I mention that it’s pitch black if you don’t have your headlamp or infrared goggles on?

I’ve beaten this game at least ten times, and I’ve yet to spend less than 45 minutes on this stupid level. It never seems like it gets any easier. There’s always some switch I’ve missed or some drainpipe I’ve forgotten to wiggle down. I’m enraged just thinking about it. The worst part is that I firmly believe this is the hardest level in the game. Mission three. The hardest level. Think about that.

Now, after reading this, one might be inclined to wonder “Why write this whole thing just to complain about that one level?” Oh, dear reader. I wish that it were that simple. The sad truth is that this type of sewer level has become something of a trope in video games, and the Star Wars franchise is no exception.

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The next recurrence (that I’m aware of) of this fecal nightmare occurs in 1996′s Shadows of the Empire.This game takes place during the events of The Empire Strikes Back and a little while thereafter. The player follows the story of smuggler-turned-temporary-Rebel Dash Rendar and his mission to help free Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt and bring down the leader of the Black Sun, Prince Xizor. The game goes relatively smoothly up until the second mission from the last, with some minor exceptions (fighting IG-88 in the Ord Mantell junkyard has never been easy for me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one).

Again, it’s the sewer level. At least you can see where you’re going in this one, I guess. Dash is in the sewers in order to infiltrate Xizor’s palace in Imperial City so he can blow it sky high with some pulse bombs. Sounds simple enough, right? Not when there are blaster turrets and droids hidden around almost every corner, not to mention the Black Sun soldiers that are hanging out down there. Thankfully, the environment isn’t out to get the player as much as it is in Dark Forces. The N64 couldn’t handle that much BS, I suppose. Having a jet pack makes getting around much, much easier. Regardless of that, there are still plenty of dianogas, and they still kill you in like three hits. The final boss of the level is a GIANT dianoga that lives entirely underwater. It has tentacles that take your health down 45% or so if you so much as touch them, and you somehow have to be able to tell them apart from the eye stalk you need to splatter on the wall to kill it. The worst part is that while underwater, if your jet pack isn’t actively sending you upward, you’re sinking. This makes aiming an absolute slog. If the player somehow manages to keep all of this in check, they can still die by sinking to the bottom of the giant toilet they’re in and into the dianoga’s mouth, or simply by drowning. Truly a miserable experience, though not as bad as Dark Forces, thankfully.

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2003′s Knights of the Old Republic is pretty much universally loved by everyone that’s played it, right? I’m no exception. I’ve logged more hours in this game than I care to admit. But for some reason, when it was being developed, BioWare thought “You know what this game really needs? A segment in the sewers.” So they put one in. In order to get Mission Vao to help the player infiltrate a swoop gang’s base, you have to agree to help her save her friend Zaalbar, who’s been imprisoned in the Taris Undercity sewers.

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Although this insufferable trope is present here, I will concede that it is easily the most tolerable sewer level I’ve mentioned. In fact, it’s bad almost entirely on principle instead of game play. The level is confusing to get around in the first few times, but it isn’t really that bad, especially compared to Dark Forces, though I’m beginning to think that nothing could compare to that mess. It’s annoying that you spend most of the area poisoned by the mutant rakghouls that infest the place, but even that is relatively minor. Heck, even the rancor down there isn’t THAT big of a deal (provided you don’t try to fight it and get around it some other way).

In recent years, we’ve been lacking in Star Wars games, and by extension, Star Wars sewer levels. As much as I hate the dumb things, I’m kind of starting to miss them. In my experience, the games that frustrate me the most are the games that I end up falling in love with for all time. The three games listed here, Devil May Cry 3, Oblivion, and countless others all hold special places in my heart because of how much I hate certain things about them. These aspects end up being endearing and give you things to share (read: commiserate about) with others, which deeply enriches the experiences they provide. After all, I’ve never gotten a long, ranting text message from my best friend at 2 o’clock in the morning about a game that DIDN’T frustrate him, which is something that happened concerning the mission to the Anoat City sewers. That has to mean something, right?

Star Wars: Dark Empire Thoughts

(This was originally posted on my personal Star Wars Tumblr in March of 2016)

A few weeks ago, I started this blog with the intent of using it as a place to put my thoughts/feelings surrounding the material from the old Expanded Universe that I’ve been consuming (as well as stuff from the new canon). I don’t necessarily intend it to be super formal all the time, or even something that other people would want to read; I just wanted a place to write out my stream of consciousness surrounding this stuff and I figured I might as well subject the internet to it. The first series I wanted to cover was Dark Empire. Well, I’ve finally found time to finish it, so here it is.

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Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed Dark Empire (when I say Dark Empire, I’m referring to Dark Empire, Dark Empire II, and Empire’s End together). I know a lot of people take issue with certain things in this comic series, and I can’t really fault them for that. There are some characters that don’t really behave like themselves from time to time, some plot devices that seem a bit contrived, and a lot of general weirdness. Despite these things, it still manages to feel very much like classic Star Wars, which isn’t something that everything from the EU manages to do (though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

I’m not going to give a full plot summary, but the basic premise is that six years after the Battle of Endor (and a year after the New Republic defeats Grand Admiral Thrawn), Emperor Palpatine returns in a clone body to rule the Empire from the Deep Core world Byss, and he’s more intent on destroying the New Republic/Rebellion than ever. He manages to seduce Luke (who is in the process of trying to rebuild the Jedi Order) to the Dark Side of the Force (which was painful to read as a major Luke fanboy), but Leia is able to bring him back to the light. Working together, they manage to use the Emperor’s own Force storm to destroy his flagship, destroying him (or so they think). In Dark Empire II, the Emperor returns yet again, but the New Republic heroes are able to defeat him once more. That was super brief and leaves out a lot of important details and characters, but that’s the general idea. I’m more concerned with the characterization and themes than I am with plot points here.

At first glance, that short summary probably makes Dark Empire seem almost like a bad Star Wars soap opera or something. Villains coming back from the dead, heroes turning evil, untouchable superweapons, sibling drama… it feels like a mess. But you’ll just have to take my word that it doesn’t read like that (unless you want to go and read it yourself, which I highly encourage). To me, the most important thing in this series is the character development present in the Skywalker twins. Leia is depicted as a full-fledged Jedi Knight, which isn’t super rare in the EU, but it isn’t always the case either. To make this even more remarkable, she’s powerful enough to take on the reborn Palpatine, steal his Jedi holocron, and get away unscathed. Interestingly, in most chronologically-later material (such as the New Jedi Order), Leia is depicted as having more or less given up on actually training to become a Jedi Knight and instead uses the Force in a more utilitarian way. This is explained by her devoting all of her time to help set up the fledgling New Republic, and that’s more than understandable, but it could be interesting to see what would’ve happened if she had followed in Luke’s footsteps. However, the path that she chose gives her character a role and a certain individuality that wouldn’t exist had she not taken it, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

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I found Leia’s Force capabilities to be one of the more compelling parts of the series, but I don’t think I prefer it to her more passive use of the Force that we see in other material. Seeing as how Jedi are part of the mythology of Star Wars, they’re more or less all over the place in one way or another, and there’s always the villain that chooses to draw their power from the Dark Side as the counterpoint to that. By being a diplomat and politician that draws on the Force for guidance and comfort rather than a Jedi or Sith that embodies one of the two sides, she shows us another aspect of the Force, which helps it not appear so black and white. That being said, if Leia ever were to become a fully-trained Jedi Knight, it’d be pretty sick.

As corny as it might seem, I’m pretty sure that Luke Skywalker is my favorite Star Wars character, so I was most excited to read Dark Empire because of his character development that takes place in it. I had just finished reading Timothy Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn duology, and in the second book Vision of the Future, Luke’s future wife Mara Jade comments on the almost carefree way that he uses the Force and how that seems to have cut him off from the more subtle parts of it. They wonder if this could have something to do with his time spent under the Emperor, so naturally, I was super excited to jump into Dark Empire to figure out what was up with that.

However, this is where the story starts to get a bit strange. In The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke is very adamant about how he is never going to fall to the Dark Side and join Vader or Palpatine. Like. VERY adamant. In Dark Empire, he reaches the conclusion that he can only defeat the Dark Side from within awfully quickly for someone who was so opposed just a few years before. I mean, sure, a lot happened in those few years, but this is where I kind of had to suspend my disbelief a bit. It could’ve been worse, though. It felt almost like an Star Wars Infinities comic, which is another series that takes the events of the movies and plays them out if one major plot point changed, like if Luke died on Hoth or the Death Star destroyed Yavin IV. Luke falling to the Dark Side temporarily was an engaging plot point that definitely kept me interested, though the ease with which he both fell and was redeemed seemed a bit sketchy.

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Sketchiness aside, the events of Dark Empire have a massive effect on Luke’s future, and to an extent, the future of the galaxy as a whole (in case that wasn’t obvious). By delving into the Dark Side of the Force, he comes out with a deeper understanding of the Force as a whole, and that understanding coupled with what he learns on Ossus about the Jedi Order up to the end of the Clone Wars helps him set up his new Jedi Order. And thankfully, the rest of Luke’s character is pretty consistent with how he is in the movies and in the rest of EU.

All in all, Dark Empire poses a lot of interesting questions. At times it feels as though maybe those questions didn’t need to be asked, but they get answered all the same. Sometimes it even feels like a parody of itself (especially by the time you get to Empire’s End), but as I said way back at the beginning of this rambling “review” of sorts, it feels like Star Wars, and that’s enough for me.

Episode CXLVI – The Biggest Dad

Very recently, the Star Wars community lost one of the most beautiful souls it’s ever known in Peter Mayhew. Obviously, this is heartbreaking, but rather than wallow in sadness, Ben and Ash spend this episode celebrating Chewbacca and the impact that he’s had on the Star Wars universe. He’s a wonderful character that is loved by all but somehow still almost universally underrated, as the hosts discover over the course of their discussion. Of course, the obligatory The Rise of Skywalker speculation rears its ugly head as well.