Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster review: a handsome glow-up of LucasArts’ classic, if now rather creaky Star Wars FPS

A long time ago on a desktop far, far away, my family once owned a demo disc for the original Star Wars: Dark Forces. I cannot remember for the life of me which level(s) it contained. My only surviving memory of it is having quite a good time blasting Stormtroopers and the chaps in black with the swoopy, knock-off Vader helmets, but also getting terribly lost and not really knowing what the heck I was meant to be doing. Now, playing Nightdive Studio’s Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster as an adult probably close to three decades later, both these feelings have come roaring back, as this is very much a Star Wars FPS in the vein of Doom and other early 90s shooters (thumbs up). But it’s one that leans so hard into its maze-like level design that it can regularly feel like a little bit of a tough hang in the cold hard light of 2024 (thumbs down).

Crucially, though, not to the point where it’s best left consigned to the history books. This is still an enjoyable and worthwhile artefact in Star Wars’ PC gaming history, and if your eyes (and general patience levels) can’t quite stomach the ‘Classic’ and still available 1995 original, then this remaster is a pin-sharp glow-up for modern hardware.

The player shoots a Stormtrooper with a rifle in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

The player fires at a Star Wars alien in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster

The player shoots Stormtroopers in a tunnel in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster

Blasting Stormtroopers and other Star Wars baddies remains excellent fun, whatever the setting. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

Of course, whether this is worth stumping up the extra £20-odd over the £5 1995 ‘Classic’ Edition will probably be mostly down to a matter of convenience. The behind-the-scenes Vault features are quite sparse and poorly presented, consisting of concept art, old sketches, early 3D models, cutscene renders and other things that will make you go, ‘Huh, well that’s neat,’ for all of five seconds and then never opening that menu screen ever again. It’s the sort of stuff that will likely only appeal to the hardest of hardcore Star Wars-er, but even that feels like a bit of a stretch.

The one highlight is the playable prototype of its old CES demo, The Avenger, which is set inside a Star Destroyer-like ship with lots and lots of Stormtroopers to shoot. It was ultimately cut from the final game, but some of its concepts do live on in one of Dark Forces’ later levels. It’s quite a neat curio from a design perspective, but it’s probably going to be Dark Forces Remaster’s other modern additions that will be worth the cost of entry.

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Indeed, with support for 4K resolutions, frame rates of up to 120fps, proper game pad controls, and accessibility options for gun flashes, crosshair types and head-bobbing, there’s arguably never been an easier or more convenient way to enjoy Dark Forces than this 2024 remaster. You can also opt to keep the original pixel graphics for both its cutscenes and general sprite work, or toggle over to Nightdive’s much sharper and more pristine high res updates. It is, admittedly, not quite as seamless a transition as the one-button-press in the Tomb Raider 1-3 Remastered Trilogy, alas, but you can still swap between them whenever you like by dipping into the menu options, and all without the need for a restart.

The player rescues Jan Ors in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
Classic Jan. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

The newer graphics are a serviceable update on its older pixel visuals, giving enemies greater definition and your guns a bit more punch and contrast. They just about avoid falling into that all-too-common modern trap of smoothing everything out with a big dollop of Vaseline, and personally, I played half of the game with the enhanced graphics, and the other half without. Both look great blown up at 4K, and everything is perfectly clear and visible, regardless of which style you go for. Nothing is lost by opting for one or the other. The music is still, blissfully, the brilliant old MIDI trumpet parps, too – Clint Bajakian’s original score doing a very admirable John Williams impression here – and together with the retro voice barks and pew pew lasers of your blaster gun, appropriated Stormtrooper rifle and other assorted weapons, it still looks and sounds distinctly Star Wars.

A portrait of Kyle Katarn from Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
For such a muscular fellow, Kyle Katarn sure can move and bend like an Olympian gymnast. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

What it feels like, however, is Doom with more puzzles. Each of its 14 missions are big, boxy mazes with smatterings of easily-blasted Stormtroopers, Imperial officers and floating droids to mow down at high speed, and to advance you’ll collect different coloured keys to open the special locked doors keeping you from your objectives. Its three difficulty settings mostly just chuck more enemies at you at once, and if you lose all your lives (which regenerate each mission), it’s back to the start of the level. It’s good, pulpy fun, and the joy of obliterating Storm Troopers with Star Wars appropriate sounds and weaponry is quite the powerful nostalgia trip.

It helps that Dark Forces has quite a few more modern trimmings than the early Dooms, though this is down to the technological advancements of the 95 original than this particular remaster. Dark Forces was quite a trailblazer for its time, building on Doom’s foundations with proper mouse look that let you aim up and down, as well as a jump (often implausibly high), and a crouch (also implausibly small). Still, while the secret behind smuggler hero Kyle Katarn’s physicality remains as much a mystery now as it probably did back in the mid-90s, he does feel, to all intents and purposes, like any other 2024 FPS protagonist.

A green wireframe map is overlaid on an environment from Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
Ah, wireframe maps, my old friend. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

It makes for a very slick and comfortable experience in today’s landscape of retro shooters, and you can see how the big setpiece puzzles that distinguish it the most from its mid-90s contemporaries would have felt impressive at the time. Sure, these puzzles have become less complicated with age, but more because recent games have lent on its rotating bridges, prison keycards and sliding locked door panels ad infinitum in the years since. In the moment, these still require complex dances of switch pulling and platform jumping to execute successfully, and they provide a welcome change of pace to all the runnin’ and gunnin’.

Structurally, there’s also a healthy mix of extraction missions, where you’ll need to infiltrate an area, retrieve an object, and then make your way back to your ship’s landing pad, as well as more straightforward A to B missions that don’t require a return journey. That said, the latter are always something of a relief. On top of Dark Forces hailing from the twisty-turny maze school of early 3D level design, the architecture of some of these places can be legitimately baffling sometimes. Some corridor entrances are so tiny and obscured from view that you’d have to happen upon it just to even realise it was there, and key locations are sometimes so far away from their corresponding doors that I regularly lost track of how to get from one side of a level to another just to carry on. Sometimes it’s not keys at all, but canny (and easily missed) switch placement – and honest to Grogu, I will never look at a sewer level quite the same way again. Those one-way sludge chutes, man. They change a person.

A sewer level from Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
Brrr… If you know, you know. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

It felt like I spent a lot of time bashing my head against a wall wondering where to go next, but despite all this, I still managed to wolf down the entirety of Dark Forces Remaster in a breezy seven hours. A very agreeable run-time in an age of somewhat bloated Star Wars games, but I should stress: there were also a handful of instances where I felt like I happened upon an area or the solution to a particular puzzle without really knowing why or how I managed it. Special doors with three code symbols opened for me by happy, key-mashing accident on a few occasions – but for all the back-tracking and aimless wandering I did between each attempt, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you how you were meant to work them out correctly. There were also levels where I’d come across a locked door, backtrack for several minutes trying to find the right key, only to stumble upon the actual exit in a completely different direction, without needing said key at all to complete the level.

A diagram of a puzzle room in Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster
Dark Forces’ puzzles still tax the old grey cells, even 30 years later. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nightdive Studios

These moments frequently left me feeling quite stumped and frustrated, and it’s here where Dark Forces’ age really makes itself felt. Here’s another example: while important info such as your health, shield, ammo and lives are all displayed on the game’s HUD, the rest of your inventory beyond your obvious weapons was a complete mystery to me. Perhaps I missed the particular menu setting, but I never found anything to tell me what keys I’d picked up, or what other crucial survival items I had in my pocket – such as the gas mask I needed to avoid suffocating multiple times in a row while attempting to navigate a poisonous ice station. Heck, I’ve had settled for a prompt or something that just told me how to equip the damn thing, but alas, I had to look this up in the controls menu having lost all my lives to it. I also never worked out if there was a way to look around the wireframe overlay map without also moving at the same time – another reason why I ended up backtracking so much, as most of the map was hidden from view.

To less wizened players, this might, understandably, all prove too much to make this remaster either enjoyable or worthwhile. But if you’re willing to try and divine the inner workings of Dark Forces with a bit of spit and elbow grease, then there’s certainly an interesting artefact to be found here – even if it’s frequently wonky and obtuse in places. Despite the aimless wandering, I did have a good time with Star Wars Dark Forces Remaster, especially after only experiencing it through a demo disc all those years ago. But I’m also glad it’s over now, and that I can go back to playing properly new games again. In that sense, Dark Forces Remaster is a complete success. It’s reminded me of a fun memory from a long time ago, and having now revisited it and admired it from every angle, I’m happy to put it back in the carbon freezer, far, far away.

This review is based on a retail build of the game, provided by developers Nightdive Studios.

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