Jedi Academy has clarified something that has been nagging at me for awhile - why don't I like Kyle Katarn more than I do? On paper, he seems like a character with an irresistible appeal, a wise-cracking mercenary with a heart of gold. Yet I never entirely embraced him. There was always something "off" about the character (despite some good voice work and an appealing "generically handsome" character design).
I've finally realized what's been bugging me. In Jedi Academy he is your mentor. You are a young padawan who has gone to Luke's Jedi Academy to learn the way of the Force and he has been assigned as your instructor. And when you respectfully address him as "Master Katarn," he tells you to call him "Kyle." More than that, he insists upon it.
And that's when it struck me - Kyle is trying to be the "cool teacher." Now, far be it for me to defend reflexive officiousness, but forced familiarity is almost as great a sin. Kyle Katarn is not just a charming rogue, he is a person for whom it is important to be seen as a charming rogue. Even when it undermines the student-teacher bond. Even when it makes his students visibly uncomfortable. Even when he is exercising authority and sending his students into life-and-death situations. He insists on being called "Kyle."
If he were a real person with a rich inner life, I'd accuse him of having vanity that bordered on the dangerously irresponsible. But he's not a real person, he's a fictional character, and I don't think we're meant to view him as a naive twit. I think what's going on is that the writers came up with the idea of the character first (what if there were a laid-back, snarky rogue of a Jedi) and then tried to fill in the details afterwards. His persona is constructed to be appealing, but there's little substance there.
It's not a grave crime or anything. Kyle can still be fun at times, but it's nonetheless an identifiable point of weakness. Luckily, the story doesn't really focus on him. Instead, you are his student, Jaden Korr, a naturally talented user of the Force who gets thrust into a great deal of premature responsibility because the leaders of the Jedi Academy are distracted by the emergence of a new cult worshiping the infamous Sith, Ragnos. It's a good enough excuse to go places and hit enemies with your lightsaber and I don't really need much more than that.
As expected, Jedi Academy is the best game of the series, showing incremental improvements to graphics, controls, and level design. It also allows for a small degree of character customization, which is nice to see, even if it's not as detailed as I've gotten used to in recent years. It's best innovation, however, is in the Force power system. Earlier games in the series gave you a certain number of Force points per completed level and had you distribute them however you thought best. Jedi Outcast simply leveled up your Force powers according to a fixed schedule.
Jedi Academy manages to combine the best of both approaches by dividing your powers into two types "core" and "auxiliary." Core powers level up based on the story progress and auxiliary powers level up by having points spent on them. The advantage of this is that you don't have to waste points leveling up the workhorse utility powers that every Jedi needs to use, and subsequently don't have to worry about not having a critical skill when the time comes. However, because the auxiliary powers are all optional, you still have the ability to customize your Jedi to your personal playstyle. The only downside is that I can't max-out Jump straight from the beginning of the game. I guess you can't have everything.