Jade Empireis the first game from Bioware that isn't based on a licensed entity such as a tabletop game or movie. After releasing the hugely successful Knight of the Old Republic based on the Star Wars universe, Bioware surprised the gaming community by contracting out the KOTOR sequel and working exclusively on Jade Empire. Their gamble has paid off immensely.
The story of Jade Empire is set in ancient China and begins in the martial arts school of Master Li in the town of Two Rivers. The player learns early on that he/she is a chosen one of sorts. The savior of the Empire, the player was orphaned at birth and has been raised in seclusion and privacy in hiding from the murderous Deaths Hand clan. The game becomes a quest to find out who you are and why you are here. The story is about fate, justice, and destiny. While a standard theme is entertainment, there are enough double-crosses and twists to keep the player engaged for the many hours it takes to complete the game. It's obvious that Bioware wanted a first-class story and they delivered beautifully.
Jade Empire is a 3rd person RPG. For those not familiar with the genre, it is a story-based game that has your character running around from place to place, collecting things, learning things, talking to people, etc. What makes it a role-playing game is that the player decides what the character does. While the story is basically linear, there are many different places you can go in whatever order you wish. Along with the main overall goal of the game, there are mini-quests you can go on for money or honor. Find someone's daughter, locate a gem, etc. These are all optional, but not playing them can make the game go by very quickly.
The worst part of KOTOR was the combat system. What was a standard RPG turned into a turn-based game of sorts. Walk up to an enemy and hit A to engage. Then sit back and watch your character try and fight the other guy. If your character was a low level, then watch him idiotically shoot his taser into the ground and then get pulverized. Thankfully, Jade Empire goes the more action route and uses a sophisticated combat system which may seem like Diablo-style button mashing, but is much more intricate.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. First, it needs to be mentioned that you can choose one of a few different characters in the beginning of the game. They have different strengths and weaknesses and some use chi over brawn and vice versa. Depending on the character you choose, they will have different fighting and support styles. As you progress through the game, you will either earn or buy other styles.
Back to the combat system. When you enter an area to fight, the game switches to combat mode and you can use any style in your arsenal. These styles are mapped to the d-pad and can be re-mapped in the UI. Thankfully, the game can be paused in mid-fight to do such a task. As a bonus, some of these styles work well with each other and some can even create Harmonic Combos which are basically fatalities. Your enemy will be destroyed in a beautiful spray of blood if you use certain moves together. Very satisfying.
Along the same vein, the styles included with Jade Empire are original, diverse, and very cool. From turning into reptiles to drunken master, there are a multitude of fighting and support styles to choose from. My favorite is the Chi thief, which does not damage to your enemy but steals their chi and replenishes yours. Each style uses a certain element of your reserves. Chi is the magic of the game and most magic styles will drain your chi over time. Weapons based styles rely on Focus, which will also drain. Along with your health, Chi and Focus are clearly displayed in the upper left corner. In addition, you have an amulet that holds up to 4 different jewels which you can earn and buy along the way. These different amulets grant certain chi or focus boosts. Or up your health or even increase your powers of persuasion. As you interact with people you develop a personality of sorts which can be charming or threatening or neutral.
Lest you think that you'll be able to slash your way through the game with one style, Bioware has made this tactic impossible. Not only do some weapons and styles do more damage to certain creatures, some ghosts and demons are immune to certain attacks. Thankfully, the HUD clearly indicates if you are using a style that the current enemy is immune to.
Like KOTOR, your actions decide your fate and alliance. You can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. While you never join the dark side a la KOTOR and become one of Death's Hand's minions, how you deal with them in the end is predicated by your good/bad actions in the game. And not all of them are obviously good or bad. Do you bring the child abuser to the ghosts of the victim children or do you deal with him yourself? Many of the choices are ambiguous and don't allow the user to choose based solely on whether they are playing for good or evil. Additionally, the concepts of good and evil are never actually applied to you in the game. You can follow the way of the Open Hand or Closed Fist. Followers of the Open Hand revel in communication, sensitivity and peaceful defense while the proponents of the closed fist believe in strength and self-assured guidance via superior weaponry. I applaud Bioware for not making it as black and white as past titles. But make no mistake, if you are heading toward evil, you will know.
As the game progresses, you gain experience points for the things you do. These points can then be used to level up the character at certain times and with each level up comes weapons and style upgrades to use as you see fit. pretty standard fare for an RPG, but enjoyable to see how the drunken master style becomes even more deadly as you get more experience.
One of the staples of RPGs are mini-games. The mini-games in Jade Empire are a real head-scratcher. Instead of taking you into a bar and letting you play bar games, in between two locales, you are presented with a scrolling, flying, shoot-em-up a la Galaga. This threw me off at first since it transports the player out of the game. But then these became an enjoyable diversion. They are very short and can actually be skipped with little or no penalty. They stand out from the game as kind of quirky.
Jade Empire uses the same engine as KOTOR, but you wouldn't know it from looking at it. The animations are fantastic and varied. There was obviously a ton of detail and motion capture used for all the different moves of each fighting style. They are gloriously smooth and detailed.
The effects are good, but not over-the-top. The fire effects stand out as being quite good and the lighting associated with different weapons effects work but don't call too much attention to themselves.
The cutscenes are well-done and make good use of cheating: Pre-rendering in-game scenes so it looks like they are being done on the fly. This gives the game a more fluid sense of pacing and style as opposed to glamorous cutscenes that are obviously not done in-engine.
The environments are lush and colorful and one of the high points of the game. Many games employ the same textures throughout in the guise of being in caves or buildings. Jade Empire has very few repeating textures and each environment is very distinct form the others. Grass grows and flows, trees are full and the sky is beautifully colored. In addition, the world of Jade Empire seems monstrous. There are many different regions and the scope of the game is bigger than KOTOR and bigger than Fable. Bioware took the mediocre graphics engine of KOTOR and made it do some truly splendid things.
The audio is yet another stand-out achievement from Bioware. The music is orchestral and dramatic and at times a subtle underscore. There are distinct themes of Chinese music, but not so ornate as to not be accessible. I found myself rather enjoying the theme music during the UI and on launch of the game. This is the way game music should be.
The voice-work must have been a real challenge for Bioware simply due to the sheer amount. There is a lot (a lot) of exposition in the game with much of the story being told verbally. That said, the voice-acting is extremely well-done. They obviously hired a multitude of actors and the direction of the actors is top-notch. Each character is full fleshed out and while they can border on cartoony, they are always appropriate. The only minor complaint I have is that the voices all sound very Caucasian, even though this is set in ancient China. I suppose it could be offensive if they spoke English with Chinese accents, so I respect their decision.
There is no multiplayer for Jade Empire.
Parents Should know...
Jade Empire is rated M for Mature by the ESRB and that rating is well deserved. Early in the game, people are blown up by cannons, decapitated and mutilated, usually resulting in an obscene amount of blood. The resulting blood splatter on the ground is a reminder of the carnage. There is no nudity or foul language. The rating is based strictly on violence and it can be gruesome.
Best. RPG. For Xbox. If you like the genre and have an Xbox, this is a no-brainer. Highest possible recommendation.
What did you think of this review?