The following post contains spoilers. If you have not yet completed Jade Empire, I advise you not to read this post.
Canadian developer Bioware is well known for crafting some of the best RPGs in electronic entertainment, and with titles like Neverwinter Nights and in this blogger's personal opinion, the ever amazing and engrossing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, this reputation is more than well deserved. Their latest offering, the Xbox exclusive Jade Empire, was released on April 14th and has met critical acclaim from most major publications.
One must be wondering then why I'm reviewing a 5 month old title. Well the answer is simple: Aside from the fact that I only picked it up in late May, this is an RPG; not some fast paced FPS. Will the large amounts of choices, character paths, and replay value, I would not have done the game and the developers justice to review it after a single rushed play-through, or heaven forbid an incomplete play-through.
I've finally completed the game for the second time, and am looking forward to a third. Jade Empire is many things: A beautiful story, interesting characters, and a new, fast paced combat system; there are so many great concepts and aspects about Jade Empire. Sadly, however, there are also parts of the game; be it character points or basic design decisions, that leave you wondering how Bioware could have dropped the ball.
Do not mistake me, Jade Empire is a very good RPG; it's fresh, fun, and one of the best of the genre on the Xbox, however there are things that hold the title back from being the Xbox RPG.
The story begins with your character (selectable from 7 different models, either male or female, with different stats and Styles) in a martial arts school in the quiet little settlement of Two Rivers at the edge of the Jade Empire. As your training is near completion, your master tells you many secrets about your past, and why he believes you are special. This is the beginning of a series of events and choices the player must make that will ultimately see you leave Two Rivers, travel the land, and decide the very course of the Empire itself.
As you progress through the game completing Quests, your character levels up and you can increase your Body (Hit Points), Spirit (Chi, essentially Mana), and Mind (Focus, which allows your character to use Weapon Styles and also enter Focus Mode, a form of "bullet time"). You are also given a certain number of Style Points to invest in your Styles, which range from Martial Styles, to Weapon Styles, Magic Styles, etc. Styles are used in combat to fight your opponent(s), and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. You start the game with two Styles, but can either learn, buy, or win more as the game goes on. There are roughly 30 or so Styles in the game, but ultimately it's best to master and thus constantly use between 4 to 6 of them.
Instead of items to equip your character with, you get a Dragon Amulet which you can insert Essence Gems into. Essence Gems will modify stats and give other bonuses, and this is essentially the game's inventory. You can also learn Techniques or purchase them as the game goes on, which will permanently alter your character's stats for better or worse.
In traditional Bioware fashion, there are also romances that you can develop with certain Followers. These are always fun, but one interesting thing to note is that you can do same-sex romances in this game, and I've even heard you can do group romances (two Followers and your character). I don't know if this has ever been done in a game before, but it's the first time I've seen it.
Conversation wise, extra dialogue options come from how high your Body, Spirit, and Mind are, as these relate to Intimidation, Intuition, and Charm respectively. Using any of these three conversation options, when available, can grant an advantage over a dialogue and also further you along your different philosophy (more on philosophy later).
There are 3 types of play modes in Jade Empire: Adventure Mode, where your character can explore the land, take up Quests, interact with NPC's, etc. Combat Mode, where you use your Styles to beat the snot out of whatever thugs, ghosts, or demons have the misfortune of getting in your way. Mini-Game, a space invaders type of short game involving wondrous eastern Flyers.
Now that the basics are out of the way, let's dive into things.
Jade Empire is a beautiful looking and beautiful sounding game. The character models and environments are all wonderfully detailed. Characters move gracefully, long grass parts as you run through it, lense flare shines in your vision if you look towards the sun; the games screenshots simply do not do it justice. Audio wise, the voice acting is top notch, and the sound effects are dead on. A special nod to the game's musical score, which is so original, so well composed that Bioware is actually selling it from their online store on CD. If there weren't such ridiculous shipping costs, I would have long since picked up a copy.
The controller is also well mapped out and perfectly suited to the task of kicking the snot out of your enemies. Typical analog stick movement of your character and the camera, buttons allowing you to use different kinds of attacks, block, Focus Mode, Chi Heal, and add extra damage (Chi Strike). The triggers allow you to switch targets in combat or person/object to interact with in adventure mode, and 4 different Styles can be mapped to the D-Pad for quick access, and the D-Pad is re-mapable on the fly for those trickier fights.
The story of Jade Empire is very good. Early on, you can find out from another student who came from the Imperial City all about the 4 major areas of the Empire; essentially East, West, North, and South. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of visiting all these new lands, then imagine my disappointment when you only go to two of them, one is very brief, and the path your character goes on is actually very linear in contrast to Bioware's previous title, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Your character and Followers travel from Two Rivers to the small town of Tien's Landing (with the surrounding Great Southern Forest, old town ruins, and pirate island lair) and then on to the great Imperial City itself (which is very large and has many districts). Once you reach the Imperial City, you can travel back and forth between it and Tien's Landing, but that's it. In truth, however, though you can do this there was never a need to; as both times I was able to leave Tien's Landing with all it's Quests, including optional, completed. Once you complete the Imperial City (and the Lotus Assassin fortress), you are then forced to go to your next few locations; it is all linear, there is no choice.
I found this very restrictive and a strange and unwelcome change of pace from a Bioware title as they've always offered so much freedom in traveling to and from locations. The entire feel and pace of the game changes here. Granted, this is right around the game's big story twist, however from here to the game's end it didn't feel like masterful writing or plot progression; instead it felt like rushing to get the game on shelves by a release date. Jade Empire is divided up into seven Chapters. I take my time with RPGs, so each play through took just under 40 hours. Chapters 1 to 3 took me about a total of 25 to 28 hours, while the remaining Chapters were very quick and simply rushed.
Then, there are your Followers, your Party members. Some of them are very interesting, with excellent back stories and great character. I really like Sagacious Zu, The Black Whirlwind, Henpecked Hou, and Kang the Mad. However the others...
One thing I wish Bioware would implement, would be some kind of character reaction system, and by this I mean if I'm murdering innocents or essentially telling a Follower to piss off, then they should leave, or challenge me, or something. After telling Sky enough times to shut up about his dead daughter, why is he still following me! After butchering innocent number 100, why is Dawn Star still putting up with me? It's not realistic at all. This was also an issue in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but something I'd like to see changed. If I'm turning out to be very evil, then why does everyone still blindly and stupidly trust me (cough, Water Dragon, cough)?
One big character complaint is with Wild Flower. Once you reach the Imperial Palace, you have to choose between the demons within her, Chai Ka or Ya Zhen, ultimately banishing and removing one from your Party. This is the elimination of a Follower from the game and it comes out of no where at such a strange point in the story. Even if you talk to Wild Flower before and get everything you can out of her, there's no build up to this battle and having it happen at the beginning of a crucial story point, the path leading to confront the Emperor himself, it's just bad timing.
Your character also develops their philosophy, or good guy (Open Palm)/bad guy (Closed Fist) alignment as they play. Many conversation options, or choices you make to further or complete quests will further you down the path of either the Open Palm or the Closed Fist. However, unlike the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series, there is no real benefit to mastering a philosophy or even coming close. There are two Styles in the game, such as Tempest Style, that become more powerful if you are in the proper alignment, and you can only use certain Essence Gems if you are aligned with them, however aside from that your character doesn't even have different facial features or disfigurations if they go heavily Closed Fist. If you stand still long enough your character will have an interesting graphic for their philosophy, and your Character Screen in the Main Menu will have a cool portrait, but there is nothing special about mastering either philosophy; very disappointing considering how much Light or Dark Side affected the use of your abilities in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
My only other complaints with the game would be during Combat. Some battles in the game are not properly balanced. During a fight, excluding support from Followers, you can only Heal yourself with Chi Heal which draws from your Chi (or with Red Minister Transformation Style, but that's very late in the game) or if an enemy drops a Health Orb by chance. You can only recover Chi through Spirit Thief Style (which you do get early on) or if an opponent drops a Chi Orb. You can only recover Focus from a dropped Focus Orb. While most of the time you can win battles without Focus, there are some fights where your opponent(s) are immune to Spirit Thief and this can be very frustrating. The imbalanced fights are very rare in the game, you can count them on one hand, but they are present. More of a minor criticism, but if a sequel is ever developed I'd love to see better options for rejuvenating your character in a battle.
Your Followers (you can have one with you at a time) often have support modes where instead of fighting, they'll mediate and buff your stats or regenerate your Health, Chi, etc. Sometimes this means bringing Follower X with you will make a fight too simple, but without them it's too damn hard. While not exactly forcing a player into using a certain Follower, it does give a limiting feel.
The above critics aside, Jade Empire is a very, very fun game to play. Though much more linear than I like in an RPG, it still offers the player a wide variety of choices and Style customization/combinations. The story, while having a very rushed feel at the end, still is very well written and worth experiencing. Also, hats off to Bioware for Death's Hand. He is simply a great villian, and what you can ultimately do to him was more of a shocker to me than the game's story twist (which I predicted very early on). I only wish Death's Hand would have been more visiable and even an extra fight or two with him earlier on; perhaps by controlling a certain Follower...
For a title that's now selling for $39.99 at most retailers, I highly recommend Jade Empire to anyone with an Xbox, and I'm greatly looking forward to a sequel and seeing what new twists, expanded concepts, and design refinements Bioware can cook up.
While not Bioware's best offering, Jade Empire is a damn good show, and my personal third best RPG on the big black box.