Review by DarthMuffin

"Undermined by its simplicity"

Originally an XBOX exclusive title, Jade Empire is an action role-playing game developed by the veteran BioWare. It combines what can be called a "button mashing" gameplay, populated by various combos and combat styles, with core role-playing elements - namely an extensive story, lots of dialogues and a choice-impact system for the player's actions. The result is a good product that is engaging to play, but at the same time feels too simplistic. This Special Edition for the PC also suffers from some porting annoyances.

Gameplay 7

The first telltale sign that Jade Empire is an action RPG (as opposed to a "normal" RPG) is that you are not greeted by an extensive character creation process. There are basically 7 characters to choose from, each with a defined appearance and "preloaded" combat styles. However, you can choose to modify each of these characters with the combat styles and attributes that you want. So in reality, you can "create" your own character - but you are stuck with the 7 appearances. They do look pretty good, and you have the usual male/female variety and all. Still, I do not think it would have been too much to ask for additional choices like in Knights of the Old Republic (which was somewhat limiting, but still better than what we have here).

Your character has three main attributes going for him/her: body, spirit and mind. These three influence three secondary attributes, health, chi (mana) and focus respectively. Then there are three "conversation skills", each one based on two primary attributes. The only variables that you increase yourself are the primary attributes, which gives the game a bit of a Diablo-like feel. It works well, and it is interesting to see how the conversation skills mesh up with the system.

The game has 5 grand categories of fighting styles, and you will acquire a variety of styles from each category as you go through the game. Each category has pros and cons, for example weapon styles are generally quite powerful but drain your focus, whereas martial styles are less damaging but require only mouse clicking. It should be noted that Jade Empire is a "melee-focused" game before anything else. There are a couple of magic styles, which let you fire some projectiles and such, but I cannot say I found them to work very well. There is also a "ranged" style, which is more or less an easter egg. Of course, the game is supposed to be focused on martial arts-inspired combat; but the melee styles are not *that* different from each others. I think this limits the replay value and the scope of the game, since you cannot really tell yourself "this time around I'll play as a wizard, and next time as an archer".

Combat itself (arguably the heart of the game) is a bit messy. The controls change so that your character always faces his/her target. This works reasonably well in one-on-one fights, but whenever there are more enemies at play (and there usually is), it gets frustrating to move where you want to go and quickly attack a specific enemy. The camera angle is also prone to getting stuck in the surroundings when you move a lot. At its core, combat is a rock-paper-scissors game: light attack beats heavy attack, heavy beats block, block beats light. Not really revolutionary, but it does work somewhat. However, it ends up feeling extremely repetitive. For the better part of the game, you can get by most weaker enemies simply by spamming the light attack button and making a "harmonic combo" (using two styles in rapid succession) once in a while. More serious enemies (bosses) will require some dodging and more strategy (using multiple styles during the battle), but down the road your left mouse button will see some serious use.

There is a nice variety of companions available, though you can only bring one with you at all times. They basically do their little thing (slowly trying to defeat an enemy) while you are left with most of the hard work; from a combat point of view, I find them to be of marginal use. You can put them in a support mode too, which gives a certain advantage to your character (but the companion does not attack while in this mode). They do add some flavour thanks to the occasional dialogues. It is a bit of a shame that they don't get more banter though, because some of them are truly unique and interesting. If anything in this game is up to BioWare's standards, I think it's the companions.

You cannot change your equipment in Jade Empire. You get different weapons when you acquire a corresponding weapon style, and that is it. There are a few instances in the game when you will be able to buy a better version of a style's corresponding weapon, but there is no real "item hunting" mechanics. The only real type of "equipment" you can manage is a gem system; you have an amulet with gem slots, and you can equip gems that give a variety of bonuses. Some people might welcome the lack of an item-focused gameplay, but once again I think it makes things *too* simple and takes away what made some of the more prominent action RPGs so interesting. Given how lacklustre the combat feels, I think that some good old fashioned treasure hunting would have given the game a measure of much needed depth. One could argue that the the combat system is better than, for example, that of the original Diablo game. But Diablo gave you items for your trouble, essentially rewarding you for torturing your mouse. Jade Empire's combat system does not give that sense of completion, and in my opinion serves no purpose beyond delaying the plot points.

There are quite a few quests for you to do, and you are often presented with "good" and "evil" ways of completing each quest. As will be discussed later, the beginning of the game is in my opinion a bit boring, very linear with few real side quests. Things get much better once you are a couple of hours into the game.

Jade Empire has some control and interface issues. I have never really liked console to PC ports to start with, precisely because the controls and interface end up being optimised for console play. BioWare stated that they had enhanced the game with intuitive and customisable controls for the PC. In my book, that would mean an ease of play with keyboard and mouse. Although it is perfectly playable with these, they do feel tacked on - pretty much because it is mandatory for a computer game to support these inputs. I was also disappointed to see that I could not bind the full map screen to a key (you only get to bind a show/hide for the minimap). Since you can bind the rest of the menu screens (inventory, etc.), it seems like they simply "forgot" to allow us to bind the full map somewhere. Finally, as I hinted to earlier, it is a bit hard to target specific enemies in the heat of battle. I think it would have been nice to allow us to use the mouse as a pointing feature to quickly target enemies. Of course it is also needed to control the camera, so enabling mouse pointing when holding down a specific key would have worked well and helped fix one of the game's shortcomings.

In a nutshell, the gameplay can be qualified as a toned-down version of Knights of the Old Republic, but with an interactive combat system instead of random die rolls. The main issue with the game is, in my opinion, that the sacrifice of KotOR's finer gameplay aspects does not feel justified by the combat system they put in place. It feels repetitive, unoriginal and often ends up being a chore more than anything else.

Video 9

The game looks nice. Character models are well made, and there is quite a variety of different (if somewhat clunky at times) animations. The environment is also nice to look at. I have to say though that my standards are not very high when it comes down to graphics. Still, the fact remains that everything looks good here, and you do not need a monster computer to run it (much like KotOR in fact; even older computers can not only manage Jade Empire, but render it nicely at the same time). Down the road, lets not forget that it was originally an XBOX game, so by today's standards the graphics can be considered a bit dated (even though they were apparently improved for the PC release).

The game also uses quite a few cinematic cutscenes, modelled after the in-game graphics, to convey some scenes that would be impossible to render with the game engine. These cutscenes mesh nicely with the rest of game, so it really enhances the experience. True to BioWare's habits, these cinematics are not breathtaking in visual quality; but they work nicely, and that's what is important.

I think the visual design is also very good, and helps you to feel immersed in the game world. The sole large city that you visit really looks and feels like a bustling city, and the imperial palace looks quite genuine. So the atmosphere is very nice.

Audio 7

Voice acting is good through and through, and the sound effects are appropriate. The music though strikes me as being very generic and not really inspiring. BioWare games in the past have had some great soundtracks made for them, so this came in as a bit of a disappointment.

Story 8

I honestly found the story to be a bit bland at the start. Your character is at the very centre of the plot and everything gravitates around him/her from the get-go (we are talking about the "you are special: find out more about yourself and save the world" kind of thing). Very unoriginal for a video game.

That being said, I have to say that I became more and more interested as I got deeper into the game. A couple of hours into the plot, you begin to understand more about the setting and what is going on, and the game does lift off at some point. I think that things start getting interesting once you reach chapter 3, which should be about 3 or 4 hours in for a first playthrough.

I also found the setting itself to be very interesting. Despite the fact that it is completely original (Jade Empire is not based on an existing franchise), BioWare succeeded in giving it a genuine feel. It is based on ancient China (with some very obvious parallels), but at the same time it feels unique. As with the companions, I think that the setting is one of the strongest points of the game.

The only real downside here is that the game is very short. My first playthrough took exactly 12 hours and 30 minutes, and although I probably missed a few side quests, I did take the time to complete everything that fell into my quest log. Longer does not always mean better, that is for sure. But here I found the pace to be a bit messed up in the later chapters: the game essentially puts you through a series of battles and hammers a few final plot points in your head while you cleave your way through the bosses. As such, the final quarter of the game does not feel very cohesive, and bears the betraying signs of a rushed work. Considering what your character goes through during the events of the game, the ending(s) is(are) not very satisfying either.

Replay Value 6

There are different fighting styles to try, different companions to take, as well as a few different endings. But you have so little in the manner of character customisation that the whole experience really feels like a one-shot deal to me. Most of the companions are quite original, but then they really don't banter that much. As for the fighting styles, it's still the same button mashing no matter what.

There is a "master" difficulty level, which is basically about importing the character with which you completed the game and playing through the story again on this harder mode (a system reminiscent of what is used in the Diablo games). I have not extensively tried the mode yet, but from what I have seen it does force you to use a couple of extra tricks. Once again though, the lack of a real item system kind of defeats the purpose a bit.

Conclusion

Jade Empire is an enjoyable game, but its simplicity is a bit disappointing. At its core, it has a rather clunky combat system that does not strike me as being very interactive nor polished, which is quite a downside given how the game focuses on combat. I was also disappointed by the overall lack of customisation (both in character attributes and equipment), which I believe reduces the gameplay and replay value of the game. It essentially looks like a "KotOR-lite" coupled with a simple button-mashing gameplay. Despite all those annoyances, Jade Empire remains a nice adventure with memorable characters, a unique setting and a good story. Down the road, I think it is definitely a worthwhile trip, provided that you do not expect too much from it.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/25/08

Game Release: Jade Empire: Special Edition (US, 02/26/07)


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