Review by BloodGod65

"I Know Kung-Fu, And Now You Do Too!"

After years spent developing titles based on long established franchises (Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic), it was inevitable Bioware would eventually get around to creating its own original, fully contained universe. Jade Empire is the fruit of that endeavor and, like all Bioware games, is a text-heavy narrative driven RPG.

The Jade Empire is a rough equivalent to the height of Chinese dynastic power, and as such the game has a heavy Oriental flair (try not to dwell on the fact that a western RPG has been gussied up in Eastern finery… it's enough to make your head explode). Martial arts, dragons and unhappy ancestor ghosts all make appearances in the games story. But rather than feeling like a mash up of every Eastern element Bioware could think of, it all actually comes together to create a unique world that is rooted in reality but branches off in unexpected, and often fantastic, directions.

Oddly enough, the actual plot is plagued by an overarching sense of familiarity. Players will step into the shoes of a character (chosen by the player) studying at a martial arts school. Under the tutelage of one Master Li, the hero has become a prodigy and the star pupil of the school. As it turns out the hero was actually orphaned as an infant and adopted by Master Li in order to train him/her for a mysterious destiny of grandiose purpose. But things are thrown off track when the Lotus Assassins, shadowy emissaries of the Emperor, attack the nearby village and eventually make off with Master Li. With the only link to the hero's past gone, he dutifully sets out to find him.

The story isn't one of Bioware's best and at times comes off as a familiar plot with an Asian facelift. However, it does reveal itself to be quite deep and complex over the course of the game and it's easy to forget those boring elements due to the fantastic writing and continuous character development. Players will watch characters around them change realistically in response to events, or even the hero's actions, all of which makes them seem like real people. And as is traditional for Bioware, the game is text heavy and you'll spend a lot of time talking to people and navigating through conversations. Thankfully, the excellent writing talent at the company is on full display and more often than not, the text makes for an interesting read.

If you're not the reading type (why you'd be interested in an RPG is beyond me), all dialog is fully voiced. But Bioware continues to hold to an odd design choice with the fact that the hero is silent, and you'll only chose his or her dialog choices, then hear the response to that unspoken comment. Despite that, the acting is universally excellent, from the main characters to the random NPC's that stroll around. One especially noteworthy voice actor is John Cleese, who appears in a late-game side quest. For those worrying just what the British Monty Python alumni is doing in a game revolving around Eastern culture, fear not – His character is expertly woven in, and it's true, or at least comparable, to actual historical events. Not to mention it's absolutely hilarious. The music is also well done, and though I'm typically not a fan of traditional Oriental style music, it has been integrated very tastefully.

As with Bioware's other titles, there is a fair amount of combat and compared to them it's both more and less complicated. At the beginning of the game, players choose a premade character who has knowledge of a couple of martial skills. Depending on the character, these martial arts can lean towards magic, speed or strength. Throughout the game many other fighting styles will be discovered and can be divided up into numerous distinct categories; martial arts, support, weapon, magic and transformations, which allow you to change into several huge demon forms. Styles can be assigned hot-keys so players can switch between them while fighting, and maximize combat efficiency. For instance, one support style slows down an enemy, allowing the player to switch over to a martial arts style and pummel them up close, or a magic style to hurt them from afar.

No matter what combat styles you use, combat is ultimately a very simple and sometimes faulted affair. Combat occurs in real time, and unlike Knights of the Old Republic, players won't be pausing to put orders into an action queue. However, the action is surprisingly intuitive on a mouse and keyboard. The hero moves with the typical WASD control scheme, switches targets with the TAB and Q buttons, heals with the Shift key, blocks with the Spacebar and uses regular or strong attacks with the left and right mouse buttons. Unfortunately, characters attack in combos that can easily be interrupted by enemy attacks. Your character will also complete every action you put in, even if the enemy moves out of range. The hero does have some evasive maneuvers and can roll or somersault in any direction by pressing the appropriate button twice. Overall, combat looks nice but it is neither the smoothest nor most complex fighting system I've seen.

Upon leveling up, players get points to put into several areas such as Body, Mind and Spirit, which determine your health, mana and focus totals. As always, health determines how much damage the hero can take before dying and mana fuels magic. Focus, the odd child of the bunch, is actually depleted by using weapon styles or a slow-motion focus mode. Body, Mind and Spirit also have corresponding persuasion skills like Charm, Intuition and Intimidation. In certain conversations, players have the option of using these skills to coerce an NPC into doing something and, if the skill is high enough, it will work. Players also gain points to put into fighting styles that allow attacks to occur faster, do more damage or causes any status effects such as slow, to last longer. Though this makes fighting more effective, it doesn't change it any.

Followers make their traditional appearance and work like they always have. From time to time, the hero meets a character who joins the cause and can provide assistance by following him or her around all the time (hence the term “follower”). Not only can followers fight in combat, they can be made to provide support. Support for each character varies and can be something like regenerating health, mana or spirit. The most exceptional of these is Henpecked Hou, who throws out bottles of liquor so the character can access the Drunken Master fighting style. It's generally best to stick to support options for the followers because they're generally stupid and refuse to coordinate attacks. Plus they do little damage and have a tendency to get killed quickly. It's best to keep them out of harm's way so they can do something useful.

One final element that invariably makes its way into every Bioware game is alignment. In Jade Empire, players can walk the Path of the Open Palm (good) or Path of the Closed Fist (evil). To me, the alignment system has come to the point where it feels useless in games and limits the player, because it forces you to think about whether you want to be good or evil, instead of what you actually want to do. That's not to mention that the choices are transparently good or evil and very few have any long term impact. One choice might mean fighting one less person in an upcoming battle, but it's rarely anything big. Compared to a game such as Fallout 3 where choices often fell into a grey area and had unpredictable and sometimes unintentional outcomes, Jade Empire's alignment system is utterly predictable as there is never any uncertainty as to what outcome any option will bring. The one time a decision has a big impact is at the tail end of the game, when a certain action dictates the ending the player will see. This decision ultimately sums up the problems with the whole alignment system, as it doesn't matter what you do up until that point because the one decision will mark you as saint-like or irrevocably evil, regardless of how you played the game up to that point.

You may have noticed the “Special Edition” add-on in the games title (increasing the title word count by 100%!). Just to clarify matters a bit, Jade Empire was originally developed for the Xbox and ported to the PC two years later as a “Special Edition”. So, what's so special? Not much really. The game has received a graphical overhaul and a few new martial styles. Some players might not even get these because they're given through side-quests. That's not to mention they come so late in the game, other styles will have been leveled up already, so they're at a disadvantage and won't see much use. Most of the extra stuff is actually bonus material included with the packaging, such as a small art book and poster. All and all, it's a not-so-special Special Edition. But since it's the only version for the PC, it doesn't make much of a difference. Even so, it's still worth noting the length of the game, which took me twenty hours and nine minutes to beat even after pursuing every side-quest. Stick to the critical path and you'll likely burn through it in half the time.

The aforementioned graphical overhaul is immediately noticeable because the game still looks surprisingly good. The character models are excellent and realistic, especially the faces. However, they do lack realistic muscle movement when talking, so players are left to stare at blank, wooden faces during conversation. Bioware also used many Chinese themes in terms of architecture and environments, which are usually very colorful and interesting. On the other hand, cutscenes look terrible by comparison and the picture quality is sub-par. I suspect that Bioware didn't bother to update the cutscenes because it would have taken too much time. There are also a few minor characters and areas that look as if they were forgotten as they have some jagged edges and flat lines that should be curves.

There are also several glitches of note. On several character models, loose material on their clothing (sashes, etc.) would detach and hover several feet away when moving. A more important problem was that the camera sometimes bugged out and switches to a zoomed in top down view where the hero isn't visible, and you can't tell what's going on. Usually moving into another area or reloading the game will solve this problem, but it seemed to get more and more frequent the longer I played.

THE VERDICT
Despite a story with a few too many familiar elements, clumsy and unexciting battle system and several odd glitches Jade Empire still manages to become a good game. But merely being good isn't exactly what everyone has come to expect from Bioware… Even so, a so-so effort by Bioware is still a better game than many other companies can design.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/08/09, Updated 07/06/10

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


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