Jade Empire

Developer:  Bioware
Publisher:  Microsoft
Year Released:  2005

Review by Steve Metzler (June, 2005)
The Jade Empire - an anachronism. A country and culture that purports to be ancient China, yet lurking beneath the surface are undercurrents that belie any attempts to draw a simple parallel... for there are spirits, demons, and great magic at work here! The Empire is recovering from a long drought which was eventually brought to an end by the Emperor Sun Hai, but at a terrible cost. For as a result of the Emperor's meddling in the affairs of the gods there is great turmoil in the land, and the spirits cannot find rest.

It is in the midst of this turmoil that your character is cast. You take on the role of an orphaned martial arts student nearing the end of your tutelage under the gentle guidance of one Master Li. Your school is in the idyllic rural setting of the village of Two Rivers, a place far removed from the bustling Imperial City that is the centre of trade and governance. You are the school's premier student, and somehow different from the other students, but you don't know why. In fact, you have no idea of how you became an orphan, or what your heritage is. However, this is all about to change quite suddenly as bandits attack the village. It would seem that Master Li has been in hiding for many years, but his hiding place has finally been uncovered. Master Li hastily fills you in on your intriguing backstory and sends you on a quest to discover your true origins. And so begins your long journey to save the Jade Empire from impending doom...

Where we're going, we don't need statistics
Even though Jade Empire is classed as an RPG, it only barely scrapes by in this respect. This is by no means a huge criticism, for it is great fun to play. It is merely the way Bioware seem to have pitched the game to appeal to the largest cross section of potential players. So don't expect to be finding the Sword of Sorrows +2 somewhere deep in a cave, or agonising over which of your twenty character traits to tweak when you level up. It's just not going to happen. There are only two weapons in the whole game (you can buy upgrades for them later in the game so they do 25% more damage, but that's it), and three statistics that you can mess with. This is primarily a martial arts fighting game with real time combat, so get ready to twitch!

There are four character types to choose from when you start up a new game: Strong, Fast, Magic, and Balanced. There are male and female versions of the Fast and Balanced characters, so six avatars in total. I must say that both the characters and the fighting styles are very well animated, so that while a selection of six 'skins' doesn't sound like a lot, it's more than adequate. Each character starts with two fighting styles in their arsenal: a martial style like Leaping Tiger that does all the damage, and a 'support' style called Heavenly Wave that does no damage but is used to slow your opponents down - to set them up for a martial style kill. As alluded to earlier, you only have three statistics to work with: Body, Spirit, and Mind. From Body, you derive Health (hit points). From Spirit, Chi (your 'fuel' for magic attacks), and from Mind comes Focus (which you drain by using weapons). There are also three conversational skills derived from your stats: Body + Mind = Charm, Spirit + Mind = Intuition, and Spirit + Body = Intimidation. It doesn't seem to matter which of these skills you use to sway the tide of a conversation when these opportunities are presented, as the outcome is either success of failure, so you can just use your strongest one. In effect, this just means there are three different variants of 'persuade'.

Each time you gain enough experience to level up, you get a few points to spend on your Body, Spirit, and Mind, and also increasingly more points per level to upgrade your fighting styles. Here again though, you have very few real options. You can increase the damage and speed of martial styles, you can increase the damage and speed of weapon styles, and decrease the amount of Focus they drain per use. And finally, you can increase the damage and duration effects of magic styles, or decrease the amount of Chi they consume per use. And that's about it.

The boosting of your Body, Spirit, and Mind stats comes mostly by the way of magical gems that you find in the game world, or recover from fallen foes. Close to the beginning of the game you acquire the first fragment of a powerful amulet, which can hold up to three gems. Throughout the course of the game you will find more amulet pieces, increasing the capacity of the amulet beyond the three gems it can originally hold. It is through these gems that you acquire most of your power. There are usually trade-offs with the gems though. For instance, one might increase your Spirit and Mind by +3, but descrease your Body by -5. This ascpect of game play at least gives serious role players a bit to cut their teeth on.

Doin' the Monster Mash
As the game progresses, you can acquire quite a few more fighting styles. Some, called transformation styles, even allow you to take on the form of a demon or spirit you have slain. You can map up to four styles at a time to the 4-way button on the XBOX controller, so it is quite easy to switch styles in the midst of combat. You can also pause during combat to assess the situation or switch to another style, but you can't heal while paused. Bummer. So the pace of combat is quite frenetic, almost Diablo-esque. It is a far cry from the more cerebral turn-based combat of Bioware's previous magnificent RPG effort, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

There are three levels of combat difficulty available for selection: Student, Master, and Grand Master. In a wise design decision, Bioware let you change the level of difficulty at any time, so if you just can't get past a particular enemy no matter how many times you try, you can ratchet the level down for that battle, and then change it back again afterwards to your default level of difficulty. Student is quite easy, and is for players that are visiting the Jade Empire mainly for the story. Master is the one I settled on. You have to block and evade a bit more, but it's still not too difficult. As you can imagine, Grand Master requires quite a lot of skill and patience, and you may find yourself reloading a lot. But no matter which level of difficulty you choose, defeating your opponents is largely a matter of mashing the Attack button until your current opponent is dispatched, and then moving on to the next one. Repeat until all have fallen. And it's a bit of a shame the combat turns out to be that shallow, because the fighting animations are extremely well done.

Sights, sounds, and pseudo-dilemmas
The beautifully rendered world of the Jade Empire is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and this is where the game truly excels. Even on my modest-sized portable telly, the effects were jaw dropping. Snow crunches underfoot, and your character leaves tracks that fade over time. Water gushes down narrow ravines, and sun rays stream through the boughs of trees covered in cherry blossoms. The combat and spell effects are also a joy to behold. I was less enamoured by the conversational aspects of Jade Empire. Even though the voice acting is performed by professional talent (keep an ear out for John Cleese in a role as a 'barbaric' Englishman :-), I found myself yearning for the 'inscwootable' pronunciations of yesteryear, as only the likes of Bruce Lee could manage. A false expectation in today's politically correct world perhaps, but nearly everyone in Jade Empire has a Los Angeles accent. At first this really ruined the sense of immersion for me, though I eventually got used to it.

Another somewhat annoying aspect of game play is the very large load times between areas. Cross a certain threshold... and bang! You're facing a 45 second wait for the next scene to load. This can happen to you several times in quick (or not so quick, heh) succession while traversing a large area like the Imperial City.

As with Knights of the Old Republic, there are also moral choices to be made in the game, largely through the above mentioned conversation. Here, Light Side vs. Dark Side has been replaced by the Way of the Open Palm vs. the Way of the Closed Fist. Only an aside, really, as whether you decide to take the 'good' or 'evil' path through the game has little bearing on the plot points or the eventual ending.

You point, I punch... well, not quite
You are not alone in your struggle to save the Empire. During the course of the game you can manage to acquire something in the region of nine 'followers' who will aid you in your quest. You may only have one follower tagging along with you at any time, and they have two modes of operation regards combat: you can either have them fight alongside you, or they can sit on the sidelines and keep one of your stats topped up, like Chi for magic users. I found it most useful to have them fight, for in this manner they at least distract one of your opponents at a time while you concentrate on the rest. Most of these follower characters are quite colourful with interesting backstories, and they add a lot to the game.

Speaking of magic, there are no spells per se, merely fighting styles like Ice Shard that allow you to hurl icicles at your foes, or turn them into a block of ice that can then be shattered with your martial style. There are subtle variations on this theme such as Stone Immortal (stone instead of ice). One other combat nuance that I haven't elaborated on is the Harmonic Combo, whereby you use a Power Attack in a support or magic style to completely disable your opponent for a small amount of time, then switch to a martial style to finish them off.

Quests and such
When it comes to role-playing games, the most important aspects of these for me are the quality and diversity of the quests, the depth of the dialogue, and some undescribable combination of how good the story is, and how manageable is the combat. So how does Jade Empire fare here? Not too badly as it turns out. The quests are fun, and there are not too many annoying ones of the fetch-this-for-me variety. The puzzles weren't too challenging though, and I suspect that this again is an artefact of the game not being made for the PC. The story was excellent, worthy of making a film thereof, actually. There are many opportunities for dialogue throughout the game, and you can even avoid some battles with the successful application of your conversation skills. But don't expect another Fallout or Planescape: Torment in this respect. There is little depth or branching dialogue here that depends on your conversation choices or skills.

For those of you who enjoy such diversions, there is also a built in mini-game whereby you get to pilot a primitive flyer and shoot down enemy aircraft while en route to your next plot location. You can even obtain various upgrades for your flyer by going on mini-game side quests, and there is a unique location called Lord Lao's Furnace that is only accessible from the mini-game where you can combine objects you find in the game world with certain fuels to manufacture even more upgrades for your flyer. But I steered well clear of this area of the Jade Empire. I'm afraid I'm just not into mini-games.

So when it came to cruch time, I was really torn over what score to give Jade Empire. It looks beautiful, it sounds (mostly) beautiful, and it is certainly a lot of fun to play. But in the end, my tilt was toward the lower of the two possible scores. This is another fine effort from Bioware, and one that is probably accessible to more players than any RPG to date. But I'll take my RPGs on the PC please, with generous helpings of depth and complexity!

See the Jade Empire walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2005. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Reviewed on XBOX.