So here’s the picture. Let’s imagine that you own an XBox and are a bit of an RPG fan – both fair assumptions if you should happen to be reading this. You loved the Knights of the Old Republic games, but you tend to prefer something a bit medieval for your playing pleasure; well, fear not! Jade Empire is a decidedly eastern affair from BioWare in something of a Knights style but with a more action-oriented battle system. The question is whether BioWare, after so many successful turn-based systems from the team, can pull off a full action battle system, or will Jade Empire play stonily?
Taking the role of the young orphan prodigy at a calm, idyllic martial arts training facility in the mountains, Jade Empire slowly leads you into a wonderfully cliché plot involving the overrunning of the little connecting village and the kidnap of first your childhood friend and potential sweetheart and then that of your erstwhile master, a firm-but-fair man who happens to have saved you years ago when he defected from being the greatest strategist in the realm. Along the way, in the traditional fashion, a whole bunch of misfits will join your cause, you’ll encounter increasingly stronger bad guy minions, infiltrate some enemy strongholds, become a martial arts master, and probably start a romance plot with someone. Well, this is a BioWare game, after all!
Don’t be misled. While this quick and dirty plot summary might sound extremely generic – and let us be honest here, the meta-plot is, on the whole, generic and the twists predictable – there’s a great sense of fun in the game that comes from playing through what is akin to an amalgamation of every kung-fu movie under the sun. Situations are recognizable and familiar, but that’s a great deal of their charm. From the moment you and your cohorts bust through a palace door to encounter twenty guards pointing sharp things at you and demanding your surrender, right up to your chasing up the stairs of the throne room to the altar at the top, it is as if you are playing through a movie. This general feeling is helped along by the breakneck pace of the game – experienced players should expect to complete Jade Empire in a matter of ten to fifteen hours, the former half of which includes virtually all sidequests in the game, leaving the rest of the plot to rush you at once and provide a feverish pitch to the crucial parts.
It doesn’t hurt in the least that the writing and voicing is simply top-notch. Though the plot may be cliché, the characters are anything but, and each has his or her own bizarre and usually raucously funny quirks, especially those who happen to be traveling with you. From the minor noble who wants to hire someone who will not back down from a challenge — so orders his servant to go insult people on the street until someone fails to ignore him — to Henpecked Hou, a former drunken master who maintains that adventuring with the party is infinitely better than returning to his ‘sweet flower’ of a wife, each character is wonderfully done. No character ever becomes even close to overly irritating – unless they’re designed to be that way, of course.
The combat system is light and refreshing; there’s barely any of this item malarkey or equipment tomfoolery, as Jade Empires goes straight for the throat with the ‘attack’ button and the ‘power attack’ button, combinations which will let you beat people up with ease throughout the game. At any time you can have up to four different martial art styles equipped, which most of the time equates to nothing more than, say, a slower but more damaging combo or a fast string of light hits. Additionally, you can expend chi – MP, if you prefer – to increase the power of your strikes or use Focus to enter Focus Mode, where everything but yourself slows to a crawl Finally, you have the requisite dodge button, which can be used to make you jump and bounce about a given arena at a high rate of knots.
There are four different types of style in the game to choose from; Martial Styles, which are simple collections of punches or kicks, are your staple, but there are also Support Styles, which cause status effects but rarely deal damage, Magic Styles, ranged attacks that cost chi, or Weapon Styles, which cause tons of damage but eat away at your focus bar. Whenever your character levels up you will gain some skill points that can be spent on individual styles to increase their damage or speed, letting you lean towards one set of styles suiting your character stats and tactics.
Those who are expecting and enjoy a statistic-heavy experience should stay away from Jade Empire; as stated in the introduction, this is not the most strategic of experiences. There are three main statistics in the game – Body, Spirit, and Mind – from which all other values in the game are derived. Each helps out a different facet of your character, Body for the bruiser in you, Spirit for your special abilities, and Mind for those of you Matrix kiddies out there. Each level up gives you six points; one each in each category, then three to place wherever you want.
The above literally sums up any and all mechanics of the main combat and statistic system; such a simple system makes for a very fast learning experience that lets players easily and quickly get right to the business of punching miscreants in the soft and squishy bits, but there is a problem with this. As the system never gets more complex than this, late-game combats become nothing more than longer repetitions of the fights you were winning back in the start of the game. The focus of combat slowly shifts throughout the game from that of careful, thought-out fights to wading through hordes of kamikaze minions. While this may admittedly be appropriate as your character grows in power, especially during one battle sequence where a burly party member takes joyful pleasure in killing as many kung-fu mooks as possible, it has a somewhat detrimental effect on the combat system as a whole, making fights become trivial nuisances as opposed to life-threatening situations.
Eschewing items, Jade Empire instead utilizes a barebones equipment system and a collection of power-ups that is similarly easy to grasp: as the plot continues your character will be allowed to equip a number of gems, which may provide sundry boosts to your statistics or small additional effects on your attacks. In a similar fashion, minor pieces of training or lore are represented as permanent versions of these bonuses, constantly ‘equipped’ but of lower power. Within fights themselves, defeated enemies may drop healing bonuses or further boosts to power, and at any time chi may be exchanged for healing by concentration. Again, this lends the game a mechanical speed that leaves a player with the ability – and the feeling – that they can just ignore the details and plough on with the heroics.
With Jade Empire ultimately being an RPG, there are of course stalwart companions ready to watch your back. Beyond the amusing commentary any character in the game provides, they have two different uses in a combat; first and most obviously, whichever you choose to travel with you can join you in fights, adding their attacks to yours. The other option, however, is to allow them to sit there and meditate. While this involves some suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, as enemies helpfully ignore the defenseless opponent, it allows the companion to either provide a major passive effect to your attacks or else periodically recover your health, chi, or focus.
Ultimately, Jade Empire’s gameplay is light, simplistic fun that never requires a great deal of thought or stressful tension on the part of the player. While not an in-depth combat system, it never makes any claim to be, instead retaining the same speed and feel as battles barrel along as quickly as the plot does. The martial art styles in the game are suitably mystical and oriental and there are some pleasantly gigantic weapons for your character to thrust in the general direction of the bad guys.
And there are a lot of bad guys. Palace guards, forest monsters, miscellaneous ruffians, and the odd ancient guardian or two will all show up to impede your progress as you get into a variety of adventurous locales. Let me say straight up – Jade Empire looks simply gorgeous. Combined with the game’s flair for sending you into appropriately epic locations, the quality of the graphics is simply breathtaking. Your home village and training region includes wooded pathways, cliffs with views over farmland, and a lapping beach, and that’s simply the first location. Once you get into truly epic vistas such as the Emperor’s Throne Room or an ancient waterlogged cave or, well, maybe a Heaven itself [NB: Not a typo; there are a couple different ones in the game.], it is clear that a lot of thought has been put into the graphical style to make it as dramatically appropriate as possible, further reinforcing the feeling that the player is traipsing through movie settings.
In the same vein, the voice acting is, as mentioned, exemplary. There are some very impressive names attached to the near-full voice accompaniment, not least of which is John Cleese, a famous English actor and comedian, as an explorer washed up on the continent the game is set upon, and determined to show these ‘strange savages’ the error of their uncouthly ways. Each voice actor provides sterling dialogue, matching the writing perfectly and never unduly hamming it up, and the result is both entertaining and humorous given Jade Empire’s penchant for characters with a knack for comedic situations and tall tales. Unfortunately, this tour de force does not extend to the music; while there is no end of quiet, peaceful music for wandering through villages and towns, there are few striking tracks to instill tension or danger within battles, and for most of the game the music remains forgotten in the background.
All in all, Jade Empire is an extremely enjoyable game. Though not recommended for those gamers who need to tinker with statistics throughout their play, and while not being in any way a long experience, it is despite that a very fun romp through a light-hearted oriental adventure that provides more than a few laughs and some excellent set pieces, and if you are at all a fan of eastern style or of action RPGs as a whole – especially other BioWare greats such as Knights of the Old Republic – it is a solid purchase that most gamers will be more than happy with.