Jade Empire was one of the games I was looking forward to this year. After seeing it at last year’s, E3 I was almost counting the days until I could play through the game. After putting it through its paces, I’m happy to say that the game met and exceeded all of my expectations. The review is running a little behind as I wanted to get a little separation from the game so I didn’t gush too much. I’m not sure if that’s going to hold up or not.
The game is set in an alternate universe which is based around Chinese mythology. The folks at Bioware have done a great job of creating an immersive environment for gamers to explore as everything is nearly spot on. You start off as a martial arts student at a small school in the back waters of the Jade Empire. Your character is the favored student of the school’s master but for unknown reasons. As the game starts, the village where the school is located is attacked by a group of assassins and your mentor and master is kidnapped. It’s up to you to rescue him and figure out why he was kidnapped. Not surprisingly, there’s more going on than meets the eye and you’ll end up changing the course of the entire Jade Empire (because if you were just rescuing one guy it would be a kind of boring, short game).
Before you start the game, you choose one of the six preset characters. There really aren’t six unique options but rather three styles with a male and female version of each. The choices are magic, strong, and fast. Each character comes with one martial style and one support style which determine how you want to play the game. Once you’ve picked out a character, you can either stick with the pre-set name or enter one of your own. There’s a little room for mischief here (I almost named my character Hung Low but decided against it) but once you’ve picked which character you’re going to spend 20 or so hours with you set their initial attributes.
It’s not an RPG without talking about the attributes in the game. Your character has three main attributes: body, spirit, and mind. Body is your measure of your health, i.e. how much damage you can take. Spirit drives chi the game’s interpretation of mana or how much magical energy you can control. Mind drives focus, which how well you can wield weapons and detect traps. These attributes then influence a second set of attributes which impact your interactions with the NPC’s in the game. Body and spirit drive intimidation, your charm is a combination of your spirit and your body, while intuition is derived from spirit and mind.
Gamers who played Bioware’s last masterpiece, Knights of The Old Republic will be familiar with how Jade Empire plays, as the game uses an upgraded version of the engine used. Moving through the universe and conversing with the inhabitants of the world is exactly the same as KOTOR. This isn’t a bad thing as the system works well and is very intuitive. Where the game differs from the previous title is in the combat system. Rather than going with the turn based system from KOTOR Jade Empire implements a real time combat engine. Instead of issuing a set of actions, you control the actions of your character in real time. Like the martial arts movies, the combat system features different fighting styles. The systems are broken into five main categories: magic, weapon, martial, transformation, and support. Each style is exactly what it sounds like with magic styles allowing you to cast spells, weapon styles allow you to wield a variety of swords and pole arms, and martial allowing for hand to hand combat. Support styles are a little different as they don’t do damage directly to your enemies but rather do things like allowing you to drain chi from your enemies, paralyze them, or shock them. The cool thing about the styles is that you can combine them to create harmonic combinations which will instantly kill almost every enemy in the game. For example, you can petrify an enemy and then switch to one of the weapon or martial styles to finish them off. Transformation styles are one of the cooler styles in the game as they allow you to change shape into defeated enemies. As you progress through the game, you will have the opportunity to collect the souls of defeated enemies and then transform into them while in combat. There’s something very satisfying about turning into a large horse demon and laying waste to a large group of enemies.
Combat styles are learned from certain NPC’s in the game, purchased through shops, or gained by completing questions. As you level up, you will be given points to increase the effectiveness of these skills as well as your core set of attributes. The styles can be enhanced by increasing the damage of the styles, adding chi damage to the attack, or by reducing the cost to use the attacks (Magic styles consume chi while weapon styles consume focus). For the most part, I stuck with a core set of martial and weapons skills and rotated in magic, support, and transformation styles as necessary but that’s only one way to play the game. I’m already planning to go back through the game and play with more of a magic focus.
Once you learn a style, you can assign it to one of the directions of the d-pad. Switching styles is just a d-pad direction away. Once you gain more than four styles you can assign a style to the d-pad by holding down that direction. This calls up a menu of styles and you can quickly cycle through styles and pick the one you want to use. This is critical as some battles will require you to switch styles to defeat certain types of enemies. For example, the various demons roaming the country are not affected by magic enemies while the undead spirits roaming the country can not be harmed by weapons. This forces you to round out your character a little more as focusing on one style means you will be hosed when facing certain enemies.
The rest of the combat controls are easy enough to master. The A button is your main attack button with the B button allowing you to charge more powerful attacks. Hitting the A and B button together will perform an area attack which is helpful when you get surrounded by a group of enemies. The B button is one of the more important ones as it controls how you defend yourself. If you press the button while standing still, your character will initiate a small defense shield which can only be broken by a strong attack. However, if you move left or right while pressing the B button, you will roll left or right. Moving forward or back while pushing the button will initiate a forward flip over your enemy or a back flip. The Y button initiates bullet time…errr…focus mode which allows you to slow down the action and figure out exactly who and what you want to attack. The left and right triggers cycle the targeted enemies while pushing both will toggle you in and out of the locked fighting mode. Finally, the white button allows you to heal yourself by converting chi to health and the black button allows you to charge your attacks with chi to do additional damage.
Switching styles is also critical if you want to survive some of the larger battles in the game. Since you can convert chi to health, switching to a style that regenerates chi will allow you to heal yourself or provide chi for bigger attacks. Since the support styles don’t do any damage (without adding Chi power to them at least), this adds the choice of either stretching out the duration of the fight or trying to finish it up quickly.It wouldn’t be a real RPG without some way to modify your stats with items right? Rather than going through a complex system of various pieces of enchanted equipment, the game handles everything through the Dragon amulet. You pick up this interesting piece of jewelry early on in the game and as you progress through it you pick up gems to put in the amulet. Initially, the amulet only has three slots but as you progress, you’ll pick up other pieces of the amulet which eventually allow you to use seven gems at once. This greatly simplifies inventory control and the game even has an option to sort the gems by how powerful they are to make sure you know which ones are worth using. This system also allows you to swap gems in and out for different situations. If you want to amp up your intimidation or negotiating skills for a particular NPC, you can do so and then put back ones that increase your health before you go into combat.
Quests in the game are well thought out and you’re really never too bored with most of them. There’s such a variety of tasks in the game. You have your standard hunt down and kill the monster stuff and a variety of FedEx tasks but there are some clever touches to some of the quests. Within a span of an hour, I went from slaying demons to playing village matchmaker to reciting lines in a play. These little diversions along with the sly sense of humor in the game really help keep the game interesting.
Like KOTOR your interactions with the other characters in the game have an impact on your character. Instead of the light and dark sides of the force, you had the Open Palm and Closed Hand disciplines. If you are a self-centered bastard who gets his way by force, you’ll end up earning lots of Closed Hand points while those who sacrifice themselves will gain open palm points. These are important as certain styles and gems are only available to the follower of one of the paths.
It’s not really an RPG without a group of people to adventure with and one of the best elements of KOTOR was the supporting cast of characters. Jade Empire doesn’t let down in this department as there is a nice collection of characters to interact with. The main difference is that instead of having four party members like you did in KOTOR, you’re limited to just one companion. The companions are important as each has their own back story and set of side quests should you choose to interact with them. The companions are also important as they serve an important role in combat. In combat, you can either assign them to attack your enemies taking pressure off you or you can assign them to a support role. Each character has different support features such as recharging health or chi to dropping bottles of wine to enable to use the deadly Drunken Master style. Like KOTOR, the game features a couple of mini-action games that feel a little pasted on. This time instead of manning the top cannon on the Ebon Hawk, you’re piloting the Dragonfly (a very cool little flying machine). The mini-game plays like the classic vertical scrollers of consoles past. At one point, I think I even recognized the enemies looping in the same pattern as the old 1942 arcade machine. Graphically the mini-game is impressive as Bioware did a killer job rendering the clouds but the games still feel tacked on to the initial game. Thankfully, you can skip past them if you want to; an option not afforded gamers in KOTOR.
Visually the game is impressive. The world is lush and alive and it pulls you in from the word go. Bioware has done a great job of getting everything they can out of the Xbox hardware. The game does suffer from a few slow downs in some of the city areas but combat is fast and furious. Weapon and magic effects are well done and as the powers progress, you see slightly different animations as the attacks become more powerful The art design for the game is perfect as every single element in the game reinforces the rich style of the game. Jade Empire uses a mix of in-game and pre-rendered cinematics to tell certain portions of the story and while they aren’t quite Blizzard level, they do a great job of pushing the story along and providing a solid cinematic feel to the game.
Like the visuals, the audio is amazing. The score of the game is probably one of the best I’ve heard and really gives you a sense of the epic nature of the game. It’s also well used and changes appropriately with the plot of the game. The voice acting is top notch as well and it even includes some dialog from John Cleese about half-way through the game. The designers did a great job of matching the voices to the characters.
Jade Empire is almost perfect but I had a few small nits to pick with the game. I’ve already talked about a few of the slow downs in parts of the city and the pasted on mini-games but I did find a few small quirks where you could get stuck in the game and were forced to re-load from a previous save to get unstuck. My major issue with the game is that the combat is almost a little too easy. I liked the feeling of wading through large groups of enemies at a time but towards the end of the game it got a little too easy. Especially once you obtain the Jade Golem transformation style. The game felt a lot shorter than KOTO as well. I managed to get through the game in a little under 20 hours while KOTOR took me almost 30. Is that a bad thing? Not really because of the different combat styles in the game.
It’s rare for a game to live up to the hype and it’s nice to see Bioware deliver again on such high expectations. They are also commended for creating such a great game without resorting to cheap ethical stereotypes and actually providing a game that actually teaches you about another culture without beating you over the head with it. I can’t recommend this game enough, especially if you loved KOTOR.
Easily one of the best Xbox games on the market. The game blends action and RPG elements to form an unbeatable combination. While the game is a little on the easy and short side, Bioware has created a near flawless game that should provide gamers with hours of entertainment.
Rating: 9.3 Excellent
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I have been a Microsoft Xbox MVP since 2009.