If you’re BioWare at the end of ‘03, you must be feeling on top of the world. So, what do you do now, other than go to Disneyland? Do you milk the KOTOR franchise for all it’s worth, or do you develop and all-new engine and develop an all-new kind of RPG that’s going to make the Star Wars efforts archaic by comparison?
The answer, of course, is somewhere in between. A sequel was quickly released with the same engine, but by Obsidian and not BioWare. Meanwhile, BioWare’s next effort was to be Jade Empire, an martial-arts action RPG that, by the looks of things, could be a huge departure from KOTOR. Set in a fantasy universe obviously based on ancient China, Jade Empire is deliciously unconstrained by the charming but now-staid restraints of the Star Wars license. Not forced by convention to feature vacuum-cleaner-resembling robots that “have bad feelings about this” or “sense disturbances in the Force,” Jade lets loose within its wholly original universe and even makes use of its Mature rating.
The plot in Jade Empire is clever, but they way it is told is simply superlative – and, I submit, better than in KOTOR, which is no mean feat. The story starts predictably enough; you are an elite student in an obscure martial arts school, and you are compelled to travel the world in search of your teacher Master Li when he is violently kidnapped by unknown evil forces. The trip ends equally predictably – with a series of epic confrontations. What lies in between is much interaction with simply some of the best characters, major or minor, I’ve dealt with in any RPG, American or Japanese. Jade Empire is a serious game, but it also features some of the most natural and funny, yet remarkably literate, dialogue in any video game to date. Even most non-player characters (NPCs) strewn about the various towns have well-defined personalities and back stories that make speaking with them continuously engaging.
"The plot in Jade Empire is clever, but they way it is told is simply superlative..."
Suffice it to say that if you are a PC gamer looking for an excellent story-driven RPG, this is your game. As Jade Empire is finally ported from its Xbox version (much like both Star Wars RPGs before it), you now have a chance to experience one of the finest stories in years. Other than the story, though, is this really a huge departure from Knights of the Old Republic, and, if so, is it fun to play? Read on.
At the beginning of the game, you will be presented with a character creation screen. Visually, you may only use one of a handful of predefined characters, each assigned a general trait like “fast” or “strong” or “magic user”; each character has a unique and impressive look to him or her – especially, dare I say, the females. Both male and female characters are available, and this affects many dialogue and story choices in the game. Pick a character, apply some (simplistic) initial stat customizations, and you will be dropped straight into a fight after clicking OK. Your adventure begins here.
For a role-playing game, there just isn’t that much to the gameplay in Jade Empire, though there is certainly a surplus of story. It is an action role-playing game, so it has a very pronounced real-time, real-space feel to it. This makes a lot of sense for a game centered on martial arts. The basic attack and the power attack are triggered by the two mouse buttons, respectively; the basic attack can be blocked by pressing space (gamepads are also supported). These three actions are a slightly more timing-based version of rock-paper-scissors. Damage can also be easily avoided by making acrobatic leaps through the air. There is a bit more to the hand-to-hand fighting engine, but, ultimately, it amounts to left-clicking a great deal and jumping all over the combat area to avoid being hit. While a bit repetitive, it’s certainly twitchy enough to make it a more actively involving experience than the typical turn-based or hack-and-slash RPG.
To round out the combat a bit, Jade Empire adds the requisite style (ability), follower (party), and amulet (equipment) systems. None of these is groundbreaking or particularly interesting. The player can fight in only one “style” at any given time. The close-combat styles allow for direct damage, status damaging attacks (such as poisoning or slowing the opponent), wielding weapons, or draining enemies of energy to refill one’s own Focus or Chi gauges. Focus and/or Chi are expended for anything other than basic martial attacks.
Jade Empire’s stripped down party system allows for exactly one “follower” to accompany the main character. As you progress through the game, you will gain these helpful companions whose abilities are as varied as their personalities. For instance, Henpecked Hou’s “attack” consists of throwing wine bottles onto the battleground, where you can pick them up in order to enable the powerful Drunken Master martial style. Meanwhile, Moon Flower is a little girl that turns into a powerful demon that does mega damage. Regardless of the character, I found the followers are far more effective at support (by enhancing abilities or refilling Focus or Chi) than at actual fighting. At any rate, followers are entirely autonomous and cannot be controlled (beyond picking attack or support mode) or leveled up.
Fast-paced as it may be, the fighting in Empire is not exactly cerebral, so the D&D or Final Fantasy geeks (guilty of the latter!) won’t find stat nirvana here. That said, at least it’s original. By contrast, everything having to do with dialogue or quests is lifted directly from KOTOR. Replace the Sith with “the Way of the Closed Fist,” the Jedi with “Way of the Open Palm,” streamline the dialogue options a bit, surgically excise and burn KOTOR’s tumor-like outgrowth of quest-related bugs, and you’ve got the derivative but solid story engine of Jade Empire. It’s a good thing BioWare has perfected this aspect of its gameplay, because city exploration, quest management, and talking occupy by far more time than combat. The dialogue is as brief or as involved as you want it to be; the quest journal is crystal-clear in its organization; and the quests are plot-pertinent yet numerous. Personally, I had a blast with this game’s quests and dialogue portions just as I did with KOTOR’s – sure, it’s more of the same, but it’s improved even further, and it’s not like any other game does it nearly as well.
"Fast-paced as it may be, the fighting in Empire is not exactly cerebral..."
As game production values go, most people – me included – put much more stock into the visuals than the sounds. In this game, however, I’d say the two are equally important. After all, well over half your time playing the game will have you watching characters speak – not the most filling visual feast, that – in lengthy dialogue exchanges. This is precisely where Jade Empire shines like no other game. As in the two Star Wars before it, these folks have put together a completely ridiculous amount of voice work. Nevertheless, not only are the actors’ performances uniformly excellent, the script work is also simply second to none. The serious stuff is serious – but never cheesy – while the funny stuff is funny. Really funny. Hint: Watch for the John Cleese extended cameo in the middle of the game.
I could nit-pick the sound work if I really wanted to. Sure, the score is competent but not exactly memorable, and there are far too many different non-player characters – all voiced – for the cast to handle individually. You know what, though? That is nit-picking. The voice work here is simply too much a home run to not give Jade Empire an excellent score.
Just as Jade Empire tries to squeeze a great deal of incident and plot progression into each locale in the game – and there aren’t many of those – so does it try to make each environment as memorable as possible. It succeeds stylistically, but not technically. The outdoor areas in Jade are quite beautiful. In fact, the postcard-pretty initial village of Two Rivers is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as some of the later areas push the envelope considerably in terms of sheer beauty. The town of Tien’s Landing, for example, while described as a backwater location, is still almost surreally stunning as it’s bathed in soft sunlight at perpetual dusk and backed by tall mountains. Even the glummer areas, like the dark forest at Tien Landing’s doorstep, are somehow effective as they can suddenly lead into places of truly seductive beauty. What’s more, all this seems quite fitting to the game’s theme. No, China isn’t the only place that has beautiful sunsets or tall trees, but this game nicely exploits similar images of the Orient that have already been ingrained in us through films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The game also has a visual style of its own when it comes to characters. The lighting gives the characters – especially the main character – a very original look as if softly glowing from within. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s really quite a neat effect – one that I’ll take over the plastic shine of F.E.A.R. Unfortunately, the game’s camera is permanently locked behind the player character, making it impossible to look at the character’s front during exploration and combat. This is a strange oversight, as the two Star Wars games had no such problem.
"The game also has a visual style of its own when it comes to characters."
Unfortunately, Jade Empire’s Xbox origins place limitations on the game’s engine that ultimately make the visuals a missed opportunity on PC. No, I’m not necessarily looking for the latest buzzwords like HDR and normal mapping. Tomb Raider: Legend, for example, does an admirable job visually even without its next-gen bells and whistles enabled, and it does so by making use of its limited techniques in the most immersive way possible. Jade does not do this. Skies, while beautiful, don’t animate, and weather conditions – while impressively drawn – are also totally static. Trying not to sound like a techno-snob, I’ll note that the body animations are distractingly wooden (why don’t RPGs use motion-capture?), and most of the areas just lack visual “pop.” Jade Empire has some emotion-dependent facial animation magic, but this always looks rather subdued and quite unnatural. We didn’t complain about things like that just a few years ago, but the bar has been raised by Titan Quest and Oblivion since then. Stylistically impressive as it is – far more original and beautiful than KOTOR, in fact – Jade Empire nevertheless does look like a high-resolution version of an extremely beautiful last-generation console game.
The good news is it runs like a dream most of the time, only hitching a bit each time a particularly populated fight begins, which can be easily dismissed in an RPG. The game visually scores with me just for that reason alone.
VALUE / OVERALL
By role-playing game standards, Jade Empire is not long, though it’s not insultingly short, either. The Jade Empire may be a vast place, but your travels will only take you through a handful of locations within the fictional nation. Though each location is explored in much detail, the game does still feel abbreviated as compared to epics like Oblivion or even more linear RPGs like Final Fantasy X. I did every quest I could find and topped out at 33 hours. In terms of gameplay, there’s not much pull for added replays of this title, given that most, if not all, side quests can be easily done in the first pass, and the character customization options are not really at all varied. Therefore, even if you feel like replaying the game to see a different ending, you may enjoy the different dialogue and quest events, but the combat and exploration will remain largely the same. Moreover, the branching points for the multiple endings are near the finale, so a strategic save/reload will eliminate the need for whole replays.
"I did every quest I could find and topped out at 33 hours."
The final score for Jade Empire: Special Edition probably isn’t a huge surprise to those familiar with the two-year-old Xbox game. It was well-rated but a major disappointment as a follow-up to BioWare’s critical hit Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Now, things are not much different for this PC version. Knights was a great RPG (with a not-so-great sequel by Obsidian), and Jade Empire is quite similar to it, but with the bugs gone and an even more compelling story. That said, the only other risk Jade takes over its PC predecessors – its original action/role-playing combat engine – is not much of a draw. On the strength of its technical graphics and gameplay, Jade does not deserve much more than a 7.5. However, its poignant sense of style and amazing story presentation should make it a hit with PC gamers that have longed for an excellent story-based RPG ever since BioWare’s last PC effort. Just don’t expect a truly open-ended – or particularly involved – experience.
(Side note: At E3, I was told that Jade Empire features a morally ambiguous storyline. Perhaps, but this is another BioWare RPG that tantalizingly offers that good or evil is a point of view and that selflessly helping others is not always the right solution for the world’s problems. At least, that’s what we’re told at the game’s outset. It then proceeds to make the Closed Fist quest choices unbearably jerk-like and contrarian (“I’ll just kill you,” etc.), while the Light Side path is paved with grateful people and nice rewards. In other words, this title talks the moral ambiguity talk, but doesn’t really walk the walk. Moral gray areas are yet again promised by BioWare for their upcoming sci-fi Xbox 360 system seller Mass Effect; let’s hope they actually push the envelope this time.)
+ An original universe full of magic, swords, animal demons, and kung-fu.
+ Huge, dramatic, and often funny script with dead-on voice-overs.
+ Stylistically beautiful character designs and environments.
+ Good frame rates.
– Action combat is simplistic, clicking-heavy, and unsatisfying.
– Characters move unnaturally; could use a few more polygons.