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Jade Empire (Xbox) artwork

Jade Empire (Xbox) review

"I've only played two Bioware games: Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I'm already convinced that Bioware is a lazy or maybe just complacent group of game designers. Guys, you clearly know what you're doing, and I'm not advocating an EA-style 100 work week, but maybe the next time around you should spend a couple of extra Saturdays in the office polishing your product? "

I've only played two Bioware games: Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I'm already convinced that Bioware is a lazy or maybe just complacent group of game designers. Guys, you clearly know what you're doing, and I'm not advocating an EA-style 100 work week, but maybe the next time around you should spend a couple of extra Saturdays in the office polishing your product?

Although honestly, if I were a Bioware programmer, I wouldn't care. Knights and Empire both rode a wave of hype into stores, very similarly heralded as paragons of gripping, open-ended gaming, and rightly so! They're basically the same game from both technical and emotional standpoints, and they do succeed in delivering said gaming. Few people are complaining, and many people are making suspect claims as to these two games’ unassailable quality. Most reviews mentioned how "great" or "awesome" Knights looked, but come on! It was weak, all drab metallic corridors indoors and muddy textures outdoors. I'm happy to say that Jade Empire, a fantastically fantastical take on ancient China, does look great, but the scant other differences between the two titles are "one step forward, one step back" tradeoffs that negate themselves.

So, without further comparisons, Jade Empire is a visually arresting, addictive-in-spite-of-itself action-RPG that puts the morality of the hero in your hands. You're a gifted student at a rural martial arts academy, of course you don't remember your past, and of course you have a great destiny that every sage-looking old guy around will tell you about. Only they're not sure what that destiny is, exactly—it's up to you and your unapologetically motley crew of traveling companions to explore the Jade Empire (again, think ancient China) and seek it out. Sure, it's been done, but the snappy dialogue and voluminous, consistently impressive voice acting assures that you haven't seen it done much better in a videogame.

The Way of the Open Palm. The Way of the Closed Fist. The former strives for harmony, the latter channels disruption. These two alternatives make up the ethical world of the Jade Empire, and where you fall on the spectrum is nothing more and nothing less than the product of your actions. It's not quite so simple as "good" and "evil" either, the choices are not always so apparent. Acting like a Boy Scout will sometimes result in derisive comments from traveling companions (who really are a fully formed bunch that, taken all together, are a genuinely enjoyable element of the story) or downtrodden villagers who don't buy your squeaky clean idealism. In one sidequest, you're the matchmaker for a female gang leader who wants a husband. Each candidate has his merits and his faults—there's no clear "pick this guy for good/evil results" going on. And who says hooking these hombres up with a harsh, prickly criminal is a good idea in the first place?! This sort of subtle, sophisticated, and eminently interactive storytelling is why you'll stick with Jade Empire.

Combine this with an immersive, fully realized world, and you've got this game's one-two punch. Like Lord of the Rings or Dune, Jade Empire is fantasy where every little detail is mapped out, even things barely mentioned. You move through the different spheres of the stratified society, catching whispers of the duties of the Celestial Bureaucracy or the mythic actions of Sagacious Tien or the machinations of the armored Outlanders. You explore a ghost-ridden forest, an icy stronghold, Heaven itself, and they're all beautiful. Yet I think unfortunately a little too much was “barely mentioned.” The adventure starts out dense but frustratingly hurtles towards its conclusion, without warning, just when things seem to be heating up. The lands you heard about and anticipated exploring—the Prosperous East and its wealthy trading centers or the cavernous mines full of floating stones that keep the Emperor's Palace levitated far above the Imperial City—are ultimately nowhere to be found. Still, Bioware has made an original world bursting at the seams with character. It's really a shame that much of the actual game holding up this world was put together sloppily.

Much of Jade Empire's potential appeal is its vaunted real-time martial arts fighting system that can have your warrior alternating between hand-to-hand combat, a bevy of weapons, magic, and wild demonic transformations in the blink of an eye. The system is indeed that flexible, but it sounds so much more awesome than it actually is. All the options are here, but the implementation is limp. Different styles are abundant, but actual attacks are limited, and the practicality of most cool styles is nonexistent. Virtually every enemy will fall prey to the same bush league stunt: run at foes and press B to flip over their heads, and they will stand dumfounded, backs turned, while you drain their life bars. The combat can also be slow to the point of almost feeling turn-based, like, say, a little RPG that Bioware made two years ago. The fun character building of Knights is stripped away, ostensibly in favor of "fast-paced" action that's anything but. There are special combos that will make enemies literally crumble or vaporize or explode in a huge cloud of blood, but they all consist of doing two consecutive slow attacks that are pointlessly difficult to connect. Better just to mash the quick attack button. Much stuff is piled on without any consideration as to whether or not it's practical or fun to use.

The other problem is the puzzle solving and general questing that sets the game in motion-it's just not that engaging, and it certainly doesn't justify the sharp narrative. There are multiple puzzles that test your ability to combine blue and red to make purple. Once you actually start talking to people the fun begins, but except more than a fair share of mind-numbing item-fetch quests to get to those moments. I also cannot fail to mention the frequent, crippling load times (half a minute, by my count) and the abundance of annoying, if not game-ending, glitches that Knights of the Old Republic fans know well.

I feel like Bioware conceived this amazing world, wrote a captivating story for this world, and then kicked back and cruised when they actually had to put together the nuts and bolts of the game taking place within this world. Even the narrative, Jade Empire's bread and butter, feels clipped, the second half shockingly underdeveloped when put side by side with the first. And you'd think they would’ve had all the in the world to work on things like that after ripping the framework for this game right out of their last one!

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Community review by careless_whisper (May 31, 2005)

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