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Jade Empire (Xbox) artwork

Jade Empire (Xbox) review

"Bioware gained fame with games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. These games deliver a roleplaying experience much different from console style RPGs, such as Final Fantasy. However, games like Jade Empire seemingly create a third pillar of RPGs. Games like Neverwinter Nights on the surface, looked like an open ended action game. However in combat, you quickly realize how it is a very crudely hidden turnbased system. Jade Empire, on the other hand, while holding all the best aspects of a..."

Bioware gained fame with games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. These games deliver a roleplaying experience much different from console style RPGs, such as Final Fantasy. However, games like Jade Empire seemingly create a third pillar of RPGs. Games like Neverwinter Nights on the surface, looked like an open ended action game. However in combat, you quickly realize how it is a very crudely hidden turnbased system. Jade Empire, on the other hand, while holding all the best aspects of an RPG, manages to incorporate a successful action-based fighting system, which is refreshing and fun.

At the start of the game, you'll be able to select your character from a handful of options (of which the collector's edition has one bonus character.) These characters differ in how fast and strong they are, as well as how good they are in magic, but after selecting your character you'll be able to apply initial points to the aspects you'd like to develop your character in. You'll also be able to choose which fighting styles (more on those later) you'll begin your adventure with. The great thing is, that during the game you'll be able to upgrade your stats to your liking each time you level up. You'll also be able to learn new styles, buy new weapons, and equip yourself with different gems granting you status bonuses, as you proceed through the game. For this reasons you can pick whoever you like, based on appearence, with no negative consequences. This is good, since you may want to play as a particular gender, or you may want the back tattoo that Ming comes with; Maybe you just have something against bald people.

Once you've started out, you'll find yourself in the middle of the Two Rivers training school. Things start slow, as you spar bare-handed and interact with your fellow students. This is a chance to get used to the basic controls of the game, as well as nudge your alignment, which plays a big part in the game. You'll either be able to go the Way of the Open Palm, or the Way of the Closed Fist. These are actually well thought out philosophies by the non-playable characters in the game. In Open Palm, the main principle is to accept your place in the heirarchy of the world, and do your best to help those around you. The Way of the Closed Palm is the opposite; it is to defy your place in the heirarchy. Although it is not the same as good and evil, as Closed Fist dictates that strong people should prosper, and the weak should die, rather than everyone should burn in hell, in execution, it does feel rather the same. If you kill people for no reason, you'll go towards the Closed Fist. If you go out of your way to help people, you'll go towards Open Palm. This works well, since there are multiple endings, as well as multiple quests along the way, that only apply to players of a particular alignment. Your alignment also effects how people treat you. This ensures a rewarding experience.

After you've been around the Two Rivers school, the game will open up. A group of assassins will attack the town. From there, you'll begin your first series of real fights -- after you go and retrieve your weapons of course. You'll be able to choose from either a staff or a sword. These are completely seperate fighting styles, as was mentioned. They have different attack speeds, different combos, and different looks. You can equip four fighting styles at a time, to the D-Pad icon, and then switch them at any time during battle. Of course you'll only have three at the start. You'll have your unarmed style (of which their are several, which you choose from when selecting your character), your weapon, and a status-changing magic (which you also choose when selecting your character.) Later on in the game, you'll be able to add to your repertoire. You'll be learning magic such as fire and ice balls, as well as transformations to different majestic beasts like a flaming Horse Demon. When blended together in battle, along with the basic controls of the gameplay, there is excellent chemistry.

You have strong, and fast attacks. The A button is assigned to the fast attacks, while X is assigned to the strong ones. You'll also have a defense button, B. While standing, you'll put up a Chi shield to block attacks. While running, you'll do a roll to avoid them. And if you push forward, while close enough to an enemy, you'll jump over them leaving them open for attack. Enemies however, can do the same skills as you can -- that includes switching styles for some of them. Enemies will dodge and roll too, and even put up shields. You can shatter these shields with a strong attack, but due to the time it takes to do a long attack, you may end up having them drop their own shield, and attack you. And even if an enemy looks weak and unarmed, you should still be on your guard; that save enemy may be concealing a pair of katanas. To be fair, at the start of the game, you'll see very little difficult fights. By the end however, hopefully you'll have gained some experience, because the enemies do get tougher.

Thankfully you'll not be on your adventure alone. You'll come across many followers which will join your on your quest. You can only have one with you at a time though, so you'll have to pick carefully. Each member is drastically different. Some are stronger than others, and they each have seperate support abilities. Unlike in many other games where your party member run around trying to act as a jack of all trades (and more than likely failing), followers in Jade Empire have a more simple agenda. You can either set them as Attack or Support via the menu, and they'll follow their job effectively. In attack mode, they'll attack enemies. Some, like the Black Whirlwind, are particularly strong, and effective. In fact, the Black Whirlwind doesn't even have a Support Option. On the other hand, followers like Dawn Star can do good jobs as Support characters. She'll sit at the sides of the battlefield where she's safe, as she restores your chi meter. Still, there are a few special characters. One, Henpeck Hou, drops bottles of alcohol, allowing you to initate Drunken Fist style. Some are more useful than others, as you can already tell. Still, it's nice to have a choice. You'll quickly figure out which members suit your style of play, and which ones do not.

One feature you have that they don't, is the ability to use focus. This is a yellow bar below your health bar. When you press the Y button, you'll slow down everyone around you, and you're speed will seem exponentially greater. This allows you to run circles around your enemies. On the other hand, you also have to use the focus bar every time you make a swing with a weapon. That means if you aren't careful, you may run out of focus when you really need your weapon. If that happens you'll have to use magic or a martial arts style. Even more, you can run out of chi as well (as your chi bar depletes each time you use a magic style, and drains consistently while you are in a transformed). If you run out of both chi and focus you'll be severely limited in battles. And indeed, some enemy types are resistant to specific styles of attacks. Spirits are resistant to weapons, while stone golems are resistant to martial arts styles, for example. You'll quickly pick up on how to duck and weave around your opponents, and effectively use what's available to you, though. Then, fights become extremely fun. And what's more: they are all completely realtime. There's no hidden turn-based system.

Despite the amazing battle system, this game does excel in other areas as well. Most remarkably, is the story and the information surrounding it. The main story of the game is fairly interesting, but what is truly amazing, is how it seems to fit in the world of the Jade Empire. It seems like a brick in the wall of a larger story. True, that it does involve all of the pieces around it, in that the scale of it is quite large, but there are other things going on. Not only can you talk to people to learn about much of their background, you can find books and scrolls detailing the history of the empire itself. You can learn about historical scolars, the first Emperor Sagacious Tien, the history of flying machines in the empire, and even a war that happened long before, between the empire and the Horse Lords. It's amazing when you reflect on how much detail was put into the history of the fictional land. It was based on ancient China, but it is unique in many ways. Some people in the game even speak a language, Tho Fan, created by hired linguists for use exclusively in the game. When all of these pieces are seen in action for the final game, it truly is a masterpiece.

The music in the game is a masterpiece. The main theme suits the game very well. It fits the style of the game, which as mentioned is based on ancient China, and rings of royalty. All other songs in the game fits their setting as well, from the mellow music in the dying forests, to the cheerful and calm music of places like Tien's Landing and the Two Rivers school, where you start. Sound is applied just as well, from the sounds of opponent's guards being shattered, to the subtle cling of treasure being removed from their chest. Voice acting is also present, and is quite good. On occasion however, the characters seem to lack the emotion that you would believe they would show. Some characters' voices seem more realistic than others, but the overall product works out well.

The graphics the game bears are superb. There are virtually no sub-par qualities to them. Everything from the facial animations that characters in the game show, to the scenery that you'll see look nice. Furthermore, everything is well animated. This is shown especially well during combat. Everything from the fighting combinations of sword swinging, and fist throwing, to the poses done before you launch a fireball look amazing. The only thing that can compare with the animations, in vanity, is the lighting. Those who have played Fable will notice many similarities. Bioware really went the extra mile, when making sure everything is well shaded in some areas, and nicely illuminated in others. All of these pieces, along with an excellent selection of color provide players with an amazingly good looking game.

This is a game that shines not in one or two categories, but all of them. Not only that, it almost single-handedly redefines the PC-style roleplaying game. Not only does it bring the genre to a world rarely seen in it, a realm where the fighting dojo means more than the local pub, a land based on eastern culture is heaviliy emphasized, it brings a well-developed fighting system. All the pieces are here. Exceptional sound and graphics, a story that indulges you, and really makes you feel a part of, and an amazing battle system all prove to be key ingredients in a game that you can't afford to miss. It is perhaps, beaten only by Ninja Gaiden, for the title of best game of 2004, as well as the best game for Xbox.

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Community review by sayainprince (November 06, 2005)

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