Jade Empire (Xbox) review
"The teammate that tags along fails to help matters much; their only use on the battlefield is to draw opposition away from you while they get sliced to ribbons and inflict miserable damage -- even if this appears to be completely contradictory. Take Black Whirlwind, a huge muscle-bound psychopath who lives for mindless violence, a search for the perfect wine and bragging rights. The plot would have you believe that this shaved bear of a man is an unstoppable homicide factory, yet when it is time for his twin axes to be tested, you will often see him being smacked about by even the weakest of foes, leaving you alone to plough through targets unaided."
For countless generations, the Jade Empire has withstood the test of time, protecting its people from hoards of pesky invaders, securing them a safe heaven within its boundaries and even defying nature in the undoing of a great drought. But like with all empires, its hourglass is starting to run empty. Unrest stirs, the undead flood the plains and bandits raid and pillage. Peasants turn away from questioning their reverse of fortunes, unwilling to accept the true evil behind the circumstances --
ferrets! corruption of the highest order! Some owe their silence to blind loyalty; tradition teaches that the Empire is beyond their humble station. For the others, the sinister threat of the Lotus Assassins is enough to purse their mouths -- those that choose to speak out against hardships have an uncanny knack of disappearing.
My custom-built character cares nothing for this. His name is Ninja Stu, and he lives the quiet life of a humble student in the sleepy town of Two Rivers, training diligently under the expert tutelage of the wizened Master Li. Things are simple in their sleepy backwater village and days are whittled away training, sparing, studying ancient texts and all the other samurai shenanigans anyone who has watched a Karate Kid film will already be familiar with. But when Two Rivers is laid to siege by brigands, action is taken, miscreants are pummelled and good times are had by all. Stu finds himself fighting hired thugs on a serene-looking beach, the frantic fighting set against the backdrop of pure white sands, lazily lapping waves and a hulking, cannon-heavy frigate manned by a mysterious mage that summons legions of bloodthirsty ghosts and unleashes a barrage of unsportsman-like artillery.
Stu might revel in it. The bandits fall screaming as his chosen weapon, a legendary katana, slices through their ranks. Timid and pesky follower, Dawn Star, screams warnings about an influx of cannonballs, a warning that forces a pause in her defence, leaving her vulnerable to the pressing thugs. While their attention is elsewhere, Stu avoids the worst of the cannon-fire and picks off the straggling foes that aren't slicing up the girl. After smacking around a few ghosts, Master Li appears, dispatches the survivors and destroys the barge after a bit of Kung-Fu Jesus water-running. Stu calls him a glory-seeking old fart who will pay for stealing away his limelight!
Stu reluctantly enters battle, throwing well-trained fists into the sneering mugs of his aggressors, dropping them in waves. Childhood friend and possible love interest, Dawn Star, yells a rushed warning that only just carries above the bark of the firing cannons. He takes the brunt of the attack in an attempt to protect the girl. Singed and hurt, he fights valiantly against the rest of the thugs and the legion of recently-awoken spirits until Master Li shows up and saves the day. The old warrior puts down the remaining threats before skimming across the waves to scuttle the barge with a well placed punch. Stu praises his master's skills before humbly thanking him for his assistance.
Much like Bioware's earlier games such as the Knights of the Old Republic series, Jade Empire creates the illusion of non-linearity through morality-driven choices that run throughout the adventure. More often than not, these choices are plainly split into the Open Palm style (light side, puppy-hugging and charity work) and Closed Fist (dark side, tax cheating and orphanage burnings), and the actions you make dictates what path your character walks. Not that there's any real need to deliberate on your choices too much; all one path offers over the other is a few slightly differing ways to achieve the same goals.
For example, Ninja Stu sneaks himself into a well-guarded pirate stronghold in an attempt to steal a magical flyer. Here, he encounters a jetty full of peg-legged bastards smack bang in the middle of an area he needs to bypass. Evil Stu drops the section of mast that hangs above the wharf right on their scurvy-ridden heads while Good Stu takes them all on in mortal kombat so as to try and spare the life of the young slave forced to swap the decks. Whatever happens , it's Pirates 0 - Ninjas 1, but the methods for doing so are vastly different.
Doesn't stop both conclusions leaving a pile of rotting scallywags to a watery grave while you continue to explore the stronghold.
Even by this early stage of the game, Ninja Stu finds himself the master of no less then five (five!) deadly martial arts, has a stockpile of three oriental weapons, a slew of support styles that can slow, stun or poison foes, magic attacks such summoning hails of ice or storms of rocks, and morphing powers that can transform him into any of the demons he has slain along his way. What pirates can't be crushed by surplus shipping parts should stand little chance when up against his skills! Whereas all the enemies in Jade Empire are indeed easily overcome, the simplicity of their defeat comes not from the mighty arsenal of your lead, but from a battle system which allows you to abuse a simple combination of moves to ensure victory. As expected of his brethren, Stu can dodge and dive gracefully all over the show, handspringing away from threats and spinning smoothly to the sides to avoid damage, but his most valuable manoeuvre is the ability to launch himself over the head of an attacking foe. Stuck in their attack animation, they are left helpless as he lays into their backs -- with ninjaing! This tactic defeats 10-foot ogres, fire-throwing horse demons, legions of assassins and pesky Jehovah Witnesses that won't take no for an answer.
The teammate that tags along fails to help matters much; their only use on the battlefield is to draw opposition away from you while they get sliced to ribbons and inflict miserable damage -- even if this appears to be completely contradictory to their pre-set persona. Take Black Whirlwind, a huge muscle-bound psychopath who lives for mindless violence, a search for the perfect wine and bragging rights. The plot would have you believe that this shaved bear of a man is an unstoppable homicide factory, yet when it is time for his twin axes to be tested, you will often see him being smacked about by even the weakest of foes, leaving you alone to plough through targets unaided. Interestingly, your allies don't level up either, leaving them in a permanent state of redundancy.
It's ironic then that perhaps the biggest selling point in your adventure is the strong sense of personality that your supporting cast offer you along the way. One such buddy, Henpecked Hou, was once the king of the Imperial Arena, defeating all challengers that stood before him, but had to 'retire' after being forced into a marriage with his benefactor's niece. A champion of the Drunken Master style of fighting, he now makes a living bakeing buns and takes what little comfort he can in a dry and sarcastic wit, which is usually directed at the unwanted and overbearing wife who banned him from the hooch, wrecking his career. On the other hand Wild Flower is a young girl with an unusual dilemma; she just happens to be possessed by a couple of heavenly spirits, each with very different ideas on what to do with their host. The spiritual Chai Ka worries and frets over the young girl while the toad-like goblin, Ya Zhen, plots against his counterpart and seeks to take full control for himself. Socialising with your cast is a joy and the numerous relationships you can build are fun to explore. Play your cards right, and you can even influence a budding romance. Try and woo a girl or two, or even a guy if you're that way inclined; the level of interaction between you and the cast is disturbingly flexible.
But behind the gloss of a fantastic cast and a surprisingly deep world that pulls you through a mosaic of treachery and beautifully recreated myth, the most striking aspect of Jade Empire seems to be that nothing really works on the level of grandeur that Bioware obviously hoped for. You are offered very little reward for seeking out anything that strays from the all-too straight path you have to walk from beginning to end leaving the player with a sometimes shallow and easy experience. The perceived depth sadly rots the more you dare peek beneath the false veneer of the open-ended gameplay. It promises freedom, but instead it instead grants you two different methods of completing each pre-set and unavoidable task, and the complete lack of challenge presented in combat does little to alter this. Jade Empire is a game with a lot of personality and heart, but not quite enough to cover the broken combat, the wasted options, and the overly streamlined engine stolen from a better series and dressed up to look like a mythical Chinese legend.
Somewhere out there, Ninja Stu is very upset about this.
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