Jade Empire (Xbox) review
"In the Jade Empire, something strange is afoot. Corruption is winding its way to the highest levels of government, and some begin to wonder why the Emperor hasn’t stepped in and stopped it. Far removed from these troubles, your life as a young fighter is peaceful. You spend each day training under the tutelage of the kind Master Li. While you do have run-ins with some of your fellow students, most of your peers respect and like you. Soon, however, your life takes a drastic change. Pirates raze y..."
In the Jade Empire, something strange is afoot. Corruption is winding its way to the highest levels of government, and some begin to wonder why the Emperor hasn’t stepped in and stopped it. Far removed from these troubles, your life as a young fighter is peaceful. You spend each day training under the tutelage of the kind Master Li. While you do have run-ins with some of your fellow students, most of your peers respect and like you. Soon, however, your life takes a drastic change. Pirates raze your town and it’s revealed that you and your master have an important past, and likely an even more important future. So begins your story in Jade Empire, the latest RPG from Bioware.
On the surface, Jade Empire looks drastically different than Bioware’s prior Xbox outings. However, if you've played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you'll quickly feel at home in this game. Most of the gameplay elements borrow heavily from KOTOR. You'll run through a few different cities littered with NPCs who are itching to give you a fetch quest or three. They’ll send you off to some of the most dangerous dungeons and swamps where you’ll fend off waves of enemies. Once you finish your objectives, you’ll head back to town for rest, supplies, and to start up a new quest. Like most of Bioware’s games, you’ll be able to resolve problems in either a “nice” or “nasty” way, which decides your alignment. Jade Empire calls these the "Way of the Open Palm" and "Way of the Closed Fist". Here's a quick conversion for you. Open Palm equals Light Side of the Force. Closed Fist equals Dark Side of the Force. Once you complete all objectives in your current city, you’ll move on the next and start the whole cycle over again, all the while advancing the main storyline.
When it comes to storytelling, Bioware is always a cut above their competition, and Jade Empire is no different. I won't go too heavily into the plot, but sufficed to say that Bioware has always been good about delivering a solid and interesting story with a host of characters that fill out the narrative nicely. Throughout the game, you're trying to discover the history behind your power, and the later chapters of the game take a few very intriguing twists that made me want to keep playing to see how it would unfold. You’ll also assemble a motley group that includes a whacky inventor, an axe-wielding killing machine, a girl possessed by a peaceful demon, and several others. Each character has full voiceover for every line they deliver, and the voice acting is top notch throughout. Your conversation choices are clearly “good” or “bad”, but the conversations are all very well written and flow very well. I found myself playing for longer stretches than I normally would simply to advance the plot and find out what would happen next. Because choosing good or evil does make significant changes to the story, it’s likely you’ll play through the game twice, but this game is not very long, by RPG standards. You’ll be able to beat it in about 20 hours if you do most of the sidequests.
In addition to the story, an RPG's success is judged heavily on how good the battle system is. Unfortunately, Jade Empire's button-mashing combat falls flat on its face. Combat is extremely dull and insanely easy. Bioware dropped the "quasi turn-based" system of KOTOR for a completely real-time battle system. However, there is little to do besides jamming on the attack button and jumping out of the way of your enemy's counterattack. There is not one enemy in the game that can’t be beaten by attacking a couple of times, jumping straight over them, and repeating ad nausea. This is really unfortunate, because the variety of attack styles is certainly not lacking. Throughout the game, you’ll pick up over a dozen fighting styles including elemental magic, weapon attacks, support styles, and straight fist fighting attacks. Not once did I use more than two styles in the game, since the weapons are very strong and you’ll only need martial arts when your enemy is immune to weapons. While KOTOR allowed you to have a party of three that you could switch between, Jade Empire gives you one partner that you never control. They either attack on their own or provide you support. There's no in between, and no other options. It's strange that Bioware would strip down the party system so much in this game, seeing as the three party system worked so well before.
Combat isn’t the only thing stripped down in Jade Empire. Character customization is also extremely limited. Like most RPGs, you’ll level up whenever you gain enough experience and collect points that you can use to power up your stats and skills. However, you have three generic categories of stats (body, mind, and spirit) and few options to power up your fighting styles. Even worse, if you don’t spend all of your skill points when you level up, they’re lost forever. This isn’t a problem in the early going, but later on you’ll be stuck with one point that you’ll have to dump into a random skill. Also, you won’t find much equipment throughout the game. The only upgrades your character can get are either amulets or permanent techniques. Techniques will be picked up randomly, and give you permanent bonuses or penalties to your attack, health, speed, etc. Amulets can also be purchased or gained, and will give you similar bonuses to the techniques. There is no other customization to your character at all, and you’ll never be able to upgrade your allies. I suppose this allows you to focus on the story more, but it’s another glaring omission given how much equipment and customization you could do in Bioware’s other games.
It’s unfortunate that Jade Empire sits on top of Bioware’s great reputation. It’s not a bad game, but the gameplay just doesn’t live up to their other great RPGs, like KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter Nights. The great story doesn't save this game from being anything more than a rental.
Community review by skrutop (August 02, 2006)
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