Game: Jade Empire
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Action RPG
After mastering the fantasy RPG with the Baldur’s Gate games and creating the best Star Wars story since the original films with Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware returned in 2007 with their take on Chinese mythology in Jade Empire. Or rather, they returned with it in 2005, but we didn’t get it on PC until two years later. Fortunately, the time delay has had no effect on the quality of the game.
The game does take place in a fantasy land, but as mentioned, it’s based on the mythology of ancient China, making it a far cry (isn’t that the wrong game?) from the generic Tolkien-clone worlds of most other RPGs out there. And this change of setting really helps. It’s something rarely seen in games, and in most ways it’s a lot more interesting than the usual settings anyway. The game opens with your chosen character in martial arts training at Two Rivers School. Obviously, things rapidly progress from there and soon you’re on an epic journey of rescue and/or revenge across the Jade Empire. Along the way, as always in Bioware games, you meet a wide variety of interesting characters, many of which will join you, and a brilliantly told story unfolds. The story is at least as good as anything Bioware has done before, and is quite possibly their best yet. Rarely predictable, you never quite know where it’s going to take you next, especially towards the end of the game.
Obviously, as you’d expect from something dealing with martial arts, your instructors talk quite a bit about the philosophical and spiritual sides of beating people to a pulp, and that’s the basis of the simplified stats system of Jade Empire. Gone are the huge array of statistics and numbers that you get in most games of this type, and in their place are just three categories that are fitting for the world the game is set in: Body, Mind and Spirit. Basically, each of these controls one of your combat statistics, with Body controlling your Health, Mind controlling your Focus, and Spirit controlling your Chi. Focus is used up by fighting with weapons, or by entering focus mode, a special mode where time slows down allowing you to fit in more attacks; basically bullet time with swords. Chi is Jade Empire’s equivalent of mana or magic points and can be used to cast spells, heal at any time or to increase the damage of an attack. Each of the three main stats also increases two of the three conversation skills, Intuition, Charm and Intimidation. Each of these allows you to get through conversations with a different approach if the equivalent skill is high enough, although whichever one you use, the result is generally the same, though it might adjust your alignment one way or another.
It’s obvious that in a game such as this, the combat system is going to come into play quite regularly. Unlike earlier Bioware games, here you get to control combat directly. The fighting system is simple but versatile. The basic method behind it is in using the correct attacks at the right times. Blocking protects from attacks, but power attacks break through blocks, while a regular attack will interrupt a power attack, which takes time to charge up. On top of those, you get an area attack which can allow you to knock down most enemies within range. The versatility comes with the wide range of combat styles you’ll gather during the game. I had around twenty by the time I reached the end of the game. They’re split into various categories with various effects: martial styles (hand to hand combat), weapons styles (surprisingly, combat using weapons), magic styles (spells), support styles (abilities that help you or hinder the opponent), and, most fun but least useful to me, transformation styles (turning into a monster of some sort that you’ve beaten earlier in the game, such as a giant toad shaped demon). You can switch between these styles at will during combat, and some styles are more effective against certain enemies than others, making for an interesting combat system, if not an overly complex one. And you even get to learn the Drunken Master fighting style, which has got to be worth something.
You have no direct control over your companions during combat and if there’s one minor flaw it’s that you can only take one of them with you at a time, meaning you don’t get any of them interesting random interactions between the characters that you get in games like KOTOR. The only option you have is to set you companion to either attack or support mode. In attack mode they help you with the combat, but usually more useful is to set them to support mode, where they’ll aid you in a way specific to the character. This can be anything from increasing the damage from your attacks to making your health or focus regenerate during combat.
Given the setting, it would have been easy for Bioware to create a game that focused entirely on the combat and ended up lacking in the story development and dialogue, but thankfully this hasn’t happened. You can easily spend as much time talking to the many characters as you spend in fights, and the conversations are usually entertaining, either through advancing the plot or offering interesting side quests, or simply from being funny. There are a lot of side quests in the game and all of them are of the usual high standards for Bioware. They’re all different, many of them are unusual and quite a few are amusing. For instance, one side quest has you defending the Empire against accusations of being uncultured from a pompous outlander called Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard, voiced by John Cleese. Another nice aspect is the fact that the things people say actually change depending on your progress. Complete part of a quest, and when you talk to them again, they’ll most likely actually mention it. The dialogue throughout the game is of a high standard, although I did often wish there was a simple “Shut up!” dialogue option to say to Silk Fox when she started trying to boss people around.
Issues of character alignment and morality follow the same sort of pattern as in the earlier Knights of the Old Republic, but now instead of light side and dark side, you get the Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. Aggressive actions take your metre towards the Closed Fist, while helpful considerate actions take it towards the Open Palm. It generally works as you’d expect, although the game does try to balance things with the fact that these paths don’t necessarily represent good and evil, although for all intents and purposes it’s pretty much indistinguishable from it.
On the issue of morality, the game did manage to impress me with a moment that might seem minor to many people, but I thought was really interesting. At one point I was approached by a villager who was very grateful for my saving his life earlier, but wanted to know if I knew anything about his life savings which had gone missing from the chest he kept it in. Earlier in the game, I’d come across the chest and, being used to the many RPGs I’ve played, I raided it without thinking. This is the first game I can think of where someone’s actually confronted me about stealing all their stuff, since in most games people seem perfectly happy for you to just wander into their homes and take all their stuff without saying a word. Of course, being the incredibly nice person that I am, I gave the money back straight away, but it made me think about how conditioned we become to do things like searching boxes automatically without thinking about whether it’s appropriate to the character, simply because there’s no penalty for it. Then I went off and searched a couple of barrels. You never know what people might leave in those.
Other than the main gameplay, there’s an occasional minigame when you fly from one location to another. For these, the game loads up a vertical scrolling shooter reminiscent of the old “1942” arcade game. It’s nothing complex, and it’s never particularly challenging, but it’s a nice enough change of pace to add a bit of variety to the experience. And if you don’t like it, only the very first incredibly easy level is compulsory, and everything involving the flyers after that is entirely optional.
Ultimately, Jade Empire ranks up alongside Bioware’s best RPGs in terms of storyline and gameplay, and is highly recommended to any RPG fans. Thanks to the simplified stats system, it’s also reasonably welcoming to the action game fan who wants to try something with a bit more depth to it, or anyone without much experience with RPGs. It’s not quite as long as most RPGs, but it should last at least a good 20 – 30 hours if you do all the side quests. And the unusual setting should prove that not all RPGs have to be about goblins and +2 Swords of Megadeathkill, even to the most… drumroll… jaded of players (cue groans).
Save System Review: Save anywhere when not in combat, along with a quick save feature, and a regular autosave. You’re not going to lose any progress here.
Graphics: Good character models and high quality graphics, helped along by the beautiful setting of the game.
Sound: The soundtrack is fine and the sound effects are perfectly fitting. The voice acting is of a consistently high quality, and has roles for Armin Shimerman yet again, and a very funny cameo from John Cleese.
Bugs: The game isn’t entirely bug free. Very occasionally, when entering a new area, the camera will inexplicably be pointing right at the ground instead of at the character. Saving and then reloading fixes it easily, and thankfully loading times are very quick. It’s a matter of a couple of seconds. Also, on the menu you get access to all the flyer minigames, but there is still a locked mission showing at the bottom of the list even when you have completed them all. Apparently this is a bug, from a mission that was intended to be put in the game but then removed. Nothing that affects the game in any major way though.
Gameplay: The same high quality Bioware gameplay, but now with a new more interesting combat system and some of the more tedious elements such as inventory management removed or simplified.
Storyline: One of the best storylines from Bioware yet, and that’s a real complement given that they’re responsible for some of the best game storylines ever. It’s rarely predictable, the characters are all distinct and interesting and it pulls you in right from the start.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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