Reviewed: May 12, 2005
Released: April 12, 2005
Bioware has done it once again. The group of Canadian medical school grads who have single-handedly changed the face of RPG gaming as we know it, have dropped yet another genre-busting RPG on the masses in the form of a mythical Asian adventure entitled Jade Empire – and it is unlike any RPG we have seen on the consoles.
Bioware has long been known for their knack for developing new intellectual properties, releasing the properties to the public to receive high praise and acclaim, and then handing the properties off to lesser-known developers for subsequent sequels. This allows Bioware to constantly be forging new ground, yet always building upon a proven engine and proven formula.
Both the Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic lineages began at Bioware and have since moved on to other developers. Meanwhile, Bioware has hand selected the most popular features from its previous releases and combined them with a fresh new setting and storyline to make Jade Empire – one of their most ambitious and accessible titles to date.
Jade Empire takes place in a mythical Asian setting called you guessed it, the Jade Empire. You start by picking your character by gender and class – each class comprised of different ratios of speed, strength and magical abilities. Once selected you are given a handful of character points with which you can dole out to the three abilities to further customize your character.
Once completed, you are immediately dropped into a sparring bout against a fellow student at the school of your faithful guardian Master Li. It is in this bout that you are first introduced to the game’s health and abilities management system, which takes the form of a three-bar meter representing health, chi and focus. Health is pretty self-explanatory – it shows your character’s current physical condition in battle. The Chi bar represents what can best be considered your magic power – Chi can be used to charge normal hand-to-hand attacks, call up magic support attacks, or refill your health bar. The Focus bar is unique in that it represents a special ability to slip into what the game calls “focus mode”, which is basically a variant of the bullet time phenomenon, allowing your character unleash a real-time attack in a slowed-time environment. Focus also comes into play in weapons styles.
No surprise, any contact from your enemies will quickly drain your life bar. When the life bar reaches a certain point, your character will make mention of needing life. At this time you can use your chi to refill your life bar – but you must be sparing, as this chi is also used to fuel your charged, magical and area attacks, and depleted chi meters only fill using the essence of fallen enemies.
Standard attacks consist of a very quick burst attack that packs little power, but is great for getting the upper hand on the enemy. Once the enemy is reeling back from a standard attack, you are afforded a moment to begin a charged attack before the enemy retaliates.
Charged attacks are much more powerful – with the aforementioned ability to break through an enemy’s shielding – but the process of charging is relatively time consuming, so timing is of the essence.
Somewhere in the middle lies the aptly titled area attack, which is a bit more powerful than the standard attack, a bit quicker to pull off than the charged attack, and best of all; it is effective on any number of enemies that fall within a defined radius surrounding the character. Even better – matching said area attack with a well-timed combat attack leads to a “harmonic combo” finishing move that instantly and graphically puts an end to any foe.
Throughout the game, you will be able to learn (or purchase) a variety of weapon, martial and support styles for you character; four of which can be mapped to the D-Pad for instant access. These new techniques will allow you to further enhance your fighting with flurry-type combos, special incapacitating abilities, summoning powers, weapons attacks and more. Given that different enemy types are especially prone to certain attacks, yet immune to others, you will find yourself assigning and reassigning the D-Pad quite often. And since each usage of a technique or weapon will drain your chi and/or focus meters (on either a per use, or duration of use basis depending), cautious employment is required.
In reading this review so far, one might easily forget that Jade Empire is really more of a role playing game than it is an action or fighting game – but make no mistake, although Jade Empire has a fairly fleshed out fighting engine, it is no Ninja Gaiden. No, the overall caliber of fighting and combat in Jade Empire is less Dead or Alive and more Kung Fu Chaos – which itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but compared to what we have come to expect from these big-name titles, Jade Empire just feels a bit shallow and disconnected.
Real-time action doesn’t feel very real-time when enemies launch into long, unstoppable preset animations which may or may not be aimed towards the location where your character was standing ten seconds prior, or when scores of enemies hold back to attack one at a time instead of swarming in on their prey all at once. Some may see this as a nod to the old kung-fu movie stylings of the past – I just see it as being a tad unrealistic.
What Jade Empire does have over Ninja Gaiden is a distinctly RPG-depth storyline that, thanks to a western-based writing team, is infinitely more enjoyable than the localized eastern-based RPG standard. I don’t want to give too much away, but the story follows a fairly tried-and-true standard – the orphan raised by the dojo master sets out on a quest to find his kidnapped guardian and in doing so, finds himself/herself. In his travels, your character will find himself/herself fighting against an army of the undead.
Don’t get me wrong, Jade Empire has a lot of the same sappy trappings of any RPG – long, laborious discussions about ever trivial nuance of the Jade Empire, endless (and often pointless) question and answer sessions with pacing villagers, and passive-aggressive puppy-love meanderings between characters – but because Jade Empire’s story was written in English as opposed to being translated from Japanese, it just feels more tailored to western tastes. The men look and sound like men, the women look and sound like women, the story twists and turns, and the humor is actually funny (and sometimes a bit crass) – all aspects that are not guaranteed in Japanese games.
Jade Empire allows for it of a party structure – letting you adopt “followers” into your battle group. The followers act independently, fighting at your side for the common cause. However, the followers are nowhere near as powerful as your character, so they generally end up being merely your support crew, distracting enemies and bosses long enough for you to charge up frontal attacks or sneak around for surprise rear attacks.
And as with KOTOR, you have the ability to follow one of two major pathways; the way of the open hand, or the way of the closed fist. By simply looking at the names, it should be easy to decipher which is good and which is evil. Each has a different outcome at the end, and serves to give the game added replay value. I mention that these are considered the major pathways, because you can take a more neutral stance should you so wish. Choosing a way will not only give you the obvious differences in storyline and conclusion, but will also afford you abilities and items that are specific to each way.
For a busy gamer like myself, it was a relief to find that the entire story could be completed the first time through in about a dozen hours or so. Granted, I may not have explored every nook and cranny of the Empire, but it was nice to have closure without having to invest an entire summer asking villagers about the condition of their underwear or something equally as trivial.
So often, the big-name RPG houses crank out games that require thirty to fifty hours of involvement to complete – this is a great deal for hardcore RPG gamers, but for casual gamers, that much investment can be a bit overwhelming. Games like Jade Empire, Fable, even Beyond Good and Evil – which give you a full and rewarding gaming experience in easily digestible servings, yet have infinite replay value for those who so desire – are a nice treat for those of us who have to juggle families, jobs and hobbies day in and day out.
But don’t think that Jade Empire is any walk in the park – it requires a great deal of thought, careful management of chi and focus, and a healthy attention span to get through the complex story intact. Thankfully, a very forgiving save-anywhere system helps to keep you on task without too much repetition.
Jade Empire looks absolutely phenomenal on the Xbox. From the people to the plants, from the buildings to the bosses, everything looks completely and utterly stunning. It is so nice to see yet another Only-On-Xbox property that fully utilizes the visual prowess of the green machine, instead of the muddy, stuttery PS2 ports so often receive.
The first you will notice are the humans, which support some of the best facial mapping this side of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Each interactive character has a distinct appearance and mannerism, and are easy to distinguish one from the other at a distance. For a game that requires this much face-to-face chitchatting, it is nice when you can distinguish between villagers you have and have not already spoken with, and minimize the repetitive meetings.
The environments are downright gorgeous as well, with the distinctive organic feel you would expect from a game that is supposed to take place in a mythical Asian setting. Grassy fields sway in the wind through valleys and plains that sport rocky outcroppings and beautiful water effects. City scenes are rife with vibrant lighting and bustling streets. The environments are every bit as good as anything we have seen on the Xbox yet, and really enhance the dreamy atmosphere you want from a game like this.
The special effects are also of note, with fabulous amounts of pomp and circumstance accompanying magic and area attacks, as well as some very cool effects in the bullet time focus mode.
Every now and then the graphics slow a bit – even freeze – when overwhelmed with onscreen action, but for a game of this scope, it is not too surprising. Also, expect to stare at the loading screen for extended periods of time, as moving from area to area will often require a long load sequence. Strangely, I noticed a few instances where passing through a gate to get from point A to point B initiated a loading screen, yet bypassing the same gate (say, going around a side passage) to get from the same point A to the same point B was seamless. I never could figure out what was going on, but I quickly learned where these places were and used them handily.
Jade Empire’s sound quality is nearly as good as the graphics quality, with a full library of voiceovers – even during NPC interactions – great sound effects, and even better music.
I was completely floored to find that nearly every spoken word in Jade Empire’s script has an accompanying, well-acted voiceover. Too many times, an RPG will advertise in-game voiceovers and really mean in-game cutscene voiceovers only, while a majority of the script’s storyline is conveyed through reading text boxes. Jade Empire is quite the opposite – every character has a voice. While most characters are voiced in English, some speak in a fictitious language called “Old Tongue” which has a uniquely Asian feel to it.
The only real problem with having every conversation voices, is that with the amount of dialog in Jade Empire, you often find that sitting through voiceovers takes much longer than simply reading the captions, so when pressed for time you eventually end up mashing your way through the captions before the voiceovers even initiate – leaving you with a lot of “Wha… She… Then we…” snippets that detract a bit from the ambiance. If I have one word of advice; if you plan on listening to the voiceovers, turn off the captions completely – or vice versa, if you plan on reading the captions, turn off the voiceovers completely – as having the two running simultaneously is distracting.
As for the background music, what can I say except that it is simply fantastic, especially for a console RPG – a genre that generally leans towards annoying and repetitious Casio-quality MIDI anthems. Jade Empire features organic instruments with an unmistakable Asian flair, with the appropriate lulls, rises and swells to match the action on screen. Especially exciting are the battle themes, which feature ever pounding and building drumbeats, which ultimately crescendo at the completion of battle. Good stuff indeed.
With six variants on three character classes, the opportunity to play as either good or evil (or any shade in between), and with tailored storylines and multiple endings to boot – Jade Empire is worth every penny.
Really the only thing missing in the package is any semblance of Xbox Live support. The recently imported Phantom Dust may have lacked the overall polish of Jade Empire (although it is still a beautiful game in its own right), but it allowed the gamer to take their real-time battles online through Xbox Live. Granted, there weren’t many (or any) people actually playing Phantom Dust online at the time, but the ability was there nonetheless. Jade Empire on the other hand has absolutely no Xbox Live support – not even Live Aware or the ability to check your friends list. This may sound silly, but with recent high-profile Xbox Live releases (Chaos Theory, Doom 3, Forza Motorsport) it would be nice to check a friend’s status and/or let friends invite you into their games.
Personally, my tastes side a bit more towards the action-oriented gameplay of Ninja Gaiden or Otogi, as my attention span for lengthy dialog is about nil – but I know a good game when I see it, and Jade Empire is definitely a good one. For an RPG – definitely one of my weakest subjects – I really enjoyed myself and quickly lost track of time as I got wrapped up in the story. Really, if Bioware had amped up the action a bit more, and cut out some of the mindless dialog, Jade Empire would have stood near the top of my favorites list.
Hardcore RPG fans may complain about the relatively short story, or the lack of detailed resource management – but for the everyday gamer like myself, Jade Empire fits the bill just fine. By taking all of the great character-building aspects of the RPG genre – and ridding itself of the boring (and frankly quite condescending) weapons and armor micromanagement, wizards and warriors themes, and most importantly the turn-based combat – Jade Empire is a very rewarding game that is accessible to almost every gamer and serves for a nice introduction into the RPG genre, and a great addition to any gamer’s collection.