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Platform:Xbox
Developer:Bioware
Publisher:Microsoft
Year of Release:2005

The Jade Empire is a land of lush forests and mountains based loosely on ancient china in the same way a Dungeons and Dragons style RPG would be based on a fantasy medieval Europe. 20 years ago the Empire was dying from a terrible drought, thousands died until one day the Emperor declared that by his power the drought was over, and it was. Now the empire prospers yet the land is suffering, plagued with demons and restless dead. You play a young student in a small town martial arts school, one day your master takes you aside and tells you that you have a hidden past and that (wait for it) a great destiny is meant for you.

On first impressions similarities between Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the old republic are obvious. The style of the 3D environments, the conversation menus and the light/dark system will all be pleasingly familiar to fans of the star wars RPGs. However, great attention to detail has been shown to the interface to give it its own unique style in keeping with the eastern theme. There are only three stats in the game: Body, mind and spirit, Body being health, spirit being mana and mind being used for weapons and slow motion.

The unique character building and inventory system separate Jade Empire from the usual "Stock up on potions and bigger weapons/armour" RPG format. There is no armour system. No health potions either, health is regained in combat by spending/stealing spirit points. There is only one of each type of weapon.

Instead, the focus is on is on acquiring and upgrading fighting styles, combat is all in real time and you can switch between your four chosen styles at any time using the dpad. Each style has a different purpose, some are strong, some are magical, some stun opponents, some enable you to turn into a 20 foot golem and start stomping on heads. Combat is exciting, but rarely frantic. It still relies more on tactics and preparation than quick reflexes.

The land of Jade Empire also draws on a few steampunk ideas and between exploring and fighting on foot there are sections where you take to the skies in your wood and canvas aircraft and fight enemies in an old school shooter minigame. These sections are fun, but a little pointless. You usually have the choice of skipping them if you don’t feel up to it. In one chapter you are given the option to do a couple of shooter missions for a reward, the reward being an upgrade to your ship so can do more shooter missions, great.

Like KOTOR you are given the ability to choose between light side and dark side, this time in the form of two opposing philosophies, the way of the open palm and the way of the closed fist. The way of the open palm is about harmony and understanding your place in the world, the way of the closed fist teaches that power is the ultimate virtue. Interestingly, there is a little more to the philosophies than good and evil. One challenge asks you to prove your understanding of the closed fist, to do so requires that you understand its central ideas and have been paying attention to the information the game has given you, simply acting evil will result in failure. There are multiple quest solutions to accommodate both paths and certain styles and gems will only be available to one side but for the most part it doesn’t really have any bearing on the ultimate course of the game. You could play through as a disciple of the open palm the whole way through and at still the last minute commit a couple of atrocities that push you towards the evil ending.

The party system is very simple. You get a choice of one follower at a time who will assist you in combat in either an offensive or supportive role. Aside from distracting enemy attention though they are pretty useless fighters, so your selection will mostly be based on whose personality you find most interesting. Your companions themselves are an interesting assortment, some obvious (The Dashing Rouge) some not so (henpecked bun maker, demon possessed little girl). My first time playing through I didn’t take much time to explore their back stories so I was pleasantly surprised when I chatted to them properly in my second game. I had no idea for example that one of your characters has a hidden, selectable personality, or that it is possible to develop a same sex romance (which is surprisingly well executed, its not at all cheesy or gratuitous). Personally though, I feel that is that there isn’t as much development of the characters as there could be, which ties into my main complaint with the game.

By RPG standards Jade Empire is short. Although the locations are full of side quests and opportunities for development you don’t visit as many different places as you may expect. To get a satisfying experience you have to explore every dialogue option and frivolous quest, if you are in a hurry to do the next story mission the adventure will be over before you know it. There is also a lack of depth in many aspects of the game, your end game character will always be a balanced powerhouse for example as there is no reason/way to make them focused on magic, stealth or diplomacy. The plot has a couple of interesting twists but is mainly an expedition from A to B. The general impression is that Bioware intentionally kept the experience light to appeal to casual console gamers rather than fans of stat heavy, in depth PC games.

Normally once I finish a good RPG I feel like taking a break from the genre altogether for a while. The moment I finished playing Jade Empire I began a new file and started playing again. It says a lot about my feelings for the game: I enjoyed it, but at the same time didn’t feel quite satisfied after finishing it.

Game: Jade Empire
Platform: Microsoft XBOX
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Original Release Date: AU: 06/30/05, EU: 04/22/05, JP: 06/25/05, NA: 04/12/05
Limited Edition Release Date: EU: 04/22/05, US: 04/12/05
Genre: RPG
ESRB: T
Players: 1

Jade Empire: the casual gamer's RPG

Lots of people like RPGs. I am one of those people. I love the level up process, it excites me to upgrade my attack stat, and I know what a DEX check is. Unfortunately, not everybody appreciates the same complexity in games that I do, and sometimes I want to play something light, too. Jade Empire is just that. It's like Diet RPG or RPG Lite only it doesn't leave the foul taste in your mouth that Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest does and it doesn't make fun of the genre like The Bard's Tale.

Turn-based? Nuh-uh, we fight in real time here!
If you read the last paragraph then you know that I like RPGs. I like the ones that most non-gamers think are boring. Final Fantasy Tactics. Front Mission 4. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. I think about what I'm going to do, and then the units move around and do it. I can only assume that this is why my wife doesn't like to watch me play these games. After all, I don't cheer wildly every time she successfully pumps bilge while playing Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates.

Combat in Jade Empire is different. It's exciting. It's fun to take part in and it's entertaining to watch. Sure, it thrills me to know that I've reduced that kobold's health by 43 HP, but everybody in the room can get into watching me decapitate my foes. It's simple and elegant. The player chooses four styles to map to the XBOX's directional pad. He then has access to three attacks per style: normal, strong, and area. With this repertoire of 12 moves (4 styles x 3 moves per style = 12 moves), the player wreaks havoc on all who would oppose him.

Nethack, it ain't.
Jade Empire is pretty. Very pretty. The characters are well-modeled, and the scenery is astounding. Actually, astounding isn't quite the right word. Individual blades of grass wave as you run through them. I can honestly say that the environments stopped me in my tracks. Of the 25 or so hours this game took me to complete, at least three of them were looking around the environments in first person view.

The characters are full of personality, too. Sure, you'll pick a favorite to help you in combat, but the whole group is so well-thought out that you'll actually want to chat them up. Some are good-natured and fun; others not so much. Sure, there are some RPG clichés, but they're believable. I can forgive the inclusion of the honorable thief because I like him and grew attached to the character. The extras are good, too. Whether it's listening to Henpecked Hou talk about his domineering wife or realizing for yourself just what's off about the proprietor of the Pilgrim's Rest Inn, you'll become engrossed by the dialog.

Nethack, it still ain't.
This game has a story. And it's a good one. You're not some brooding teen whose phrase of choice is "..."; the game comes right out and tells you that you have a destiny to fulfill. The catch is that you have a choice as to how you're going to fulfill it. There are two philosophies present in the Jade Empire. Neither is good nor evil; the outcome depends on the individual. Followers of The Way of the Open Palm believe in helping others by giving them things and doing tasks for them. Followers of The Way of the Closed Fist, however, believe in helping people help themselves. By bastardizing this colloquialism, I'll attempt to make myself clear. While a follower of The Way of the Open Palm would give a man a fish and feed him for a day, a follower of The Way of the Closed Fist would teach the man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

RPG. Simplified.
In many RPGs, when you level up you have to assign stat points to any of around seven categories. Strength. Dexterity. Charm. Etc.. This isn't the case in Jade Empire. Bioware has reduced your character to three basic stats: body (health), chi (magic), and focus (weapons). That's it. You want to be stronger, throw a point into body. Run out of magic power too often? Put a point into chi. There's no math here, just do what makes sense.

In other RPGs, you'll randomly find armor that is just the right size for whomever you give it to. There's none of that here. Your avatar wears the same clothes from beginning to end. After all, whose enemies are so thick as to leave him random weapons and armor? Want a new sword? You've got to buy it from the blacksmith. The only accessories you have are small gems that can be placed in an amulet around your neck. Also, there are only three weapons (a sword, a staff, and a rifle) that can be carried at one time because a new weapon replaces the inferior model. What does this mean? The character could conceivably carry all of these things on his person. There are no potions, no tents, and no chainsaws to stuff in your pants. Any plot items that you do pick up are documents that could easily be placed in a pocket.

Bioware managed to simplify another thing as well: the quest system. Have you ever set a game down and forgotten what you doing or where you were going? I know I have. Just hit start and look at your journal to see what quests are active. As you complete them, they'll disappear from the list. I really wish more games would implement this.

Blowin' shit up.
There are shmup levels. All but one of these is optional, and the madatory one is excruciatingly easy. These levels serve to show that locales are far from one another, and they break the game up a bit. After all, there's only so much ass-kicking one can hand out hand-to-hand in a day, and shooting down Imperial flyers in "The Marvelous Dragonfly" is a great diversion. There's even a shooter side quest in which the difficulty is raised for all you shooter fans out there.

Two more things.
The voice work in Jade Empire is astounding, and you'll recognize some of the voices. Gao the Lesser? That'd be Nathan Fillion from Firefly. Sky? Among other things, he gave life to Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sagacious Zu? You may recognize him as the Prince from Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. The save system also is worth note. You can save anywhere. Anywhere. Unless you're in the middle of a fight. Not in the middle of a dungeon, the middle of a fight. If you have to go to work (damned work, always cutting into my video game time), there's no running back to a save point. Just hit start and save your game.

Short and Sweet.
Many hardcore gamers dismiss Jade Empire because of its length. The game's length is to be applauded. It tells its story and nothing more. Sure, there are diversions along the way, but you'll remember why you're fighting the final boss when you're doing so. In a day and age where it can take months to finish a long RPG, Jade Empire can be finished in a week or so, and it is better because of it. The story is coherent, and it doesn't feel rushed. There are also multiple endings, and I'm much more prone to replay a short game than an epic one.

My wife bought this game for me. She said she paid $20.00 USD for it. It's definitely money well-spent. So far, I've gotten 25 hours of fun out of it, and I know I'll play it again. If you like RPGs and want something a bit lighter or if you're new the genre and want to see what all the fuss is about, Jade Empire will make a great addition to your collection.

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