Release Date: April 12, 2005
Buy 'JADE EMPIRE': Xbox
Well, it's "sort of" an RPG.
Honestly, Jade Empire's worth as a video game varies depending on how you look at the title, and in what context. Compared as an RPG to Bioware's previous offerings in the genre Jade Empire pales, as it seems a lot like if someone took KOTOR, put it in an ancient Chinese setting, and mounted training wheels on it. Viewed in its own light, Jade Empire is fairly average, its biggest flaw being that of a game that feels like too many ideas were simply unfinished. Still, it's hard to not look at a title from a developer such as Bioware in anything other than a critical light, given their track record of award-winning titles.
Let me rewind a bit and start over. Jade Empire is the latest title from Bioware, and the first from the studio that is based on completely original content. The title takes place in setting reminiscent of ancient China, in which the player starts off as a student in a secluded martial arts school run by a wise and powerful master. The player's past is shrouded in mystery, the discovery of which being one of the primary plot threads of the title. The story does buy into a few clichés at its start, but once it gains a little momentum, the plot really takes a life of its own.
However, the gameplay is what will undoubtedly throw the biggest fence up among different types of gamers. On one hand, Jade Empire really isn't any more an RPG title than any other action game that has an inventory and basic status screens. Sure, there are experience points, categories of stats (essentially health, chi [magic], and focus), and quests, but the whole affair feels a lot less in-depth than Bioware's previous offerings. For instance, while Neverwinter Nights had in-depth character management and KOTOR had party and tactics management, Jade Empire has both of those aspects stripped. Character management in Jade Empire is limited to spending a few experience points among your three stats and then upgrading your fighting styles, and while deep in the sense of potential outcomes, it doesn't "feel" like an RPG. Likewise, although you often fight alongside AI allies, you have almost no control over them, and once combat starts, they do their thing. Most of the time, they die, only to stand back up at the end of combat.
On the other hand, when not looked at as an RPG, Jade Empire is fairly entertaining, if not a bit troublesome in a few aspects. Combat in the game is really detached from standard RPG fare and feels more like the style of an action game with a lot more structure. To fight enemies you use combat styles, which range from flat-out combat roles to more specialized and support types of classes. When combat begins, you lock onto an enemy among the group, and your movements are in relation to him. The D-pad is used to select any four of the fighting styles your character knows that you have assigned to it mid-combat, which means that you can start off a combo with one style, end it with another, then quickly switch to a third to start things off with a new opponent. The fighting styles each have their own use and tactics, such as support styles that can poison, freeze, stun, or slow enemies to name a few, or weapon styles that drain your focus when used. However, the title suffers from how loose the combat feels. For instance, pressing the A button will always perform the current style's exact same move; you won't find any button combos to unleash a variety of techniques on opponents. If you are in the middle of a multi-hit combo, you simply cannot end it, and there were many times where my character was killed just because he/she would rather complete a punch combo than dodge a guy wielding a menacing-looking staff. The combat is still quite enjoyable, although somewhat hampered by a slightly detached feeling.
In another subtle nod to KOTOR, Jade Empire has morality issues that change your character based on what decisions you make during the course of the game. The way of the open palm is one of peace and virtue, helping others and generally being a nice person; likewise, the way of the closed fist is one of harm and evil, attained by pretty much looking out for only yourself and mocking, killing, or mocking AND killing anyone else. As you would expect, going to the extreme of one side begins to cause changes in the look of your character according to which side you fall on.
Jade Empire does have a mini-game to it, which feels largely out of place and almost self-deprecating. At certain points in the game, the player will fly a ship through the air in a style much like the Raiden games, top-down scrolling shoot-'em-ups. However, the problem with these modes is that they are painfully simple; enemies follow each other in paths, very seldom surprising you with a new attack, and are generally rather boring to fight. It also has sort of a comical look to it, which absolutely ruins the drama set up at the first point you play the minigame. How can you possibly feel a sense of dread or despair when you are playing what looks to be, minus the graphics, a knockoff of a top-down shooter that would have been seen in arcades circa 1991?
Jade Empire does look good though, barring a few issues such as drops in framerate. The character models are really good, and are accurately animated both in major things such as movement or combat or in subtler things such as lip-synching. Grass blows in the wind as you run past, and there are plenty of other smaller effects that add up to a very visually appealing game. The menu interface will be right at home for fans of KOTOR, as it seems to be largely the exact same interface with skin and layout changes. Combat looks fairly vicious, but not nearly as visceral as it could have been, given that there are often instances where you are "hitting" an enemy who is still a half-foot beyond your blows.
Jade Empire's biggest asset is the wonderfully diverse soundtrack and very good voice acting, which both are authentic in their own means. The soundtrack is your standard Asian-themed affair, though not derivative of the genre, and always sets the mood of the current theme of the game perfectly. The voice acting is exceptional overall, with hardly any of the actors dipping below even "average" quality, which can be a pitfall in some games in terms of how well they draw the gamer into the world. The sound effects can be repeated a bit too often, especially in combat, but it is only really noticeable when one is listening for it.
If you look at Jade Empire as Bioware's next RPG, you'll be disappointed, as it is really a step back from Bioware's previous endeavors. However, when looked at as more of an action title, Jade Empire is much more palatable because the game really does play like an action title with RPG elements, as opposed to the other way around. Even still, Jade Empire is really not the best example of either Bioware's capability as a development studio or as a representative of the Xbox's admittedly small RPG library. As an action game, though, Jade Empire seems much more at home with the way the gameplay seems to be geared. If you are absolutely craving an RPG set in ancient China, Jade Empire will tickle your fancy, but anyone else should probably get in a little playtime to see if it meets their RPG needs before committing to a purchase.
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