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Jade Empire: Special Edition

Platform(s): PC
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: Feb. 27, 2007

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PC Review - 'Jade Empire: Special Edition'

by Tim "The Rabbit" Mithee on March 28, 2007 @ 1:19 a.m. PDT

BioWare is bringing an enhanced version, high-resolution graphics and new visual effects, of Jade Empire to the PC. The original, story of Jade Empire is injected with new monsters, weapons, combat styles, new challenges, and special items to discover.

I long for days where things long-prophesied come true, when the infinitely powerful Chosen Ones shall come forth from the masses and fulfill ancient destinies to secure the future of life. Thankfully, these destinies often require looking cool and kicking the crap out of lots of equally ancient and/or powerful Evil Things while meeting awesome people and chilling out in atmospheric locales out of storybook lore. Call me crazy, but there's something about kung-fu sagas and epics that make me smile like a diabetic in a sugar-free candy warehouse. Jade Empire: Special Edition has finally landed, ready for PC gamers to be among the Chosen types, at least in a digital and simulated manner. I'm grateful, as my kung-fu is weak like bad beer....

Jade Empire is the most recently released RPG from those Canadian juggernauts of days past, Bioware. For the first time ever, Bioware chose not to license an outside property like Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars, instead bringing out their own concepts. Set in an unspecified period and location, Jade is the story of an orphan, found years ago by a martial arts master and brought to the secreted training grounds at Two-Rivers, a city populated by few and known by nearly none.

Here, the orphan – whose behaviors and skills are all determined by the player – has been raised as the top artist of the school, a veritable expert in a martial arts doctrine known as The Heavenly Wave, as well an alternate Art and a melee weapon (again, chosen by the player). Things don't stay idyllic for more than an hour or so of gameplay before the outer world finds its way in, and before anyone can put on the brakes, The Orphan is well on his/her way to the greater Empire. To say much more would be to spoil the fun; this is one of the better written bits of Eastern Asian flair I've seen.

Players of Bioware's previous Knights of the Old Republic and, to a much lesser extent, KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords will feel at home fairly quickly. Much of the setup is exactly the same: Generate your character from a limited set of options, mostly composed of looks and beginning stats, then select your Combat Art and go out into the game proper. From that point on, your character is fairly malleable; you'll be allowed to learn and practice new Combat Arts (assault-based styles like Thousand Daggers and Flying Tiger), Support Styles (effect-applying moves like Heavenly Wave, which slows your opponent; or Tempest, which holds them in place), and all-out Magic in a variety of formats. Fling fireballs, encase yourself in ice armor, suck the energies straight out of a foe, or even turn yourself into certain spirits you've met, like giant Elephant Demons or the evil Stone Golems.

If that isn't enough, early on, you'll be handed a melee weapon of your choice – either a staff or a sword – with the opportunity to get the other later. All of these are upgradeable through 15 levels of skill, which generally affect the weapon's speed and damage capabilities. There is no lack of skills for your use, and they can easily be swapped in and out at your leisure – you <i>are</i> a martial arts master, after all!

Your character is a much simpler beast, built of only three stats: Body, which dictates how much damage you do and how much HP you have; Spirit, the factor that gives you Chi points for powering your more magical abilities; and Mind, where your Focus stems from, the ability to slow down time and to use your melee weaponry. These also add together to produce three "stealth" stats – Charisma, Intimidation, and Intuition – which only show up during conversation trees and allow you to manipulate people as necessary (or unnecessary).

Character building is a rather bland, simplistic affair. Building an unbalanced character makes certain aspects blindingly difficult, sticking you with reduced hit points or Chi, or taking away your ability to use your lethally effective melee weapons after only a few swings. Techniques and items can boost your stats at a breakneck pace too, though it must be said that the game will keep up with you as best as it's capable.

Now I'm sure there's one thing that many, many of you have been dying for, and that's the combat. No martial arts escapade would be complete without high-flying antics, wire-fu and swords a go-go. As much as I do hate to be the bearer of bad news, you won't find that here in surplus. Jade may have a multitude of skills available, but each generally breaks down to two moves – one fast and weak and one stronger, capable of breaking through simple blocks. Along with a block button and the ability to dance around your opponent like a five-year-old with a box of Pixie Stix, there really isn't much more variety here.

Everything is, oddly enough, coordinated with the aid of the mouse: one button throws weak hits, the other strong. Actual targeting is a "tap Tab to highlight" system as we've seen many a time before; blocks are generated by holding Space, and you flip about and move with the traditional WASD keys. As one of the upgrades from the original release, you can now have up to 10 skills and abilities assigned to hotkeys 1 through 0; by tapping one, you immediately flip to that, with no fuss no muss. These can also be changed on the fly simply by holding down the key you want to change for a few seconds. It makes everything more seamless, but combat still boils down to hitting enemies until they block, then breaking their block with the stronger hit and repeating.

Melee weapons and spells make things more interesting in Jade, but they're crippled by their dependencies on disposable resources (swords and staves use Focus with each swing, while spells use Chi). You'll want to desperately hold onto Chi, as this is used for your instant heal on demand, something that plays very heavily in the more difficult fights. Harmonic combos are useful; by hitting an enemy with a Support Skill and then a strong Combat Art attack, you can make him die instantly and leave behind a power-up of some sort, which is determined by the combo. However, Harmonic combos are also somewhat awkward to perform, especially in groups, and more advanced enemies – including the undead – can't be killed this way. I'll tell you now – you'll see no lack of the animated deceased in this title.

If there's anything that further diminishes the package, it's the game's innards. Jade is a port of a three-year-old Xbox title, and while it was a great hit then, it suffers quite a bit now. Textures are muddy and simple, character animations are limited, and character designs are repeated ad infinitum. Part of the way into the game, you'll have at least a dozen Followers supporting your cause, but only one at a time is allowed due to memory restrictions on the original platform. Worse yet are the cut scenes, which look like they were dragged through a pit of grey ink.

The rest of the presentation is passable, with strong voice acting in some roles (There's a cameo by an Englishman that's just divine, but I shan't spoil the actor's name) and not so much in others (Wild Flower needs to be shot and killed). Cities are generally large enough to be believable but suffer from lots of generic NPCs who don't talk and just wander about doing nothing in big bunches. There are a small number of total environments; other than "action maps," there are three major cities with a few zones each. The entire package seems as if Bioware had many, many more things planned and was forced to stop before they wanted to, which is a shame. Admittedly, <i>Jade</i> is strongly built and virtually crash-free, running efficiently and consistently, despite a rather clunky online activation system.

The writing and atmosphere do much to overcome the software issues. The environments are thick with Asian flair, all without getting into silly stereotyping or anything that could be construed as blindly offensive. There seems to be a strong attempt to recapture the feel of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," with deep mythos and a quiet, dignified feel to many of the characters. Magic is everywhere, with spirits roaming about almost as if they were normal, everyday people. You'll run into meager peasants, drunken sailors, corrupt and not-so-corrupt politicians, kitsune, lost spirits, and even people who seem normal but, at the same time, may be hiding something more than that. It's a shame that these NPCs are rarer than the "generic wandering" type, though I honestly looked forward to any valid conversation, just to expand on things more. Your companions are rather well structured themselves, and are all more than willing to talk to you in detail if you'll let them. From the decidedly generic Dawn Star and somber monk Sagacious Zhou to Bunmaster Hong and Wild Flower, a young girl possessed by a pair of rival demons, you'll probably never be without some degree of banter – again, if you allow it.

As with KotOR, Jade features a "karma" system of sorts, the Two Paths, where your actions dictate your position between good and evil. The Way of the Open Palm is about power through not using force, but instead approaching things with an open mind and quiet dignity; its opposite, the Way of the Closed Fist, is not necessarily about excessive violence but more about using your strength as a means to an end and growing more powerful on your own.

It is very deep, and in some cases, it is certainly a step beyond simply "good" or "evil." For example, at one point, you will be tasked to open a dam and save a city from stagnation. You don't necessarily have to do so, and can instead break the mechanism and damn the town to possible extinction, while forcing them to live without the benefits of the river. Let the town find its own strength and not depend on you. Other choices aren't so meaningful and generally involve bullying peasants and doing nasty things like killing people and taking bribes, just for your own benefit. As before, your decisions will, over time, influence your reputation and people's reactions to you. There seems to be a heavy pressure on being "Open," as doing the less-nice action will often close off stores or locations, make people despise you and no longer speak, or leave side-quest NPCs dead or incapacitated. It has the strongest effect on your Followers: Saying the wrong things to the more "Open" ones will shut them up forever, leaving you with nothing more than a generic "What should we do next?" option.

As a martial arts epic, you can't go wrong at all with Jade Empire: Special Edition. The combat, while repetitive, is easily approachable and manageable with the extras added to the PC version. The narrative is excellent, with enough plot points and well-veiled twists to make it a beautiful thing to watch. I do wish it were a longer, larger experience, with more room for character development, and the technical inadequacies brought on by relying on a three-year-old console game certainly try their best to diminish the experience. Those trying to find more of a "light-weight" RPG without the sheer overhead of World of Warcraft or Oblivion will find themselves right at home for a few hours, whirling about the beaches and mountainsides of Jade Empire.


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