Two years ago, Bioware released Jade Empire for the Xbox, as part of their new approach to focus on console gaming. While fans of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights may have felt left out in the cold for some time, we’ve finally been given a game of our own to play with. OK, so this “new” game is really just the Xbox version of Jade Empire, ported to the PC, and given a fancy-schmancy “Special Edition” suffix. Is it really worth getting worked up over? I mean, isn’t this the equivalent of your mum giving you your older brother’s pair of worn out trainers?
After playing this game for well over a week now, I can tell you, fellow PC gamers, that Jade Empire has put Bioware back in my good books again. It really does everything right for a PC RPG (just tell yourself it never came out on Xbox, and it’ll feel better). What’s more, it incorporates all of the things I’ve come to love about RPGs, with only a few hassles.
As any good RPG set in an Asian land (known as the Jade Empire) would do, you come in to the story as a young orphaned student who has lived most of your life in a martial arts school in some backwater town, under your brilliant and mysterious teacher, Master Li. You’re dying to know more about your past, but Master Li is pretty tight lipped about it all. It’s only after a mysterious attack on the village (and your school) that you start to find out one or two things about who you are and where you come from – and your adventure begins in earnest.
Yes it is standard fare for an RPG (and I suppose it is one of those questions we all ask ourselves: who will be the first to take RPGs to the next new level?), but there is so much about this game that is done well, that you’re not too bothered by what cliché you do come across. For starters, the characters are absolutely superb. Everyone has a story to tell, even the crazy old man down on the beach; all you have to do is ask. And they’re interesting stories, all quite different. What’s more, the voice acting and dialogue is wonderful. It’s especially great when people speak to you in different languages, such as Tho Fan, the Old Tongue. It makes you realise how games in the past really didn’t get this bit right. How could you travel the length and breadth of a huge world, only to have everyone speak to you in your language? Oh, and I checked the credits, and was pleased to have one suspicion confirmed: I don’t want to completely give it away, but let’s just say that Firefly and Serenity fans will get an extra good vibe out of one cameo in particular.
In addition to the great characters and voice acting, the design and look of the game is wonderful as well. Cities and villages look great, with waterfalls passing under bridges, and lanterns softly swaying in the night. I loved the look of the countryside, however. Paths lined with sea grass run down to beaches, while dead trees and grass lead you towards spooky graveyards, and high rocky passes take you past mist-shrouded mountains. It’s gorgeous. Sure, the graphics aren’t as cutting edge as they must have seemed two years ago (damn you again, Xbox!), but I’d rather have the immersion and mood than something jaw dropping but ultimately repetitive. So, between the characters, the dialogue, the look of the game, as well as the great music, you can expect something alternately very beautiful and very spooky. It’s really special.
On to the actual mechanics of the game. When you first start, you have a range of characters to choose from, which you can then go on to further customise if you wish. The character types are pretty broad. You can choose from someone who is quick, strong, magic-oriented, or go for the balanced approach. From this point, there’s not a whole lot of extra customisation available, which may not appeal to some players. In a way, I enjoyed the simpler approach. It felt clean and quick, and let me get on with the game.
It was the same story with levelling up. You have three attributes that you can add points to: body, focus and chi. The body stat is fairly self-explanatory. Focus controls how well you can concentrate in battle, especially when you’re using a weapon, and chi fuels your magic styles, adds damage to attacks, and lets you heal yourself. Again, this is quite a different approach to any of Bioware’s PC games (heaven for those stat fanboys), but if you’ve made it this far, hopefully the levelling won’t bother you too much.
Where the game does give you a greater degree of flexibility is in determining the type of character you would like to play, which has nothing to do with stats and everything to do with how your actions dictate the type of person you are. You can choose to follow either the Path of the Open Palm, or the Closed Fist. The first thing you’ll be told is that these do not represent the simplistic black and white of good versus evil. Open Palm, we are told, represents the “High Path”, and harmony, while Closed Fist focuses on aggression and discord. A perfect example of the difference between the two is in the scenario of whether or not to help a villager being antagonized by bullies. Open Palm followers might leap into the fray, dispatch the baddies, and then continue on their way, leaving the villager in exactly the same situation as he was in before. A Closed Fist follower might opt not to help the villager, instead reasoning that the villager will need to learn how to defend himself sooner or later, if he is to make any progress in life. And so, you will find that there are a range of actions between extreme Open Palm and extreme Closed Fist, and often what seems to be the “right” choice could have other repercussions.
Please don’t think because I’ve left the discussion of fighting to the end, that it’s really not all that much to write home about - because it is. I’ve read other reviews that criticised Jade Empire’s fighting system as simplistic, and while compared to other console fighting games that might be true, compared to most PC RPGs, this really isn’t the case. Most make use of one type of attack that you then proceed to use over and over again. In Jade Empire, you have three: a fast attack, a strong attack, and an area attack. You also have the ability to block. But in addition to this, there is a huge range of different fighting styles that you learn during your journey; everything from variations of hand-to-hand combat (including Drunken Master style), to magic type attacks (fireballs shooting from your hands), to morphing into a demon and wreaking havoc, to plain old-style weapon use. One word of warning: when you level up, you are allocated a certain number of points to put towards mastery of a style. Unfortunately, these points are not transferable, so while you might want to try every new style out as you learn them, it’s a better idea to put all of your points into three or four varying styles, and actually achieve mastery in them.
All up, Jade Empire really exceeded my expectations, especially when I found out that it was a two year old game. It really does have something for everyone: real ambience, great characters and story, a bit of action for martial arts freaks, and humour. I know I didn’t mention it earlier, but I finally realised just how great this game was when I found myself transporting a preserved liver to another character while being told by someone else that “ugly people need love too”. My final test of a game is always to ask myself whether, after the review, I would continue playing the game or not. In the case of Jade Empire, the answer is a resounding yes.