Developed by BioWare and cast from the same mould as every other RPG on the market, against the odds, Jade Empire manages to set itself apart from the rest with its own unique style. Flitting between frantic battles and widescreen freeze frames while you decide how to respond to NPCs, you'll find Jade Empire sucking you in faster than a reality TV show.
Set in Ancient China, you start your journey in a strangely familiar way - as a humble student of the Two Rivers Martial Arts School where your master and mentor has trained you from birth. You must learn to control your physical health, magical Chi energy and spiritual Focus whilst also mastering new weapon skills in order to survive the tough and brutal areas of the Empire you'll go on to conquer.
In an increasingly common RPG style, you are faced with decisions that will alter how characters interact with you. Each reply gives you the chance to lean towards the peaceful Open Palm Path, or the more confrontational Closed Fist Path. This conversational interaction dictates your spiritual path, rather than your actions towards others. The more time spent playing, the easier it becomes to tell which reply is geared towards which Path.
If you're a fan of simple storylines and linear plots, then you'll be sorely disappointed. Jade Empire has many twists as characters tell different version of events, and you'll be hard pressed to keep a grip on the true storyline. Each character seems to have a complicated dark history that will leave you intrigued with every follower you gain (by the end of the game you will have up to twelve followers, each with their own abilities and quirks). As you gather more and more background detail, the number of cut scenes you have to sit through increases dramatically - but paying attention to these is definitely worthwhile in the end.
A number of NPCs appear throughout the game voiced by some interesting famous faces. At the beginning of the game you are introduced to your student rival Gao The Lesser. Gao is voiced by Nathan Fillion, of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place fame, and more recently, as the malevolent preacher in the final season of Buffy. Later on you have the unfortunate luck to stumble across a foreigner in the Jade Empire - a slightly crazy pompous Englishman voiced by John Cleese - who then proceeds to challenge you to a debate regarding the Chinese culture and lifestyle. If you are fortunate enough to outwit him with words, you will be challenged to a duel. Armed only with your sword or staff, you will have to fend off his 'killing firecracker' - a large shotgun named Mirabel.
To get bigger and badder in the Jade Empire, you'll need to fight as many nasty creatures and read as many books and scrolls as you can to gain experience points (XP). With XP comes level ups, and with level ups come upgraded weapon skills and Circe De Soleil style abilities. After finally reaching the Imperial City, you'll get a chance to showcase your talents in a decidedly Fable-esque Arena battle.
One of the most surprisingly enjoyable features of Jade Empire is the lack of interactive objects. For most RPGs which seem to rely on repetitive interactive items for substance, this would be a disaster, but Jade turns the lack of interaction into a small thrill as you occasionally stumble across a jar or vase filled with silver coins. Each interactive object is clearly marked with a label that appears on the screen when you come into close proximity. This keeps you from spending hours searching fruitlessly in the wilderness for items that aren't there in the first place. This is one of the crucial elements of the game that keeps the pace from dragging. The motto seems to be: if you haven't seen it immediately, it isn't there.
The lack of a separate inventory for miscellaneous items is often frustrating. Although you can acquire random items along the way, it is impossible to see them in your inventory, and you can only use them when the correct opportunity arises. In the meantime you are often left wondering exactly why you decided to spend 200 silver pieces on a cow bezeor, whatever that is. Essence gems and silver are all clearly visible and displayed within the menu and it seems a little disappointing that they've taken away the chance to gloat over the wonderfully useless junk you've managed to hoard along the way.
The flow of the game can be severely interrupted by the long loading times between locations and settings. Even entering and exiting buildings will conjure up a load screen so lengthy you'll start to try and get your daily chores done while you wait. These loading points seem to be concentrated in certain areas, so be prepared for some slow moving gameplay as you explore the towns and villages. In contrast, the combat is a furious battle of survival with no running and hiding that ends only with the death of everyone that isn't you or your followers. Once you encounter a foe intent on disposing of you, you are thrown into combat mode that lets you jump like a grasshopper on speed, and access your rather spectacular array of magical abilities. As long as you remain in combat mode, your opponents are clearly marked out by a big red target circle hovering underneath them. One thing is clear - Jade Empire isn't a stealth game.
Having everything rendered in intensely bright colours is the name of the game. Although this initially gives an impressive touch, it can grow a little tiring as you venture into a cave and are somehow still blinded by the greys and blues of the rock. Even with the separate brightness feature turned way down, there's often a few seconds of confusion as you try and figure out which Disney movie you've accidentally wandered into.
While the graphics can occasionally seem unpolished, they are more than made up for with imagination - the settings ooze explorability. However, the violence and gore of the game that is mixed in with such beautiful scenery can often feel a little unsettling. The movie-style cut scenes show villagers being reduced to messy smudges of red under heavy cannon fire while a gorgeous town square becomes the focus of a boy's corpse slowly burning on the ground. In the meantime, the villagers still chat and the leaves drift slowly downwards. Rather than causing the mothers of small children to have fits, the developers of Jade Empire wisely chose to have an option available to turn off the excess gore that is shown. In doing this, Jade turns itself from being a game-not-suitable-for-children, to a game-best-played-by-adults.
There may be a gore-free option, but there is no sidestepping of conversations packed with sexual innuendos. Talk of honey being dripped in places and offers of seduction are only the start of idle chatter guaranteed to make you blush. And if you choose to play as a male character, a love triangle involving the two main female characters will inject some serious flirting into the equation. There is a good reason this game has an age restriction -unless you are sure the innuendo will fly over the youngsters head, keep a copy of Shrek 2 on hand.
The soundtrack that accompanies your journey through the Jade Empire is an unusual one. It manages to veer from tense and exciting battle music, to a completely forgettable symphony as you travel, which at times merges almost entirely into the background. Unlike some RPG music that sticks in your head for days, Jade Empires music will neither move you nor annoy you in any way. It merely fills the gaps between conversations with pleasant sounds.
Jade Empire is a refreshing RPG that retains a familiar theme that makes you feel right at home but throws in enough quirks to keep you playing long after bedtime has come and gone. This is a game that will reach out and grab not only hardcore RPG fans, but quite a few different genre fans too.