There are a few game developers that have established themselves as trusted creators of quality games. It usually takes more than one blockbuster to elevate a company to this status. Often, it takes a string of great games that innovate on their own terms and bring something to the table that can't be found in other products. This is the type of company that can inspire a purchase through the mere attachment of their name. Jade Empire
is not only a great game, it is another notch in the belt of a developer that continues to approach this elite status one hit at a time.
When Bioware released Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, it was praised for its excellent story line, combat system, and diverging pathways. Here at IGN it handily won game of the year. The game was hugely popular, but it's difficult to gauge how much of that attention was due to its association with Star Wars. Surprisingly, Bioware decided to forego the sequel to work on an original property called Jade Empire. Anyone that thinks Knights was a great game will be happy to know that Jade takes its best elements and greatly builds upon them.
The world of Jade Empire is based on a combination of classic Wuxia-kung fu films and Chinese mythology. Film aficionados will recognize the heaps of references to Asian cinema and even casual Kung-Fu fans such as myself will appreciate the nods to Jackie Chan's early works and the Wu-Tang series. All of the staples from these influences have made their way into the world of Jade. There are deadly groups of assassins, rival schools, hidden identities, and comical side characters. There is even a brawl in a teahouse, where tables and meat carts can be smashed and used as weapons.
Where the Star Wars universe has a previously established mythology and certain boundaries, Bioware has built the entire Jade Empire from the ground up. The Kingdom and its surrounding nations each have a rich history that unfolds before the curious gamer. Scroll stands are scattered throughout the land and provide pages of optional readings that delve into the minute details of their surroundings. The elders even speak a fictional language that Bioware created with the help of an Asian linguist. This may be completely original intellectual property, but it is so well developed that it feels like the Jade Empire has actually been in existence for thousands of years.
The game begins with a selection screen that lets players choose from six main characters. There are three men and three women with different strengths in magic, physical ability, or speed. There is also the option to manually adjust each character's stats, so if you've always wanted to take the role of delicate woman named Lotus Blossom who can also punch through someone's skull, here's your chance. The naming screen also has a "random" selection that offers up a Mad-Libs like assortment of name combinations. This is the first in a series of small details that show how polished this game is.
Gamers should know that Jade Empire is a true action RPG. This means that combat is contact based and pixel specific. Knights of the Old Republic played like an action game, but it was actually a real-time, turn-based system. Players could queue up a set of attacks and sit back and watch the fireworks for short periods of time. The team that worked on Jade is composed of developers from MDK 2 and Baldur's Gate 2 while the story was handled by the writers from KOTOR.
Each battle in Jade Empire has the potential to be a well-choreographed dance of death. There are many reasons why the battles work so well, the first of which is a brilliant combat system that is both approachable and incredibly deep. Players are eased into the setup with some sparring matches at the beginning of the game with a basic fighting style. For every style there is a quick assault, a powerful charged attack, an area blast, and a block button.
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These are the bare essentials of butt-kicking but it already involves a high level of strategy. The quick attack is almost instantaneous, but deals very small amounts of damage, so if used alone it hardly gets the job done. Charging, the more powerful move, takes time and leaves you open to damage; so it is best used from behind the enemy or on a stunned victim. The block button puts up a shield that stops most projectiles and fast attacks, but can be broken by connecting with a charged move. Blocking can also be used in conjunction with the analog stick to initiate diving rolls, backflips, and an awesome vault move that flings your character directly behind oncoming enemies. Dodging is so much fun, that many players will find themselves bounding across the screen just for kicks. If this was the extent of the battle system, it would already be the best action-based RPG on Xbox. It is the core of a rock-paper-scissors combat routine that encourages quick thinking and punishes the button masher.
The main character can target one enemy at a time, and the triggers are used to cycle through any threats on the battlefield. By pulling both triggers, players can enter a free-run mode and interact with objects in the environments, or simply reposition themselves in the battle. When pitted against numerous opponents its easy to assume that the main character would constantly be overwhelmed. This is handled expertly by subtle changes in the enemy AI. Non-targeted enemies become less aggressive, and will hang back on the outskirts of a battle. This keeps battles manageable. It also mimics the classic scenario in Kung-Fu films where the hero is impossibly outnumbered, but only suffers attacks from one enemy at a time. Also, since damage is contact based, anyone who gets in the way of a confrontation is going to pay the same price as the intended target. Players can learn to take advantage of this system by rolling into a crowd of enemies and unleashing damaging area attacks.
What has already been described just grazes the surfaces of what is possible during battle. To further detail the many possibilities, you must have a brief understanding of the main character's three essence types. The hero (or villain) has a red, blue, and yellow meter at the top of the screen that represents health, Chi, and Focus. Chi is used to fuel magic support styles, replenish health, or add a strength bonus to normal attacks. The yellow bar is allotted for using weapons or slowing down time to enter "focus mode".
Ingeniously, hand-to-hand combat, magic, weapons, and transformations have all been integrated into the same system through the use of different styles. As players become immersed in the Jade Empire, they are able to attain new combat styles by completing quests, encountering new characters, or by paying a trainer. While each form adheres to basic structure described above, each one has its own unique advantage. Attacks infused with magic can be used to launch fire-balls across the screen, cause a damaging explosion, or bring forth a dragon that toasts any nearby threats. The transformation styles change your character into menacing creatures that tap large amounts of Chi, but have much stronger attacks.
The way you approach a battle also depends on the enemy. Ghosts are immune to weapons, while demons are immune to most magic. Because the more powerful attacks drain Chi or Focus, it is vital to know which styles are effective in each battle. Typically, it makes sense to enter a fight with a go-to combat style that inflicts damage without draining resources. Then, after feeling out the enemies, players can tap into more advanced assaults.
You may think that all of this business with styles must interfere with the action. But in another showing of brilliant game design, everything can be changed at the press of a button. Four styles can be mapped to the D-pad for quick access. When switching between the fighting methods, the main character calls out the name of the new technique. This mimics Kung-Fu films where battles rarely begin before someone explains exactly what styles are being used. It also saves players the trouble of checking the bottom of the screen for information. Lastly, it sounds incredibly cool to call out "Thousand Cuts!" before you unleash a barrage of rapid-fire punches on the enemy.
The Student Becomes the Master
Once a player becomes accustomed to switching styles on the fly, managing their resources, and knowing when to launch each attack, there is still one more advanced facet of combat. This is called a "harmonic combo" and it can be used to decimate almost any threat in the empire. By using an area attack with most support styles, the targeting circle at the base of an enemy will illuminate with a meter. If the player is able to switch back to a pure combat style and launch a powerful attack before this meter runs out, they will perform a harmonic combo. This not only results in an instant kill, but it does the job in a dramatic fashion. Enemies explode in a shower of body parts, and brutal decapitations leave the battlefield slick with blood. Other harmonic combos turn enemies to ash, or shatters them into bite-size pieces. These advanced moves also guarantee an essence drop after every kill, and different combos result in specific rewards. This means that a well-timed combo can save your life. These advanced moves are both rewarding and visually spectacular.
This may sound like a lot to wrap your head around, but Jade Empire features some brilliant pacing that eases players into their role as an invincible warrior. This doesn't mean that battles will be easy. On the normal difficulty setting, players who don't utilize the bock and dodge commands will find themselves rotting in an early grave. If things get hairy in the game, the difficulty can be adjusted at any time. And people that like to beat Ninja Gaiden on a lazy afternoon should know that this grandmaster setting offers quite a challenge.
Join the Party
As players advance through the story, a diverse cast of tag-a-longs join the adventure. Only one follower can be taken into battle at a time, but each one has his or her own advantage. Most sidekicks can be set to either actively fight along side you, or offer support. In support mode, the character is ignored by enemies but adds an attribute like Chi regeneration. One character tosses out bottles of wine that allows you to perform drunken fist boxing. This is the kind of support I like to see.
A little curiosity and a few conversations will reveal some interesting stories behind the characters that have joined your team. They have conflicting thoughts on your actions, and argue or flirt amongst themselves throughout the story.
A Streamlined System
One of the most important issues governing the quality of a RPG is a balance between depth and accessibility. Jade Empire provides plenty of customization and at the same time, phases out the tedious item management that only serves to dilute many action RPGs.
When they have gained enough experience, players are able to balance their stats between body, mind, and spirit. These abilities not only determine the three essence meters during a battle, they also combine to form conversation skills. A strong body and a well formed mind equals high levels of charm. Spirit and mind contribute to intuition, and spirit and body are the components of intimidation. At a high enough level each conversation skill opens new dialogue branches, which often lead to rewards.
Leveling up also rewards players with style points that are used to fill the five slots in each of three areas of a style. For example, the style Legendary Strike can be upgraded to deal increased damage, chi damage, or quicker attacks. The supporting styles have similar options that include speed, chi damage, and duration increases for their status effects. These points are valuable in Jade Empire and players will have to concentrate on a few styles in order to max out their stats. In this way, a character slowly becomes unique to each player's approach to combat. This cannot fully be appreciated until you view the advanced abilities of another player's character. Where one person might heighten their focus in order to use weapons, another gamer might choose to develop their Chi and spend most of their time in battle as a demon.
To further boost stats, there is a dragon amulet that can be affixed with a limited number of gems. These offer boosts to conversation skills or overall abilities and are hidden throughout the empire. Permanent bonuses exist in the form of techniques, which are granted instantaneously upon discovery.
Jade Empire is so focused on getting players into the action that it almost completely phases out the item system. There are no healing herbs, magic potions, or antidotes. Essence is either refilled by alters spread throughout the world, or by expertly defeating your enemies. This system works so well, that most players won't even notice the difference. In fact, the micro-management of armor, items, and herbs now seems clumsy by comparison. Even stronger weapons will automatically replace their counterparts when attained. This keeps players out of menu screens and in the game.
The Path Less Traveled
Jade Empire follows the trend that Bioware set with KOTOR. However, instead of simply choosing between good and evil, players align themselves with different philosophical beliefs. The path of The Closed Fist isn't concerned with pointless cruelty or acts that would typically be considered "evil." Instead, it is a Darwinian approach to existence that dictates only the strong will survive. The path of the Open Palm teaches that helping people in need eventually offers its own reward.
While the two-sided morality scale resembles that of KOTOR, the path leading to each philosophy is not nearly as conspicuous. Almost every conversation offers an opportunity for the player to express their alignment. And while there are extreme responses leaning to either side, there are also many shades of gray (or in this case, pink) in between. Besides good and evil, there is also a neutral path, which is concerned with little more than the material rewards of a quest. Devoutly following a philosophy results in attaining new fighting styles, unique interactions with your followers, and of course three very different stories. We've seen the consequences of each path, and trust me, you've never seen evil taken to this level before.
While it's difficult to discuss the storyline without revealing the plot, rest assured that the writers behind Knights of the Old Republic have done it again. The story is filled with romance, intrigue, and some of the most interesting characters I've seen in an RPG. Jade Empire offers a solid 22 hours of gameplay the first time through. This includes side quests, and the bare minimum of exploration. The different characters, styles, and moral pathways will cause most gamers to play the entire game through at least twice. There is also a flying mini-game that resembles 1942 on the NES. This addictive diversion includes 15 levels that once unlocked, can be accessed from the main menu.
The Jade Empire is a beautifully imagined and painstakingly detailed land. The use of light and shadow makes for some landscapes that will have gamers stopping to simply enjoy the view. Each environment is rich with atmosphere. From shadowy forests to the crowded city streets, everything feels as though it has been ripped from a film containing expert cinematography. The game also contains some beautiful FMV sequences that depict the most dramatic points in the story.
For all of the action that takes place within a battle, the game runs incredibly smoothly. This starts as a minor accomplishment when faced with one or two enemies. But later in the game, encounters escalate to full-on wars with gigantic beasts. This is even more impressive once you witness the range of special effects that go along with many attacks. Magic styles rain down chunks of ice, healing and chi strikes cause characters to pulse with energy, and weapons clash in an explosion of sparks. Using focus tints the screen a dull gray and slows down the audio accordingly for a very cool slow-motion effect.
During battles, the camera is often adept at following the action, but once in awhile becomes caught behind an obstruction. At times, this can lead to some blind fighting, and unnecessary damage. It's not a common problem, but even tiny annoyances can become apparent in longer games. The only other slight graphical hitch I noticed is some odd NPC behavior during conversations. Getting in the way of an NPC can cause them to spasm or pop in and out of existence. This problem is also sporadic and hardly takes away from the gameplay but it should still be noted.
The character models are extremely attractive. I don't just mean in the sense that they are well designed. The faces have a level of detail that make the characters feel like real people. Even while following the path of evil it was hard to resist reserving a kind word for the lovely Dawn Star.
The voice acting in Jade Empire is most impressive. Like many RPG's the main character remains silent, allowing the player to imagine him or her with their own voice. All of the dialogue in the game is spoken, and NPC's will often interject with comments as you stroll by. The characters are fleshed out with their voices as much as they are with their appearances and this is the first role playing game where I turned off the subtitles and savored every conversation.
The music is perfectly suited to the subject matter with lilting violins and the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments. The battle theme suitably straddles the line between drama and cheese just like so many kung-fu epics.
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