Editor's Note: We apologize for the lack of screenshots, but the review system was unable to take them.
BioWare has, after Blizzard, perhaps the most solid reputation and uninterrupted string of smash hits in the gaming industry. There is no doubt that they have revived and sustained RPGs for the better part of the last decade. Which, of course, makes reviewing their latest game - Jade Empire - all the more difficult.
After all, are you comparing Jade Empire with the typical RPG? With what you expect from BioWare? With how it compares with console RPGs? If it's "as good" as Knights of the Old Republic, does that mean it deserves as high a score, considering that games have gotten better in the meantime? Does the unfamiliar setting take away from enjoyment compared with the well-developed Star Wars universe?
These are all questions that nagged at me the whole time I was playing the game. There is no doubt that Jade Empire isn't as good as Knights of the Old Republic. Few games are or will be, but the question is where you decide why Jade Empire doesn't stack up, and how much of a difference it is.
The game takes place in a fantasy universe based off Chinese history and mythology, though not actually China itself. The Jade Empire is an ancient land where the people love their Emperors, especially the latest one who is credited with saving the country from a prolonged drought. Recently, however, there have been disturbances like bandit attacks and reports of ghosts. The people are also afraid of Death's Hand, the Emperor's right-hand man and the leader of the Lotus Assassins.
The player's character starts as the best student of a martial arts master in a far-off province in the Jade Empire. Predictably enough, events are set in motion which force him to leave tutelage and embark on his quest, which will occupy him most of the game. Jade Empire isn't as long as Knights of the Old Republic - perhaps 15 hours - and this is mostly due to the fact that the story revolves exclusively around the central character. The plot doesn't deviate at all from the main story and while side quests do exist, there aren't character-specific ones and they're not nearly as abundant as they were in previous BioWare RPGs.
If Knights of the Old Republic was RPG-Lite, then Jade Empire is barely an RPG at all. It's such a tightly-focused story that it seems more like an old-school adventure title that happens to have combat and character stats. There are items, but they're even more limited than in Final Fantasy, never mind KOTOR or Baldur's Gate.