Summary: BioWare's Xbox exclusive hit Jakub's doorstep and he decided to write up a review on it. Does it match previous BioWare titles? Are you going to be wishing for a PC port? Read on to find out!
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.
Character progress is very similar to Knights of the Old Republic - based on stats and experience. There are fewer character stats to modify but more skills. The skills are each sub-divided into three upgrade paths. For martial skills, these will include a speed bonus, a damage bonus and a chi bonus (where the player gets extra damage if he expends chi). There are five kinds of skills - martial, magic weapons, support and transformation. Martial skills are your basic hand-to-hand combat, weapons skills use a weapon for extra damage but drain Focus. Magic skills drain chi, but generally permit ranged attacks through the use of magic. Support skills do no damage but have beneficient side effects, like slowing the enemy, shocking him in place, or stealing his chi. Finally, transformation skills permit the player to shapechange into certain beasts that he has defeated.
All in all though, it's a remarkably simple system - too simple. There's little need to develop more than one martial, magic, and weapon attack. There are two good support attacks worth getting - one thunder one which shocks enemies and freezes them in place, and the spirit thief to recharge your chi. Everything else is superfluous.
The combat system is also very simple. Basic attacks are generally quick. Power attacks break through blocking. There are dodge moves to avoid power attacks. Each kind of combat skill is capable of a basic or power attack. Chi can be used to do extra damage, and Focus mode is like Force Speed - your character becomes super quick and the game slows down so the player can keep up with him. Certain kinds of enemies have certain invulernabilities - some, like golems, may be immune to martial and support attacks, but vulnerable to weapons. Others are immune and vulnerable to other kinds of attacks - you get the idea. Jade Empire's combat is definitely preferable to the KOTOR system of basically watching the fight happen, but because there is only one character it lacks the tactical depth of combat.
The overarching plot is thought out well and its exposition is almost perfectly timed. The endgame feels a bit rushed but otherwise we couldn't be happier with how the story develops. It has interesting twists and the mysteries of the quest are pursued consistently and hints are given often enough to keep the player interested.
Where the writing fails is where it failed in Knights of the Old Republic. The choice between good and evil, light and dark - or in this case, Way of the Open Palm and Way of the Closed Fist - is a little too obvious. At times, the response choices in the game really go out of their way to point out that "this is a really bad thing to do". At other times, the player's "evil" choice inflicts casual cruelties for no apparent reason. We can accept evil - the Enron board was clearly evil and self-serving, but it did so with a purpose. Too often, the purpose for being evil in Jade Empire is a petty reason and offers little to no extra reward over the good path. At times, the game will surprise the player with an interesting choice, but all too often it fails to give a compelling reason to do something cruel. Then again, this isn't a problem unique to Jade Empire, and to be fair, this game handles it better than most.
Overall, the plot experience is the most satisfying part, especially if the player plays his intended role as the good guy. The bad guy part BioWare needs to keep working on.
Jade Empire's greatest asset may be its graphics engine - it is truly stunning. A further refinement of the technology used in KOTOR, it delivers breathtaking scenes without effort. Grass is plentiful and is waved away by the footsteps of characters, special effects are impressive and yet subtle enough to fit in. Character animations are quite stunning and it's clear that true professionals were used for the motion capture.
Of course, this doesn't stop Jade Empire from sucking the player in from the very start with its breathtaking artwork and presentation. The story, though it does fall on some BioWare formulas here and there, is still rich in mystery and engrossing, featuring one of the better villains in recent years. Jade Empire is very capable of drawing a player in for a 10 hour marathon play session. Of course, after 10 hours, you're done two-thirds of the game. Don't skip the credits at the end though, they're very worth it (as they are in most BioWare titles).
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