Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by BioWare
When BioWare dropped Knights of the Old Republic, I knew I was in trouble. Makers of some of the greatest computer RPGs of the past decade, coupled with not only the core d20/D&D ruleset but also with the Holy Grail of geek intellectual property franchises? Yes, please. Make mine a double. These bastards knew where I lived and breathed, and I was going to have to be careful lest they manage to steal every bit of disposable monthly income I had. Then, I was saved. The geniuses at Microsoft rushed them on the sequel, pushing it out the door with too many missing story bits and untied loose ends. Add that to Lucas‘ devaluing the whole Star Wars universe with craptacular movies, and I was breathing a little easier.
Then BioWare came with the fu, and I was doomed.
Jade Empire is the RPG I would have designed had I been told to make a game that didn’t have to interest anybody but me. Set in a modified mythic China (where kung fu is the order of the day, but strange steampunk-ish flyers hurtle through the sky), the game starts in the tiny village of Two Rivers, notable for little more than a well-respected martial arts school where Our Hero has lived since being brought there as an infant orphan. The game provides a handful of characters to choose from, ranging from slow-moving powerhouse damage-dealers to quick and nimble Bruce Lee-types to mystics that hurl fireballs at people instead of punching and kicking them. The Limited Edition adds an additional playable character as well as a weapon style, but more on styles later. As is the case in most computer RPGs, events soon transpire that sweep our hero and a handful of friends up into an adventure that will have Serious Ramifications.
The basic mechanics of the game are pretty simple. Like KOTOR, the game relies on a largely real-time combat system, though pausing to assess your situation is easy enough. A few basic button combos allow for a variety of punches and kicks, and the addition of Chi power lets you heal yourself or boost damage with your kung fu. There’s also Focus, which allows you to slow everybody else down and zip around super-quick while beating ass. Focus also is required to swing the handful of nasty martial arts weapons in the game around.
Where the combat system really shines is in the concept of Styles. You start the game knowing a handful of kung fu Styles — one focused on offense, one on support, and perhaps a weapon Style or magic Style as well. As you level up, you spend points to improve your knowledge/skill in the various styles that you learn from masters scattered throughout the game. At any given time, four of these styles are mapped to your D-pad, and you can shift between them instantaneously in the middle of a fight. The Styles are really the key to character customization, and as such bring a lot of replay value to the game. Even using the same base character, you can have radically different play experiences based solely on what Styles you focus on during character advancement.
You also acquire followers throughout the quest, and can take one out at any given time to either jump into combat with you, or provide support from the sidelines. Support usually comes in the form of replenishing one of your meters (health, Chi, or focus) while you kick ass. Later in the game, once you’ve gotten a little skill under your belt, this is frequently a better option than having them fight alongside you, as they will tend to get in your way more often than not. Not all followers have a Support role, however, and one of them basically serves to unlock a powerful martial arts Style that is only available when he is your follower. This, too, adds replay value, as the follower you choose can make a huge difference in how you approach battles and what options are open to you through the game.
Onto specifics. The game is flat-out gorgeous, first of all. Despite some irritation with camera angles, the game consistently looks amazing. With multiple characters on-screen flipping out and killing people, the game holds up very well. Each of the martial arts Styles has a distinctive set of stances and attack animations that really help reinforce the concept that the Styles are more than a generic set of attack and defense numbers. The music is also excellent, if a bit bland in places. It soars when it should soar, and stays subdued when it should. All in all, the score is solid. The controls are responsive and intuitive, a rare feat in an RPG in my experience. After an hour or two of play, switching between kung fu styles on the fly will be so natural you won’t even have to think about it. This is good, as the difficulty in some of the fights later in the game can be pretty nasty if you’re still fumbling around trying to switch to your Paralyzing Palm technique.
With so much going right, there had to be a few hiccups. The first and most heinous is duration: the game takes barely twenty hours to defeat, which is criminally short for an RPG, especially from BioWare. The story is also a little bit flat in places, and the BioWare Betrayal (patent pending) was visible from a mile off and was impossibly lame. The story really could have done without it, and there were so many more interesting options for where the tale could have taken you. The voice acting is overall pretty mediocre, and a few of the characters are eminently forgettable. The highlight of the voice acting is a cameo appearance by John Cleese as a blustering blowhard cultural imperialist that challenges you to a duel. There’s just not enough of him.
If you’ve been a fan of BioWare’s previous games, this one will definitely merit a rental. The variety of characters and kung fu styles (I amassed a couple of dozen on my first time through, and only had enough points to really advance a half-dozen or so) mean that it’s definitely worth replaying, but it would have been nice to see a game with about twice as much storyline.