Jade Empire - Review   

by Jennifer Bradley

10-20 Hours


Rating definitions 

   Rising up in the shadow of BioWare’s first successful RPG for the Xbox, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire was released in April amidst a firestorm of speculation. Had BioWare’s pass on the opportunity to make KOTOR's sequel, in favor of a new, unheard of title, been a wise decision?

   The events of Jade Empire take place in what can be thought of as an alternate feudal Japan or China, though the name of the country that the empire actually resides in is never mentioned. Gamers will find themselves heavily immersed in a classical environment of dojos, teahouses, cherry blossom trees, and pagodas. A fictional, Asiatic language called Tho fan is even spoken by a number of the NPC’s to help add to the distinct oriental feel of the game.

   After choosing their main character from a showcase of six unique personas, players enter the world of Jade Empire as pupils of the great Master Li at the Twin Rivers Academy for martial arts. On the surface, life is peaceful and pleasant. Another student at the academy tries to make a pest of himself on several different occasions, but otherwise there is little warning of the great darkness that is quickly approaching Twin Rivers, until it is too late. When the academy is attacked, its students slaughtered, and Master Li kidnaped, players, in the role of the main character, embark on an epic journey of danger and self-discovery that will lead them right into the heart of the empire and far beyond.

   Past the vagueness of the game's first stages, players will find the main story of Jade Empire pretty straight forward. The plot travels from point A to point B with very few twists, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. Plenty of antagonists and side-quests, each with its own small storyline, exist to keep things interesting. In fact, it can be said that Jade Empire is largely a game of distractions, because there are so many different side-quests to participate in, and all of them have at least two different outcomes that are based on how they are handled. What the main story lacks in variety, the side-quests quickly pick back up. Players can easily waylay their primary quest for several hours by tending to the needs of the numerous villagers, merchants, and spirits that ask for their help; and on top of being just plain fun, these side-quests offer a lot of valuable rewards that can prove very useful throughout the rest of the game.

   The graphics in Jade Empire are to be considered top notch for the Xbox. The colors are diverse and vibrant with a strange sort of day-glow effect to them that players might recognize from Fable. The different textual layers of the game’s environments, such as the ground, the grass, and the trees for forests, flow into one another smoothly, creating flawless backgrounds through which characters can move about quite freely. The special effects used to portray water and fire in the game are also very nicely done. Streams splash up crystal clear drops when crossed, and flames are shown with a bright, semi-transparent flare. Unfortunately, the game's beautiful graphics seem to cause frequent and noticeably long load times that can have players switching the tv channel while they sit back and wait for the next scene to open.

Dances with, a fox Dances with, a fox

    Also, the interaction level allowed for the game's different environments can be described as some, but not a whole lot. Most of the buildings in the game are just background filler; the main character does not have the ability to enter them. Statues and vases can be broken for silver and useful items, scrolls and books can be read for extra experience points, and many NPC’s can have quite a bit to say if a player chooses to talk to them—quite a bit. In fact, a big bucket of patience is recommended to get through it all, because some of the dialogue needs to be read and some of it doesn’t.

   The sound effects, music, and voice-overs for Jade Empire are as well done as the graphics. Even though they speak English for the North American version, most of the characters have believable Asian accents, both in normal dialogue and while fighting. The one British NPC that shows up later in the game is just down right hilarious. Hits, falls, and special attacks are all clearly audible, and the background music, while subtle enough to be ignored, carries the oriental theme of the game just perfectly with its different blends of Chinese flute, violin, and drum melodies.

   Battles in Jade Empire occur in real-time. When the player encounters a group of enemies, the fighting, except on a few occasions, begins immediately. Enemies can be specifically targeted for attack, or the player can fight free-range. Persistant tapping of the attack button can get players through most fights, but for best results, the dodge/block, power strike, and chi healing maneuvers should also become very familiar, especially since once a battle is initiated it cannot be escaped. Either the player wins or the enemies do.

   However, players need not fear that the odds are against them. As the main character goes through the game, he or she has the opportunity to learn dozens of different fighting styles with which to engage the enemy. Some use weapons, others cause debilitating status-effects, and still more deploy magic, transform the character, or simply have brute force and speed on their side. Many styles require certain amounts of chi ( measured by a blue bar ) and focus ( measured by a yellow bar )in order to be utilized, and are thus subject to becoming unavailable if enough of either does not exist.

Dodging the attack Dodging the attack

   Strangely, however, none of the fighting styles are actually gained through leveling up. Players must complete certain side-quests or pay to learn from a merchant or master if they want to add a new style to their repertoire. For those who don’t want to go through the trouble, however, it is certainly possible to get through the game by using only one or two of the best styles, but it is not nearly as fun. Certain parts of the game will also put the player into a pilot’s seat for some vertical-scrolling, aerial battles.

   Followers will aid the character in battle, using their own unique fighting styles and, in some cases, providing a special kind of support, like chi and focus regeneration. An enhanced battle mode called Focus Mode slows down the fighting, while Chi Damage adds a little bit more oomph to an attack. Powerful maneuvers called harmonic combos can also be initiated that can cause instant death for an enemy as well as bring out power-ups.

   Jade Empire’s menu system is very accessible and allows for up to four different fighting styles to be programmed into the d-pad portion of the controller, so that players can switch between them instantly during battle. Followers, power-up amulets, maps, and journal logs can also be readily accessed through the menu screen, and the game can be saved or loaded at any time, except during cut scenes and battle.

   The replay value of Jade Empire can be rated from high to low, depending on how it is played through the first time. The game has an adjustable difficulty setting that ranges from easy ( Student ), to normal ( Master ), to hard ( Grand Master ); and as mentioned earlier, there are over a dozen different side-quests to keep players busy outside of the main one. Locating and using all of the game's followers can also be considered an activity worthy of several playthroughs, but the most explorable feature of Jade Empire is probably the “open palm vs. closed fist” bar that players can influence with their actions throughout the game. The "open palm" can be considered the hero's path, while the "closed fist" can be considered the villian's; choosing to play by one or the other will drastically effect the power-ups, fighting styles, and even endings made available to the main character.

   Overall, Jade Empire is a great RPG for the Xbox. It's not a very long game, however; ten to twenty hours should be all the time needed to complete it. The story elements, graphics, and side-quests are everything that the serious RPG fan craves; while the more casual gamer should find themselves accommodated by the real-time battles and multiple fighting styles and allies that can be used to engage them. Jade Empire is definitely worth a week-long rental, if not a buy.


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