Jade Empire - Staff Retroview  

The Twenty Hour Kung Fu Film
by Dallas Richardson

15-25 hours


Rating definitions 

   Once upon a time, the developers BioWare were known for their exceptional RPG's based on the Dungeons and Dragon's universe. But in 2001, BioWare decided to do something different and create an RPG based on the Star Wars universe. That game was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This amazing title easily grabbed Game of the Year awards from a variety of different gaming sites and magazines. But, instead of developing a sequel, BioWare went on to create its own unique universe within Jade Empire. Inspired by Chinese mythology, the game exudes life and style with its amazing graphics and sound, great story, and involving gameplay. In truth, It doesn't compare to KOTOR in terms of excellence, but nonetheless, it's still a memorable experience.

   Initially, the player chooses which character to play and creates a name before things get started. Choosing different characters doesn't change the story; the differences are mostly aesthetic, but they also affect gameplay. Each character excels in certain attributes, such as Wu the Lotus Blossom with her great speed and Tiger Shen with his tremendous strength. So this selection is important. The player also gets the opportunity to customize a few traits, like Chi and Spirit upgrades, before beginning, and can further customize these traits with each level up. Unfortunately, that's as far as character customization goes in Jade Empire. It would have been nice if players could change the color of the character's clothing and hair or add accessories, but at least there's still a good selection of characters to choose from.

   The story begins simple enough. The game takes place in the mythical Jade Empire, which bears a striking resemblance to ancient China. The hero lives at Two Rivers Academy where he or she trains with other students in various combat arts. The hero ends up being the most prized student of Master Li, an act which quickly strikes others with jealousy, and the hero receives the honor of training directly under his tutelage. Things seem well enough until the academy is attacked, seemingly without cause, and Master Li is carried away in chains. The hero immediately embarks on a quest to save master and friend, and discover the truth behind this conspiracy. Along the way, the hero encounters a cast of followers, all with their own desires and motives, that will help him or her reach these goals.

Kung-Fu Fighting At times, Jade Empire feels like a deep fighting game, complete with health bars and all.

   Admittedly, things start off quite cliche, but stick around and things heat up quickly. There are a few intriguing twists and surprises that will keep gamers guessing until the very end. They'll never see it coming. What's most admirable about the game is the characterization. Each character has his or her own motivations and goals, and acts accordingly. Of course, players must interact with each character in order to discover his or her true nature. That's one of the staples of a BioWare RPG: character interaction.

   The silent hero can speak with any and every character in the game. When the conversation starts, the player chooses from a list of responses to a character's dialogue. Each character will behave differently depending on which response is chosen. This is similar to the dynamic conversation system found in KOTOR but a bit deeper. Just like KOTOR, the responses range from amiable to down right malicious, the latter often leading to brawls. And also like KOTOR, these decisions determine what type of character the hero will end up as, good or evil, and what ending the player will get to see. In KOTOR, the two extremes of good and evil were the Light Side and the Dark Side. In Jade Empire, they are the Way of Open Palm and the Way of Closed Fist. Interesting enough, in Jade Empire there is a middle ground and quite a bit of ambiguity, a gray area. Sometimes the Way of the Closed Fist is actually the right thing to do in a given situation. For instance, in certain instances the player is given the option to either help a person in need or abandon him. The obvious choice might be to helpi him; however, leaving the character to fend for himself results in his finding inner strength and saving himself. The way Jade Empire handles morality in the story is rather interesting and appears to be an overarching theme of the game.

Beauty A strong warrior should be fighting, not admiring the beauty of the Empire.

   Whether choosing the Way of the Open Palm or the Closed Fist, the player will have to fight through a variety of battles to achieve his or her goal of saving the world, or claiming dominion over it. Jade Empire is, by nature, a pure Action RPG. But, thankfully, there's a good amount of strategy involved to avoid straight button mashing. There are several different attack styles, such as speed, magic, and weapons combat, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Different styles can be set to the D-pad, allowing players to switch between them on the fly to fit their needs. It's necessary to do this since certain types of enemies are immune to certain styles and weak against others. For example. ghosts cannot be harmed with normal fist fighting, but weapons can easily best them. Not only are there different styles, but each one has a different types of attacks. For each the player can strike quickly, perform a power attack, heal using Chi energy, and block oncoming attacks.

   The game features three distinct difficulty levels that can be changed at any time. On the lowest, players will feel like a kung-fu god able to breeze through enemies with little effort. However, on the highest difficulty players must recognize enemy patterns and exploit weaknesses, and the importance of blocking attacks becomes evident. Players may elect another character to assist them in battle. A character can either be placed in an active role, where he or she will fight alongside the player, or a supporting role, where he or she will not participate in the fight but will heal the hero or provide some other service, depending on the character's unique talent. Either way, the player can never rely too much on other characters; battles are ultimately in the hands of the player. In spite of the all the different techniques available, the game can't help but feel repetitive over the long haul as gamers quickly switch to a recommended style and easily recognize repeated enemies patterns. Nonetheless, it's great to have such a variety of styles and moves, making the battle system enjoyable all the way to the end.

   One thing that makes the fighting so great is the graphical quality of the game. There is such a great variety of enemies inspired by Chinese mythology, and they are beautifully brought to life through the game's engine. From grass particulars to flowing rivers, the art style makes everything glisten with gorgeous detail. Spell effects are quite nice too. Jade Empire is simply one of the best looking games on the Xbox. Sadly, there are a few hiccups that prevent the game from achieving graphical perfection. When areas are cluttered with enemies and NPCs hints of slowdown begin to crop up. This doesn't happen very often so the clipping is easily forgivable. However, the load times are just terrible, ranging from thirty seconds to more than a minute per area. This becomes an issue when traveling from area to area to complete side-quests. The load times can become trying at times. It's a real shame because the load times take away from the overall experience and enjoyment of the game.

   Not only does the game look like a mythological China; it also sounds like it. Put simply, the sound design is excellent. Composer Jack Wall did an amazing job of creating themes that sound like authentic medieval Chinese music with real instruments, such as Chinese drums. Most of the songs are sweepingly epic yet subtle, even while exploring towns. The score could easily fit in any given Kung-fu film. It's absolutely majestic and deserving of praise. The voice work is also top-notch, adding impact to emotional scenes. One complaint is that most of the characters are not voiced by actual Chinese people; however, they still do a great job of sounding Chinese. Also, there are some characters that don't sound all that great. They either come off as cheesy or underplayed, but luckily, few of the major roles have this problem. The sound effects are quite nice as well, augmenting the feel of a kung-fu film with the different attacks and hits. Overall, Jade Empire features some of the best sound design in gaming.

   Jade Empire is an amazing RPG. It's one of the best looking and best sounding games available, and it's also fun to play. The story keeps the player hooked with surprising plot twists scattered about, and there's also a good number of side-quests to boot. So, why doesn't this game receive a perfect score? Well, in spite of all the great things about Jade Empire, it still has a fair share of problems that keep it just shy of the mark. For one, the load times are nigh unbearable and actually take up a good amount of the time of this twenty hour quest. How great it would have been had BioWare spent more time polishing the engine to make this issue a bit more tolerable. But as it is, the load times are impossible to ignore. Just another example of how technical issues can ruin an otherwise impressive game. Lastly, the game can get just a bit repetitive after some time, following a similar pattern of fighting and talking to villagers. But this issue is much more forgivable. In the end, Jade Empire is a great game and makes a great addition to any Xbox owner's RPG collection. Hopefully, BioWare will release a sequel sometime in the near future. Looks like they are truly onto something.

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