Throughout gaming history, role-playing has enjoyed many forms, ranging from simple pen and paper to text adventures on a home computer. In recent years, though, computer and videogame RPGs have hit new heights in terms of immersion, storytelling and, perhaps more importantly, recognition. RPGs were once regarded as a haven for social outsiders gathered in dingy rooms darker than any dungeon they could imagine who would chant, speak in tongues – and roll dice – probably incurring three points of damage along the way. However, thanks in no small part to the critical and commercial success of Square’s Final Fantasy series, the genre has discovered a defined sense of legitimacy among console gamers. Bioware, the company that brought us 2003’s phenomenal Star Wars role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic, have returned two years later, along with Microsoft Game Studios to deliver a completely new experience in role-playing – Jade Empire.
Eschewing the traditional fantasy background associated with the RPG, Bioware have chosen to take elements of Chinese folklore and create an alternate past for the focal country in Jade Empire. Upon starting the game, you will choose from one of several characters to embark on your adventure with. Ranging from the young fighter, to the thoughtful scholar, there is an interesting array of possibilities for your on-screen persona (including one ?extra’ character for those gamers armed with the limited edition). First impressions of Jade Empire are extremely good; indeed, from the outset, it seems as though the game has been lavished with no lack of attention and dedication. Right from the opening title screen, which changes depending on the area of the game you are currently playing, it is obvious that this title has enjoyed high production values throughout its development. The story, while initially and understandably shallow, soon opens out and draws you in, taking hold and not letting go.
Gameplay in Jade Empire will be familiar to anybody who played KotOR. The interface of the game is easy to get to grips with and, in a concession to the console crowd, resource management has largely been done away with due to the lack of any real kind of inventory. With that gone, the player can focus on the real draw of the game – its combat. Unlike Bioware’s previous Star Wars-inspired RPG title, Jade Empire consists of an entirely real-time combat system. Gone are the days of selecting an attack and watching it play out in front of you in animated form. From the moment you draw your sword, or assume your stance, the combat is totally under your control. While this initially feels well implemented and smooth, there are a couple of niggling issues related to the combat. Firstly, some attacks purely allow the character to move along one plane (though the combat is played out in a 3D environment). Unfortunately, this means that under certain circumstances an attack can be started and, with each successive move, your character will take another step in the direction they were initially facing. Although not a big problem, it can be disheartening to see an enemy flanking around you while you move in a most unrealistic way. The second issue with combat is that certain combos can be exploited over and over. For example, if you are issuing an unfortunate enemy with a swift punch to the face, he may decide to block, at which point you can simply vault over him and exploit his weakness from behind. While this is admittedly a viable tactic, it works a little too effectively and a little too often. While the combat is fun and well animated, this aspect of the game unfortunately imparts a slightly repetitive feel to the fighting.
There are varying styles that your character can learn, each looking different from the last, and sporting a variety of benefits and drawbacks. There are five basic ?styles’ that can be used during combat, and they are not necessarily all about fists and feet. Martial styles are the regular fighting classes and, according to style, they inflict varying amounts of damage at varying speeds. Next on the list are magic styles; these draw on your collected ?chi’ as well as causing damage to enemies. In addition to that, they usually have longer lasting side effects to them, such as petrification or immolation. Gamers wanting to become ?one’ with their vicious sides can rest assured that they may well gravitate toward using weapon styles. The fact that these styles have awesome reach and speed is counterbalanced by the fact that they also drain your focus meter, making weapons too tiring to use for prolonged durations. Transformation styles are exactly that, they allow you to morph into the form of a fallen foe. While this style consumes significant chi, it imbues the player with all of the power and special attacks of the replicated enemy. Finally, there are the support styles. While they inflict no damage, their strategic use can, under certain conditions, enhance other styles. On their own they pass status effects to enemies, such as slow, or paralyse.
As an RPG, Jade Empire cannot exist entirely through fighting, and it doesn’t try to. There are the usual allocations of text-tree-based conversations to indulge in during the pursuit and resolution of quests. However, the surprising thing is just how humorous and witty some of the conversational banter actually is. There is rarely a dull moment while following the story, which is quite a compliment when judging the amount of dialogue to be found in most games of this genre. For those fans of Bioware’s KotOR, it will come as no surprise that moral choice still plays an integral part in your adventure, and will allow you access to different skill sets depending on your alignment. Instead of choosing between sides of ?The Force’, we now have ?The way of the open palm’ (good) and ?The way of the closed fist’ (bad). This aspect should be familiar to most gamers, and allows for an enjoyable amount of customisation to the path of your character.
Graphically, Jade Empire is considerably stronger than 2003’s KotOR. The Asian theme seems to have been interpreted well, and the animation shows that a great deal of time was spent ensuring the characters have a lot of fluidity, and the ability during dialogue and other cutscenes, to emote. Backgrounds are beautifully drawn, and many of the effects that we naturally associate with current generational games are put to good use here. At the forefront of these has to be the light bloom effect that surrounds the character and certain locations, which lends an excellent dream-like quality to the game. Texture detail is good, and the selection of enemy character models is sufficiently broad as to not become overly repetitive.
The sound is also very well implemented. The music and sound effects fit the style of the game perfectly – Asian style orchestrations blend subtly into the background when needed, and become more prominent when combat or danger nears. The soundtrack fits the fighting aspect of the game well, with an assortment of cracks, and screams that really reinforce the martial art cinema vibe of the game. However, one aural element emerges as less than perfect. The voice acting. While technically sound, and all the roles lend the authenticity they should, there are no attempts to provide Asian accents. This is an issue that becomes less important over time, but initially it can be very jarring, especially considering how cohesive the rest of the experience is.
Jade Empire as a package is already rather impressive just when judged on its basic merits, but what of its replay value? Well, as with most RPGs, some of the lure to play through again lies in trying to complete those quests that were missed or, as the case may be, mishandled the first time around. Add to this the presence of several characters, and the ability to have them be either pillars of the community or fear-inducing psychopaths is also a return draw. So replay value is largely based on how much of a completist any particular gamer is. If a player wants to experience everything there is to be experienced, then there are many hours of further enjoyment to be had. On the other hand, if the goal is to purely navigate the central story, then playing through twice may be as much as people want to invest.
Overall, Jade Empire is a wonderful game that Bioware, and gamers everywhere, should be proud of. The game does, however, also tread some uneasy ground. The lack of an inventory, the streamlined nature of the game (approximately twenty hours of play), and the real-time combat may be off-putting to some. While Jade Empire is neither a ?heavy’ RPG, nor a focused adventure game, it deserves equal fan attention from lovers of both genres.
Your trip to the Jade Empire may be short and sweet, but the memories will linger long after you depart.