While Bioware has its own share of detractors and critics, what cannot be denied is how vigorously the company has attacked the genre with its work with the D&D license and its debut in the Star Wars universe with “Knights of the Old Republic” (KOTOR). In so doing, Bioware has built its reputation on the quality of its titles. But all of its efforts up to this point have been based on the work of other worlds, trapped in the constraints of what the original IP holders have judged to be canon. With “Jade Empire”, Bioware’s first original IP, they hope to show what their ability to craft stories and worlds can do without having to rely on popular license.
“Jade Empire” is an exclusive title for the Xbox. Billed as a “Martial Arts Extravaganza”, the version reviewed was the “Collector’s Edition” which came with an extra character and fighting style.
The Mandate of Heaven
Fashioned after the myths of ancient China and the tradition of martial arts found in film and cinema, the Jade Empire and its people live in a world filled with mystery and adventure. Twenty years ago, a great drought had crippled the land and had threatened the demise of the empire. However, the Emperor Sun had decreed that the drought should end…and end it did. Water began to flow once more and the land was saved from devastation. The people rejoiced and a new era had dawned on the empire and its people.
As can be expected, there is something that is wrong. Rumors of the restless dead have recently filtered down to your village where you and your fellow students train under the watchful eyes of your master. There are other rumors, of bandits roaming the roads, of angry nature spirits loose in the land. And it has been several years since the emperor has been seen in public.
Living in relative bliss, however, is a small village between the Two Rivers where a secluded school of martial arts continues to train students under the watchful eyes of Master Li. It is the only life that you have ever known, having never known your parents. The school became your home. But it is Master Li that has taken great care in watching over the orphan in his midst and you have done all that you can to make him proud.
And here is where the story begins.
Every Journey Begins with a Single Character
Several characters are available for the the player to choose from when they start Jade Empire, each with their own starting strengths and weaknesses. In the “Collector’s Edition”, there is the additional character of Monk Zeng and a special staff fighting skill that he comes with. But here we need to take a detour since describing your choice of character dips directly into how the skill and style system works in Jade Empire.
The core of your character is governed by three basic attributes of Body (hit points), Chi (your basic ‘magic’ pool), and Mind (consider this as something of a second magic pool). The effeciveness of your skills and your overall toughness revolve around these three which can be further enhanced as you level and as you find and learn more passive skills. More on this later.
The “Styles” of the game form the heart of the martial arts system. Different styles allow the character to expand their repertoir of combat skills and special abilities. These are further divided into two major style sets: Support and Combat. Combat skills are subdivided even further into Weapon, Martial, Transformation, and Magic styles. Support skills allow the player to affect enemies but deal no damage without some enhancements but at the cost of valuable Chi. For example, the “Heavenly Wave” support style allows players to slow the enemy down. Combat skills, such as “Legendary Strike”, form the backbone of the deadly combat skills that players will unleash on their unsuspecting foes. From the powerful “Legendary Strike” style to the fast and agile moves of the “Tiger Style” to the more mystical “Transformation” skills where you can find yourself changed into a hulking demon, these will prove to be the weapons used throughout the game.
As mentioned before, there are also passive skills that add ‘perks’ to several of the character’s core attributes and derived abilities. Certain abilities, such as Intimidate, can be further improved by learning these skills which sit in the background and are always active. Many such skills can also be found and learned from those willing to teach your character (for a price) or by discovering and completing several challenges or defeating certain enemies.
Some skills will also draw from your pools of Chi, as mentioned before with Support Styles, or Mind. Weapon styles, in particular, will draw from your ‘Mind’ pool to simulate the focus and concentration needed to use a sword in order to Chow Yun Fat your foes into so much gutted fish. Spending skill points helps to alleviate the cost in using such abilities until you can nearly use particular ones at will.
The character you choose in the beginning will start off with only two styles, one support and one combat skill, but the player can modify and focus them on whatever else they wish for them to learn during the course of the story. As they gain experience, you have complete control over where to distribute the points earned for your three core attributes (Body, Chi, and Mind) and the skill points gained for your style sheet. While you cannot save the points for your core attributes for later use if you choose to level, you can save the skill points for your styles for later or when you find a style that you’d want to invest a lot of points into for immediate gratification. There is an abundance of experience and a variety of styles to be found in the game so by the end, your character will become a walking dojo.
Despite the complexity of the above, the player won’t feel that they’re completely lost in the system. The controls make it simple enough to manage everything between combat and exploration. The lessons learned from KOTOR are readily apparent here and have been polished in order to make this experience as accessible to the newbie as well as the seasoned veteran. So how does it all come together?
The Sound of One Button Tapping
The combat system is very much focused on action and combinations. The player can map support, combat, and weapons skills to the D-pad and switch between any of them on the fly making for some truly fantastic looking fights onscreen. Not only this, but they can also use their Chi to immediately heal themselves during the fight. Some skills and party members will even allow you to recover Chi during combat. As a result, combat in Jade Empire is most definitely more of an free flowing action RPG than as a traditional experience based on round by round orders and attacks.
To further emphasize this, combat abilities as a whole also have their ‘strong’ and ‘normal’ attacks. Strong attacks take a longer time to power up while normal attacks are…well…normal. Strong attacks are useful in breaking an enemy’s guard and in unleashing powerful attacks or effects from support and Magic styles. Strong attacks used in conjunction with normal attacks from other styles may also start what is called a “Harmonic Combo”.
“Harmonic Combos” are where a combination of a support and combat style can turn your foes into instant spam complete with a geyser of red sauce. This is probably where the “M” rating came into play. This comes in useful when you are surrounded by several foes and need to help in thinning the ranks out quickly. When you can pull it off, that is.
In combat, you can also either focus on a particular enemy or go completely ‘free’ and basically run around and attack enemies at will. The latter will prove to be particularly useful, especially when confronting groups of enemies that love to swarm you. And if they do swarm all over you, you can initiate a special attack that sends a shockwave through your foes to throw them back allowing you some breathing room.
Those expecting to have a party will be sorely disappointed to find that they can only choose any one follower along with them at any one time. What is confusing is why you are restricted to only one character at a time. Fortunately for key cinematics, your party automagically appears around you to lend their perspective on what is going on. It’s not so much a gripe as it is a somewhat odd decision considering their work on KOTOR.
They will try their best to help you in combat, or you can set their strategy to that of support. When your follower is in ‘support’ mode, a variety of things are possible. The most obvious is that now every enemy on the screen now ignores your follower as they slip into some kind of ‘meditation’ mode that focuses their special ability into assisting the hero. Some will help you recover your chi in battle, others will enhance the damage your martial or weapon styles deal in combat. Learning how best to use your followers in battle is important, especially in the longer and more drawn out confrontations where enemy upon enemy is sent in after you. Sometimes it’s best to just let them focus on you while your follower supports your actions. It can give you the edge you need to survive.
Another change is the lack of any real inventory other than the ‘quest item’ list that shows off special items that you may have found that relate to the main quest, one of the many side quests in the title, or hidden challenges. There is no armor that you can purchase, no boots, no ‘special gloves’ or crowned helms. Much like the heroes from the many martial arts films in popular cinema, it was only their skill and the clothes on their backs (or lack thereof) that stood between them and defeat. In this regard, this decision fits the world of Jade Empire perfectly. Almost as an aside, your character is given a Dragon Amulet to make up for this loss.
The Dragon Amulet that you eventually come across is split into three parts, two of which are hidden as part of your quest. As you find these pieces, you will have more access to slots where you can place special gems that can grant your character bonuses to their abilities and skills. As you find more of these special gems either in shops or during your quest, you’ll soon amass a decent collection that you can either keep or sell for additional money that you can use to purchase training, learn new styles, or buy the more exotic gems that you find tucked away in some shopkeeper’s palm.
There is also a mini-game that is included as part of the Jade Empire in the form of an overhead shooter following several of the quests. At one point, you will acquire a flier that will enable you to journey through the air and pursue certain quest leads. It’s a completely optional sequence that you can either try and test your shooter skills against or skip entirely to get to your goal. For those who choose to shoot everything that they can from the skies, this has its own rewards not the least of which is even more valuable experience for your character. Even the enemies in this sequence appear in a distinctly oriental light with flying junks making their presence felt with exploding casks.
The Heavens Themselves
Bioware has invested a considerable amount of time and resources into making the world of Jade Empire something to remember and for the most part, they have succeeded. From the heavens inspired by Chinese mythology to the depths of the Imperial Palace, there’s a lot of eye candy to enjoy. A soft glow permeates much of the game lending a sort of ethereal feel to several scenes and some of the vistas were extremely impressive. The characters and other inhabitants of the Jade Empire were also rendered well, but there were times where a few bland textures and quirky poly angles of certain locations and inhabitants made themselves more than a little known.
The animation and mocap work done with the attacks and with the characters in the cinematics give a great sense of characterization and help to allow the different styles show off, but there is a feeling that they could have done a lot more. The enemies that you encounter have not been left behind, either, and many of them sport their own sets of special effects and use many of the attacks that are also available to you. The result, especially in later battles, helps to further the feel that this is a martial arts free for all.
The voice acting was decent overall although you still had instances where the acting would range from bland indifference to over the top madness. I had also hoped to hear a little more in terms of regional flavor considering their work in bringing in a linguistics expert to help in developing Tho Fan, the “Old Tongue” spoken by some of the NPCs you will meet. And no, I’m not looking to have everyone speak with some kind of heavily accented english, either, because I’d like to think that if a character in a title like Jade Empire speaks in that way it is not because of some deep seated need to pay homage to bad kung fu dubs…it’s because of a fault in the character themselves, a regional accent that your character picks up, or it may be that they’re mocking you trying to see if you will pick on them and kick your ass later. If not some flavor as part of a regional identity, the nuances would have at least provided more dialogue fodder for practicioners of the Closed Fist (“Why can you not speak as everyone in the Empire should? Oh that’s right. You’re from the country. Farm animals have little use for an audience.”). As an aside, John Cleese, in particular, was an unexpected but wholly entertaining entry later in the game. Here’s to hoping he’ll make another appearance in a sequel.
Where we have voice, we also have music and the score created for Jade Empire does the job. Every piece echoes its roots in the work done to bring the background and mythology of China into the world of the Jade Empire, matching the mood and motion of the scenes that they are found in from the title screen opening to the final climactic battle. The sound effects worked out well enough for many of the scenes and special effects in the game.
And binding all of this together is the story and the extensive lore behind the Jade Empire found throughout the land. The empire is filled with a variety of books and scrolls that lend a little more to the background behind the world and people of the empire, rewarding the player not only with some insight into the history of the land and the thoughts of its people but also with valuable experience points. Even the stories and lore told by the people inhabiting the land help to lend more to the experience that this is a complete world fashioned with its own deep history. Some of these side stories also develop into several of the many side quests that the player can follow.
As for the main story arc, it did a good job in keeping me motivated. It was somewhat predictable, but the presentation of the story and the development of the main plot continued to drive me into bringing to light the mysteries and the hidden secrets of the Jade Empire. There are a few notable twists and the side quests that intertwine with the main one are well fleshed out and add to the overall experience.
Beyond the Wall
The Jade Empire, unlike our dear Emperor, is not without its flaws.
Jade Empire is an action title with RPG elements and that can be something that players with their own expectations will either love or hate.
While Jade Empire’s combat system is not terribly difficult to grasp, it is extremely forgiving. Dodging and jumping around with your character is easy enough to do to the point where you can humiliate most of your foes as you slip behind them and drive your fist through their backs. Later enemies are certainly more challenging, but these basic tactics are all that one will really need to survive them all.
Another quirk lies with the relatively high number of styles that your character can collect, turning them into a veritable valhalla of killing moves and special attacks. Unfortunately, in my play through, I found that it was far better to focus on a select few styles leaving a great many others to languish in my list. Once I found a style that I particularly enjoyed, I focused most of my attention on it. The game is balanced enough that if you make a mistake in focusing on any particular skill early on in the game, you won’t be penalized as most of these styles are perfectly applicable to every battle out there. As a result, many of the other skills that you run across will feel virtually useless.
In using these skills in battle, I have also had to learn to live with an annoying delay in switching between them. This can cost you time especially when you are trying to work in a “Harmonic Combo” to scatter your enemy into meaty chunks. The ability to switch styles on the fly does not work as well as it should as a result.
The Limited Edition has the benefit of having an extra character to choose from in the game as well as an extra fighting style. While the extra model was nice, I didn’t find the extra fighting style as useful as some of the stock skills that came with the game. Still, it was nice to have it especially since my particular copy retailed at the same price as the regular version did. Extra stuff is fun.
As mentioned before with the animations, I only wish that more was done with the system. Although the animations worked for the styles that were presented, after several hours of combat and once you settle on a particular skill to focus on, the battles tend to become somewhat bland as you see the same animations over and over again unless you choose to mix it up with several other skills on the fly. Even then, with my thumb working to swap in and out of other styles in order to create an interesting flow that was both a ballet of death while being brutally efficient, I was still left with the feeling of wishing that there was more to it.
There is also the attempt to eschew the entire ‘good and evil’ paradigm that defines the relationships between the hero and the rest of the world in many other role playing titles. Instead, we have the “Path of the Open Palm” and “Path of the Closed Fist”. There are a few discussions in-game on the differences between these two philosophies of the Jade Empire with the implications that the “Open Palm” can be just as harmful as the “Closed Fist” in dealing with certain situations, or vice versa. The elaborate dance that the two play against each other within the lives of those within the Jade Empire seems, on the surface, to be a complex dynamic. On a more simplistic level, certain skills are also restricted based on what philosophy you favor; certain gems for your amulet will only function in the same way, or you may find that you can’t use…err…help the NPCs that you encounter unless you are firmly in the camp of the Open Palm of Closed Fist.
However, during the game, it plays out in a manner that leaves little doubt as to what will happen when one choice is picked over the other. The problems for the most part are not as tiered as to cause a domino effect that cascades down to the degree that would force the player to consider more carefully their philosophical choices made in the game. You can almost always expect a good result from doing ‘the good thing’ and not expect that by doing good, you may also do harm.
On one hand, this is a, er, ‘good’ thing as it keeps the game enjoyable without making the player too paranoid. On the other hand, even one more level of detail or more dialogue to describe the impact of these choices and to warn of what might return to haunt them would have helped to flesh out this system instead of creating what is basically the same good vs. evil philosophy in sheep’s clothing. This would not have been so disappointing had it not been something that Bioware was attempting to position as a unique replacement that would open the doors on a greater level of interaction and decision making.
Your party members are all but useless as fellow fighters. Their kung fu was not strong. Most of the characters, with the possible exception of the Black Hurricane, were absolutely horrendous in combat if left alone requiring me to bail them out most of the time. They were useful as cannon fodder, but against many of the more powerful foes later in the game, that was all that they were useful for if I had decided to keep them as an active partner in the fights that followed. As a result, I relegated them to support roles for most of the game. I would have rather wanted to see them more as active partners rather than as an extra set of abilities on legs.
Another issue that slightly detracted from the experience was a case of deja vu. Veterans of Bioware’s KOTOR may feel a slight sense of ‘having been there before’ as much of it does feel like “KOTOR in the East”. Instead evoking the same sense of wonder and trepidation that Marco Polo must have experienced when he made his journey along the Silk Road to the exotic court of Kublai Khan in the Far East, the Jade Empire seems more like a familiar land with many of the same problems.
This is probably because the “hero without a past” theme makes another surprising return. The Baldur’s Gate Bhaal arc on the PC, KOTOR, and even Neverwinter Nights have already milked this angle and anyone that has played through these may feel that this is getting old. Again, I suspect this will have little impact on new players that have never touched a Bioware title in the past, but veterans may again feel as if they’ve been in those shoes before. The impression was definitely there.
As for the ‘expansive world’ of Jade Empire, it felt relatively small. Certainly not as huge as the in-game map showed it to be. Either I was missing something, but it appeared that there were only two locations that could be traveled to once you gain the ability to do so. The map was certainly nice to look at with some intriguing places, but there was no way to get to them. I wanted to visit the Phoenix Gate mentioned by several characters that I had run across in my jaunt through the empire, see the Six Scrolls, or head north towards the lands once terrorized by the ancient warlord Zeng. The excellent amount of background lore found throughout the empire in the form of books, scrolls, and news shared by the inhabitants only made the yearning worse as it continued to fuel the curiosity about those distant lands and the legends that mention them. Unfortunately, there are really only a handful of major locations that you can get to from what I could see. This is offset by the huge number of side quests and challenges that are stuffed into each one. These side quests help extend the life of the game and by the time I made it to the end, I had clocked in about 28 hours worth of play time much of it spent exploring and backtracking to find that last book or side quest that I know I missed out on.
There are also a few technical issues that I had encountered, one of which were the lengthy loading times. Another problem is slowdown, especially when you are confronting quite a few bad guys or have used a form that is heavy on the effects. At one point towards the end of the game, I had used a form that turned me into a forty foot giant to help crush the half dozen or so foes that were attacking me. In moments, the performance began to chug along until there were fewer foes onscreen.
Barbarians at the Gate
Despite the flaws above, I still found Jade Empire to be an entertaining action RPG title that takes the player to a unique world teeming with the mysteries and challenges of a land inspired by the mythology of ancient China. The light RPG flavor of this title, however, may put off a few players expecting a more traditional approach but that should not overshadow what the title actually manages to do right.
In the end, veterans of Bioware’s other offerings such as KOTOR will find themselves back in familiar territory and newcomers to the genre will find the extremely forgiving combat system simple to grasp as they take part in this martial arts adventure. Combine that with a well told story, the many side quests and challenges, and the rich world of the Jade Empire itself and you still have one of the better action adventure titles that can be found on the Xbox.