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Jade Empire SE Review

by Lloyd "Korplem" Miller, 2007-05-30

Being primarily a PC gamer, I completely missed out on Jade Empire when it was originally released on the Xbox in 2005. After it came out on the PC I picked it up despite knowing next to nothing about it. I didn't feel as though I was at risk of wasting money since it is a BioWare game, after all! Whether it be graphics, an enthralling story arc or even something as simple as a clean interface BioWare had yet to let me down. Would Jade Empire raise the bar on quality that its predecessors set or would it fall short?

 

Out of the box...

In recent years the title “special edition” means that you can expect an art book and well... that's about it. Jade Empire Special Edition isn't much better as it only offers an art book and a poster. The poster has an amusing movie theme to it, listing the characters as actors.

The instruction manual is a far cry from the novel sized manuals one might have found back when say, Corwin was a young lad, but it does its job. It's sweet and to the point so don't expect a comprehensive introduction into the history of the empire, which, by the way, is less than one page.

The game itself is stable without patching (as one would hope from a special edition). The only bug I came across in the whole game was a minor camera glitch, easily solved by loading into a different area.

 

Gameplay

When starting a new game you can select a predefined character or customize one. Don't let this fool you though, it doesn't really matter what kind of character you make since everyone has access to the same abilities and fighting styles. As you gain experience and level up you can use ability points to increase your health, focus or chi. In addition you also receive style points that you can spend on making your fighting styles more effective. Some improvements to styles include raising the damage that you inflict or reducing the amount of focus or chi required to use it.

Just as most people don't watch a kung fu movie for the romance you shouldn't play Jade Empire without expecting combat to be the main focus of gameplay. In fact, the most you will interact with the environment is when you send some pathetic, minimum wage soldier flying into various objects such as braziers or tables.

Combat, at its core, is a real-time, fast paced game of rock, paper, scissors. Every fighting style has a basic attack, a power attack and a block. Basic attacks are quick but cannot penetrate a block. A block can only be broken by a power attack. Power attacks are slow and can be interrupted by a basic attack. Sounds simple, right? Throw in over 20 fighting styles, some of which enemies are immune to, and you have some intense battles. Also, for those of you wondering, yes, there is a drunken master fighting style.

I appreciated that although fighting is a large part of this game, you don't have to slaughter legions of enemies between minuscule increments of story advancement—quite the opposite actually. There is always something happening in this game. 

One of my biggest complaints about Jade Empire is the lack of exploration. The game puts us in a massive empire and yet we only see two minor villages and the Imperial City. Even the Imperial City doesn't  feel an awful lot like a city, much less the largest, most impressive metropolis in the entire empire. That being said, this is a relatively short game. It took me about 20 hours to complete. I can't consider that a bad thing since some of us have demanding lives that leave us with little time to spend gaming.

Jade Empire Special Edition is a very polished game. The music and voice acting are what you'd expect from a BioWare title. The updated graphics are crisp and ran perfectly on my rig. Combat is fluid and easy to pick up. Multiple endings and difficulty settings offer some replay value. Fans of the Far East or real time combat should give this game a shot.

Despite these merits I couldn't help but feel like it was just more of the same. Playing Jade Empire felt like I was replaying Knights of the Old Republic and not just because it uses similar interfaces. The story seemed as though it was made using the usual formula for a BioWare game, regardless of the setting. I can only describe the romance options as silly and predictable. To top it all off this is actually a setback in terms of linearity from BioWare. Perhaps they have simply taught fans like myself to expect far too much. If you are looking for a mind blowing twist on the genre, this probably isn't the game you're looking for.

Box Art

Information about

Jade Empire: Special Edition

Developer: BioWare

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
North America
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-02-26
· Publisher: 2K Games

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Polished and bug-free
  • Great art direction
  • Enjoyable story
  • Setting is a change of pace

Cons

  • Very linear
  • Lack of exploration
  • Lightweight RPG elements
  • Combat gets repetitive

Rating

Review version

Special Edition for PC

Opinions from other editors

Brian "Dhruin" Turner

I usually try to avoid comparisons to other games in reviews but Korplem's observation is too apt: Jade Empire is Knights of the Old Republic Lite in a mythological Chinese setting. Let's quickly get some basic stuff out of the way before looking at some of the deeper issues: Jade Empire is a polished piece of work with beautiful art direction, surprisingly good graphics (considering the age of the original release), quality voicework (in the main) and nary a bug in sight. The story is a typical epic BioWare saga (yes, with the requisite twist) with clearly drawn villains, righteous heroes and a diverse cast of NPCs with the expected party dynamics - all set in a new and interesting setting.

And yet, I got bored despite the short game length. What was the problem? The RPG elements have been stripped to within an inch of existence and the remaining structure has enough weaknesses to undermine Jade Empire's strengths.

The underlying RPG mechanics are weak and many of the problems stem directly from these foundations. There are only three primary stats used in-game by the player: Health, Chi (used for healing, magic and to empower attacks) and Focus (a bullet-time effect). These stats basically drive melee fighting, magic use and bullet-time respectively but the game doesn't encourage any specialisation - in fact, there is a "balanced character" button on the level-up screen, which simply puts equal points in each stat. As a result, while you may favour accenting one combat aspect over another, most characters end up an indistinguishable jack-of-all-trades with near identical gameplay.

For combat, Jade Empire uses a direct action system similar to a console beat-'em-up. I don't have a lot of experience with beat-'em-ups, so despite the criticisms in other media that the combat doesn't reach the heights of that genre, I had quite a bit of fun with it - for a while. Unfortunately, it's mostly too easy and gets very repetitive.

Korplem described the attack system and the 20 different combat styles, which all sounds quite good on paper. The reality is that mixing up the different styles can be fun but there's little need to do so; two groups of enemies have certain immunities, so you'll need to develop at least two styles but that's about it. You may play around with throwing a few punches with Legendary Strike, switching to Storm Dragon to steal some Chi and then on to throwing some Ice Shards but it's so easy you'll soon just blast through with your most developed attack. Other than a couple of boss fights, getting surrounded is the only real danger so the best strategy is lots of jumping around and spamming that favourite attack.

This would be more interesting if the development path for the various styles was more advanced. Instead of having a form of skill tree - such as in Diablo or countless other games - the style system in Jade Empire is flat. Styles are found throughout the game and can generally be used immediately - there are no prerequisite stats or skills - and investing points increases the power but doesn't open up more advanced attacks or different skill paths. In essence, there's little satisfying RPG-style character development - it's more like choosing a different attack in an arcade game.

Diplomacy is another example. There are actually three diplomacy/conversation skills, which is quite impressive for an action/RPG and there are a reasonable number of opportunities to utilise the diplomacy skills (albeit for minor events rather than anything game-changing). So, what's the problem? The dialogue skills are actually entirely derived from the three primary stats and cannot be directly improved by the player. Since the primary stats are designed to drive combat functions, the resulting diplomacy skills are almost accidental - every player will always have points in the three dialogue skills simply as a result of improving their health or chi or focus, which devalues their importance.

Korplem talked about exploration, so I'll move on to the lack of inventory. Sure, collecting loot isn't exactly the cornerstone of deep roleplaying but it does offer character customisation and different equipment strategies. Jade Empire has one magical amulet and some combat styles automatically equip a (preset) weapon but that's it. You won't be changing your appearance, equipping armour or trying to decide which sword is the best option.

These simplified (or in some cases extirpated) mechanics mean Jade Empire leans very heavily on the story and characters. I found the story enjoyable but many of the characters either uninteresting or worse - whiny. There seems to be a trend these days to suddenly throw new party members at the player without any decent introduction and then, rather than getting to know them through the journey and questing, having these long, painful, angst-ridden conversations like that office co-worker that insists on telling you their life story when you make the mistake of politely asking about their weekend.

Put simply, BioWare went overboard dumbing down the game for a console audience. Before you shout, "Hell, yeah - consoles suck!" or conversely hit the comments link to berate my elitist PC-gamer attitude, I didn't design Jade Empire...it's BioWare that obviously believe it needed to be as simple as possible and I think they got that wrong.

If you love the way BioWare constructs their characters and you're in the mood for simple combat with lots of jumping and button mashing, Jade Empire is a polished action adventure. I didn't find enough crunchy stuff to really get engaged and couldn't shake the feeling that BioWare missed the boat chasing the wrong audience but I did appreciate the quality production and had fun with the combat for a bit.