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Jade Empire review

Jade Empire review

Review - posted by Role-Player on Wed 18 April 2007, 00:24:28

Tags: BioWare; Jade Empire

Flowin' Prose

John Cleese!

Oh wait, this isn’t a Bioware press release. Right. Well! If you’ve been following the CRPG scene for some years now, you’re bound to have had a couple of run-ins with the dastardly Canadians and their games. Credited with single handedly resurrecting the interest in Dungeons and Dragon licensed games and gaining the adulation of many gamers for doing so - which is eerily similar to the now gone prospect of enslaving nations with necromancy in their next PC project, Dragon Age – they went on to grow and become a successful RPG developer in the PC arena, creating various commercially successful games for the PC – such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights - as well as licensing their technology to other companies for projects as Planescape: Torment, the Icewind Dale series, and the upcoming The Witcher. In 2003, they teamed up with LucasArts in 2003 for their first console role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

The success of the title eventually helped the company finance another console project of theirs, Jade Empire. Released for the Xbox back in 2005, the game featured a mythical gameworld inspired by ancient China and gave players the chance to take up on the role of a martial artist. Like their previous console title, the exclusivity did not last long and soon there was talk of a PC port. Jade Empire: Special Version was announced sometime last year and has been recently released through 2K Games and the Steam delivery system. The game was not above criticism on release and many pointed to the game’s short lenght and simplicity of combat, while others pointed the game had many similarities to their previous console title without really bringing anything new to the genre. But does the two year wait really justify the wait for the port? Are the improvements over its console version worth it? While generally being an entertaining action adventure title, does it succeed in the role-playing aspect?

High Plains Drifter

At its heart, the game is an Asian-themed RPG set in the eponymous Jade Empire, a land where mystical creatures drawn from classical elements of Chinese culture and steam powered machinery exist side by side, and ruled by Emperor Sun Hai, one of the Three Brothers of reknown. While the game manages to build itself from these Asian influences, it’s ocasionally betrayed by its Western developers. It’s not uncommon to find schisms in the presentation, with English being the main language of a supposedly Eastern-influence gameworld, and several character names being pronounced differently by different voice actors. Regardless, it does the job well enough to serve as a credible gameworld which draws players into it – as long as you don’t go in expecting a good rendition of Wuxia. The story itself holds no great surprises and is surprisingly forthcoming in its initial moments, with the main character being told he is set for great achievements and his mentor revealing his hidden past very early on. Players will find themselves in the role of a young martial arts apprentice of Master Li in the small town of Two Rivers. Eventually, events are sent into motion that have the PC and Dawn Star, another martial arts student, travel across the Empire in search for their master after their village is attacked. This reveals one of the story’s main pitfalls: Bioware still seems oblivious to the fact that they are not creating any emotional ties to these characters but expect us to care for them. It’s assumed that the plight of a character the player has just met has the same dramatic and emotional context that the plight of a character the player has had a long relationship with. But there’s simply no emotional context at all, and Master Li and Dawn Star end up being analogues to Gorion and Imoen from Baldur’s Gate: we’re told how we should feel about them instead of developing our own feelings for them. The story’s highlight is probably the main antagonist whose motivations aren’t terribly cartoonish, and are actually developed enough to make the character rise above other mundane villains in the genre.

Furries may just cream themselves playing this. There seems to be something in for Deekin fans, as well.

But the story presentation is still transparent enought that you’ll quite likely guess who’s who and where it’s all going before the game tells you. There are also very predictable motions in the story, specially when the role-playing only makes an impact on side-quests and not on some of the more fulcral parts of the story itself. By the time your actions can influence the outcome of the main story arc you’ll be at the endgame and here you’re still confronted with the ability to choose an ending that completely neglects everything you’ve done so far. In fact, the game follows a familiar pattern in Biowarian design: a constrained initial chapter, a much more open second chapter, and a heavily scripted and linear set of chapters that draw the game to a close. Although the restricting first chapter has its fair share of role-playing, it really starts to branch off at the start of the second, with plenty of opportunities for various character types to experience the setting, develop their morality and influence the gameworld in the locations they travel to. Quests are mainly hub-based and while there are only two hubs in the entire game, the quests are usually more diverse than KotOR. Still, the game does have the same problem that Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had regarding the later stages, with combat almost becoming the focus of the game as it nears its climax, with very few charismatic or influential options sprinkled across the endgame areas. Eventually the quests start degrading into glorified “go here, kill this” situations but until this happens it’s all fairly good.

Jade Empire does have some good environments, but the gorgeous landscapes are mostly off limits thanks to invisible barriers.

Regretfully, Jade Empire still carries over the Biowarian tradition of devising a story that focuses more on party member interactions than the player’s decisions. Most of the time, the PC can’t influence anything worthwhile in the story and to make matters worse players are subjected to cutscenes and movies that remove player agency in many plot-critical situations. One event is particularly vexing: somewhere down the line the PC will need to infiltrate a fortress to learn more about the eeevil schemin’ of the Empire. At the end of the segment, a party member makes a sacrifice so that the PC does not die at the hands of an assassin of the Empire, regardless if the PC is friendly or an insulting bastard to that character throughout the game. Moments like these are what ruins an otherwise cliched but solid story, and many times you get the feeling it’s really not built around the PC but around his or her companions, with long drawn out conversations and character exposition happening all the time to further the narrative. Actually, aside the main character’s special heritage – also revelead to you during the game’s humble beginnings – nothing would really prevent all the other party members from banding together and save the Empire. At a certain point the PC will be cut off from the mortal world and will not have access to his regular party members; this happens at a time when the main villain is exposed. But the party members left behind take absolutely no action against the villain – why? Worse even, is that the villain apparently doesn’t do anything to capture the rest of the group when the PC is spirited away but launches a massive assault against the group later on. Without being earth shattering, a few of these continuity problems occur across the board, unfortunately.

The New Style

There’s been some remarks about how Jade Empire focuses more on action than role-playing. This isn’t entirely far from the truth: most of the game revolves around combat, and this is reflected in the large amount of styles available to the PC. Additionally, the game’s short length doesn’t provide as much content or exploration as Knights of the Old Republic or Baldur’s Gate 2. When compared to Bioware’s previous role-playing titles it’s also bereft of many character development options. There’s no stealth to speak of, for instance, and no skills that are based on environmental interaction such as lock picking. Because of this, the main venues for character advancement rely mainly on combat and dialogue. This produces an unusual change in the company's usual formula: while the by now classic Bioware dialogue that tries to appeal to the altruistic, the money grubber or the raving lunatic inside all of us is still there, and there’s not as much dialogue as in their past games, there’s more importance given to it this time around, with plenty of quests and interactions being somewhat more developed and offering some more role-playing opportunities to their formula. It’s perhaps then safe to say that there is a great deal of action and that the role-playing, while generally less, is perhaps more focused on the paths it offers. The downside is that if you are looking for character diversity or other role-playing venues, you won't find them. And if you don't enjoy the dialogue or the combat, chances are you won't like what the game has to offer.

The character system is simplified but still capable. There are only three primary attributes: Body, Spirit and Mind which determine the secondary abilities of Health, Chi and Focus, respectively. Health is pretty self-explanatory so I’ll move on to Chi, which is multipurpose spiritual energy used for healing the PC during combat, for special attacks and Magic styles. Focus essentially allows the PC to wield weapons, to slow down time around him (think Max Payne) and to dodge traps placed in several containers. There are also conversation skills – Charm, Intuition and Intimidation – based on the primary attributes. Charm, for instance, is based on Mind and Body, while Intuition depends on Mind and Spirit. On the other hand, Intimidation uses Body and Spirit. The conversation skills cannot be directly improved; instead, they are simply incremented automatically whenever you spend points in the main attributes. There’s ample usage of these conversation skills with harder checks becoming quite common as the game advances. The synergy between the primary and the conversation skills means that it doesn’t leave characters out to dry if players opt for developing one attribute in favor of another: if charming something doesn’t work, you can always bully them until they let you pass or give you what they want.

Focus can help you avoid damage from sprung traps, but nothing can save you from classic Bioware dialogue in action.

Speaking of which - there is no equipment to be had. Characters can’t equip any traditional defensive or offensive items whatsoever, nor carry restorative items such as potions. Instead, the game uses a Dragon Amulet which can be slotted with Essence Gems, which grant bonuses to attributes, added defense or attack properties, or bonus experience points when facing certain opponents – but some of these are not without penalties such as lesser chances of enemies leaving energy replenishing orbs, statistical penalties or unequippable for those of certain alignments. You can also purchase Techniques, special exercises or procedures to better train a martial artist. In terms of gameplay, this translates into permanent attribute bonuses and penalties for the PC. Heart of Gold, for instance, grants a permanent +3 bonus to Chi but also a permanent penalty of -1 to Health. The better the bonuses the more expensive these become, although some are found strewn about or are given to you. While not optimal, it’s a functional system that in reality is only trading one character-enhancing method for another. The only problem to this is how inconsistent it feels to have your characters use nothing but bare chests and naked limbs to protect themselves against large beasts and opponents wielding bladed weapons during combat, but it’s one of the game’s quirks which eventually lend themselves to the sometimes over the top kung fu chaos and recreation of old martial arts movies.

No, it really is!

What Comes Around

Bioware’s RPGs have always tried to present the dichotomies between good and evil in one way or another through an alignment compass and the possibility of performing deeds on either side of the field. While past games of theirs adapted their design to already existing moral systems, Jade Empire uses a new system that takes into account the game’s design and setting while attempting to present good and evil in a less superficial way: the “high path” (Path of the Open Palm), and the “low path” (Path of the Closed Fist). The Open Palm follows the doctrine of prosperity for the people, harmony and honor, but it can also foster sacrifice for the greater good. The Closed Fist is the way of discord, struggling for power and violence, but also of promoting strength through adversity. These are treated as opposing yet complementary forces, not very different from the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. It serves the setting well but in terms of gameplay there are clear faults with the system. On one hand there are excellent examples of how either path is a valid choice: the party will visit Tien’s Landing, where Lotus Assassins opened the nearby dam which leaves the townsfolk to deal with a drought. PCs can close the dam at the expense of condemning some spirits to eternal restlessness and help the townsfolk; or when asked by a greedy merchant who asks the player to leave it open so he can profit from nearby pirates, the PC can decide to decline the monetary reward and leave it open forever to espouse the belief that the people will be made to grow stronger if they survive this hardship. Some attitudes in dialogue are also depicted in dialogue, with good natured responses showing the PC smiling while brash or violent reactions will show brows being furred and lips being curled.

Closed fist makes me furrow my brow. But being arrogant just makes me twitch my upper lip.

It’s a step above the often mediocre takes on evil in RPGs, Bioware’s own games included. But on the other hand, while the design claws its way out of the pits of morality over-simplification it only manages to ocasionally grasp for air. You’re often the victim of inconsistencies inherent with the system because it presents a dynamic morality system that is only tracked in a binary way. The endgame, for instance, has no ending that reflects the philosophy – it’s a clear good or evil ending. Some admitedly good exceptions aside, most dialogues for Closed Fist characters still force the PC to be a monumental jerk or a greedy thug. This has been questioned before, but wouldn’t the joy of being evil outweigh any monetary rewards? Some people like to kick puppies for free and Bioware is really misrepresenting them. Back to Seriousville, asking someone for protection money or a reward for a deed that saved lives could fit well into the Open Palm belief of promoting sacrifice for the greater good, but it’s not uncommon for the PC to get Closed Fist points when doing so. There’s also an astounding lack of neutral options, leaving no doubt that you *have* to be either good or evil.

Bioware also carried over Knights of the Old Republic's design limitation of not allowing players to advance through certain situations by assassinating those that oppose them or demand ludicrous quests to grant passage. Combat can never be activated by the player – it’s only triggered by certain area flags which spawn enemies or by being given the option to do so in dialogue with NPCs. It is puzzling and even unintentionally funny then, that many situations actually require the PC to kill certain characters in order to advance. In other words, you can't kill an NPC as an alternate method for quest solving by taking direct action but will actually have to go through some required dialogue lines to make them attack you first on several ocasions. Still, there are several good quests that manage to lessen some of the dialogue and role-playing problems. One involves dealing with a foreigner, Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard (voiced, obviously, by John Cleese), who is pestering the locals with claims that inhabitants of the Empire are uncultured louts. PCs engage in a sort of battle of the wits to influence the jury on who’s making the better argument and also duke it out. It’s a drawn out quest that requires players to observe how his responses affect members of the jury by giving several styles of responses but works like a charm.

Excuse me, I seem to have entered the Cow Level.

Hold It, Hit It Now

Unlike previous Bioware forays into the role-playing genre, Jade Empire is their first game to use full realtime combat, leaving behind the cumbersome trappings of turn-based rules forced into a realtime framework which never really benefited either system. Here, the team opted for an action model - characters will be able to dodge, leap over, roll and perform combos based on the player’s reflexes while the damage outputs are governed by background statistics. It works well enough and is overall functional – the advantage of this system over their past ones is that everything is happening simultaneously but is not segmented into rounds that limit the amount of animations nor do they cause unnecessary latency between attacks, with party members just sitting in place waiting for their ersatz turn to be activated. Wheter one prefers turn-based or realtime, it’s undeniable that this is a cleaner and more fluid system than their past attempts.

Jade Empire’s claim to fame is the multitude of combat styles earned during the course of the game. It’s divided into 5 combat styles: Weapon, Martial, Support, Transformation and Magic. Weapon and Martial are easy enough to grasp, with either body blows or weapons being their main form of attack. Support styles are built around affecting opponents through various status ailments such as stunning or slowing them down. Magic allows users to control elements such as Fire or Ice to attack enemies, which costs Chi to use. Transformation styles enable the user to temporarily shapeshift into a given creature or demon and make use of their abilities. But with the possible exception of Support styles most styles are pretty much the same among themselves in terms of gameplay, with only attack animations and style names providing a clue that you’re using different styles. Granted, many of these have different initial speed, duration and damage ratings but these are largely of no consequence – as long as you’re in range to execute the attack, you’re set. Favoring a faster but weaker style over a slow but powerful one doesn’t really matter since what actually matters is that you register these against the enemy – this depends on catching them off guard or breaking through their defenses then quickly taking advantage of this. And most of the time once an attack chains in, it can’t be interrupted by the enemy being attacked. Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way concerning weapon styles is that whenever you learn a new one, you automatically gain the weapons to go with the style instead of being able to learn styles that could be used with one weapon of your choice (which you get almost at the start of the game), such as the Lightsaber Forms of Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. Basically, a weapon style boils down to different weapons which all suffer from the same problem – no real benefit of using one over another – instead of allowing users to determine how they could use a given weapon of their choosing.

Managing styles and dealing with status ailments.

Styles have three distinct categories which vary according to their nature, and have five specialization tiers. Chi Damage, for instance, allows a style to cause more damage but consume more Chi. Duration Increase allows any effects associated with the style to last longer, and Speed Increase gives increasingly bonuses to attack speeds. Others like Damage Increase and Chi Cost Reduction are fairly obvious. However, Chi Damage taps the same energy you require to heal the PC during battle which means performing more powerful strikes might deplete your healing reserves. Some styles also don’t need speed or damage bonuses, and since most styles play out mostly the same there’s really no point investing in more than four or five styles. While the system presents several attractive routes for style development they aren’t always useful. It’s really up to the player to experiment with each style to see how they benefit from spending points in them. There’s also the chance to perform added damage to enemies via special attacks: Chi Strikes and Harmonic Combos. Chi Strikes are a single, strong attack that only require you to have enough Chi to pull them off. Harmonic Combos are pulled off by using the Support and Martial styles in quick succession. The gist of it is to cause a disabling effect on enemies with a Support style of your choosing then quickly switching to a Martial style and striking a powerful blow. Not all enemies will succumb to this attack and the payoff really isn’t worth the effort. More resilient opponents go down just as well with Chi attacks or standard attacks from developed styles.

Everybody was... Oh hell, it's not funny anymore.

But though several enemy types in the game have some style immunities and you’re required to alternate between styles until you find their weaknesses, resilient opponents only come once in a while. The bulk of Jade Empire’s opponents isn’t very demanding and ultimately the varied styles don’t matter much because the differences in style are too minute to matter. Moreover, the ability to dodge attacks and jump behind foes really gives the player to perform successful hit-and-run tactics, an edge that many enemies do not take advantage of. Certain styles also lend themselves to potentially cheesy situations – Spirit Thief, for instance, allows players to suck Chi out of opponents without draining their health. Players with quick reflexes can almost ignore their Health rating since it’s entirely possible to dodge and hit enemies, draining them of Chi so you can heal yourself – and do this for a long period of time during any given confrontation. The worse aspect about combat may however be that the several arbitrary rules it employs. PCs, for example, will always find themselves surrounded by an invisible fence whenever combat begins making even the most trivial of enemies mandatory to beat. There are no logical or in-game justifications for this: you’re simply locked inside an unseen perimeter which will only disappear after you’ve disposed of enemies. If you want to run for your life, you simply don’t have that option. Things take a turn for the worst in the later stages when the game decides to come up with its own rules for certain enemies who will regenerate health, have multiple health bars or apparently infinite Chi resources, or even manage to bypass your attacks to perform their own. It’s a shallow approach in providing a challenge and only drags combat. Thankfully, there aren’t that many of these latter situations.

It's all fun and meaty beatdowns until they bring in the overpowered Golems.

Posse In Effect

Speaking of companions, there are several of which you’ll find across Jade Empire. I think the most generous comment I can make about them is that they never descend into the depths of character blandness that plagued Neverwinter Nights, but they’re far from the best Bioware has written. You can have several party members. Three of these cannot join the party in combat and are only there for story advancement and convenience; one of these is Kang the Mad, a crazed genius whose been creating flyers for the Empire but joins your cause. Another is Zin Bu, a celestial merchant (read: instant store) whom you can buy and sell items to at your convenience. Dawn Star is your first party member, a student who can sense spirits but can’t do much about it when you need to. There’s Henpecked Hou, a character only someone who’s been comatose for the last ten years would find amusing or useful. The Black Whirlwind is a hulking, bloodthirsy type with a body built for extreme axe cleaving but a mind made to only think about drinking. There’s no one that particularly stands out here and if you’ve played KotOR, then expect to see very similar character types, attitudes and interactions but with even less meat to them. The one exception to an otherwise weak cast is Wild Flower, a girl posessed by two demons who struggle for control of her mind and body. By interacting with her and the demons, the PC can ultimately influence which demon triumphs over her. All others are mostly forgettable but still sport some good enough interactions. There’s also no party member influence system as those of Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Sith Lords, although you’ll have the chance to lure Dawn Star into the Dark Side, er, I meant Way of the Closed Fist.

Kang fails at the funnay.

Adding insult to injury, party members still suffer from the same shallow behavior as always. They still stand around a ‘camp’ area doing nothing, which is quite puzzling considering that the Emperor has sicked the Lotus Assassins on their trails. A group of eight would-be criminals near a flyer with an uncommon design doesn’t draw any attention, I guess. Instead of being able to issue orders and tell them to do something useful such as finding about local rumors, possible local quests that could further their past or make use of individual skills, or investigate potential lines of work or clues about what to do, they do absolutely *nothing*. One character in particular has ties to the Emperor but will be outside of the palace for an extended time which doesn’t seem to be suspicious to anyone in the Royal family. Party members can also help in combat and by helping in combat I mean suck a whole lot. Followers have two combat methods, Attack and Support. Attack just means that followers will attack enemies alongside you and some have special ways of dealing damage to enemies, but they’re pretty useless and will take longer to vanquish one enemy when you’ve gone and wiped the floor with three versions of the same one they’re fighting. This makes some of the NPCs’ personalities feel terribly contrived, with their actual abilities way below their suggested prowess. You’ll see at least two movies of two characters expertly dealing with assailants yet being bitch slapped by the very same type of enemy in the game. Support has them giving the PC some advantages such as continuous Chi regeneration, Health recovery, and extra damage with certain styles. One of them will also enable the PC to use a special Martial style only available in combat, Drunken Master, but like other styles has no real advantage.

There are other problems with party members, though. Interaction between party members can be terribly inconsistent in Jade Empire as far as reactions to events are concerned. At one point the main character will be attacked by a spirit and turned to stone, gloriously recovering from this affliction thanks to some deus ex machina. Strangely, any party member currently with you will not only be absent from the cutscene, they also won't even acknowledge what just happened - not even through dialogue. Then again, neither will the PC. It's as if literally nothing happened. Yet, party members will dish out trivial tidbits of information or discourse through other lesser interactions which add nothing to the game. The way in which accompanying party members are made to be important renders certain situations laughable - at one point you're meant to infiltrate a place and be all hush hush about it. Yet, a party member I brought along started yapping about our plans and what we should do when I was talking to a guard... But the guard didn't react to this, either. It can be a mess, sometimes. Romances were also thrown in but I didn’t care much for them. They have no impact on gameplay unless for the constant interruptions at the most inconvenient of times, as always. You're about to meet the Emperor? Great, let's forget about the entire party and just spawn the potential hetero and homosexual relationship characters in a cramped hallway so they can ask you whose heart you *really* want. I’m not kidding, they actually spawned all three of the romance possibilities despite my male PC not being involved in a homosexual relationship; though looking back, I guess a name like Vigorous Wang gets the wrong kind of attention. In any case, there are several flavors if you’re into that sort of thing.

That's what I tell my hoes, too.

Body Movin’

What you’ll get to visit from Jade Empire is usually good. The art directions is nice and although elements such as architecture, landscapes and even some creatures are reminiscent of Chinese folclore and culture, others seem out of place. There’s never any indication of why insects would be a basis for airships, specially in a setting where Dragons and other mystical creatures are much more predominant. During the flyer missions, I swear some enemies look like biplanes and others are baloons which, in a setting with steam power, really don’t have much of a reason to be there. Like in Fable: The Lost Chapters, you’ll also regret that the production values are wasted on a gameworld that makes you feel like exploring but is instead very limiting. In fact, this brings up one of the main criticisms I have about the gameworld: level desing is the victim of amazing amateurishness. Granted, most games today are - but there's definitely something to be said of a game that wins several accolades and awards but then promotes the constant use of invisible terrain barriers to stop the player from moving on, from miniscule terrain elevations to large gaps between forest scenery - something that games perceived to be outdated by today's gamers and journalists have solved with great simplicity and elegance in the past. I guess the peak of contemporary level design equals populating levels with invisible boundaries that tell you you can't go anywhere because exploration beyond the corridor-like levels wasn't considered viable or even interesting during the game's earlier planning stages. You should also set your phasers to disappointment if you thought you could use the Z Axis. How callous of you to think your character could jump in a martial arts game! Actually, the PC can jump but he or she seem to only remember how to do so during combat or some movies - outside of those, the PC can't leave the ground other than to perform a forward roll that doesn't do anything other than to waste time. Even if the character's abilities and the designer's arbitrary decision of when and how to let the player access them wasn't incredibly contradicting, it's still frustrating when you need to take the long route through some part of a level because your character can't negotiate a pebble-sized ledge. It's incredibly lazy design.

Even such a small terrain inclination requires you to go around it.

When you can overcome certain obstacles, they often feel incredibly insulting. As an example, you’ll find a group of rogue thugs that make their home inside the boathouse at Tien's Landing. Towards the back of the building, a staircase leads into the upper room of the gang's leader but is blocked by a small set of doors (which the main character can't jump over, despite perfoming stunning acrobatics in movies). Not only can you break nearby vases without drawing anyone's attention, the key to open these small doors is accessible in a vase a few paces next to the very door. And they won't care you open it and rummage the upper room. In another sequence, a Lotus Assassin will escape the PC by pulling a lever to draw a bridge so it can't be crossed. All the PC has to do is move a crane that's planted right next to the bridge so it will activate the lever on the other margin - and this is automatically played out in a cutscene. No challenge whatsoever, just dial A for AUTOMATION: a pattern which is unfortunately repeated across the remaining gameworld - most environmental obstacles can be countered by items or interaction with things that are right next to the problem at hand, or by talking to characters who are pointed to their exact location. There's not much of a sense of discovery or personal achievement when solutions are bereft of any experimentation or exploration and are instead dangled right in front of the player's nose.

At the time of its release, there was much talk about how Bioware hired a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, Wolf Wikely, to create a new language for Jade Empire. The end result is Tho Fan, a language that while definitely sounding ancient Chinese and is right at home with the game's theme unfortunately lacks any gameplay implication whatsoever, and even manages to be rendered pointless both by voice acting and the use of English subtitles. Several games have used the concept of ancient languages as an added gameplay quirk - to read ancient manuscripts, or to possibly unhearth secrets or understand certain characters; yet in Jade Empire Tho Fan is conveniently translated into English so every player can read and understand it, and because of this there's never any sense that it's part of some ancient culture the player should be interested in. Of course, some NPCs speak the language and there are some hints of generation interplay with some young characters speaking the current language in the Empire while the elderly chose Tho Fan, but that's where it ends - there's nothing special about a language everyone can understand or be made to understand effortlessly. They could all be speaking Simlish, Aramaic, German or a shopping list backwards - the effect would be the same. Besides, there's a bit of a discrepancy here since Tho Fan was part of their culture and their current language evolved from that; however, when natural languages evolve they still retain several elements of their past heritage but all you're getting is lots of NPCs speaking English - which last time I looked, isn't really a natural evolution of Chinese. The voice acting doesn't help matters much, either: while the English VO work sometimes borders on the William Shattner Method... of Acting! it still manages to be adequate. When speaking Tho Fan however, every line is souless and you can tell the actors are just reading lines, not acting the part. You may be reading some dialogue about someone who is agitated and asking for help, yet the lines are delivered in the most monotonous and monotone way you can imagine. Surprise, questions, pauses, anger - all gone, subtleties flatlined into an emotionless acting that doesn’t take into account what is actually being said. As stilted as some of the alien languages were delivered in KotOR, they seem a masterpiece by comparison.

Jade Empire also sports some minigames for players willing to explore such side diversions. One of these can be best described as a Raiden-styled game – an arcade overhead shooter – which thankfully is only mandatory on a couple of segments while intertwining with the main story as well, remaining optional for the most part. During these segments the player controls a flyer variant and relies on his reflexes to navigate the aircraft and shoot down some enemies. The idea isn’t entirely without merit since it can reward players with special upgrades for the ship but it feels somewhat out of place, specially since it sports some predictable failings in how it relates to the story. Players are barely told how the device works and it can be seen during several movie segments that these flyers are wobbly and rickety – yet they never display this problem in the shoot’em up missions. Quite the opposite, they’re stable and fast. Also, this is another situation where Jade Empire took a bad note from Knights of the Old Republic, as there is another party member who is versed in the ship’s functioning and there is also the inability to ask him to help navigate it; it falls squarely on the PC to pilot a device he never had any experience with. Asking the party member to handle either the controls or the armament could provide different takes on the situation, with the character boosting speed and control or rate of fire depending on wheter he helmed the flyer or manned the guns. No such thing, unfortunately. I still don’t get what all the rage is with presenting these characters who are exposed as knowledgable and resourceful but then can only strut their stuff in combat or some convenient cutscene. Also, the first time you pilot the flyer you need to return to your village which is under attack. A party member will even comment on the destruction the village is suffering but you can’t prevent it from happening nor can you lessen the damage somewhat: you just fly over a burning village because it looks “cool”. Wheter you sit tight dodging enemies or destroyed them all, everything still happened the same in the village – no enemy reduction, no peasants saved. A shame, that.

Nothing says asian-themed like shooting mosquitoes and ballons. All in all, it's a nice side diversion but there are free and better shoot'em ups out there.

During these sequences the ship has two ratings, one that tracks the ship’s “health” and another that is pretty much the Chi version of the flyer, dictating how many special weapons you can use. It also has an upgradeable main weapon with three stages: a manual one shot, an automatic double shot and a final and also manual triple shot. The same kind of spheres you find in combat to replenish the character are also found here: a red orb replenishes the ship’s energy rating while a yellow orb cycles through the main weapon’s type of shots; special energy is brought back up by shooting down enemies. Through completion of several optional flyer missions, you can get progressively better special weapons from homing missiles (Shrieking Fury), to shields (Radiant Aura) to area of effect strikes (Dragon’s Wrath). It’s unfortunate that players can’t ask Kang the Mad to upgrade the ship between missions: even if at several points during the adventure he hints at having operated changes in the ship, the control, weapon loadut size and energy ratings will remain the same. Then again, it should be noted that the minigame isn’t hard at all: while some later missions are trickier due to heavy enemy presence and resistance, the minigame isn’t very demanding. Chi restoration is simple and somewhat fast which means you can spam several special attacks fairly regularly, and besides, many times you don’t need to hit enemies, just that you fly safely to the end of the level.

It's become somewhat standard of Bioware games to include a sort of contraption that enables main characters to improve themselves or gain certain items while manipulating them. Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal had the Machine of Lum the Mad, Neverwinter Nights had the Fantabulous Contrapulator - even Knights of the Old Republic had smaller scale versions of this in the form of Workbenches. Jade Empire has Lord Lao's Furnace, which requires players to find configurations which give hints on how to use specific types of engine oil for the furnace, then manipulate various levers and assorted machinery to produce a result. Players can hope to have their characters gain some useful bonuses to stats or martial art damage through this, but since the raw materials for these are either rare or expensive players should carefully study the clues before flipping a switch... And getting monkeys or having a gender reversal. Overall, it’s simple enough and there really aren’t that many chances you’ll fail. It’s also part of the world itself and not compartmentalized as the shooter segments, which makes it a perfectly integrated minigame into the game. Not all minigames are implemented like this however, and at times the game perfoms awkward camera transitions for some minigames. In the Arena, where players climb divisions by winning brutal and often unfair matches, one challenge consists of dodging flames. Here the camera is pulled back to give a larger view of the area but the character displays an erratic behavior, with the model facing a fixed direction and pushing directions doesn’t actually make the character face the direction but rather move into it, as if you were strafing in a firstperson shooter. During the later part of the game, the party has to fend off a large contingent of Empirial soldiers and the game gives players the opportunity to thin out their forces by letting some characters engage in minigames with different objectives. In one of these, players have to protect a party member while controlling either Silk Fox or Dawn Star and the same problem applies: the model’s walking pattern is all screwed up as before. It would have been preferable to allow the same kind of perspective enabled for the main character.

Lao's Furnace; the Arena fire challenge; and fending off enemy waves in a bridge.

The Update

Jade Empire: Special Edition doesn't stand out much from other ports and brings the usual additions: improved graphics, resolution and special effects. There’s also the ability to map 10 different combat styles as opposed to the original’s 4, which considerably helps to manage combat. There’s an added difficulty mode, a sort of “New Game+” which lets players start a new game keeping all the styles and points put into them, techniques, and attribute values their character had when it finished the game, while resetting the character’s alignment and level to zero, and removing all essence gems. Unfortunately, this throws balance out of the door: you can finish the game with all the Open Palm styles then replay to gain the Closed Palm ones with no penalty whatsoever. There are several new enemies and new styles to learn, and enemies seem to be slightly better at combat although I haven’t found evidence of this - what happens is that in Jade Master difficulty level the PC causes less damage on enemies and these are slightly more resistant and adopt some hectic moving patterns. As with most other console conversions, the movie quality is often poor and the transition from high resolution graphics to grainy and blurred FMVs is very jarring.

The video quality isn't the best but surprisingly these movies take up GBs of installation size.

Alright Hear This

It's nice that Bioware made something that people who don't enjoy RPGs could get into, but they don’t seem to have thought about the people who actually enjoy them. Jade Empire is pretty much Knights of the Old Republic - only shorter, with kung fu instead of lightsabers, a less obvious main villain, a setting that while not radically new feels fresh in the face of all the usual high fantasy drivel that pollutes the genre, and with considerable role-playing thrown in to the mix. This may be good news for those who enjoy Bioware games as it’s pretty much what you’d expect the game to be and in this regard, doesn’t disappoint. It’s a definite improvement on some of their design philosophies but don’t pop a vein, however; we’re still treading Bioware territory here.

The game can be a surprisingly enjoyable short ride but still suffers with many design limitations that hold back the game’s potential. The styles fit the setting and remain very faithful to the martial arts movies they were lifted from, and changing between styles while dealing with multiple opponents makes this even more noticeable. However, the combat system is bloated with many styles that generally feel and play the same amongst themselves. A shorter number of styles that actually felt more diverse would have been preferable. The setting goes from genuine to uninspired too often, while character interactions seem desperate to make you feel something for all the characters involved but never really strikes gold. You're still railroaded into the story and the interactions, not being able to have much of a say in how it all plays out. The morality system doesn’t entirely live up to its own premise but has some nice surprises. At times, the game felt like a slideshow presentation highlighting the best and worse of Bioware in one short, swift adventure. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game is seeing just how timid Bioware was with the game's design and depth; although the development of new intelectual properties carries a certain risk to them, you can't help but wonder if Bioware couldn't have done more with the whole thing.

A longer adventure with a deeper character system, better party member AI, more fluid and varied combo system, and the addition of dialogue and role-playing that actually reflected the dynamic morality system that is presented would really take the game to high places. It’s got noticeable improvements over KotOR but doesn’t improve nearly enough for it to be a must have title. It’s not entirely bad either, but if you have yet to enjoy any of Bioware’s games, this won’t be the game that will change your mind. Nonetheless, you might be surprised by one or two things if you decide to give it a shot.

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