Until two years ago, BioWare was best-known for its Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, both outstanding role-playing games for a predominantly PC crowd. Then a funny thing happened: they smashed onto Xbox with none other than a Star Wars RPG (Knights of the Old Republic) and handily walked home with Game of the Year honors. Rather than work on the KOTOR sequel, BioWare chose to develop and entirely new property, Jade Empire, and after spending more hours with it than we’d care to admit, it’s all too apparent that BioWare has another game-of-the-year candidate on its hands.
Jade Empire diverges from the sci-fi and medieval realms of BioWare fame, transporting gamers instead to a diverse world inspired by the myths of ancient China. Martial arts, magic, demons, selfless heroes, teahouse brawls and ghostly foes … it’s all included in impeccable detail. The details aren’t just in the story, although the tale is compelling and intricate. Nor are the details just in the video and audio, both of which are outstanding. Instead, the most important details are contained in the action-RPG gameplay, which BioWare has not only implemented for the first time in a game of this magnitude, but implemented better than any action-RPG to date.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Jade Empire and KOTOR, because the games share certain key traits. Both allow you to create a character from four classes (Fast, Balanced, Magic and Strong). Both feature a light side and dark side (Open Palm and Closed Fist). Both allow you to customize your character’s attributes or select from pre-determined traits. And both allow you to save anywhere, review every conversation you’ve ever had and upgrade your character using the experience points accumulated with each successful quest or kill. But it’s the divergence between the two games where Jade Empire truly shines.
With KOTOR, BioWare was clearly reaching for a more-hardcore RPG crowd. Not only was the combat turn-based, but gamers could control each member of their party, determine their attack tendencies, manage an exhaustive inventory and on the whole get lost for hours in the details. With Jade Empire, BioWare has opened up the gameplay by using real-time fighting rather than turn-based combat. It has simplified the inventory system so players are drawn back to the action. And it has streamlined the menu system so quests and objectives are immediately accessible. Amid these changes BioWare has retained some of the dice-rolling aspects of its RPG past, most obviously with the success or failure of certain conversations, but make no mistake: Jade Empire lives up to its “action RPG” moniker.
The real-time combat is, quite simply, a blast. Imagine Ninja Gaiden in an RPG wrapper (minus the wall-running), and you have a good idea of what to expect, albeit on a lesser scale. Each character has a power attack, light attack, block function and acrobatic/jump function, all of which are used in lighting-fast succession. Jade Empire takes place in ancient China, the land of ninjas; you’d better get accustomed to moving as fast as one.
Each character also has up to four different fighting styles, each of which can be mapped to a different direction on the D-pad. With these different styles available, an extra degree of strategy enters each battle. For example, ghostly enemies are immune to supporting and magic attacks, so you’ll have to use a primary or weapon style to do away with them. Mortal enemies, meanwhile, aren’t immune to anything, so you can use any manner of style, from a transformational style (turn into a Demon Toad, for example, and poison them slowly) to a support style augmented by a Chi attack.
As varied as the combat options are, what really puts Jade Empire ahead of the pack is the fact that its action never descends into the land of the button masher. Whether you’re switching between targets with the L and R triggers, rapidly moving from style to style or unloading an area attack to buy some time to regenerate health using Chi, you’ll always feel in total control, and you’ll never grow tired of mixing up the battle tactics.
None of this is to say the role-playing aspects are long gone. Quite the contrary, as much as BioWare has opened the gameplay to a wider audience, it has maintained the depth that RPG fans crave. For example, there’s still a strategic party system, but players can only bring one member with them on any given quest, and they can only control the primary character. To counterbalance this, players have the option of customizing their teammates’ AI to Support rather than Attack, which gives the primary character the comrade’s traits but leaves the primary character alone in battle.
The game also tracks every conversation in the game, enabling hardcore role-players to micro-manage and review every interaction, while more-casual gamers will skip this option altogether. In addition, Jade Empire includes dozens of side quests, none of which truly affects the plot but all of which offer hours of additional role-playing for those who thrive on filling-in the details. Perhaps the gentlest nod to the mixed crowd, though, is BioWare including the ability to increase or decrease the enemy difficulty in mid-game. This is not an option during the heat of battle, but the sheer fact that it’s included makes the game appropriate both for action-oriented and “calmer” gamers.
Graphically, Jade Empire looks initially on par with Knights of the Old Republic, but closer inspection reveals the advancements BioWare made on the KOTOR engine. Textures are cleaner, animations are smoother, lighting is more feathered and realistic, and character models are considerably more detailed. One of the biggest improvements, though, is just that: bigger. The environments in Jade Empire not only feel considerably larger than those in KOTOR, but they incur less-frequent load times and seem infinitely more active and populated. Many of the non-playable character models are cloned from one chapter to the next, but given the number of characters moving on screen at any one time, this is forgivable. So is the occasional “I just walked right through a monkey” incident; there are just too many polygons for any one engine to handle 24/7.
The audio in Jade Empire, oddly enough, doesn’t have quite the same power of that in KOTOR, although it might just be the lack of a Star Wars tune. The music has a distinct Crouching Tiger quality, and every line of on-screen text is recorded impeccably in one dialect or another. Even the surround sound is effective in those rare instances where it’s needed. When it comes to setting a sense of place and scale, Jade Empire’s audio is outstanding. It’s just that there’s nothing that really sweeps you off your feet and says “now that sounded good.”
But how does more than 50 hours of gameplay sound? Sounds good to me, and it’s exactly what you get with Jade Empire. Much like KOTOR (and even Fable), Jade Empire includes multiple outcomes depending upon your inclination toward the light or dark side of the … er, the Open Palm or Closed Fist. A quick run-through of either campaign will run at least 20 hours, and if you stop to partake in any of the dozens of side quests, you’ll be looking at closer to 25 or 30 hours for each. In addition, the story is so intricately woven and has so many opportunities to affect the plot that you can easily count on replaying the game at least once to see how things change when a few key decisions are changed.
Jade Empire is bound to draw comparisons to Knights of the Old Republic, both because it was developed by the same company and because it has set a new benchmark for role-playing games on Xbox. Yet as tempting as it may be to align the two, it is important to realize they are two very different games. Jade Empire will be judged by many as the better of the two, and given the outstanding mix of action combat and role-playing elements, I tend to agree.
At the same time, Jade Empire is designed to reach a different crowd while still satiating BioWare’s RPG stalwarts. Whether it meets those objectives is up to gamers to decide, but one thing is certain: Jade Empire is one of the finest games around, RPG or not, and it will certainly be mentioned in Game of the Year discussions in December.
- Gameplay: 9.8
- A nearly perfect mix of action and RPG, but more control over party members (or having more of them at once) would’ve been nice.
- Graphics: 9.7
- No action-RPG around looks better.
- Sound: 9.0
- Great music and recorded dialogue, but something keeps it from being truly epic in scope.
- Replay: 9.7
- One of the few games around that will actually compel you to play through again making different decisions.
- Overall: 9.7
- BioWare somehow trumped its own best work. Jade Empire is remarkable, bound to be mentioned in game of the year discussions.
— Jonas Allen