Soothe the savage East.
Ask a hardcore gamer who they think was responsible for Mario, The Sims, or Civilization, and they'll probably lob back a volley of Miyamoto, Wright, and Meier. These men are considered gaming gods, development geniuses who have changed the face of the industry by virtue of their art and vision.
But ask any of them who deserves the credit, and they'll quickly point to their teams, the throngs of unknown programmers, artists and producers who make their machines go. In their world, it's the team that matters. And when it comes to a great team, you'd have to be a Red Sox fan to bet against Bioware.
Led by Drs. Ray and Greg, the Bioware gang has managed to enthrall critics and consumers alike by repeatedly blowing the lid off the RPG pot with revolutionary game after revolutionary game. Their recent track record is a who's who of role-playing marvels, from the riveting Baldur's Gate series to the compelling Neverwinter Nights line to their most recent slam dunk, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Everyone knows these games, and slowly but surely, everyone is getting to know Bioware.
But it's not in our interest to wax rhapsodic about their past accomplishments when we are staring their latest dead in its third eye. Jade Empire is here, and it's about time we dealt with it.
Unsurprisingly, it's been my pleasure. Their latest is another good one, a gorgeous, unique RPG replete with interesting gameplay in a vivid, imaginative world. Some notable, fundamental flaws keep it from ascending to the throne of gaming immortality, but consider Bioware's excellent track record still intact.
The ancient world of Jade Empire is in a state of upheaval. The land has recently recovered from a twenty-year drought, but strange events have led to widespread fear and anxiety among the populace. Ghosts have risen from their graves, restlessly wandering the countryside. Meanwhile, the beloved emperor has been consulting with an enigmatic figure named Death's Hand.
Much of this is lost on you, however. As the star student of Master Li, you long for nothing more than further training and a quiet existence. Of course, that would make for a crappy game, and soon enough you set off to discover your role in this mess, perhaps even saving or destroying a universe or two along the way. The story features some great twists and turns, a rollercoaster of a plot.
Borrowing bits and pieces from various Eastern mythologies but subscribing to none, the entire project bubbles with imagination. It's a world in which the celestial order is overseen by dragons and demons, government is dictated by ancestral birthright and magic mixes freely with technology. Just to give you an idea of how much Bioware has cared for their baby, they even invented a new language, dubbed Tho-Fan, spoken by some of the older residents. It's a fully-realized, completely new mythological backdrop, a rarity in this age of sequels and licensed material and a breath of fresh air in the oft-stale RPG scene.
Perhaps due to the game's emphasis on story, you don't see much in the way of character creation. You choose from one of six pre-built skins that fall into one of three basic archetypes, although there is no strict class system; you can pretty much play any character any way you'd like. This departure from the classic role-playing game tenet of character creation is a bummer, though it's just the first sign that Jade Empire strays from the depth of past Bioware efforts.
However, it sticks pretty close to its guns with a fairly open story that unfolds via tons and tons of classic dialogue trees. These do a marvelous job fleshing out the world; you can talk to so many characters over the course of the game, it's almost silly. I'd hate to be the script supervisor because this is a BIG one.
All the same, that very size comes at the cost of pacing. The first several hours of the game sort of crawl by as you learn the ropes and absorb as much story as you can take. This winds up being the case for much of the game, as lengthy bits of dialogue occupy a good portion of your time. Ultimately, though, the exorbitant dialogue works by helping push along the game's morality system.
Your responses affect your moral standing as you follow either the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist, Jade Empire's version of KOTOR's Force. While both are roughly equivalent in terms of power, the shiny path works a bit better with the framework of the overall plot and the darker path is clearly more enticing. Some of the responses for the Closed Fist player are hilarious, ripped right out of classic kung-fu films. "Your impudence is laughable! Now I shall break your head in half!" Cool.
Sticking with one path has benefits in the form of exclusive side-quests, styles and gems, although you never get nailed down to one or the other. At first it's fairly transparent which dialogue choices lead to which outcomes, but as you progress you'll have to make tougher calls. Such choices give the game an open-ended feel despite the fact that the main plot is actually quite linear.
When you're not wading through dialogue, you're probably fighting. Equal parts innovation and devolution, Jade Empire's combat system represents its greatest departure from the rest of the Bioware flock.
Upon entering combat, an invisible ring-shaped barrier goes up around you and your foes, so there's no running away " it's either win or reload. Mostly a twitch affair, Jade Empire has you scurrying about these small, impromptu arenas, locking-on to enemies and whacking away at them using any of about thirty styles you can learn over the course of the game. There are five overarching types, including basic weapons and magic styles, impressive demonic transformations, and the more commonly-used martial and support styles. You can neatly hotkey four of them using the D-Pad or press Back to pause the action and switch without fear of getting cheaply swatted.
All styles have three moves: a basic attack, a power attack, and an area attack. The first is done by mashing A, the second is required to break an enemy block, and the third clears some space. You also have to manage three stat lines: health, magic (chi) and focus. The latter is slowly drained when using weapons, but its main use is to activate a ubiquitous but effective slow-down bullet-time effect.
The game also includes Harmonic Combos, which boil down to using a power attack with a support or magic style followed by a power attack with a martial style. These result in some brutal one-hit kills, like turning a guy into a statue and shattering him into a million pieces. It packs a great punch the first few times, but soon enough you'll just wipe out legions of common bad guys by simply one-hit killing them all. Everybody must get stoned!
You also can evade like the dickens by rolling and flipping about, which is handy despite the fact that enemies, from the first level dummies to the later level bosses, exhibit little in the way of interesting A.I. " the way you kill the first few guys is pretty much the same way you'll kill the last few. The bosses look imposing, but often fight with little more thought than the grunts.
Still, bouncing between styles at the flick of a button leads to tons of very cinematic fighting sequences. You'll use Paralyzing Palm to freeze two guys, then flip over another attacker, switch to Legendary Strike for a few kicks, then backflip out of there in order to hurl some rocks using Stone Immortal. If things get hairy, you might just transform into, say, a Jade Golem and regulate like a god. You have to give Bioware tremendous credit for the imaginative design of the styles and the ease with which you can use them.
Unfortunately, that very ease is merely the silver lining to the combat system's lack of depth. Since they all use the same three moves, the styles don't feel distinct. It doesn't matter if you hurl iceballs or fireballs at a bad guy " they do the same thing. Leveling up lets you upgrade styles using a few basic parameters, but so long as you have one moderately upgraded style in each of the five domains, you'll be able to handle anything.
Though you'll find new styles as late as twenty hours into the game, you'll hardly care since the ones you learned at the beginning still kick plenty of ass, and the new ones play identically. Plus, an upgraded attack looks the same as a basic one, so you won't get the kinetic kick of lobbing ever-larger fireballs at bad guys. The real-time combat system is a fine idea, but the game doesn't give you enough reason to explore the styles. You'll have to self-motivate on that one.
Jade Empire tries to compensate for this by giving you a collection of followers. You can only have one with you at any time and they offer support by either attacking enemies or providing some boost while meditating in the corner. Which tactic they take is up to you, but that's all the control you have over them. This is another decent idea that feels more like an extraneous band-aid slapped on the somewhat shallow fighting due to its utter simplicity.
This streamlined approach extends to the stats and inventory. You can add points to boost your health, chi and focus after leveling and can learn one-time "techniques" that permanently tweak these scores. There are no items, however, just gems that can be equipped to further boost your stats. It's a little weird not having any inventory at all, especially when you realize eighteen hours in that your guy looks exactly as he did when you first started since you can't even change his shirt, or pants, or anything. The only things to even spend money on are gems, styles and techniques, and often you don't need any of them. If you want a new floppy hat, you'll have to buy it in the real world.
Some will argue that Jade Empire has effectively simplified the occasionally cumbersome task of micromanaging an inventory, and there's merit to that line of thought. Jade Empire's system - or lack thereof - is user-friendly and enables the game to focus more on getting you back into the action. But considering the action itself isn't so thrilling, more management would have added greatly to the strategy and longevity.
No one, though, can argue with the game's stellar vision. Bathed in a soft glow, the myriad environments are bright, inventive and filled with color. While you can't interact with them at all, the set pieces are dramatic and epic. The combat animations are fluid and realistic, lending visceral punch to the fights. And though the character models aren't the most complicated, the costumes are summarily gorgeous. Jade Empire serves as a reminder that with a little time and energy, it's still possible to create beautiful new worlds without ripping off Tolkien.
But while the game is an artistic giant, it suffers from a few technical issues. In addition to some forgivable framerate dips and unpolished areas, Jade Empire is saddled with frequent load breaks, which become a nuisance when you start running side-quest errands. None of the maps are very large and the game doesn't stream data, so you'll have to sit through load screens just to get from one end of town to the other. It's a bit jarring, especially considering a game like Morrowind can stream an entire world without load times.
Where it trips technically, it soars audibly. Like KOTOR, every single character you can interact with in the game is voiced. It's awesome. The quality of the voice-acting is generally good, with a few cheeseballs thrown in alongside some genuinely great talent, including a few well-known character actors and even a cameo by a Monty Pythoner. Between the voices and the rousing score, Jade Empire is a testament to great sound production.
On top of everything else, the game serves up three endings predicated on your path and end-game choices. Couple that with some styles, gems and side-quests exclusive to each path and you get an experience worth playing through at least twice, despite its overall linearity. You can also play a mini-game modeled after the old shooter 1942, although it's really just a diversion during the main story and won't keep you occupied for long.
Jade Empire will, however. Despite its generally underwhelming fighting system and lack of depth, this is a solid, satisfying action epic that Xbox owners shouldn't hesitate to try. It's great to see a developer fully embrace their craft by building such a thorough world and adventure from scratch. I hope others will take the cue and get jaded themselves.