BioWare has struck again, following the success of their critically acclaimed Star Wars themed RPG, Knights of the Old Republic, the Canadian developer now has another masterpiece of a title to add to its belt. Jade Empire blends a mesmerizing plot and atmosphere set in a fictional and mystical Asian land that looks spectacular. The sheer amount of characters and the hours upon hours of voice work placed into the game help make Jade Empire possibly the best RPG yet on the Xbox.
Since the release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, RPG masters BioWare have been arduously laboring long and hard on their latest masterpiece. With their record of accomplishment, the bar was set high in anticipation of their next release. Jade Empire came as quite a surprise to many, and disappoint is something it certainly did not do. A lot has been redesigned since KotOR, notably the fighting for one, is no longer turn-based but is actually in real time. You know BioWare put a lot of time and effort into the game when they went all the way and contacted a linguist to create a new and original language specifically for the game. The world of Jade Empire is breathtaking to say the least. Books and scroll stands are scattered through out the land and are ready to dispense information about the universe and all of its intricacies that make Jade Empire. To create the world, a lot of time and research was placed into reading and watching Asian movies and it has paid off tremendously, the environment feels like a living and breathing culture.
The game begins with allowing players the choice of one of six pre-created characters, three men and three women, each with different pros and cons relating to magic, physical aptitude and speed. If none of the basic characters please you, you can either manually edit one of the default characterâ€™s characteristics or select the â€œrandomâ€ function, which will randomly generate a character. From this point on, players will begin their quest through the Jade Empire with their character for well over 20 hours of game time.
In BioWareâ€™s latest title, gamers will take the role of an orphan raised in a school of martial arts, taught by the old and wise Master Li. When unspeakable evil begins to surface and the dead are blocked from joining the underworld upon their death, you are called upon to fulfill your destiny and save the Empire. Sure, it sounds like a story that has been beaten to death, but Jade Empireâ€™s story line is one of the best I have ever played and this is the reason I skimped out on revealing more of the story as I refuse to spoil anything for players out there. I will say this though, once you pick up this title, it will be extremely difficult to put down. With major plot twists left and right and some very intriguing characters, players will be hooked from start to finish.
At the beginning of the game, gamers will get to try out the new combat engine in a brief tutorial against one of your fellow students. Although appearing simple and very hollow at first hand, the new fighting system is very deep and requires a certain amount of practice before truly mastering everything that is offered. Multiple fighting styles are available for players to choose from, purchase and acquire through training, each featuring a quick and strong attack, an area attack, which pushes back foes and gives your character room to maneuver and finally, the mandatory block button. Blocking comes in two methods, evasion and a chi barrier. Doing the latter will protect the player from quick attacks and can only be penetrated by the stronger, charged attacks, the same can apply to enemies.
Characters are also outfitted with support styles that compliment your martial styles. While these do not directly damage opponents, they do have secondary effects such as managing to slow down foes or daze them, giving you the perfect time to unleash a crippling blow and end them right there and then. Players may also outfit their characters with weaponry they acquire from merchants hanging around the town they are in. Using weaponry or entering â€œFocus modeâ€, which slows time down during combat will drain focus from your character, represented by a yellow bar in the top-left of the minimalistic HUD employed by the game. On top of the â€œFocusâ€ bar is the â€œChiâ€ meter, the energy used to heal your character, power your magic-based support styles and strengthen your physical attacks when employed. Players can also lock onto enemies during combat and target others in a snap; this is especially helpful when facing many foes at once. Pulling both left and right triggers at the same time will allow your character to enter a free-fighting mode to take on all enemies at once, reposition yourself or any other reason you may see fit.
For those skillful enough to have mastered basic combat, the combat engine contains a more advanced series of violent and deadly combos known as â€œharmonicâ€ combos and can literally destroy anyone who stands in your way. Launching an area attack with a support style will create a circle around the targeted enemy and a meter will appear. If players can manage to switch to a physical style and launch a strong attack before time is up, enemies will be instantly defeated in a way I could only classify as extremely painful looking and gory.
To unleash the harmonic combos, the mastery of style switching is required and doing so during combat is a breeze thanks to the D-Pad, which holds up to four styles that can be remapped at anytime during the game. Being able to rapidly switch fighting styles during battles is also very important, as certain enemies are immune to specific techniques. All of these little intricacies weave together to make one hell of an ingenious combat engine and definitely makes Jade Empire one of the top action based RPGs available at the moment.
Through out the course of your journey through the Jade Empire, your character will interact with a wealth of intriguing and original characters, each with their own character traits and many of whom will accompany you through out your travels, giving precious advice and fighting along side you in time of need. Players will have accumulated a considerably long list of followers towards the end of the game, but only one may accompany you at a time. Each sidekick has interesting opinions about your actions and a back-story and is directly affected by your responses when discussing with them. During combat, you can set your comradeâ€™s stance in battles from fighting along side you, to using magic styles in support further away from the action. Setting them to support also makes foes ignore them but concentrate on you instead. Balancing your companion to complement your style is key and will often make the dances of death you engage in much less damaging. An example of this would be setting your partner to Support with Chi regeneration while you attack using one of the physical fighting styles.
Over the course of the extensive single player story, gamers will have more than enough time to hone their fighting skills and spend the rest of their time exploring and conversing with the many inhabitants of the Jade Empire. Much like KotOR, BioWareâ€™s latest release also features a light/dark side alignment, although it is not referred to with those titles, the good side is named â€œThe Way of the Open Palmâ€ and the dark side as â€œThe Way of the Closed Fistâ€. Conversations always feature a reply for players to express their alignment and a lesser consequence heavy neutral reply for those interested in materialistic rewards, each philosophy features fighting styles and stories relative to the path followed. Each of the chapters in the game feature more than enough quests and an overwhelming amount of side-quests for followers of any of the paths as well.
New to Jade Empire is the lack of inventory micro-management, something that was for the most part, very tedious in KotOR. The only managing that goes is the essence gems employed in your Dragon Amulet, a golden amulet shaped like the face of a mystical dragon, which was given to your character from his master. The essence gems are special items that can be equipped into the amulet and give boosts to certain traits such as body and spirit, etc. Only three at a time can be equipped, so balancing them out is key and can really make a difference in boss battles where higher Chi or strength is required to defeat your foe.
Visually, Jade Empire is nothing short of spectacular in every sense of the word. The effort that went into creating the vast and beautiful environments down to the very smallest blade of grass and minute details of the like are what make the game so visually stunning. The extravagant locales that players will travel through are well varied and will have players stopping more than once to admire the countrysides that the Empire has to offer. The same praise can be given to the models in the game, which all look life-like and move in a very fluid and realistic manner. Jade Empire features the occasional FMV cutscenes as well, which are always action-packed and depict the more important plot advancements in the title. The frame rate is always consistent and rarely drops below an acceptable level; this is something gamers will truly appreciate, especially during the later levels where the action increases exponentially and so do the enemies. The only problem with this is the camera during combat, it tends to lodge itself behind an object, be it a tree or large wall, and obstruct your view of the battlefield, leaving you open for attack until you manage to work it out of its hiding place. Another highly apparent graphical issue is when engaging in conversations with other characters. If you are not perfectly placed, the camera tends to cut into characters, hide others or focus on random parts of their bodies like chests, limbs or other completely random areas. While for some these issues may be considered minor, they are the only problems that hold back the game from truly being perfect.
The audio department of Jade Empire is one of the gameâ€™s high points as well, everything sounds superb, from the special effects to the conversations, nothing will disappoint. The main character in the game remains the strong, silent type as it is with most RPGs, although players can interact with other characters through the obligatory dialog trees. All of the other characters are completely spoken as well as subtitled and as one might imagine, that is A LOT of voice work, which runs well into the hundreds of hours. Although the only problem with this is that most of the characters that players will come across do not even sound remotely asian, considering that they certainly look the part. The sound effects of Jade Empire are all excellent and integral to the overall experience, so a considerable amount of effort was placed into making every punch, kick or scream sound as crisp and realistic as possible. The gameâ€™s soundtrack is befitting of the atmosphere and has a heavy oriental influence that adds the perfect touch to the audio department, which helps make Jade Empire sound as good as it is visually striking.
Overall, Jade Empire is one of the best titles to hit the Xbox since its launch. Although it is more of an action game at heart with RPG elements as second though, BioWare have yet again created a true work of art. Sporting great FMVs, motion capturing, awesome graphics and an ever better sound department, the game will keep fans playing for well over 20 hours and then some. Albeit almost perfect, Jade Empire does have a few minor graphical flaws that hold it back from being perfect score, but it is still a title that should be experienced by all with an Xbox nonetheless.