The Xbox while lacking in the Japanese RPG department, features the best selection of western RPGs to be found in any console system, with Jade Empire BioWare the developers behind the excellent Star Wars KOTOR, deliver what can possibly be described as the best RPG on XBOX to date and perhaps at this stage, of all time in the system.
Jade Empire is BioWare’s first original property, and because of Bioware’s legendary reputation as a great RPG developer, the expectations were high, the company promised a game that would appeal to both Fans of Chinese movies and RPG buffs. I am happy to say that they have accomplished just that and they have created a world and a franchise that I look forward to playing in the next generation systems.
To start Jade Empire isn‘t a flawless experience, but it is much superior to both Fable and the legendary Morrowind in most aspects. To be fair it’s hard to compare this to Morrowind because they are vastly different games, as Morrowind is really the king of open ended games and Jade Empire follows a linear path and story.
To start Graphically Jade Empire is the best looking RPG on the system in the same league of Fable, what makes it superior to Fable however is the amazing art style. The more realistic player models here are more impressive than the slightly cartoony ones in Fable, even though I must say that the women character models look a bit weird around the arms, but it is a forgivable flaw. Each character has unique clothing appropriate to the time period (Ancient China).
The game (visually) sometimes felt a lot like Shenmue, perhaps because of the heavy Asian influence in both titles, but I must say that I still find the Shenmue’s character models the best I seen in any RPG, which is really a testament to the Dreamcast’s horsepower (God bless its soul).
During battles some of the effects are also spectacular and the animation is silky smooth, thanks in part that most of the moves were motion captured from real Wushu practitioners. There is also a cool slow motion effect where the battle slows allowing you or some of your enemies depending on who slows time down to get the upper hand..
However on the surface it’s easy to see that on a technical level Fable and Jade Empire are on the same class, however as I stated before art work can really make a difference and really, this is where Jade Empire pulled ahead from it’s rival. The Environments in Jade Empire are colorful, and detailed. Featuring individual blades of grass, gorgeous water effects, and some impressive lighting.
The vistas are impressive too, sometimes while playing I would often switch the camera to first person view in order to look around and appreciate everything. Bioware really managed to capture that Magical ancient China look that movies like Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers have managed to perfectly capture. The look in Jade Empire is a perfect blend between realism and myth. There are Swamps, fog filled forests, calm river villages, temples atop snowy mountains, in short every thing you would expect in a good Martial Arts flick set in Ancient China.
There is rarely slowdown during the battles and every creature is beautifully designed, however for all the praises I have given the game a couple of things could have made the visual package better, first the FMVs were unimpressive, they are not up to par with the FMV quality of other companies like SquareEnix. Second in a game like this ( an Action RPG) in this day an age I expect a realtime clock in which night turns into day and day into night etc. however this was strangely absent in this title, and there is no excuse for it, the lack of real time day and night systems takes away from the experience as it doesn’t completely allow the player to immerse himself into the game, because the environments never change. So shame on Bioware for not implementing this mechanic.
Another problem with the game is the lack of true interactivity with the environments which was borrowed directly from Fable, like in Fable it is impossible to jump over fences in Jade Empire and it is impossible to take a dive in some of the impressive looking water bodies that are present through out the game. I would like to say that this was not able to be done because of hardware limitations but when the N64 (which technical capabilities while impressive from 1996 to 1998) is completely outclassed and dwarfed by the XBOX, there is really no excuse for ANY developer to not create an interactive environment for Action RPGs on the system.
Other than that Jade Empire should really rank at the top of the looks chain in the XBOX as far as RPGs go.
Musically nothing must be said except that the soundtrack does a fine job conveying the sense that you are taking part in an adventure set in Ancient China, even if it doesn’t go to the lengths where any one would dare to say that the game has better music than the films in which the game is based on . Jack Wall is a western guy so his understanding of Asian Music isn’t as vast as that of the composer of House of Flying Daggers for example, so he must be given credit and yet he will need to polish his game up a bit in the inevitable sequel, if he hopes to at least match music quality of Asian films.
The voice acting however is good and it’s nice to see that Video Game companies are finally really taking seriously this category in games, so far this year I haven’t really played any current gen games that featured bad voice acting. So to tell the truth the voice acting in Jade Empire is as good as one would expect from a game in this day and age, however the acting like the music doesn’t really reach go beyond good. Which is okay even though some characters do shine while others sink to average land.
It most be noted that Bioware created an original language for the game which some characters spoke (most of the dialog is in standard English but there are some characters that speak this “Ancient” Chinese language throughout the game.) So this was an obvious challenge for the actors to tackle and I think they passed the test with flying colors and I actually thought the language was real before I actually found out after watching the “making of” feature in the bonus DVD ( I own the collector’s edition which also includes a bonus secret character) that the language was actually made up.
Gameplay wise the game is solid and fast paced, I never had to wander around fighting enemies to level up, since I found that just fighting the unavoidable battles and reading texts and scrolls was enough to properly level up my character, I was at level 20 when I beat the game in 20 hours, it’s about twice as long as Fable but Jade is still a short game when compared to other RPGs on the market. Of course gameplay time will completely depend on how many side missions you take, I took on quite a few and I still managed to see the credits in 20 hours so it’s safe to say that even with the all of the quests it shouldn’t take more than 35 hours to see everything.
Of course if you really want to see everything in the story you will have to play many times because of the Good and Evil system that was implemented here. Depending on your dialog choices you will either become a follower of the way of the Open Palm (good) or Closed Fist (evil) or somewhere in between this slightly affects the story and ending. It really mostly affects characters in your party.
Whatever path you choose to follow the game does a good job of making you feel like a bad ass, since most of the time is spend kicking enemy butt and gaining respect and recognition as a great fighter throughout the Empire, specially if you really focus on becoming Champion of the Imperial arena.
The game as I pointed out before lacks any kind of environment interactivity even though there are hidden chests and things to break for money and Gems. Some of these chest contain traps which will damage your health. The money is useful to buy anything from weapon updates, to fighting styles.
Your main character has the ability to use gems, while you start with a limited amount of slots in your inventory , as you progress you will earn at least 7 slots to place gems on them. Gems really are stat boosters they can improve your health, focus, or chi, and some have other side effects that help in battles.
Styles can be bought , or learned from other characters and monsters. Jade Empire’s battle system’s main claim to fame is that it allows you to switch styles on the fly during battle, you can effortlessly and smoothly switch between a weapon’s style to a hand to hand style and so forth, some styles deal more damage than others, while others are faster, while others allow you to attack from range in order to avoid getting tagged (like some of the staff styles), etc. It’s really a fun concept that works well in practice, and it made battles fun and strategic at once. The battle system would have earned a perfect report from this journalist had the camera been treated with the same amount of care that the rest of the battle system did.
It was not uncommon for me to be fighting “blind” as sometimes when I tried to avoid an enemy attack by using evasive moves the camera would completely lose track of the enemies and I would be left mashing buttons hoping to hit something before that something damaged me. It was also the glitchy camera that lead me to many accidents with traps that were scattered around the battle field since I couldn’t see them before it was too late and I was already burning up in flames ( I really hated those torches in the first cave).
The enemies including the bosses are finely balanced and they never became frustrating or too easy, I would says their difficulty was just right, of course that is depending on which setting of difficulty you are playing the game ( I played the game on normal). After battles you earn experience points which allow you to level up and either improve heath, chi or focus, you usually get 3 points so you must decide whether to balance each stat out or to add more points to one over the other. You also get style points which usually equal the number your level is, this allows you to upgrade your styles to make them faster and more powerful.
During battle you can use your Chi Meter to heal your self while the use of weapons consumes your Focus meter. The battle system is completely done in real time, you even have the standard block and evade button at your command.
Unfortunately you can’t control any of your party members during the fights and you are only allowed to take one of them with you into battle, while I never found this particularly trouble some, it would have been nice to have some control over them. Truth be told during the latter stages of the game, where the bosses are stronger the companionship character is rarely useful, but in fights against large groups of enemies they are a big help as they attract the attention of some enemies away from you.
Also while the Closed fist and Open Palm system affects the story it also affects the gameplay a bit for example some characters won’t teach you styles unless you are one or the other, and some gems that are useful if you follow the one philosophy are complete useless if you follow the other.
You can also gain tons of EXP points by reading hidden texts and scrolls, this adds some depth to a game that sorely lacks any other exploration aspects since the environments are so linear that you can’t get lost.
Jade Empire is an action RPG that really mostly revolves around action and its wonderful and original battle system. Fix the camera for the next one BioWare and you will have a near flawless combat system in your hands.
Ultimately in my eyes an RPG succeeds or fails depending on how good is the story, and BioWare after Star Wars KOTOR gained a reputation for masterful story telling, and it’s my pleasure to say that their reputation as great story tellers is justified in Jade Empire.
While I truly grew bored of Fable because of the lack of a strong plot, Jade Empire while offering more complex choices of dialog than the aforementioned game, managed to keep a great story with amazing twists and shockers intact, without a scratch. Really the villains in the game even if they were minor made you genuinely dislike them, because they weren’t evil just for the sake of being evil they had their reasons for doing what they were doing. The plot while simple looking on the surface is actually more deep and complex than anyone can imagine. Yeah there are clichéd moments all over, but they are handled with grace and style, and the are some truly unexpected twists that are impressive, especially the “Big” shocker near the end of the game.
The dialog is also realistic, and the choices or responses you are given for your character to say are very good I never found any of the choices lame.
However all this said and done the freedom speech choices comes at a price, and that a price is that while there is a love story ( it depends if you want to follow it or not), it’s not very strong or heart breaking, a shame considering Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (one of the flicks which this game is based on ) had such a good love tale, while I really prefer the love story of House of Flying Daggers this game was on the making before that movie was out, so it couldn‘t be expected that the game would mimic that film in any way. Hopefully in the sequel currently rumored to be an XBOX 360 game, will feature a more detailed and moving love story.
One last point that must be brought to light is that this game genuinely makes you feel like the best fighter in the world while you are playing it, there are few things in this life as satisfying and rewarding as entering a Martial Arts school and kicking everyone’s ( including the Master) behind in Martial Arts combat. This game lets you do that and more.
BioWare really wanted a good fast paced action epic, and it succeeded, with an unique cast of heroes and a very unlikable and despicable ( in a good way) cast of villains.
In the end it is easy to see why Jade Empire is the best RPG in the Xbox, the combination of excellent graphics, good music, magnificent art work and entertaining story makes it a winner and a clearly superior game to Lionhead’s Fable. If you have to chose between the two or between any other XBOX RPG and Jade Empire do not think twice Jade Empire is a truly a great game.
Gameplay: 8.5-Could have been a lot more open ended in terms of exploration and environment interaction, but the brilliant Martial Arts battle system mill make you forget the lack of exploration for as long as the game lasts which is not very long (20 hours). It must be said here that the load times are incredibly long and frequent, and that the game crashed on me once near the end in the Imperial building.
Graphics: 9.5-Should have scored a 10, but lack of a day/night cycle, weak cinemas and linear environments takes the score down a notch. However this is the most magical rendition of Ancient China I have seen in a game, the artwork here can make this game stand proud and tall amongst most great RPGs of any era.
Music: 8.0-Does the job, but the soundtrack is not too moving perhaps I am spoiled by the House of Flying Daggers and other recent Chinese films.
Story: 9.0-There is not a strong love plot but who can complain when the main goal of the writers was to create a great action story, and that my friends they did. I really hated every single villain in the game and I wanted to make them pay for what they had done and that is a sign of great character development and story telling. Plus the fact that BioWare still allows the player to make important dialog choices while keeping the plot together is impressive.
Addictiveness: 8.0-Very addictive the first time through and since it’s a short game it might actually earn a second play with a different character in order to see more than one of the three possible endings. There are many side quests most of them are fairly easy though.
Overall: 9.0- A true gem for the XBOX, one of the best games I have played for the system, Jade Empire manages to capture the magic of some of the greatest Martial Arts films ever. I can’t wait to see what BioWare does in the next gen consoles.