Jade Empire Review
Bioware is a unique game developer. Owned by no major publisher even amidst the huge consolidation of the industry, they have been working on titles for other companies' major intellectual properties since inception. First, they worked on the Dungeons & Dragons-licensed Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games. Then it was onto a Star Wars property with the hugely successful Knights of the Old Republic. But with the success of all of their gmes so far, Bioware's decided that while making games for other people was probably a lot of fun, enough's enough. It was time for them to branch out on their own.
Jade Empire talks philosophically about breaking free of bonds and forging your own destiny, but the game's plot almost seems to represent what Bioware themselves are doing with this game. This is their first game based on their own completely unique world, with no licenses to worry about or major companies hovering over them, approving every line of dialogue. Unlike with KOTOR, Lucasarts is not breathing down their neck this time, telling Bioware what does and does not fit in a Star Wars game. And anyone who's played either KOTOR title knows that if Bioware or Obsidian Entertainment had had full creative control for those games, they'd likely be far better than what was delivered. This all adds up to a hope that Bioware can finally stretch their creative abilities to their fullest extent. And in many ways, this is exactly what happened.
Action-RPG titles nowadays are usually made up of about 60-70% action, with the rest of the game being some light RPG elements. Sure, you can level up, get new equipment, and pick from a basic tree of skills, but much of what makes RPG fans what they are gets left out. On top of that, the action is generally devoid of any type of tactics, where some simple button mashing will do most of the time. With Jade Empire, though, Bioware's done their best to make the action easy to understand early on, but the complexity increases as you progress. Sure, the gameplay mechanics are brought to much more of an action-oriented level, but this is not a Dark Alliance game - the cohesive world, highly imaginative visuals, days worth of well-written and acted dialogue, and complex tactical options are still here. On top of that, the action itself is unique, and if you move to the hardest difficulty level, it becomes a much more interesting game from a tactics standpoint.
At first, Jade Empire seems to be a pretty simplistic game in an admittedly beautiful world. I was not impressed with what Bioware had done during my first couple of hours with the game, as the fighting seemed way too simplistic and many of the early characters seemed one-sided and dull. Each of your fighting styles only has three basic moves: tap A for a three or four hit combo that never really changes, hit X for a power attack that punches through enemy's defenses, and press A+X for an area-effect attack. That's it. Tap the Y button to go into the slow-motion "Focus" mode, or the Black button to use your mana to power up your attacks - more tactical options are nice, but it doesn't add anything truly satisfying to how the fights look or feel.
What does add to this, though, is the massive number of styles you can use and switch between to beat your enemies to a pulp. While you can use basically any two simple styles to get through the whole game on the medium difficulty, that won't fly in Grandmaster difficulty, and it's just not that fun to fight that plainly anyway. Players will find themselves experimenting on their own, seeing which types of styles (there are martial, weapon, magic, and support styles, and several specific ones in each class) are more fun to use and are more effective when put together sequentially.
My first impression of the character creation was also negative, as it seems really shallow. You can't customize the look of your character at all, and the initial options for changing the starting styles from the start are also limited. But Bioware did both of these things for a reason. First, let's think about KOTOR for a minute - all three classes for each gender had the same body type, and all you could really do was switch between a dozen or so faces for each sex. That was it. Here, you get six characters to choose from (seven if you have the Limited Edition version), each of which have vastly different looks. They're all preset to start with different abilities and styles, but there's nothing inherently set in any character - if you customize your character's abilities how you want, then all you really are doing during character creation is picking how you want to look. Some quests and certain opportunities change depending on your sex, but otherwise the game's the same.
This has a rather nice side effect that I didn't actually notice until I was a few hours into the game: Bioware has made movie cutscenes for each of seven main characters, and each of these cutscenes has certain complex animations that you generally don't see in a cutscene drawn in the game engine. Anyone who has studied the cutscenes in Bioware's past games might have noticed an almost complete lack of unique character animations - now, we get to see something that's much more like a real movie with the character you picked to start. It makes your character more believable, like someone who was the only one meant to be there. You're not just an everyman with one of twelve faces: you're Monk Shen, or Radiant Jen Zi, fighting through tyranny (or causing it if you really want to) and taking on the whole Jade Empire if you have to.
One bad side effect of this is that your character's equipment will always look the same. The various things you can pick up and use are part of an amulet that the plot kind of wraps around, which isn't visible on your character. While you'll need to pick and choose what goes into the amulet out of all the upgrades you find, it's not like putting on a new piece of armor or upgrading your lightsaber. In fact, it's just not as cool as doing any of those things. At least the combat styles you can choose from (and you can switch to literally any of them in mid-fight, even if only four can be quickly selected at once) increase the many ways you can dish out damage in fights.
Bioware put huge amounts of effort into creating this brand new game world with its many breathtaking environments, but they have also reused many of the conventions they found successful in KOTOR. You'll get to acquire a signature "flying machine" to run around the world with, and there are yet again mini-games to go with it - although this time it's a top-down arcade shooter like the classic 1942. Only one or two of these missions are required, and while you can "evade" the rest, you do get experience points for some of them. On the ground, you'll be able to make choices that push you towards a good path (called the Way of the Open Palm) or an evil one (Way of the Closed Fist). While the characters and game lore do make a half-hearted attempt to say that neither Way is inherently good or evil, it doesn't really work once you play for a while. One major character is sort of neutral, but that's really the exception to the rule that holds almost all of the rest of the time: that the bad guys are always Closed Fist. Otherwise, you can see a pretty sharp line between good and evil in many of the characters.
Sadly, there is no neutral alignment for the player to really work at in Jade Empire - many quests force you to pick between either a good or evil result. There are few characters that promote or even talk about some sort of balance in the world, and this is something that Obsidian really pushed with one of their major characters in KOTOR2, but Bioware seems to not want to go down that path yet. In fact, neither Obsidian's first game nor this one really reward you for being neutral at all, and while there is a third ending to Jade Empire that's vaguely what I'd consider neutral, it feels like a cop out done at the last moment. You can't live your life striking a balance in this game, and I hope that Bioware can come up with a way in their next game to do this right.
As with their previous games, Bioware's also taken the idea of a party of followers and run with it. There are about a dozen different characters you can pick from, give or take, even if some won't fight or can't actually walk around the world with you. We've got the generic prude female Dawn Star, the mysterious yet simultaneously-annoying Silk Fox, the hilarious brute Black Whirlwind, the drunken-kung fu-promoting Henpecked Hou, and several other very imaginative characters.
All of your followers have their own stories that you can pull out of them, and these can intertwine with the main plot as well. Some of their comments are pure hilarity, while others were actually acted well enough to make me wonder if maybe game developers are really getting a clue as to how to generate emotions in the ways that movies do. One quest in particularly involving an orphanage is a perfect example of this, and it actually was done well enough to be touching. It's an experience that I usually don't expect to get out of a game.
Tactically, your followers are somewhat limited. For a very large majority of the game, you'll only play as yourself, and you will take only one follower along with you. They don't have unique equipment you can put on, and while you can set many of them to an "Attack" or "Support" mode (each has different things they'll do in each mode), that's about as far as you can go with AI and scripting. The nice part is that as you run around the world, these characters never get lost trying to follow you - well, either that, or the game would quietly drop them right behind my character when I wasn't looking and they were needed in combat. Either way, I never once had to worry about my sidekicks falling behind.
I'm really pretty conflicted over how followers work in this game. They're far more interesting than the henchmen you could bring along in Neverwinter Nights, but it's a further deviation from the original D&D formula of having six totally fleshed-out characters that were able to be controlled manually with a full range of AI options, equipment, and abilities. While I still enjoy Jade Empire immensely, the erosion of the classic full party of a half-dozen characters, all fleshed out as well as the rest, makes me wonder if the days of serious D&D RPG titles are just about over.
KOTOR had a wonderful twist in its plot near the end; it was unexpected out of a Star Wars game and was masterfully executed. It truly is one of my favorite moments in gaming. And Bioware was probably pretty much expected to do something close to that in Jade Empire - and they did. You can see the hints at it in the first few hours of the game, and because I was really looking for it this time, I figured out Jade Empire's twist pretty quickly. It still was designed to be a pretty smooth flow of plot for those who know what the twist is even from the very beginning, so the whole game doesn't revolve around it being a surprise.
The game includes Bioware's signature voice acting from dozens of actors who recorded hours and hours of dialogue. Most of it is well-done, and the game didn't hide behind half of its characters speaking alien languages in order to reduce the amount of unique spoken lines. Well, there is a "foreign" tongue here, but you won't hear the same few lines spoken in this tongue over and over. And while Jade Empire takes place in a fictitious Asian world that seems to combine many different nationalities' cultures, they didn't try to imitate the speech or accent. This stuff is spoken in plain American accents, which is a bit weird, but at the least they did keep it mostly consistent. The only exception is that of legendary comedy actor John Cleese, who has a wonderful part in the game that I won't spoil for you. But I did almost fall off the couch laughing at his antics in this game.
Bioware's gone in a new action-oriented direction this time with Jade Empire while making sure that many new tactical choices and options are still available to the player. Hardcore Dungeons & Dragons buffs are going to scoff at the erosion of classic RPG standards, but that doesn't even remotely make this a bad game. The world is imaginative and beautiful, and the characters are very interesting and present many new options for the player. This one easily lives up to the Bioware name and goes alongside many of their past titles as instant classics.