There's not a lot to each style, though. You can execute a basic attack combo by mashing on the A button, you can perform a slow-but-unblockable attack by pressing X, and you can pull off an area-effect attack to sweep nearby enemies off their feet by pushing both those buttons at the same time. That's it. There are no throws, no counter moves, no high-flying wire fu, or any of that cool stuff. So, in practice, most battles work like this: You get close to an enemy and start pushing A. When the enemy blocks (which isn't often), you press X. If the enemy attacks, you vault over him with button B...and repeat as necessary. This same strategy works on literally every enemy in the game, from the least powerful to the most powerful.
While that's really all you need to know to save the Jade Empire, thankfully there's more to the game's combat system. For instance, you can link together moves from different styles to pull off powerful "harmonic combos," which can kill an enemy instantly and sometimes messily. And the fighting does get more complicated when you're facing a half-dozen enemies at once, including foes with ranged magical attacks. You'll also notice that the delays in your combo strings can be canceled either by quickly switching to one of your other styles or by using one of your evasive maneuvers in mid-combo, which helps give the action a fairly smooth, fluid feel. As you defeat enemies, you'll also notice that they sometimes drop power-ups that can restore your health, chi (used for healing yourself, as well as for magic attacks), or focus (used for weapon styles and your superspeed ability). All this stuff certainly helps flesh the fighting system out a bit.
You'll control the Marvelous Dragonfly, a unique flying vehicle, in Jade Empire's one cute minigame.
And yet, the predictable enemy behavior and the presence of some ridiculously overpowered styles, which can leave most foes frozen and unable to defend themselves, means that Jade Empire's combat devolves into routine. At the default difficulty setting, the combat also happens to be a total breeze, except for a few moderately difficult encounters against the toughest villains. There's a harder difficulty setting that you can switch to any time you're not already in battle, which makes the game a lot more punishing by making foes substantially stronger and harder to kill. At least the combat seems more plausible at the tougher setting, since it requires you to actually pay attention to survive the average encounter. Still, there's just no good middle ground between the two difficulty settings. Apart from Jade Empire's one minigame (an homage to vertical-scrolling shoot-'em-ups like Raiden and Ikaruga, but much choppier and nowhere near as good), the combat system is the only type of action you'll experience. So, despite being a source of fun and excitement as you play, the fighting is also the weakest link in a role-playing game whose combat conceivably could have been its main attraction.
When you level up (from gaining enough experience through questing and combat), you can improve the stats that boost your maximum health, chi, and focus. You also earn points with which you can bolster your different fighting styles, though it'll be pretty obvious how best to spend them. These enhancements have only a marginal effect on your character, so in time, you'll realize there isn't much of a payoff for leveling up. There isn't much of a payoff for attempting to develop your character in other ways, either. There's no real inventory system in Jade Empire, for example. You have a special amulet that can be equipped with gems that boost some of your stats, but that's it. These gems are often doled out as quest rewards, but their incremental improvements to your character aren't very satisfying. You'll also sometimes learn "techniques," which are simply permanent changes to your character's stats. Again, these mostly aren't a big deal. Since Jade Empire's combat is action-oriented, it's less about the sort of number crunching that goes on underneath the hood in other RPGs. So it devalues the entire process of gaining experience levels. And the lack of any cool stuff to buy devalues all the currency you'll be earning throughout your adventure. Fortunately, you'll be picking up new traveling companions and new fighting styles pretty consistently throughout Jade Empire, which takes some of the pressure off the oversimplified character advancement.
A beautiful presentation helps draw you in to the mystical world of Jade Empire.
Jade Empire is unquestionably superior to its predecessors as far as the quality of its visuals is concerned, though. The world is all basked in a warm, soft glow that totally nails the dreamlike, mythical feel that Jade Empire is clearly shooting for. There's quite a bit of variety to the environments, too, and impressive special effects abound. One of the best-looking areas of the game is the Imperial City, which is teeming with life, color, and energy. When you reach it, you'll truly feel like you've set foot in a majestic place. Yet as beautiful as the Jade Empire is, it's its people that are especially remarkable. Virtually all the dozens of characters you'll meet during the course of your adventure have unique likenesses, rendered in a distinct and consistent art style. Most of the characters look really great, especially since they lip-synch all their dialogue quite convincingly. They also emote fairly well, showing touches of humor or anger or sadness as they speak, although there's one particular animation (of the character sheepishly rubbing the back of his or her head) that not only looks bad, but also recycles way too often throughout the game. Jade Empire also generally looks great during the action sequences, thanks to some convincing-looking fighting moves and some occasional surprising scenes of gore. The use of gore is perhaps telling of the game's tentative design, since most fights are bloodless, rather tame-looking affairs, despite the predominance of edged weapons. And yet, you'll sometimes get to see these huge, brutal gouts of blood spew forth from killed foes. It's no surprise the game got saddled with an M rating for its occasional outpourings.
A few technical hiccups hurt the presentation and overall experience. Jade Empire's frame rate is uneven, and it's prone to unsightly fluctuations at inopportune times. The game noticeably bogs down when multiple enemies are onscreen, and it sometimes seizes up for a moment when enemies are killed. These issues seem like holdovers from Knights of the Old Republic, which had similar problems. Jade Empire also has some painfully long loading times for when you transition between regions or between the shooter minigame and standard gameplay. It's too bad the loading times have gotten worse instead of better since the developer's last game. One of Jade Empire's most interesting side quests--one that focuses on your efforts to rise through the ranks of the Imperial Arena through a series of pit fights--exemplifies many of the game's strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, there's some great stuff with the storyline here, including some amusing exchanges with a tongue-tied, spineless, yet likable fixer voiced by Brian Doyle-Murray. And on the other hand, practically every battle in the sequence is not only pitifully easy at the default setting, but also it's bookended by those long loading times. Despite these issues, it's still a great sequence, but it could have been a lot better.
Despite some problems with the gameplay, Jade Empire offers a rewarding experience that's well worthwhile.
On the bright side, Jade Empire sure sounds terrific. Much like Knights of the Old Republic, what makes this game sound so impressive is the remarkable quantity of high-quality voice-overs you'll hear throughout. While it can be tempting to skip through the spoken dialogue because of the subtitles, some of the characters are voiced so well that you'll naturally prefer to hear them out. Not every character's performance is exceptional or anything, and some of the characters speak a made-up language called the Old Tongue, presumably because word-for-word voice-over wasn't available. You'll notice that sometimes these lines will repeat, and sometimes the voice inflection doesn't fit the dialogue when these lines are delivered. But so what? Few games offer the audio quality you'll find here. Jade Empire's actual sound effects (during combat and such) are fine, if not particularly outstanding. And its musical score, filled with strings, woodwinds, and deep percussion, is a perfect fit for the setting.
You'll probably enjoy Jade Empire a great deal if you approach it with reasonable expectations. Namely, you shouldn't expect a game that's hands-down superior to what you may have experienced from BioWare in the past. Instead, you can look forward to a game whose strengths ultimately outweigh its weaknesses by a long shot. In short, if the setting of Jade Empire appeals to you, along with the promise of a good storyline and some open-ended role playing, then you'll be more than satisfied with BioWare's latest game.