For years now, BioWare has been a leading developer of role-playing games. Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are the company's claims to fame, and they've helped to galvanize a style of gaming that emphasizes open-ended storytelling and character development, as well as plenty of entertaining tactical combat. Yet despite having worked on definitive games like these for such a long time, only now has BioWare finally delivered an RPG that takes place in an original setting. But even though Jade Empire is set in a beautiful and exotic land inspired by the mythology of ancient China--seemingly a far cry from the medieval stylings of Dungeons & Dragons or the science fiction of Star Wars--the game is unmistakably similar to its predecessors. So fans of BioWare's past work will be in for a familiar experience, which, considering the company's very high standards, is great news. Sure enough, Jade Empire features a complex and interesting storyline, a number of great characters, an impressive presentation, and plenty of replay value.
A quest to uncover the nature of the Empire's hidden treachery is yours to solve, by any means necessary.
With that said, the game also lacks the ambitious scope of, say, Knights of the Old Republic. It has the simplest design of any BioWare RPG yet, from the bare-bones character building elements to the action-based combat system. It's also surprisingly easy and fairly short by the genre's standards, offering up an adventure that shouldn't last you more than 20 hours on your first play-through. Presumably, all this is intended to be attractive to those who normally think role-playing games are too difficult or complicated to get into. Yet it's hard to imagine such players delving into Jade Empire's unusual world anyway, especially since it's filled with at least as much dialogue as action. In fact, one area in which BioWare definitely didn't skimp is the lengthy discussion sequences that feature the game's colorful characters. At any rate, fans of the company's previous efforts may be disappointed to find that Jade Empire is in some ways a step backward. While playing, it's hard not to wonder about exactly what the developer was intending to accomplish, since this overly streamlined design ends up leaving out a number of elements that made earlier BioWare RPGs deeper and more engaging by comparison. Fortunately, when you consider it on its own merits, Jade Empire is still a great game that offers a refreshing and memorable experience in spite of these shortcomings.
The eponymous setting of Jade Empire looks like it comes straight out of a spectacular martial arts action movie. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most obvious point of reference, though Jade Empire doesn't actually take place in ancient China, which gave the designers license to include a number of creative twists. For example, these ancient lands aren't entirely devoid of sophisticated technology, which includes armies of powerful automatons and rickety, bug-shaped flying vehicles that spew fire and smoke as they soar across the sky. As well, the Jade Empire has its fair share of supernatural problems. Vengeful ghosts walk the land, and all manner of demons (shaped like hulking toads, rats, elephants, and more) prey on hapless victims. In this rich setting, you play as a young martial artist on the verge of completing his or her training under one Master Li. Early on, an altercation with a bitter rival quickly escalates, and soon enough, you'll find yourself searching for Li and searching for answers. Along the way, you'll be joined in your quest by some interesting characters with great names like Sagacious Zu and The Black Whirlwind, as you uncover the truth behind your mysterious heritage and the evil spilling from the heart of the Empire. Jade Empire's plot actually seems fairly formulaic at first, but the story takes some clever turns and does a good job of tying up its loose ends.
As in Knights of the Old Republic, the main reason Jade Empire's story is so successful is that it gives you the sense that you have a great deal of influence over what happens. Dialogue with the game's dozens of characters is highly interactive, letting you choose from multiple responses whenever your character is prompted. Entire, fairly large portions of the game are optional, and certain significant outcomes are mutually exclusive. So you'll never see everything the game has to offer if you only play through it once. For example, one of the first big quests involves a small town that's in trouble because a nearby dam has been opened. The town will be saved if the dam could only be shut. But a certain unscrupulous merchant would prefer it if that didn't occur...that way he can keep the business of all the sailors stuck in harbor. Further complicating matters, you learn that the area on the other side of the dam is a burial ground for some restless spirits. Should you see if you can do something about them, or should you close the dam without delay, flooding them in? Or maybe you should side with the merchant and get a cut of his profits. Whatever you decide, the game offers a plausible outcome, as well as just desserts. The typical role-playing game on consoles presents you with a noninteractive story that you just sit back and watch, in between grinding through enemy encounters. Jade Empire is completely different from that blueprint, because it makes the story a central part of the gameplay itself. It sure is nice to actually get to role-play in a role-playing game, and the quality of the storytelling definitely doesn't suffer for it. The script is sharply written and finds the occasion for a few pretty funny jokes and references amid an otherwise serious plot.
You'll meet many unique characters during the course of your journey. Some will join you, and many others will fight you.
The sheer volume of different outcomes throughout the game is impressive, lending Jade Empire most of its replay value. It's possible to play the part of the selfless hero (while "selflessly" earning experience points for your troubles) or the arrogant villain, or shades in between. Granted, this is pretty much identical to what you got in Knights of the Old Republic, though your ability to veer toward the light or dark side of the Force in that game is thinly veiled as "the way of the open palm" and "the way of the closed fist" here. Considering that Jade Empire attempts to espouse a moral philosophy that's slightly more complex than, or at least different from, the conventional Western interpretations of good and evil, it's kind of a shame that character interaction still tends to boil down to the familiar extremes. There are some minor gameplay differences in being a good guy versus being a bad guy in that certain martial arts abilities and items are exclusive to disciples of one "way" or the other. This encourages you to at least be consistent, and it tends to be obvious in which direction a given response or action will nudge your character's alignment.
When you're not speaking with all the different characters you'll meet, you'll be running from place to place, often getting into fights. An annotated onscreen mini-map makes it fairly easy to get your bearings in the different regions, though none of these regions is particularly large anyway. There's actually not much to do in the environments apart from admiring the admittedly pretty scenery and cracking open the odd barrel or vase to scrounge whatever bit of loot is inside. Tellingly, the game lets you trigger "focus mode" at the touch of a button, which causes your character to run very swiftly to alleviate time spent in transit. It's a convenient feature, but it literally lets you rush through the game without stopping to appreciate any of the detail that must have gone into making the world look so good. The thing is, why stop and stare when there's nothing else to do? Jade Empire is considerably better-looking than Knights of the Old Republic, but its world isn't any more interactive, which is unfortunate, considering the flat feel of BioWare's previous game was one of its few shortcomings.
Combat in Jade Empire is fast-paced and fairly fun, but it's actually the game's weak point.
Then there's the combat. Most role-playing games (including all of BioWare's previous works) feature quasi-turn-based combat systems, which give you the opportunity to decide how your characters will respond to the dangers they're facing. But battles in Jade Empire play out in real time, like something you'd expect to see in an action game instead of an RPG. In general, you can have one companion fighting at your side, but you have no direct control over this character at all, which means you'll end up having to do most of the work yourself. All this is well and good, because Jade Empire's martial arts theme certainly seems conducive to action-packed combat.
However, Jade Empire's combat system isn't that great. It can be pretty fun, especially if you go out of your way to introduce more variety than you really need to survive, but it ultimately feels hollow. At least the controls are responsive, letting you easily maneuver around the battlefield, lock on to any of the foes you're facing, and execute quick flips and rolls either to close the distance between you and your opponent or to make a hasty retreat. It's possible to have four different martial arts styles (with names like "Leaping Tiger," "Storm Dragon," and "Thousand Cuts") mapped to your D pad, though all the styles you've learned are always there for you to choose from. There are five different types of styles, including standard hand-to-hand "martial" styles, weapons styles, and support styles, which cause debilitating effects instead of damage. Some enemies are immune to certain types of styles (for instance, ghosts are immune to weapons), so you're forced to mix it up a little.