In addition to being set back by internet troubles over the past week, I have also been sinking a ton of time into BioWare’s 2005 RPG, Jade Empire. I originally bought the game off Steam at the start of this year due to holiday sales, but… well… the short version is I couldn’t get it to work. I’ll save that story for another time. A little over a week ago, I saw a console version copy for about $12. I snapped and bought it.
The game is similar to KotOR except with a fantasy setting inspired by Chinese mythology as well as magic and a dash of steampunk. The combat is also very different from KotOR, and other BioWare games for that matter; it’s real-time, martial arts action. Unlike games such as Street Fighter there are no complex button combos. You have a basic attack, a block ability, a heavy attack that’s slow but gets through blocks, a dodge ability, and an area attack for knocking groups of enemies away from you. Those last two abilities use a whopping two buttons to execute on a controller. So the controls are simple, easy to learn, and they allow you to look and feel like a bad-ass pulling off all these great looking Kung Fu moves without any complex combos. There are almost 30 different fighting styles, each with their own feel and function, to choose from. In addition, you can switch between these styles at any time during combat; this helps to make it even more interesting.
As far as other typical RPG stuff like stats and inventory, it’s very streamlined. There’s no looting corpses and the only items you receive are money and magic gems which augment your abilities, which you automatically acquire after fights or going through chests or other containers. There are weapons in the game, but not many, and they are considered fighting styles, which you can acquire from trainers or other vendors, though you can find the occasional upgrade for a weapon style.
Your attributes are limited to three stats: Body for health, Spirit for magic, or “Chi”, and Mind which grants you Focus used for weapons and Focus Mode where everything around you slows to a crawl. Every time you level up you get three points to place in these stats, as well as a number of skill points proportionate to your level for spending on your fighting styles for more damage, increased attack speed, duration increase, and Chi/Focus cost reduction.
The way persuasion in game conversation works is also interesting. You have three persuasion options to choose from based on your Body, Spirit, and Mind scores. Body and Mind contribute to your Charm skill; Spirit and Mind go towards Intuition; and Body and Spirit affect your Intimidation score.
Streamlining is not in itself a bad thing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what BioWare did with Jade Empire. It’s different, and some of the hardcore traditionalist RPG players may be a little disappointed with the lack of half-a-dozen charts and tables, but on the whole it’s definitely still a BioWare RPG, and it’s more accessible than others of its kind to a less experienced audience. The emphasis seems to be on all the unique martial styles in the game.
On that note, the game does something else that’s different from most RPGs, but I kind of like. Most Western RPGs allow you to completely customize your character, but that’s not really the case here. In Jade Empire you have six (seven if you have the Limited/Special Edition) preset characters to choose from. You can customize their name, starting attributes, and fighting styles if you want, but not their physical appearance or their wardrobe. I can totally see how this would set some people off, but I find I don’t really mind it. I find I enjoy having more set and defined characters in a generation of gaming where we seem to have so few, though I suppose that argument would ring more effectively if the characters had voices, personalities, and were addressed by their names.
With that said, nothing in the game feels like it was sacrificed for one particular component or the other. The gameplay is solid (and fun) overall as is the story. In fact, the story is really good… it’s freaking fantastic. Jade Empire has what is probably one of the best stories, if not the best story, ever told in a BioWare game. And it pains me, because I feel like I can’t say why without spoiling it. Just please take my word for it when I say that Jade Empire is truly a monument to this studio’s glory days, now long gone.
On the whole, Jade Empire is an exceptional game. I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best games I ever played and one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced–it’s not Tolkien mastery level, of course, but it’s exceptional. The writing is good, the characters are interesting–this game probably has some of the most unique party members I’ve seen in an RPG–the music is distinct and wonderful, and the voice acting is fantastic. It’s one of those few games where I wish I could wipe my memory and experience the whole thing over again. It’s even sparked my interest in Chinese and other Eastern Mythology–something I’ve never cared for or had an interest in in the past.
There’s more I could say on the game, but I’m closing here for now. Seriously, BUY THIS GAME. I feel like I’m atoning for my sins for not checking it out sooner.
As additional incentive, two of the game’s voice actors are Nathan Fillion and John Cleese. Cleese’s role is exceptionally brilliant.