Bioware is one of my favorite companies because I bow to the altar of Baldur’s Gate. I played both games in that series and both expansion packs. When I read the third installment was canceled I nearly wept. Knights of the Old Republic is a great game but I’m not really into Star Wars, Neverwinter Nights was good but there wasn’t enough focus on having a sweet party of adventurers. There will never be another Baldur’s Gate and I have to accept it (by mentioning it in every other article I write). First, an immediate comparison: Jade Empire is not as good as Baldur’s Gate. Ok, now I feel better and can begin the review.
The meat of gameplay in Jade Empire is fighting enemies, whether it be with a melee weapon, magic or just your fists and feet. Unfortunately, the fighting engine boils down to rock paper scissors and there is very little complication used to mask this. If an enemy attacks, you block. If an enemy does not block, you attack. If an enemy blocks, you do your power guard breaking attack. In between these steps, you flip and roll like you’re on crack, hoping your character flips when you want to flip and rolls when you want to roll. Often, because the camera rotates while you fight and what action you take depends on where you press, he doesn’t do what you want and this can cost you a fight.
There are a lot of fighting and magic styles, supposedly to give the game replayability. You won’t have enough points to level up more than a few styles each game, but ultimately I found the styles to be pretty similar. The fastest style was the weakest, the slowest the strongest. I used both with my character without much problem. Weapon fighting is more fun and looks cooler, but is limited by your character’s focus bar. There are also transformations, which allow you to change into a monster character. Using the last or so transformation, I easily took out the game’s last few bosses, including the final one, in less than a minute. From this, I’d assume that there are probably other spells and transformations that aren’t exactly well balanced.
Jade Empire is saved from mediocrity by the stuff that happens when you aren’t fighting. The story line is pretty interested, even if it’s the same plot as Fable. Bioware also irks me by insisting on making the player the main character, as opposed to the main character existing separately of the player but giving the player control of him. The difference usually arises when comparing western and eastern RPGs. Japanese games give you control of Vyse, Cloud, Terra, Justin, Lloyd, Prier, etc. and American games make you, the player, mold the main character to fit you. I prefer a melding of the two, something like Torment where you control the Nameless One and decide what he says, but he is certainly a character independent of you the player.
Dialog is usually well written and well acted. The quests are mostly interesting, although there are none that really force you to pick the lesser of two evils. There’s too often a clear cut good and bad choice. By making use of a system that measures how good or evil you are (open or closed palmed) the game forces itself to offer quests that have obvious moral choices. Some moral ambiguity would have been nice. I read an interview with Bioware where the company representative (probably one of the founders) said they have a formula for how they make games. The first 10% should be the introduction, each character fits into a class system they use for all of their games such as damsel in distress or rogue hot head, etc.. With a morality system that mimics KOTOR so closely, it honestly feels like they are working off of a formula.
I mostly liked the secondary characters and characters who join your party. The Black Whirlwind is a very cool character, and the plotline for one of the odder members in your party is very well done. Too bad they aren’t much use in combat. The bad guys were also pretty good, especially the super assassin Death’s Hand. After playing Jade Empire, I went back to my RPGs plot and worked in a character similar to him. Having a scary enemy to name drop and build up all through the game is a good story telling technique.
The lack of an inventory is something that takes some getting used to. The only gear your character has are gems that change your stats. It’s a smart simplification for a console game, but it feels too dumbed down. Sometimes mid game I’d pick stuff up then look for an inventory screen for five minutes before remembering there isn’t one. So I’m an idiot, but the lack of gear is strange and unwelcome for an RPG.
The graphics are good but sterile and I really disliked how my main character looked. Bioware hasn’t ever impressed me with their 3d models, though. Maybe it’s time they do some more pseudo 3d, something similar to say… Baldur’s Gate?
As much as I’ve complained, I really enjoyed Jade Empire’s plotline and quests, though this leads me to complain about the game’s length. For a game that feels like it should be epic, it’s over way too soon. I had so many characters left to try out and so many fighting styles left unused. There are only three cities and at most a dozen locations. Bioware likes to make few but big areas in their games, but I’m spoiled by JRPG’s that give the player 15 towns and 20 dungeons to explore. Maybe Jade Empire 2?