Jade Empire Review
The original Xbox was a system with some incredibly gems on it that really didn’t receive much appreciation until near the end of the consoles life cycle. The game developer Bioware were all about the Xbox with their main hit on the system being Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic then later down the road in 2005 they brought out one of the most overlooked titles from the company Jade Empire. Jade Empire really never found its audience, even to this day. Just mentioning this title to people today brings question marks in peoples minds. I remember seeing the game in an Official Xbox Magazine and being incredibly excited by the screen shots. Then the game came out and people just sort of forgot it was there. Today the game is passed off as one of the weakest titles in Biowares back catalogue.
Jade Empire is a Western developed action role-playing game (RPG) you play as a martial arts hero that you choose at the start of the game. You can choose between 5 set character models (6 if you have the limited edition or special edition), you can choose to go with pre-selected stats or you can customize the heroes stats yourself. You unfortunately can’t customize your characters appearance which is a shame considering Bioware’s previous Star Wars title allowed you to alter your characters appearance.
You are a hero that is studying at the Two Rivers Martial Arts School under the watchful eye of Master Li. Master Li senses a disturbance in the force – or the marital arts aura or something like that – and instructs you to embark on an epic quest that will decide the fate of the land. The story is actually very engaging, the characters you meet are engaging even if they do have rather simple names like “Sky” or “Dawn Star.” The plot took some turns that were quite surprising to see in a game and left a lasting impression after finishing. Jade Empire‘s story unfolds based on your morale choices, you can follow the path of the open palm which is basically you being nice and doing good deeds for people with little reward or you can follow the path of the closed fit where instead you’re an evil tosser. Jade Empire does a fantastic job of justifying these two paths in the game, it never really calls either path good or evil. Some of the dialogue choices to follow the way for the closed fist are quite jarring, you really don’t see choices this brutal in modern games today. Various characters explain to you though that following a path, like the closed fist, is not really about being bad, its about power and strength and the intention to do harm. This is one of the few morale choice games where it was incredibly tempting to be bad, for the majority of game I usually followed the nice path. The game is loaded with dialogue and decisions you need to make on how to respond to said dialogue. If your not sure what the effects of the dialogue choice will mean you can look at your characters face a smile means an open palm choice, a nasty frown a closed path choice and a blank derby look expression means neutral. Of course you don’t have to be only good or only bad in the game you can mix and match decisions, though following a single path will make it easier to get certain game endings and earn you specific gameplay perks to help your quest.
The graphics are colourful and beautiful. The design of the game is inspired by Middle Eastern Mythology, something rarely portrayed well in games. Many of the environments are alive with vegetation like trees with blossoms falling to the ground. You’ll also venture into unique swamp lands and the video game cliché caves. You’ll come across a variety of human characters who are starting to look dated by today’s standards. It won’t take long for you to notice the same finger pointing animations from characters during long dialogue sequences. The same can not be said for the demon sprites which may be friend or foe and can vary from demonic frogs to giant elephants and they all look unique in design. The game also features its own language Tho Fan created specifically for the game which is a very nice touch to a already wonderfully created world.
The game plays as an action RPG. There is a main objective to follow in the game, though there are also many side quests. A handy mini map will point you in the right direction of the objective you chose. When confronting enemies various martial arts styles and weapons are at your disposal which you can switch to, using the D-pad. Combat is carried out in real time. One of the coolest parts about switching your attack style is your character will shout the name out like “legendary strike.” The game very cleverly forces you to mix things up as certain enemies are immune to specific attacks. You can heal yourself with the push of a button which increases your red health bar slowly but at the same time drains your blue chi bar which acts essentially as a magic bar. Defeating enemies and finishing quests will gain you more experience allowing you to customize your warrior how you see fit. You can sink experience into specific martial arts attacks and also increase your health, chi and stamina meters. Most of the time you will also have a companion to help you in battle. You will be able to choose from multiple characters as you progress in the game, however, I found they didn’t help a huge amount in battle other then to distract enemies but it seemed pretty cool to have them tag along.
One problem you may notice is apart from leveling up, you can only upgrade your stats by buying talismans. You can equip up to three to start and these can add perks like improved defence to your character. It’s certainly different but some might question why you could not just upgrade your clothing. Then again since many of the hero characters run around with very little clothes on anyway I guess it wouldn’t make sense. Its not all back flips and kicks though, there is a lot of dialogue and story to listen to and the game will occasionally surprise you with a plane shooting mini game which is great for shmup fans like myself. But if you don’t feel the same love for this retro genre the game does allow you to completely skip these sections.
The game’s score is pretty epic and well suited to the Middle Eastern setting. The opening track alone gives you a epic feel for what to expect from the rest of the game. Voice actors generally do a good job. Your character has no voice instead communicating by text alone, possibly to immerse the player more into the character you choose. The game does feature voice work from actors like Nathan Fillion who do a fantastic job portraying each of their characters. The issue for some players will be the long drawn out conversations may become a bore especially if you just want to get into the action, these can be skipped but you’ll still need to make dialogue choices in most discussions.
For an RPG, Jade Empire is not as long as you would expect. Dedicating just a couple of weeks to the game will see you through to its end and if you play through a second time you will probably finish the game even quicker than that. The game really leaves you wanting more but with its short length it really doesn’t outstay its welcome. Jade Empire is a very memorable experience that will unlikely ever see a sequel as Bioware is more interested in Mass Effect and Dragon Age these days. What you have here is a unique style of RPG that has not been replicated in other games. The setting and soundtrack just gel perfectly with the story of the game. If lots of dialogue and talking is not your thing then you may find several areas of this game to be very boring. Saying that the story is engaging and the characters in the game are memorable. The gameplay and use of martial arts is just fantastic creating a battle system in real time that just feels new and fun on every encounter.
These days the game can be found very cheap for easily around five pounds (around $5-$10 in the US). Jade Empire would make a great addition to any Original Xbox or PC gamer. This title is of course not perfect and won’t appeal to everyone but I had quite a personal connection with this game. I loved the story and the turns it took and the general game experience felt like something so unique and wonderful that I just can’t help but sing the games praises. Bioware created something new here that may not have touched the wider audience back then but I’ll always have fond memories of playing through this great adventure.
Final Score: 5 out of 5 (review policy)
Jade Empire is available in both regular editions and limited editions (which adds a second disc, documentary, and bonus character) as well as the PC port, Special Edition, that can be found on Origin.