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BioWare's latest provides the most accomplished moralistic RPG we've seen yet...
With 2003â??s release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic thrusting BioWare into the limelight and at the same time showing exactly how to do the license justice, it was somewhat surprising when the Canadian developer confirmed that they had begun work on an original concept, drawing in offshoot, Obsidian Entertainment, to look after the inevitable Knights of the Old Republic sequel.
Set in ancient China, Jade Empire is cast amidst an epic world inspired by myths and legends; a diverse realm that ranges from the luscious gardens of the Imperial City to the harsh, barren mountains of the Land of Howling Spirits.
Much like its previous Xbox releases, Jade Empire is billed as an Action/RPG with the moralistic branches that are becoming synonymous with a BioWare release. The storyline that runs throughout Jade Empire is not as â??Black & Whiteâ? as that seen in the likes of Knights of the Old Republic, Sith Lords or even Fable, with the balance taking in various factors such as Order and Chaos along with the unequivocal Good and Evil.
Taking on the role of a Martial Arts student, players select and create their character at the in a normal RPG manner, where the surprising lack of attributes makes its first noticeable appearance. Jade Empire streamlines a lot of the RPG intricacies placing the game firmly in the â??Arcadeâ? side of the genre itâ??s labelled with; as such the main character only has three attributes, namely Body, Spirit and Mind. Itâ??s perhaps something that only the most fanatical of RPG enthusiasts could complain about however, as the result is a wonderfully balanced system that holds many implications to the game and helps to appeal to a larger audience that would have whimpered at the sight of pages and pages of character stats.
Naturally Body represents your Health within the game and represents how much damage you can take in battle; Spirit reflects your ability to manipulate Chi, which can be used to heal yourself with the White button or for Chi-Enhanced strikes with the Black button and also governs the use of Transformation/Magic styles; finally the Mind attribute affects your Focus, a bullet-time effect that slows down the action and also depletes when you utilise a Weapon style.
Combat in general is handled very differently to that of Knights of the Old Republic, which straddled an area between turn-based and real-time combat. Jade Empire eschews such intricacies opting for a largely action-based set-up, which may seem little more than a button-basher on the surface, but with time reveals one of the most refined within the hugely expansive genre, merging great depth and sophistication with a largely suitable yet immediately accessible interface.
Jade Empire features a phenomenal number of combat techniques to learn and master, each of which are grouped into a variety of different classifications known as â??Stylesâ?; these include Martial, Weapon, Support, Transformation and Magic. Martial Styles are relatively straight-forward and represent the most practical and useful technique within the game; Magic Styles draw from your Chi and in addition to causing damage also cause longer-lasting effects such as Immolation; Weapon Styles are naturally using the various weapons that youâ??ll pick up through the game; Transformation Styles are perhaps the most impressive, allowing the player to transform into a demon with vastly immense power for a short time, although youâ??ll need to collect cards from fallen opponents first; while finally Support Styles deal no direct damage, but can be used to enhance other strikes, to slow down, stun or paralyse opponents.
As weâ??ve said before Jade Empire most certainly sits on the Action side of the tagline hanging around its box, and as such lacks many elements that marked Knights of the Old Republic and The Sith Lords â?“ gone are confusing descriptions of the AD&D d20 rules behind every technique, although one last remaining RPG stalwart is the ability to upgrade combat techniques in three different areas.
The true finesse of Jade Empireâ??s combat however is expressively demonstrated by the ability to link certain attacks from certain styles into one another, often resulting in a devastating attack and more importantly putting a specific Power-Up on the battlefield for you to collect. Different combinations create different moves and result in different Power-Upâ??s, and believe us when we say remembering these and dishing them out becomes crucial as you progress within the game. Rewarding players with a bonus for this is an absolute stroke of genius on behalf of the gameâ??s developers and leads to the situation where you're graciously switching between styles effortlessly on the d-pad like a true Kung-Fu Master.
Finding faultâ??s is a hard task with Jade Empire, however there are a few; its near-perfect combat blend between action and tactics does suffer from one or two issues such as selecting opponents with the shoulder triggers being largely â??hit-and-missâ?. Itâ??s hardly a fault of the developerâ??s however the restraints of four directions on the d-pad severely restricts the vast amount on offer to the player; to Jadeâ??s credit, re-mapping a style to a direction is handled well, simply needing the player to hold the chosen direction on the d-pad, pausing the action and allowing you to choose which technique youâ??d like.
As stated many times throughout this review, Jade Empire ditches many aspects that weâ??ve become fondly accustomed to with RPGs. Nowhere is this more evident than the lack of an inventory beyond collecting key Quest Items and the ever-plentiful silver coins, and the fact that weapons replace one another instead of being horded. This may sound absolutely ludicrous for anything even purportedly being linked to an RPG, but thankfully itâ??s little cause for concerns as the collectible Gems throughout the game provide both the treasure hunting dynamic along with powers to modify your characterâ??s abilities in the light of pages and pages of attributes.
After a short period into the game youâ??ll gain a special amulet that allows gems to be casted within it; these in turn serve as modifiers to key character attributes, allowing the player to mould the main character around the various situations youâ??ll come across â?“ more importantly thereâ??s an assortment of rare gems to discover and plenty of text describing the history behind each one for the true RPG fanatic!
Once again youâ??ll gain a cast of secondary characters that follow your adventure, but unlike Knights of the Old Republic thereâ??s not a lot to worry about when it comes to handling these. You canâ??t take direct control of them as in the aforementioned title, instead simply choosing between Attack and Support modes - the difference being whether you wish your follower to jump into combat with you or stay by the sides and provide you with timely boosts to your abilities. Despite featuring a brief Level-Up system for the main character, Jade Empire largely ignores secondary character attributes and relevant character upgrades, which given the tedious nature in Knights of the Old Republic is certainly welcome. Striking up conversation with your followers is still important in the game and thankfully more enjoyable then the slightly laborious demands of Knights of the Old Republic; while those who really enjoy building up relations with virtual characters can take some romantic enjoyment from Jade Empire through a handful of â??Romance Questsâ? between the main characters.
Much like Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire features an amusing mini-game to spice up the action and earn bonuses when the main quest is becoming too much. This time around taking the form of an entertaining vertical-scrolling shoot-em-up, which will definitely please the older audience out there who fondly recall pumping 50p for this type of thing during the 80â??s.
Free from having one of the largest franchises in the world hanging around its neck, Jade Empire plods along to begin with and moralistic choices appear to be very black and white; however after a few hours of play the plotline begins to twist a little more, all may not be what it seems and you realise that everything isnâ??t so bi-polar.
The storyline crosses many themes of opposites and presents the player with the option to choose between the various paths, although not always making it so simple to choose between each and most definitely an improvement to the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and Fable. Again if we were to complain, itâ??s that weâ??d still like to see something more to dialogue than just choosing answers you know to be right or wrong from a list, but hey itâ??s hard to think of another method that would be as efficient.
Visually Jade Empire is a striking masterpiece, presenting luscious visuals, vibrant colour schemes and an over-saturated style that is both understated and dreamy. Both the environment and character models are nicely detailed and thereâ??s thankfully a lot more variety then with BioWareâ??s previous Xbox release. Without doubt the biggest attraction comes from the simply sublime animations that perfectly capture the graceful nature of the Martial Arts and delicately highlight the subtle differences between various fighting styles. Again criticisms come from the typically suspect cut-scenes which could benefit from more thought and greater direction, but as a whole theyâ??re a marked improvement from those witnessed in Knights of the Old Republic.
Voice acting throughout Jade Empire is sufficient, occasionally bordering on the funny side and sporadically reminiscent of a low-budget Kung-Fu dub. Thankfully however the same cannot be said regarding the gameâ??s wonderfully subdued soundtrack, which stands out as being nothing short of mesmerising and extremely haunting â?“ again just to complain because thatâ??s what we do, the soundtrack falls a little short during the more intense scenes within the game.
Perhaps the biggest issue that we have with Jade Empire is that once again itâ??s over far too quickly, with the average gamer likely to spend between 20 â?“ 25 hours with it. Unlike certain other â??moralisticâ? RPGs, the difference between â??Goodâ? and â??Evilâ? are far less apparent but at the same time distinctly different, with three different endings in store for those that like to see everything within the game.
The vast majority of people however will greatly enjoy the streamlined experience, which still manages to provide more depth and variation then most Xbox releases and easily joins the ranks of Knights of the Old Republic, Sith Lords, Morrowind and Fable as essential Xbox RPG offerings...