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SummaryThere are no white people in this game
The GoodThere aren't many games like Jade Empire. This fresh entry will startle many people for many positive reasons, the most shocking of all is that a game like this hasn't been made before, especially something that is designed so simply.
Jade Empire borrows the same RPG game mechanics from Bioware's other recent success story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This is a verbose linear adventure that avails the player the same moral avenues that were available in that game.
This is a very efficient and clean RPG. Inventory is a snap to use, micromanaging your party is non-existent. The money you make isn't even that important. Items in the game world are impossible to miss by having big floating blurb hovering above them, as are the important NPC's who stand still in a crowd of moving people with a yellow flag over their head and show up on your map. Even simple things like falling off a cliff or precipice are imposable here. This allows/forces the player to concentrate at the RPG task at hand.
I've read other reviews and many people mention many of the same things: excellent story with twists (the twists have become a predictable element of RPG stories), funny and interesting dialogue and voice acting, good graphics and music. However, no one talks about the fact that this is a game where there are exclusively Chinese characters with believable characters telling a rather Chinese story that, while traditional in its source is not bound to it. That's huge. That's what makes this game so refreshing (besides the lack of a tie-in license, or having Roman numerals standing beside its name).
The Chinese are seen around the world as a hairless people who invented kung fu who operate restaurants worldwide, good at math with small penises. Whether you agree or disagree with the statement is moot: despite its 5000 years of culture, Chinese don't have a high media profile. As a result, people around the world don't know much about Chinese. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the television in America shows more aliens from outer space than it does Chinese.
Martial arts has been a window into Chinese culture, but ever since Bruce Li nunchukked his way past our rib cages and into our hearts, the rest of the world hasn't been interested in seeing past the window. Many Chinese-themed games available now aren't really Chinese-themed, they're just kung fu themed. That's why this game is HUGE in its depiction of a Chinese universe existing on it's own (that exclusively speaks English), with believable characters that are surprisingly quite Chinese as a matter of fact.
Okay, there is one white person in the game, a Sir Roderick as voiced hilariously by John Cleese who plays an arrogant Westerner who doesn't believe in Eastern values. The fact that Bioware chose to play him up as a stereotype, a role used typically for minorities, comes especially refreshing as well as helping us immerse ourselves into this (ahem) exotic world.
Also refreshing (okay, so Jade Empire is like a spring dew-ey shower to me, fine, hand me my towel, Percival) is the steam-punk twist to ancient China. The use of flying aircraft and other technology breathe life into this genre, as well as the magic and sorcery element (zombies don't hop even! Someone is rolling around in their grave). I only wished they added laser beams and 50 feet high mechs. Chinese history is 5000 years old, adding mini skirts and bullet time work hurt a bit. And I liked the fact that there isn't much wire fu aside from dodging. I think the idea of flying people is regarded as a historic fact in China and is spreading as fast as pirate DVD's.
The BadIt's petty to fault other's efforts for falling short of perfection. I suppose, however, that there's no reward for being #2； just ask the 90's Buffalo Bills. I think, however, gamers should hold higher standards to the games they play and demand more; hey if I can't have my virtual reality PS2 tamagotchi vixen playmate girlfriend, then at least I can enjoy a good game experience.
Still, Jade Empire suffers from much imbalance, just as though Bioware didn't spend enough time waxing the car for Mr. Miyagi. This amazing complex world is simply too big to fit for this game (something your girlfriend said to me last night actually). It's as though Bioware didn't have the time or resources to put all the fabulous ideas they've been dreaming up during "2AM Kung-fu Theatre" for the past ten years into Jade Empire, something that is odd considering Jade Empire : Spec Ed comes 2 years after the Xbox version.
Being much more advanced than a click-fest mouse-hunt like Diablo or even the click-ier Diablo 2, Jade Empire doesn't transcend it's beat 'em-up influences by being restrained firmly in the RPG genre. What ensues is a frustrating exercise of leveling up to be a wicked bad-ass Wu Tang "hater" but not being given the chance to fully use your abilities. Jade Empire gives the player around 20 fighting styles (with 10 available styles mapped to your hotkeys) that are fully customizable through advancing through levels, but because the story is densely packed in this game you won't be using your fighting skills most of the time. For a half an hour of game play you'll be running around for 10 minutes, talking for 10, and fighting for 10. The end result is that you will finish the game never having even upgraded some fighting skills; others you will never even get the chance to see them in action.
There's no reason why there can't be a compromise. Jade Empire is a good RPG that has a above-average story, compelling characters, a deep real-time combat system (for a RPG!).. so why can't there be any dungeon crawling? Once I received a new fighting skill I'd think (out loud of course), "I'd like to try this out and see how it works." However, you're never really given the chance to stretch out this way; battles tend to be really easy or really hard, causing you to stick to the basics (causing yet more frustration).
I realize the idea of boiling a RPG down to it's essence is to make a nice, lean game that never drags anywhere during it's 25 hour game (I personally padded it out with every single side quest I could find). This might appeal to casual gamers as would it's simple interface and inventory management but I wouldn't know... I'm not one. If you throw in a fighting system that appears to have some depth to it then you should allow players the option of exploring it by way of dungeon-crawling. Yes, it wouldn't be very broadening and you'd be doing the same thing again and again, but some people like that in their RPG's; hey, some people like even less.
The illusion of having a rich fighting system but not being able to fully use it is not as annoying as having the illusion of being able to make moral choices that impact upon the game. Jade Empire is extremely linear. Linear games aren't bad games per se but giving the player the illusion that your choices throughout the game affects the game world is just wrong.
Yet another frustrating aspect that is overwhelming is the large size of your party (about 10) that you will never, ever get to familiarize with well. Similar to KOTOR, Jade Empire has two parties: a current one that you use in your travels and one made up of a backup roster that waits for you at a base camp. However, the party you use for exploring and fighting is made up of two: you, and just one other lucky soul. What's the point? Why not just have a party of one?
I suppose if the player and his ten buddies were to head out looking for payback against Death's Hand then there would be tea houses being busted up and falling down throughout the Empire, but that's just it: you don't need that many. These could be NPC's you meet along the way that don't need to join your party. I suppose a traditional fixed party of six would be too difficult to program for an action RPG like this, but then ask yourself: why not have 20 NPC's in your party? That way they can have a baseball game going on at the base camp while you are off saving the empire AND still have someone go out for pizza (yes, god bless you, Marco... POLO!) Just more that will frustrate the player in a well designed but poorly balanced game.
Jade Empire is a verbose game with a lot of dialogue, much of it well written and frequently quite funny, something always important to experience whenever you are tasked with saving the world. The conversation choices you make influence whether you head towards the path of the Open Palm or down the road of the Closed Fist. Jade Empire only rewards the player if you are either one or the other; there's no reward for being middle-of-the-road. In Tien's Landing for example, the two masters refuse to teach you if you are neutral. The end result is that once you have decided which way to swing you'll just stay the course after that (just like when you were a teenager and decided to be straight or gay).
I'm sure it's not as homo or hetero like that but I think in playing the game we're always worried about maintaining our Open Palm or Closed Fist points (just like maintaining our sexuality in real life... or hey, you have compromise and self-use Open Palm and Closed Fist and never leave the house again).Still, this dialogue tree leads us nowhere on a linear game that has a definite ending. The choice is that there is no choice. NPC's respond differently if you are nice to them or conversely act like a big jerk, but they always wind up saying the same thing to you in order to push the exposition along. If the NPC will eventually say what they have to say to get you to the next story point and the player always makes choices according to your alignment, then what choice is there? No choice. Linear games shouldn't put this in; basically as you gruel through conversations you are just looking for the dialogue answer that will help you keep all the gems you've been harboring.
One choice, however, your character does make is a romantic subplot. Not very substantial, but your character can fall in love with a party member. My babe-avatar fell in love with Sky, despite my several (might I add "loud") ministrations contrary to the fact. "I told you, a lesbian menage-a-trois!!" This is Bioware after all, the Edmonton-based keeper of fine art, and threesomes with Silk Fox and Dawn Star are chin-scratching enough even for the French. It's like Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" with chi power.
The Bottom LineFrustrating only because it is very clear to see what this easily could have been: a great game. Instead we have a streamlined lean RPG that delivers a good story by disguising itself as a beat-'em up, and doing so poorly.
This isn't a "must-buy" (what are we, are merchants selling to each other?) in any sense of the word; if you do play this it will be for the novel experience of seeing what is "exotic" become a living world with a story to tell that you care about.