SummaryLight, but irresistibly charming
The GoodJade Empire is in many ways a "RPG-lite". It doesn't have the depth of BioWare's previous offerings. But it still offers plenty of good role-playing, mainly as far as its quest structure and choices are concerned.
For a game of its modest scope, Jade Empire is remarkably flexible. Nearly everything in the game can be done in at least two different ways. This includes not only small side-quests but the main story as well. The final confrontation can also be handled in two different ways. There are also three different endings in the game. This doesn't result in a total open-endness of the story: you follow the same main plot no matter what you decide. But your motivation for what you are doing is different, depending on how you handle moral problems that you encounter in every place. This system is great because it allows you to take moral position without neglecting the story or turning it into a "choose your own adventure" kind of thing.
Quests are usually the "meat" of Western RPGs, and BioWare's games are famous for having involving sub-quests. Jade Empire is no exception. You'll find the same enchanting assortment of missions as in Baldur's Gate or Knights of the Old Republic games. No boring NPCs who send you on boring errands, as a result of which you gain useless items. The NPCs and the quests they give are interesting and varied, and the rewards are appropriate.
As I already mentioned, nearly each quest can be solved in at least two various ways. Sometimes each one of those ways leads to another sub-quest, which varies depending on the choice you've made, and so on. For example, one time I was involved in a large quest which could be solved in two ways, I followed one of them, and it split into four (killing a corrupt judge, killing a weak-natured minister, ruining the career of the judge, or making the minister look ridiculous), each one with its own complications. Note that every time you'll have to test your conscience, because you can complete many quests simply by killing people.
I honestly didn't encounter even one boring sub-quest; they include such cool stuff as arranging a marriage, comforting two spirits of children who were abandoned in an orphanage, investigating crimes for a police captain, acting in a theater, participating in a philosophical debate about Western and Oriental cultures, and many more. Cleverly written dialogues with a lot of branches help to immerse the player in almost every conversation.
Combat controls are very simple: you have a basic "attack" button, an unblockable powerful attack which takes time to execute, and a button that allows you to block the enemy's attack, jump over the enemy, or roll to the sides (combined with other buttons). It sounds simple, and it is; most importantly, it's fun. Seeing your hero fighting in hand-to-hand style, performing all kind of crazy leaps and rolls, is cool and fits the "Chinese" setting of the game very well. The combination of fast-paced combat and heavy quest-based role-playing is just delightful. Also, there are never too much combat - the game remains primarily quest-oriented.
You also have a party in Jade Empire. Many characters will join you on your journey, some of which are entirely optional. You can have only one character at your side during combat. The party members have two modes, attack and support. If you put them into attack mode, they will draw the attention of the enemies to themselves, but their attacks are usually poor compared to yours, and they can't support you in any way when attacking. If you choose them to support you, they won't be targeted by the enemies and you'll have to fight solo, but each character will enhance your fighting in some way (for example, Sky makes you fight better with fists, Dawn Star gradually restores your Chi, etc.).
Those characters are absolutely charming, in my opinion more so than in any other Western RPG I've played. In a typical BioWare fashion, those characters talk to each other, make remarks, like or dislike each other when in your party. For example, if you recruit Black Whirlwind while having Dawn Star in your party, he'll comment about the "magenta beauty" having "great legs", whereas Dawn Star calmly responses that those legs can kick him so hard that he will have to shut up.
Those characters don't just become static figures once they have joined you; you can talk to each one of them at any time, and they will have something new to tell you. Persistently talking to them leads to more insight into their lives, which in its turn leads to more character-related sub-quests. If you talk to the characters, you'll discover a lot of depth in their personalities. And, true to BioWare's tradition, you can romance some of them! You can even have a gay or lesbian love relationship! Or try romancing two characters at the same time and see how it turns out.
Jade Empire also has a great cast of antagonists. Perhaps the most interesting one for is Death's Hand, a character clearly influenced by Darth Vader from Star Wars movies, with a tragic past behind him (though not quite in the "I-am-your-father" direction).
The main story is a bit on the simple side, but a cool plot twist comes just when you begin to think the "bunch of nobodies against evil empire" story has come to an unspectacular end; from that point on, the story develops at a rapid pace, resulting in an appropriately climatic and satisfying final confrontation.
The game's setting is one of its strongest points. The "pseudo-Chinese" environments are full of charm and atmosphere. The experience is never marred by tasteless anachronisms; the supernatural parts are organically integrated into the setting, and the "mechanical sci-fi" angle is delightful. Spread around the country are various books and scrolls that will tell you a lot about the background story of this world (reading the scrolls also awards you experience points, by the way).
The game world feels a lot like real historical China. I'm not talking only about such easy-to-imitate details as the characteristic architecture or clothes. For instance, the invention of fliers is an example of China's historical contributions to scientific progress. The "celestial bureaucracy" is another very characteristic example of typically Chinese love to order and the central idea of Chinese sociology and philosophy, which always draws parallels between the state of affairs in heavens and in "The Land Under the Sky". Corrupt judges and ministers are typical figures of China during Ming and Qing dynasties.
Jade Empire has a wonderful sense of humor. There are amusing and comical characters (the scientist Kang and Black Whirlwind are worthy of being included in a Monkey Island game), quotes ("I find your optimism... disturbing"), and "evil" quest solution choices (to solve a love triangle situation, you can announce that "the two women will fight to death, and the one who wins will get the man").
The graphics of Jade Empire are a beauty to behold. The game world is crafted with love and care; every location is marvelous, from the mountain roads near Tien's Landing to the majestic Imperial Capital and the eerie courtyards of The Dirge. There is a typically Chinese serene beauty in almost every location, you'll find yourself simply stopping, pressing the right trigger and looking from first-person perspective at what is surrounding you. The artwork is also very detailed.
The BadJade Empire is short. It was a joy to play, but I hoped it would last more than the 17 hours I needed to complete it.
The game's length is in a direct correlation with the size of its world. Jade Empire has one of the smallest RPG words I've come across. There is one small town and one (admittedly large) capital city, and... that's all. Sure, there are dungeons and the underworld, but where are the inhabited areas? It becomes even more ironic if you think about the supposedly Chinese setting. Imagine describing this game to someone who knows nothing about China; what is the first conclusion he will draw? That China is severely under-populated!
The RPG mechanics underwent many simplifications (such as the nearly non-existent equipment management), to the point of turning the game into a hybrid with an equal focus on role-playing and pure action. Nothing wrong with that, but I don't understand why the real-time combat had to deprive the game of role-playing depth. Couldn't we have both?
It's a pity you can only have one additional character in the active party. First KOTOR reduced the amount of party members from six to three; now, there are only two left. Granted, Jade Empire is more action-oriented, which normally doesn't go well with parties, but two or more supporting characters would hardly make it less fun.
The voice acting is rather mediocre, which is surprising, considering the overall good quality of acting in BioWare games. Also, there wasn't enough music for my taste; I would love to hear more of those enchanting Chinese melodies.
The Bottom LineEasy to dismiss as a "watered-down" RPG, Jade Empire is nevertheless a very charismatic and entertaining game. Interesting quests, fun combat mechanics, and writing that is every bit as brilliant as in other BioWare games make Jade Empire a worthy, albeit different, member of their stellar RPG row.