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Jade Empire (Xbox)

89
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.7
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168688)
Written on  :  Jun 16, 2005
Platform  :  Xbox
Rating  :  3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars

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Summary

Empire? More like a little province

The Good

Like all other BioWare games, Jade Empire has charisma - you can't take that away from it. The game is set in a fresh pseudo-Chinese world, and at least the superficial elements of the culture are well-represented. Visuals, sounds, and gameplay elements such as martial arts contribute to the exotic atmosphere.

Like other BioWare products, Jade Empire has strong, witty writing. It is actually more humorous than their other games. 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 suggest that "the two women will fight to death, and the one who wins will get the man"). Most of the conversations are well-written and vivid.

Even though your companions have minimal impact on gameplay (more on that later), they 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. And, true to BioWare's tradition, you can romance some of them. You can even have a gay or lesbian love relationship if you are into that sort of things. Or try romancing two characters at the same time and see how it turns out.

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 an evil empire" tale has come to an unspectacular end. Jade Empire also has a few interesting antagonists, particularly Death's Hand, a character clearly influenced by Darth Vader from Star Wars movies, with a tragic past behind him.

Quests have become the "meat" of mainstream modern Western RPGs, and BioWare's games are famous for having involving sub-quests. Jade Empire, too, has quite a few memorable tasks you can tackle in different 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.

Other cool stuff includes 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 more. Cleverly written dialogues with a lot of branches help to immerse the player in almost every conversation, though we are certainly not talking Baldur's Gate II quality here.

The Bad

Jade Empire is BioWare's first RPG they developed specifically for a console. I think that pretty much sums up its main deficiencies. It would be a mistake to assume that Jade Empire is just a typical BioWare RPG with a fresh setting. This game is all about style and very little substance.

Jade Empire has one of the smallest RPG words I've come across. There is one small town and one (admittedly large) capital city. That's it. It becomes even more ironic if you think about the supposedly Chinese setting. Imagine describing this game to someone who knows nothing about China; the first conclusion he will draw is that China is severely under-populated.

You could get away with lack of bustling urban life, but then you need something else to explore - the world itself, civilized or not. The shocking news here are that Jade Empire doesn't really have a world. There is nothing to connect between the game's two towns. There are a few dungeon-like areas (all obligatory), but there are no locations you can travel to just because you want to. You never feel you are exploring anything in this game, particularly since the hostile areas are as straightforward as they come.

The actual game progression is completely linear. Yes, you can choose different conversation lines, but most of them are cosmetic, and they don't change the sequence of events and the travel plan in any way. You arrive in the first town, complete the quests there, then move onto the capital, do the same, and... that's it. A short, fully streamlined sequence in the Underworld follows, after which you are taken straight to the final boss.

The Open Palm - Closed Fist ethical dualism feels contrived, artificially pasted over a game that wasn't made for it. First of all - disregarding the fact the game tries to tell you otherwise - these are just fancy names for "good" and "evil". Which would be okay if these categories were treated within the frames of an actual confrontation. In Knights of the Old Republic, the battle between the Jedi and the Sith is the actual core of the story, and hence the decisions you make as the protagonist feel integral to everything that happens around you. In Jade Empire, on the other hand, there is no large-scale conflict or any significance to the ethical ideologies besides being "nice" and "rude" to people.

One of the worst things they did here is the elimination of party-based gameplay. It is particularly irritating because the game keeps throwing colorful, interesting companions at you - but in the end, from the point of view of gameplay they are worth nothing. You can only take one companion at a time, and he or she will follow a primitive AI routine that is next to useless in direct combat and can only be marginally helpful in the benefits it provides to the protagonist (such as healing). What is the point in having fully developed characters if they are reduced to passive and very limited supportive roles? BioWare's strength has always been party-based combat systems; in Jade Empire, they tried to tread the path of action role-playing, but instead delivered little action and little role-playing.

Indeed, RPG mechanics underwent so many simplifications (such as the nearly non-existent equipment, dumbed-down character-building, etc.), that it could have just been an action title with role-playing elements. Nothing wrong with that, but then the action part should better be satisfying on its own. Unfortunately, despite all those martial moves, combat in Jade Empire is restricted, lacking in challenge, and thoroughly unexciting. Enemies pop out at pre-set locations (rather than roaming the environment), which means you fight when you are told to and cannot even leave the battle area until your foes have been vanquished. It all has a cartoony, watered-down flavor unbecoming both serious action games and RPGs.

The Bottom Line

Superficially, Jade Empire gives you much of the familiar BioWare goodness: well-written sub-quests in a refreshingly Chinese environment. However, that cannot change the fact that Jade Empire is small, short, and severely lacking role-playing depth. I had more fun with this game than with Neverwinter Nights, but for a true classic BioWare experience you should look elsewhere.