Review: Jade Empire (XB)


Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bioware
System: Microsoft Xbox
Genre: Role-Playing
Release: 04-14-05

Jade Empire is one of those games you can’t help but hear about. Thanks to a ton of money spent on advertising and a lot of attention given to Bioware’s latest project by gaming sites across the globs (We’re no exception. We’ve interviewed Bioware and done a massive feature on it), Jade Empire has reached Halo 2 levels of hype.

There are two problems when a game reaches this level of saturation in terms of “OMGWTF GREATEST GAME EVAR!” hype. The first is that 50% of those games inevitably suck. Or well, maybe suck is the wrong term. “Fail to live up to expectations” may be a better description of these games. Games like Fable and Vampire: The Masquerade ended up being disappointingly average while Halo 2 and Lumines lived up to expectations.

Of course having Bioware, the creators of my (and a lot of people’s) beloved Neverwinter Nights series helped to make people trust that Jade Empire would be quality itself. But almost to the point of blind zealotry.

And that’s where problem #2 comes. Once a game gets so much every, websites and writers are scared to give the game a bad score for fear of being of being yelled at by games saying “You promised this would be good! I pre-ordered this piece of crap!” or other types of commentary usually filled with more profanity and even more misspellings and caps lock stuck keyboards by those they converted into blind believers.

And Jade Empire is no exception to this. Go over to gamerankings.com and read some of the “lower scoring” reviews. You find people ripping the game apart, but then giving it an 8.4 or 8.5. Why? The above commentary combined with inflated scores, power creeping, and being afraid to break the conformity set by the 9.9 review IGN laid down. Ugh.

Well not here. I won’t lie to you. I don’t get how people are still foaming at the mouth for this game. It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in no way the best RPG released this year. Hell, it’s not even the best RPG for the Xbox. Dark Alliance 2 does pretty much everything Jade Empire does, and does it better (Although that’s a taste thing. Don’t buy DA2 just because *I* think it’s a better game.) And right now due to age, it’s half the cost of Jade Empire, and I’ll be honest and say I think people would like that game a LOT more. But Jade Empire is still a good game. Not a great one. Not a classic. Not an award winning game. Not a game people will say “Man, remember the Xbox? That had JADE F’N EMPIRE on it” ten years from now. What it’s going to come down to is you can choose to look at Jade Empire as a pretty darn good action game, or an average to sub-average RPG. Me? I chose to look at it as the former, much like one could use that same description to apply towards Capcom’s Dungeon and Dragons Arcade games, which I really love.

So read on. This is going to be a rather long look at Jade Empire rather than a quick 1-2 page review, so that you the consumer know exactly what you are in for, what’s good about this game, what is bad about this game, and what nifty little surprises were thrown in for good measure.

Let’s Review



1. Story

The story of Jade Empire could easily be called “Generic Hong Kong Action Flick” or “Cliched RPG Plot We’ve Seen Countless Times.”

We’ve got the main character, which can be one of several premade characters that you can choose from, or you can just pick the skin of one and customize its stats to your liking. From there the game unfolds to learn you are an orphan who has been in the care of a great and wise martial arts teacher and to whom you have become the greatest student of. Eventually your master reveals to you that you have a great destiny and you are the last remaining survivor of a group of monks dedicated to the Water Dragon Goddess and your people and the Goddess were slain by the current Emperor who everyone considered a benevolent and wise ruler.

And from here on the tale of Jade Empire unfolds with damn near every character in the game suffering from “I have a mysterious past I cannot reveal to you” syndrome. Seriously. Every single character. Your teacher. Your enemy Gao the Lesser. Dawn Star, Sagacious Zu. Silk Fox. The Emperor. The Emperor’s leader of his Assassins Guild. Every character is slightly different, but they all share on thing in common: Some horribly traumatic past or dark secret they are keeping hiding from you. If they didn’t telegraph certain swerves and surprises I’d have enjoyed it a lot more, but I felt certain things I can’t say here because I don’t want to spoil the game weren’t so much foreshadowed as they were clobbering you over the head with them.

Now don’t get me wrong. The character’s are well fleshed out and have decent backgrounds for all involved. They’re diverse looking and so are their skills, but the core of every single important character in the game is the same. It’s akin to take a group of sextuplets out and giving them different haircuts and clothing styles, but underneath the surface they are still more alike than not. It disappointed me that there wasn’t more creativity. Still at least they managed to dress everyone up nicely and give them different weapons or something.

Like I said, the plot is amazingly generic that the opening chapter reminded me of everything from the first Chapter of Shining Force where Death’s Hand = DarkSol, your main character’s village in Jade Empire = Guardiana, and much the same thing happens here. It’s not exactly the same but it’s so close I found myself going “I should not be having Deja Vu for 2 hours straight.” And that’s just one of the dozens of things the plot of Jade Empire seemed to mirror just a wee bit too much for my liking.

The whole plot of Jade Empire is rehashed cliches from both the RPG video game realm that have been used by video games for over a decade as well as taking the most prevalent and repetitive plot bits from Chinese Martial Arts films that you could build a drinking game upon.

But at least Jade Empire takes these things that have been done to death and dresses them up. Although your character starts out fairly generic and nondescript, the game allows you literally thousands of dialogue choices and options that allow your character to follow either the Path of the Open Palm or the Path of the Closed Fist. Options make everything better after all.

So in the end, we’ve got a story that you can find in any one of a dozen video games out there. It’s neither original nor innovative, and if you’re one of those people that compulsively plays through scores of RPG’s you will find yourself saying “This has been done to death.” But Bioware’s at least taken an overplayed plot and still managed to make it slightly interesting and fun. A lot of the dialogue is well written and at times very funny. A hint: Go to a certain cook in Tien’s Landing and talk to him constantly. Vaudeville lives on in Jade Empire. Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk.

Good writing, lots of options, and a large cast helps to obscure the fact that Jade Empire is amazingly generic and blase in terms of the story and plot. But in truth, it’s nice to see they took “Generic RPG Story #5” and dressed it up as well as they did. If you’re not an RPG gamer by nature, or have just started playing them, Jade Empire will have a well done story that isn’t found in a lot of RPG’s, but if you’ve been playing RPG’s for more a console Generation, the story will leave you flat with the occasional spike of good storytelling and humour.

Story Rating: 6/10



2. Graphics

It’s odd how the graphics shift around in Jade Empire. I’m not really a fan of the human character design models, as a lot of the faces look smashed and stretched out. Hell, the humans look a lot like something you’d make with WWF War Zone by the now defunct Acclaim back for the PS1. Which in thinking about it (especially back then) isn’t too bad, the humanoids just look very outdated, especially compared to everything else visually in the game. I think it had a very jarring effect on me.

The non human characters such as the demons and ogres and perhaps a character or two that joins you are fabulous looking. I really loved the Ogres, especially as they went with Asian over European folklore for the design of them. Yes, I know, of course they would, it’s a game about China after all, but I was worried the legends and mythology of East and West would be mixed. And yes, you’ll be visually impressed with how the monsters you encounter look, but most of the game is simply watching humans interact or fight with other humans. And as all the generic characters look alike and aren’t very nice to look at, it’s discouraging. However, Bioware would have been truly mad to have everything you fight in a battle look distinct and unique from each other, so this is understandable. It still comes down to the fact I was not impressed with the human models in the game.

The world backgrounds are amazing though. Fire crackles and moves and flickers like a true conflagration would. Waterfalls, rivers, and swamps all look perfect, as does looking down on the world from a very high up point. From deep stalactite and mite filled caved with puddles of dripping water to a deep forest with trees that sway to a non existent wind, the world of Jade Empire is wonderful to behold. Just don’t do it while five guys with halberds are coming at you.

Interior design is excellent too, but still not up to the level of the outdoor visuals. Most of the interiors are repetitive with only the shape of the rooms and a few interior possessions distinguishing them. I chalked this up to the game being set in ancient East Asia where most every building WOULD look alike due to the crafting materials available to them.

Then there’s the graphics for the vertical scrolling 2-D Shooter that appears in the game, and as 2-D shooters are my absolute favorite genre, I have to say this got a little squeal of joy out of me. The graphics for this part of the game are completely different and obvious due to the 2-D vs 3-D and complete change of gameplay style and feel can’t really be compared to the main part of the game.

In Shooter mode, Jade Empire plays a lot like a generic vertical scrolling shooter. 1942 for example or Gunbird 2. Again, remember this is vertical, not Horizontal like R-Type or Gradius as there is a difference in gameplay style (I say this only because 2-D shooting has become a bloody niche genre where way back in the days of 8 bit gaming it was one of the most popular and I realize a lot of more modern/new gamers haven’t had much experience with the genre).

Anyway, the GRAPHICS for shooter mode are quite good. They’re not up to Ikaruga’s level (which does everything better than the JE shooter in EVERY way), but then that game is the standard bearer for the genre. I was very pleasantly surprised with how well Bioware made a shooter and how distinct it felt from a lot of others in the genre. Very pretty to look at, and in some ways I preferred the graphics in here to the graphics in the main mode. But that can possibly be chalked up to my genre preference.

So Jade Empire is a good game to look at. Like pretty much very aspect of Jade Empire, there are many games that do the same thing as Jade Empire and do it better, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that graphically this game looks good. The vast majority of gamers won’t be disappointed in the visuals.

On a last note though, this is one of the few Xbox games I can think of that suffers from some very severe slowdown when you are having to deal with a lot of enemies at once on the screen. And I’m not talking about focus mode (More on that later).

Graphics Rating: 7/10



3. Sound

The voice acting in Jade Empire is really hit or miss with me. Some characters are well acted and the voice fits the physical appearance on the screen, while the others…yeah. They make me wince.

I’m happy they included both English and the Bioware created “Tho Fan” (The Chinese style dialect some characters use), but the Tho Fan characters sound so much more authentic in terms of intonation and vocal quality it makes the English actors pale in comparison. I would have been a lot happier with either a fully Sho Fan’ed or a real Chinese dialect voiced through the whole game as the quality of all those characters were consistently great. And this is odd for me, because I usually prefer English voice acting to Japanese voice acting. Maybe it’s just in this scenario it would have fit the game a lot better.

Still, I have to say I only liked about 50% of the voice actors. But then most of the ones I really disliked were in Chapter One and the game got better with each of the passing chapters. I think it just gave me one hell of a bad first impression. A lasting bad first impression.

Special note goes to the Rat Demons. I really enjoyed their voice acting. And I feel the worst acting goes to any of the children characters, especially a dead child that you encounter in Chapter 2. Ouch. Just horrific. It’s called emotion. Please have some in your monotone voice.

Musically the game is okay. None of it really sticks in my head and 30 minutes after I shut the game off I couldn’t really remember any of the tunes. They were that generic and forgettable. The only musical quality that sticks out in my head is that drum beat the ends each battle. That’s it.

Sound effects are the highlight of the game. The snapping of a table as someone flies through it, the roar of a fireball or the slashing of a staff through the air. All of the sound effects are well done and breath a lot of life into the game.

I just wasn’t impressed with the sound at all. I will say that my disdain for a lot of the voice acting can probably go to the fact that nearly every character talks, and when you have that many voice actors, the quality it of course going to ebb and rise. And generally it’s easier for me to remember the neagtive vocals than it is the positive ones in any game. I still found for every actor I liked, there was one I skipped through the talking of.

Average music, acting, and good sound effects with a nod to the fact there was so much acting in this game, I was impressed that a veritable cast of hundreds spoke.

Sound Rating: 6/10



4. Control and Gameplay

You’ve already heard me mention that there’s a lot of slowdown in this game when the screen has 5 or more characters doing battle at once. And in truth, that’s just the start. Gameplay is actually one of the downsides of Jade Empire due to the fact it’s amazingly shallow.

The gameplay is a simple rock/paper/scissors routine. You’ve got fast but weak attacks that can be stopped by the block command which can be overridden by the hard but slow attack command which goes back to the beginning and can be countered by a fast but weak attack. It’s not rocket science and that’s as deep as the gameplay goes.

There’s several different types of attacks in the game. You have your martial attacks, which is just simple kung fu. You start off with one of those and a support skill. Support Skills simply allow you some sort of defensive ability. Spirit of Night for example lets you attack an opponent, but instead of doing health damage, you drain chi, or magic points, and give them to yourself. However, Support skills are not effective on some opponents. There’s also Magic and Weapon attacks. Magic drains your Chi and Weapon attacks drain your focus. Finally, there’s also Transformation attacks (the first of which is Demon Toad) which lets you turn into a monster and eats away at your Chi rapidly, but it’s still my favorite type in the game for looks and sheer fun.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is, because when it comes down to it, all your attacks no matter the type do pretty much the same thing except for an occasional side effect (ice freezes, flames immolate, a staff weapon gives you reach over your opponent, etc etc). As so as you master the controls, you’ll be fine with any and all of the different attacks in the game.

The controls are pretty solid, and it takes no time at all to master them. In fact the first few minutes of the game are spent learning the controls before really going to town into the plot of Jade Empire. After an hour playing, you shouldn’t have any problem taking on several enemies at once, and I put a lot of emphasis on that, but we’ll wait for the balance section to get there.

There are some things I dislike besides the slowdown. I have a problem that there’s often a slight delay between switching through skills. I could understand that if it was weapon to known weapon. But from one magic to another magic or a martial to a magic? They delay sometimes feels way too long. The other problem I have comes with the triggering/locking on system. You use the R and L triggers to lock on and if you press both at the same time you enter free mode. Now I hate having to cycle through my enemies to lock onto the one I want to attack, especially as again, there is a definite and noticeable lapse between hitting the trigger and your character adjusting to face the new opponent, in which time you will often get hit. I also hate that depending on where the enemy you are lock on is, your camera angle can get wonky and sometimes neither you or the opponent can be seen. I’ll admit this happens VERY infrequently, but when it does…yeesh. But this happens with all 3D action games. There will always be a time when the Camera is not EXACTLY how or where you want it to be. It’s something to be accepted with the genre. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t get irritating when it happens.

Free Mode. Learn to use it often and love it.

There’s also Chi Strikes and Chi healing controlled by the white and black button. Healing is your friend. And to be honest, I rarely if ever used the chi strikes. There was never any need. Same with focus. You hit the Y button and things go into “Bullet time” which again, isn’t really needed and after I played around with it in the first two chapters just for the heck of using it, I rarely ever used it again. Again, something else put in the game that you can use, but there’s no need to and really, I had no desire to.

Other than those complaints, there’s nothing real wrong with the controls of Jade Empire. It’s shallow, but the controls are quite good, and more importantly they are easy to learn. It’s a lot of fun to see all the different attacks when you get them, even if you will stick to only 3-4 at most throughout the game. Bioware put them in the game, you might as well LOOK at them.

Just because there’s not much depth, doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Super Mario Bros was a very shallow game by today’s standard. Run, jump, fireball, and it is still one of the most loved games of all time,

If you’re look for something that gives you a lot of options, requires some heavy strategy, or offers a great deal of customization, Jade Empire is NOT your game. If you’re looking for something that’s easy to learn, has light controls, and is fun even though it is just a step or two above button mashing, Jade Empire will be for you. Remember, it’s a lot more a good 3D action game than an RPG, and a lot of people going in thinking it’s going to be a very stats laden RPG will be disappointed.

So yeah, decent controls that are shallow. Far better than a game that gives you a lot you can do, but all of it sucks or is subpar, don’t you think?

Control and Gameplay Rating: 6/10



5. Replayability

What’s really nice is that once you beat each shooter level, you can keep replaying them as mini-games without going through the whole game again. It makes me happy! It’s a decent shooter after all, and I will never say no to a new one of those. This part of the game even keeps a high score for you allowing you some nice replayability.

Then there’s Jade Empire itself. With a good dose of starting characters to choose from, with each archetype having it’s own martial and weapon attacks, you can easily go back and start a new game with each character to see what you prefer. The problem is that once you’ve beaten it with one character, there’s not much of a reason to go back aside from that. The plot will stay exactly the same, same for where you are on Open Palm/Closed Fist and the occasional choice between skills you have such as your starting magic or weapon.

The game is short for an RPG but long for an action game, so I have a feeling people who are only casually interested in either genre are going to pick this up and play it once and be done with it. But for those that get hooked into, there’s a lot that can be done. I mean you can customize your character from the very beginning or max out only one or two skills and use those or do all the skills in the game equally and so on.

But in the end, Jade Empire is very linear, and no matter who you take, and what skills you pick there will be very little deviance between the first time you play and the ninth time you play it.

Certainly worth playing through once though.

Replayability Rating: 6/10



6. Balance

By far Jade Empire’s weakest aspect, this is one game that is almost laughably easy. The AI is repetitive, predictable, and retarded. Every battle feels almost exactly the same unless there’s a boss or new never seen before enemy, and even then it takes maybe 15 seconds to judge their attack pattern and counter it. There should NEVER be a battle in this game where you get below half health.

In fact the only way the game ever presents a challenge is when it goes into “Diablo Mode” and by that I mean it just sends a lot of enemies at you wave after wave without stopping for some time. But again, thanks to an area affect attack that you have from the beginning of the game, this holds only a slightly more difficult challenge for you. Now, a horde of enemies and the game to sides to slow down on its own for 10-30 seconds, that’s when it gets annoying.

There really is no challenge to this game. The game warns you well in advance if you read everything how to deal with new enemies before they show up and so you plow through them when they should have been a challenge to discover the weak spot of.

Sadly your computerized companion tends to have retarded AI as well, but if you put them in support mode they can do something like heal you, restore your chi, or give you added power. And the computer opponents will ignore them as if they are invisible. If you have them attack, they will usually fall in battle, but it keeps 1-2 generic minions off your tail.

Jade Empire is not a game that requires any real thinking. It’s a lot of running around doing simple sidequests and a lot of button mashing battles that never get hard. It’s a poor game in terms of difficultly, especially compared to say Ninja Gaiden if we’re talking action games, or Bioware’s own Neverwinter Nights: Horde of the Underdark for action RPG’s.

If you’re looking for a challenge, go someplace else.

Balance Rating: 4/10



7. Originality

I know I’ve said the plot is a bunch of rehashed stories blended together, but look at the game for a second. When is the last time you saw an Action game melded with an RPG melded with a vertical side scrolling shooter. These are three very distinct genres and Bioware did a great job combining them all. None are great or mind blowing, but none of them are bad either. To juggle three genres in a way that doesn’t feel thrown together or cheesy takes a lot of time and detail, and they did a great job here with that.

You also have to throw in that Bioware made their own faux Chinese dialect of Tho Fan, which is a little creepy Klingon-esque, but it shows they put a lot of work into this game.

With a cast of hundreds, all with decently fleshed out personalities and a strong attempt to pay slightly more than lip service to East Asian Folklore, Bioware made themselves a pretty original game. I hope to see more games mix and matches genres like Jade Empire does. I just hope they do it as well as Bioware.

Hint. Next time do Pokemon and Ikaruga. It’ll sell like hotcakes. HONEST!

Originality Rating: 7/10



8. Addictiveness

I can’t imagine getting obsessed with Jade Empire. There’s too much Tomb Raider-esque running back and forth and backtracking, too little of a challenge, and too much repetition.

But at the same time, there’s something about the game that exudes charisma. The story is well written, if not cliche and that helps a lot. And there are times when you have a hard time putting the controller down, especially when you know you are close to the end of a chapter or have just one or two more active sub-quests listed on your roster. The game draws you in, and it’s fun. That’s what matters. I know the first half of this review harped on all the things that keep this game from being great, but there’s a lot that makes it GOOD, and because it is a good game, you keep coming back for more.

You’ll enjoy the game and be drawn in by it, but in the end, the flaws keep it from being a game you’re going to become infatuated with. Still it’s good for something to do in-between bigger and better games.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10



9. Appeal Factor

Jade Empire has the media machine blitz going for it. Advertisements all over and damn near every gaming site on the planet dropping to their knees to give it some high class verbal fellatio. So a lot of people are going to go out in droves and by it.

Will they be disappointed? It depends what they are looking for. This is not the greatest game ever made. But this game does a lot of things right and there’s something for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, it goes by quickly, and there’s a shooter mini game to break up any monotony you might feel. It’s a customizable action game that has a lot of voice work, some nice monsters and a story we’ve seen many times before but still manages to come off with a few nice twists and is told very well. And after all, the story teller can sometimes make or break the tale being told.

Really, I have to say anyone who gets this should have fun with it. Hell, they WILL have fun with it, but it’s nothing memorable or that they will take away with them and want to treasure for years, booting the game back up several times a year because they are that passionate about it.

But it’s one of those rare games that you have to admit may have its flaws and definite weak points, but still manages to capture the imagination and be fun for anyone who picks up the controller.

Appeal Factor Rating: 10/10



10. Miscellaneous

There’s two versions of Jade Empire. The regular no frills version and the LE which has an extra character and a lot of other goodies. I have to admit this really ticks me off. Especially because both are the same price. If you’re going to do it for the same price, seriously, put all the stuff on one version. Or at least lower the no-frills price by five dollars or something, In a day and age when every game is starting to come with a documentary or other extras, why make a limited edition when all copies can have the same added features. ESPECIALLY if you’re not making any more money off it? Why go through all that work and not let every gamer enjoy it? It just seems silly to me. Yes I know “Oooh. Limited Edition.” Anyone using a video game as a status symbol needs a massive reality check. Or a swirlie.

/rant.

But besides that little thing, all the extras on the LE make it worth picking up and the no frills version worthless. Go for that if you can find it.

I really enjoy the 2D shooter. In fact I prefer it to the main game. It’s not as good as say Bangai-O or some other shooters out there, but it’s a nice touch that made me mark out because I was in no way shape or form expecting it. There’s a lot you can do in Jade Empire, even if it isn’t that deep. And it’s fun.

Jade Empire is everything the mediocre game of Fable should have been. Jade Empire does everything from the morality meter to the romance aspect of the game right, and it’s enjoyable.

It’s not going to win any awards. It’s not going to come close to being a GOTY, but it’s one of those games that you’ll be happy to have as part of your collection, if only for 1-2 playthroughs and then as a trade in.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10



The Scores

Story: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 7/10
Control and Gameplay: 6/10
Replaybility: 6/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal Factor: 10/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10

Overall Score: 6.8
Final Score: 7.0 (GOOD!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Jade Empire is a good game. But that’s all it is. Rent it, and play through it. If it’s your cup of tea, then for sure buy it, and especially the LE version if you’re into the extras and want to see the character you can only play as in that version. It’s better than other games that are similar to it like Fable, but other games like Dark Alliance 2 provide a better action RPG experience, and at half the cost. Like I said at the beginning, you can look at Jade Empire as very good 3D action game with a 2D vertical scrolling shooter mixed in, or an average RPG game with a 2D vertical scrolling shooter mixed in. Worth checking out, but you won’t find any challenges hidden within.