When you think of the company BioWare, you think of RPG's such as Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Star Wars:
Knights of the old Republic. In 2005, a new name was added to that list with Jade Empire on the Xbox, and while it had its share of flaws, it was a
generally well received game. Finally, after about a 10 month wait since its announcement, the Windows platform has been graced with its own version of
Jade Empire and while an effort has been made to
take advantage of the PC platform, much of the game remains the same.
For those who haven't played the Xbox version, Jade Empire tells the story of a young fighting student and his master in the heartland of ancient China.
This student - your controlled character - is actually the 'teacher's pet' ofthe training academy with a level of skill far exceeding any of the other students and as such, it
doesn't take very long for the game to shed your character of his/her training shackles and set you off into the big bad world. As the
your master is captured and you go after those who did it to set him free, which is a pretty generic premise but luckily the storyline has many twists
and turns to keep you hooked. As for the playable characters themselves, you are given a choice of a few male and female warriors who each represent a
particular build and style, such as speed or strength, which is fine but the lacking of any significant character customization is a little
Like any decent RPG, Jade Empire focuses around the concept of experience points, which allow you to dictate your character's strengths and
abilities. The implementation of this in Jade Empire is reasonably basic, as you only have three areas to spend experience points on - health, spirit
and focus - as well as separate points for your fighting disciplines in three areas of its own, which can usually be rounded down to damage, speed and
rate of resource consumption. Fighting disciplines
are picked up, bought and taught as the game goes on and there are quite a few on offer throughout the entire game ranging from magic and weapons to
traditional styles of hand to hand combat.
In effect, the health, spirit and focus ratings of your character are the three most important aspects to the gameplay, as just about everything revolves
around at least one of them. Obviously without health your character will die, but without spirit some fighting disciplines - mainly magic based ones - will be made redundant, and
without focus fighting with weapons or evading traps will be impossible.On top of this, focus can be used to enter a "focus mode" slowing down
time during combat to gain
an advantage. As stated above, these three areas have the ability to upgrade when you level up from experience, which basically determines the maximum level
of each you can have, represented by horizontal bars in the top left of your screen. To actually replenish these bars you must either collect powerups from
defeated enemies which are spat our randomly, or meditate in one of the many shrines scattered throughout the game's maps. To replenish perhaps the most
important of the three - health - you can also
heal yourself which consumes your available spirit, also referred to in the game as 'chi'.
When you're not concerning yourself over your character's abilities and bar levels, chances are you're running around the maps looking for silver and
other goodies, talking to people, and getting into the obligatory scuffle here and there. This is where perhaps the first sign of Jade Empire's
"consoleportitis" comes into play - map sizes and detail. While the average map size is decent, the amount of detail is mediocre at best,
particularly in the areas which are meant to be dense, like
cities, which feel more like walkways with a handful of random buildings and structures thrown around the place than true cities. This isn't helped by the
fact the maps are predominantly linear, rarely featuring more than one way to get from point A to B. These faults may not be as evident on a console like the
Xbox but by PC RPG standards, the environments in Jade Empire feel sparse and boring - as Peter Griffin would say, I was very aware I was playing a game when
I was playing Jade Empire because the surroundings
do not suck you in at all.
The console port feel doesn't stop there however, as it just about influences everything in the game. Fighting with your character is a huge part of Jade
Empire but once again the game fails to stray from its basic and simplified theme. While some degree of timing and skill is
required, in most cases button mashing is the name of the game with Jade Empire's fighting sub-system which basically revolves around three buttons -
simple attack, bigger attack, and block. Even if you do refrain from button
mashing and focus on blocking and countering, the fighting still comes off as systematic and repetitive. The simple attack and bigger attack change depending
on which fighting style you have selected (of which only four are accessible at any given time during combat without pausing and reshuffling the button
maps), but outside of a few different animations in combos, you're basically doing the same attack over and over again for each style. What's worse is the
enemies themselves are pretty easy, even the very
last bosses, as they generally all have a repetitive style than can be exploited easy enough.
During most fights in the game you can enlist the assistance of another character you have met during the storyline however these are only available
one at a time and are often so ineffective they serve little purpose beyond being a distraction. Sometimes these characters you meet require you to
defeat them in battle first before joining your cause, and there is a huge drop in how skilled and sturdy they are when they're fighting by your side
compared to when you fought them. This wouldn't be
a big deal if you could deploy an entourage of followers in battles, but having just one at your side at any given time seems pointless.