We all like martial arts movies right? I mean when at 2am we are flipping around the channels and you see a grainy movie with guys jumping around like maniacs kicking outlaws and bandits in the head we all stop right? What is it about those movies? The plot seems to be superficial but yet we cant turn away. BioWare has obviously been staying up watching late night TV. With their previous successes they really had their choice of game. They could have made any game they wanted, and Jade Empire is the result.
Ok, I want to get something straight right off the bat. If you are looking for a replacement for Soul Caliber with non-stop action and fights, you are looking in the wrong place. This is first and foremost an RPG. There is a lot of conversation in this game as it is a story driven game. It is an ancient oriental universe that is brought to life in stunning colour and style. With scroll stands, and books scattered about the world with even more information on the world your character inhabits the world really does have the depth that a lot of RPGs lack. It is an incredible deep and well developed world. The fights are meant to further develop the story and advance the plot, not to show off that new demon transformation style you just picked up. Each conversation that you have with an important NPC is well written and you actually have intelligent, meaningful answers as opposed to the drivel that is normally prevalent in these choose your response games. Each of these responses during combat will move your character along either the Open Palm, or Closed Fist paths. This isnt quite the good and evil that you experienced in KOTOR, the answers that you are presented with arent as easily identified as being blatantly Open Palm or Closed Fist. Although I have not finished the game (yet) there are supposed to be three endings, one for each Open Palm and Closed Fist as well as an ending for a neutral character. Indecisive gamers of the world unite, finally an ending just for you. Your alignment will also affect what styles open up to you later in the game.
When you sit down to create your character you can pick from one of six templates, three male, three female. There isnt any customization that you can do to the look of your character in here unfortunately but each of the six characters is very well animated and detailed. If you want to customize your character more you can get in and change each of your three stats, Body (gives you Health), Spirit (gives you Chi) and Mind (gives you focus). You can also choose the martial style that you start with as a new character. One of the pre-generated characters will do the job nicely though. Unlike other RPGs, it is more about how you choose to develop your character rather than how your characters is initially build that matters the most in the game. Health is just that, hit points. Lose those and the fight is over. Luckily you have a built in healing system, just hold down the white button and you will trade your Chi for health. No clunky potions or other items to collect. Chi is also used to generate more damage with your strikes with Chi Strike Mode and to power your Magic and Transformation styles. And finally Focus. Focus applies to your weapon styles. Each strike you make drains some of your focus, and once it is gone you have to switch back to your other basic styles to continue with the combat.
The fighting system is deceptively simple. There are only two attack buttons, regular and power attack. No joystick button combos like in most fighting games. The depth appears when you start linking together styles. To start with you get a martial style (your basic attack) and a support style. The support styles tend not to do much in the way of damage, but slow or hold your enemies instead of damaging them. Later magic, weapon and transformation styles all open up. With the limited experience that you gain as you level you never have enough experience to spread around to all your styles. I think there will be replay built into the fact that you can go about combat in so many different ways and spending your experience differently will completely alter how you go about your fights. Picture a fight with a boss and three minions. You open with your ice magic style, and freeze the boss to keep him down for a couple of seconds. Fire a couple regular shots at one of the minions to knock his health down a bit. Change to your staff weapon style. Fire a couple of hits on a minion again, then when they close in, hit all of them with your area of affect spin move and knock them down. Quickly switch to your regular martial attack, flip towards one of the downed minions and take him out as he is getting up. A couple more flips and take out a second minion. Switch to Shadow Thief, and while avoiding the boss, drop a couple hits (not doing any damage) on the remaining minion to recharge your chi, then drop him with a power attack from your martial style. Switch quickly to Heavenly Wave (a support style) and slow the boss with a flurry of blows. Now change to your Toad Demon style (where you actually change shape into a massive toad demon) and lay the smack down on the boss. I found that if you stick to one style through an entire fight it takes a much longer time to win (if you go at all) By switching from style to style the combat becomes dynamic and fluid. If you are having difficulty or too easy of a time in your fights you can change the difficuly of the game anytime during play as long as you are outside of combat. So if there is a single fight that you cant seem to get past, you can lower the level, win the fight, then return to your adventures at the previous difficulty.
Luckily you wont be in these fights alone. You will be able to have a large number of followers that you will encounter during your adventures. You will only be able to have a single follower with you at any time, but you will be able to switch freely between them at most times. Each of your followers will have different abilities and will have greatly different effects on your fights. You can have them take one of two tactics, Attack or Support. In attack mode the follower directly enters combat. Some of the enemies will focus on them and ignore you. In this mode they can be hurt and eventually lost from the fight. You can also put your follower on Support. In Support mode each character sits just outside of the area that you are fighting in and meditates. Your enemies completely ignore them and they can take no damage. The nice thing is that while meditating they will somehow increase your combat ability. Dawn Star, the first follower that you receive, when put on Support will greatly increase your Chi regeneration. This is very effective in combat, as you will always have some Chi to help with your healing. Other followers do things like give you health regeneration, or increase your damage in weapon mode. How you go about using your followers is up to you. I tended to leave them in support mode so I got to lay the smack down on the greatest number of bad guys.
The music in Jade Empire is well done. Orchestral music rises up at the appropriate times, and gives the game that movie feel. The in game sounds are straight out of those martial arts movies that we all know and love. As for voice acting there is a massive amount of dialog in this game. If a line is delivered by an NPC or follower it has voice acting to go along with it. And there is a TON of dialog in this game. It certainly is not the absolute highest quality of voice acting, sometimes giving a bit of a campy feel but doesnt detract from the game at all. The ambient sounds are top notch, the water cascading off of the rocks or the whistle of wind through the trees.
Jade Empire is an RPG of the highest quality. Everything is done well from the tip of your top knot to the soles of your butt kicking shoes. Some people may be intimidated by the massive amount of reading and conversations that you come upon in this game, but serious RPGers will revel in it. With the different paths available with Closed First and Open Palm the replay ability on this game seems high. I would recommend anyone who enjoys a good RPG to run to the store and pick this game up.
Notes to developers: I would put a feedback screen somewhere in the menu system. Occasionally while merrily clicking on the buttons I would skip over a part of a conversation and there was nowhere I could go back and check out what I had actually said or heard. Also, some of the maps are a bit on the small side and sometimes it gave you the feeling that you were on a set of rails as opposed to freely exploring a massive environment.