BioWare. The name alone commands respect among gaming circles. Few companies have been able to develop quality game after quality game, always giving rabid fans what they want, but also revolutionizing and innovating, in leaps and bounds, how games are played and how they are perceived in our culture. Once upon a time, RPGs were for the "hardcore" gamers only. The mere mention of those three letters brought on visions of pocket protectors, D&D rule books, magic spells, dragons, orcs and ogres. But times have changed.
But what is an RPG? What makes an RPG an RPG? We seems to stray further and further from the traditional definition each year as game developers try to intermingle every genre under the sun within each new game. Once perceived as a very rigid, very strict, rule-based affair for PCs only, RPGs (and RPGs on console) have become more and more mainstream thanks to games like Final Fantasy VII, Fable (everyone I know wants to play that "chicken punting game") and of course, Knights of the Old Republic.
Racing games are about physics, cars and tracks. Fighting games are about move-sets, combos and modes. First Person Shooters are about graphics, control and multiplayer mayhem. But RPGs are, and will always be, about imagination, locations, memorable encounters, epic battles, tongue-in-cheek dialog and a sense of higher purpose. While other genres may try to up the multiplayer limits encouraging more and more people to play them together, RPGs are personal. They are, generally, to be played alone. Slowly. Exploring every last inch of every town. Enjoying every last word of dialog. Finding new and creative ways to abuse the class systems, the weapon upgrades and the player leveling scheme. Each adventure, regardless of branching story paths, open-ended gameplay, dialog trees and the obligatory multiple endings, will be unique. Each fight will vary from the next. Each play-through will pose its own challenges and inspire its own sense of discovery. An RPG's greatest strength lies in its personal connection with each person playing it. It's about visiting old friends, about making new ones and usually, generally, most often, saving the world at the same time. In this respect, Jade Empire is worth its weight in gold, and is an RPG in the truest sense of the word.
Jade Empire is easily described as the heir apparent to Knights of the Old Republic. Anyone who has played the Star Wars masterpiece will feel right at home with this new offering. The dialog trees, the morality issues of right versus wrong, the overall game engine and the gameplay mechanics are identical for the most part. The story is not set in a galaxy far, far away however, but instead rooted in Asian culture at an unspecified time. The plot centers around an orphan raised in Two Rivers, a training school of sorts, who sets forth into the majesty of the Sun Dynasty in search of answers, redemption and revenge. The plot is epic in scope, varied and intelligent in design and completely satisfying in breadth. Every possible care was taken to craft a world that feels as real as that of Morrowind's, where every scrap of paper, every book and every sentence should be carefully contemplated and enjoyed. In the Grand Tradition of BioWare, there is the mandatory "plot twist" that is so well conceived and constructed, it is almost impossible, expect perhaps in hindsight, to truly see it coming. The highest praise I can give it is that it is completely logical, intelligent and expertly executed (once again).
When embarking on your journey, you will have a choice of various characters to play as. Much like all great RPGs, these vary enough to allow you to play through the game with your own personal style. While many like balanced characters or pure fighters, there is always something that can be said for a very powerful magic user. Characters vary greatly in primary abilities (body, mind & spirit) and secondary abilities (health, focus & chi). While this may seem daunting to newcomers of the RPG genre, they are handled expertly and allow an advanced user the ability to manipulate them to a great extent while allowing the uninitiated to carry on without really having to worry about them either. RPG purist don't despair, the game does contain experience points, leveling, ability and style points, status effects, power ups, essence gems and the like. Unlike in other games however, it is handle in a completely user friendly way that is never intimidating or perplexing.
Your character will then, as expected, engage in multiple conversations with various dialog trees (various possible responses and actions will affect your moral standing: open palm or closed fist), take on quests, finish them and further the story along. There are lots of optional quests, many characters to travel with and an engaging story-line to experience.
What separates Jade Empire from Knights of the old Republic and possibly every other RPG that has come before it however, is its combat. Not content with the traditional pen and paper D&D rule-set, BioWare has given us true martial art combat to abuse instead. It is not only fitting, considering the influences of the game, but wildly entertaining and rich in possibilities. What may seem like a very easy and boring fighting system at first only grows and grows to become a veritable arsenal of fighting styles and magic use. There are more attack combinations in Jade Empire than in many traditional RPGs combined. And take my word for it, the fighting engine is sublime: the speed and smoothness alone will make you feel like you're playing a Dead or Alive game and not a stuffy old RPG. The only drawback is that, with the fighting game mentally deeply rooted in my brain, I often found myself trying to "dash" towards my opponents and then remembering that I was playing as Wu the Lotus Blossom and not Kasumi.
The game will take anywhere from 22 to 30 hours on the first play-through and does contain various difficulty levels (which can be changed on the fly - except during a battle) that range from a walk in the park to Ninja Gaiden maddeningly/mind-numbingly hard. Those wanting to simply experience the game for what it is can choose to play on easy, but those coming back looking for a challenge are encouraged to play on hard. All in all, BioWare has made certain that this game will be accessible to anyone who wishes to play it. And that may very well be its greatest asset.
Anyone who has played an RPG recently also knows that it must be infused with variety. Jade Empire contains its fair share of it as well. From the 1942-style mini-games that can be unlocked and accessed from the main menu to the incredible amount of enemy types, no one at BioWare seemed satisfied with status-quo. You'll also find humor in the oddest of places (make sure you sit through the ending credits) and a true sense of playing and living something that is epic in scale.
The graphics as well as the character models are a step up from the KOTOR engine and it is not uncommon to wander around aimlessly simply looking at objects and marveling at the amount of detail that has gone into them. While in Two Rivers, please take a moment to note the underside of the hanging lanterns and how intricately ornate they are. It is this attention to detail, along with breathtaking sceneries and art direction, that makes Jade Empire come alive. The draw distances are greatly improved over KOTOR and the rolling skies of Dirge must truly be seen to be believed. As if to help us along, BioWare has given us a first person camera at the click of a thumbstick to appreciate the scenery even more.
The character models, for their part, are each unique and while some faces seem a little familiar after a while, the intricate costumes help distinguish everyone apart. The enemy models and heroes alike are well animated and the 480p definition really helps the game shine. While it may not replace The Chronicles of Riddick or DOOM 3 as the graphic champion of the Xbox, it shows us that large, beautifully rendered worlds are possible without a drop in frame rate or compromise in textures.
The sound and music, as seems to be the theme in this review, are beyond reproach. The music is intoxicating and fits the game's heritage perfectly. The Asian influenced soundtrack perfectly captures the call and echo of rolling waves and inspires at every turn. It is exiting and soothing all at once. The sound effects are spot on as well and the Dolby Digital really helps set them apart. The voice acting, on the other hand, while completely professional and perfectly done, does inspire a few odd questions here and there: while all the characters in the game are Asian, some sound like typical Albertans with a flare for voice-acting. I can understand that using a heavy Asian accent in English would lead to stereotypes, but sometimes the polar opposite was just as distracting. The voice-work still remains flawless however, with each line delivered as it should be. Again, to help us appreciate it more, BioWare has given us the option to replay all spoken dialog while in the journal. A small feat, but greatly appreciated.
Jade Empire is not perfect though. While not a constant bother, except while fighting in the arena, the loading is just long enough to pull you from the bubble. The developers have used the loading screens as an opportunity however, to fill us in on the particularities of the Sun Dynasty, gameplay tricks and character history. Also, while the game starts strong with lots of excitement, you will soon find yourself in Tien's Landing faced with a host of fetch quests and dialog trees to cut through. I understand the need for this and its placement in the story, but it does go on for a little bit too long. On the bright side, the game gets better with every turn, culminating into a series of brilliant and fast pace encounters. Very rarely have I seen a game with such a well rounded curve. Everything builds, and since it starts off strong, you can only imagine where the final product will take you. My only other gripe is the game's length and since this is an "action-RPG" it is one concession that had to be made. Battles don't last 30-40 minutes and so throwing 200 more random battles at our hero would have felt out of context. At around 25 hours this isn't a short game, but the characters, story and gameplay are so well accomplished that having it end, after any amount of time, is disappointing. Luckily, this game warrants multiple play-throughs, both as open palm and closed fist and also as the various characters (male, female, fighters, magic users, etc.)
At the end of the day, it is impossible to say too much about Jade Empire without ruining its sense of discovery, but it is also far more daunting to stop praising it. BioWare has done the impossible and toped itself once again and given us a story that is personal, satisfying and epic. It has given us a moral system far more intricate in its nuances than KOTOR and also a fighting engine that could stand its own in an action title. I have played many great RPGs in my life, visited many great worlds and encountered many friends. I still remember many conversations quite fondly and look forward to seeing these places and people again. Jade Empire is one of those RPGs. One that will consume you from the onset and not let you go until you have finished it. It may not be for everyone, but much like Final Fantasy VII and Fable, it has the power to convert. It sets the bar even higher for BioWare and for every other RPG developer in the world. Make no mistake about it: Jade Empire is an RPG. It is a moving story and a wonderful dream. And yes, Jade Empire is a masterpiece.