As awesome as many Hong Kong martial arts films have been, from the gritty street brawls to the fantastical battlefields of times long ago, the jump to video games has been less stellar. Bruce Lee: Quest of the Dragon was awful, and Jet Li’s Rise to Honor could have been so much more. As the Dynasty Warriors series continues to endlessly crank out sequels, martial arts epics seem to be on a downward spiral, barring some straight fighting games. And then there’s Jade Empire, a game which is more RPG than action. Despite this, Jade Empire not only wisely looks to its cinematic predecessors for influence, but also manages to create a unique experience of its own thanks to a great cast of characters.
“Successfully blends strong human stories with an epic plot”China in Jade Empire is unlike anything from the history books. Great warriors wield magical powers, airships fly from area to area and rampaging ghosts populate the countryside. It’s not especially uncommon to see a tamed demon at a local teahouse in the far reaches of the land, or even some fireball-wielding fighters slugging it out at the imperial arena, located in the heart of the Jade Empire. This entire land is richly crafted, and much can be learned from talking to the inhabitants of the several large locations, which have many branching areas. These people, whether they’re drunkards or government officials, reveal an interesting history of the Empire, its early creation and the current grim state of affairs. Throughout the game, there are also bookstands and scrolls which further detail the land.
While the land of the Jade Empire is a mystical and magical locale, it also successfully blends strong human stories with an epic plot. Beginning at a small village and training school, far from the chaotic life in the capital, you choose and name a character, who turns out to be the top pupil among in his school. When tragedy strikes the village, your character sets off on a quest to stop the corruption of the emperor and rescue his kidnapped master. Right before his capture, the master of the school hinted at the main character’s strong powers and mysterious origins, and the truth of it all needs to be discovered on the journey.
It’s as clichéd as its film counterparts, but the interesting cast of the characters elevates the entire story. The average person on the street is amusing enough, since the writing is so excellent, but the followers the main character gains are the main attraction. At different times, you can go to where all the followers are assembled and choose to speak with them. There’s The Black Whirlwind, who always boastfully tells stories which end with him getting drunk and killing anybody that got in his way. Another great character, although less humorous, is the Sagacious Zu. He was once a member of the Empire’s elite death squad, and he is now trying to come to grips with his humanity. There’s also a love triangle, involving the princess of the Jade Empire, and a fellow peasant student. First-rate voice acting makes each conversation enjoyable, and the development of some of the characters is equally appealing. The conversations with the characters are full of different dialogue options, so you can tell the speaker to shut up, or to go on about whatever topic they’re babbling about.
These dialogue options do more than annoy or satisfy your followers. Much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which was also developed by Bioware, the decisions you make set you down one of two paths. There’s the way of the open fist, which is altruistic and involves helping the less fortunate. The way of the closed fist favors strength over anything else, so while the actions may be interpreted as evil, they aren’t usually done with malice. They are simply done to strengthen the person on this path. It’s all incredibly similar to the dark and light sides in SW: Kotor, but it’s not quite as black and white. There are some gray areas involved, and the different options for each quest usually require some thought on which is the best path to take.
Whether you’re a saintly do-gooder or a selfish brute, you will have to do a fair amount of fighting, which comes only second to all the conversations that Jade Empire requires. Fortunately, the combat is very active for an RPG, and feels like a simplistic beat ‘em up (in a good way). The fights usually pit you, and a teammate if wanted, against a handful of humans, demons, or ghosts. Instead of fighting with a follower by your side, they can be used for support to grant special bonuses, such as recharging health. The brawls are fast-paced, thanks to the ability to dive and flip all over the place, while busting out quick or strong attacks. There’s also a block button, but that doesn’t need to be used often. Healing can be done on the fly, but only as long as the chi bar is full. Likewise, instead of healing, chi can be used to increase the damage of attacks. Another resource is focus, which is requires for using enemies, or for entering bullet-time.
Numerous combat styles try to diversify the fighting, but the fights usually follow the same formula of attacking, waiting for the opponent to stop blocking, and then attacking again. There are basic martial styles, which dish out damage, and support styles, which typically inflict damaging status on enemies, like temporary immobility. Also, there are weapon styles and magic skills, such as fireballs and ice shards, which take up chi. Finally, there are the transformation styles, where you can turn into different creatures at the expense of chi. There are over 20 of these different styles, and they can all be switched in the midst of battle. Certain types of enemies are immune to different kinds of styles, so shifting through the different styles is necessary. These styles can be upgraded, but that proves to be one of the problems with Jade Empire. Each level up grants some points to be used for upgrading, but since there are so many styles and so few points, I mostly ended up using the styles I started off with. By the end of the game, I was only able to master four styles, and that allowed for very little experimentation.
“Fighting has its share of problems, but it’s still at least somewhat entertaining”Another frustrating aspect of the combat is that it’s sometimes broken. On the normal difficulty (there’s also easy and hard), I was able to beat the final boss without him even touching me. All I had to do was use a support skill that paralyzed the boss, switch to a martial style to do some damage, then switch back over and paralyze again. This cycle can make the game incredibly easy, but fortunately, many enemies are immune to support skills. Also, this isn’t as easy to do when there are multiple enemies. Regardless of that, it’s still lame that such a cheap tactic is so readily available. What happened to honor and those other virtues that martial arts films are supposed to be all about?
Fighting has its share of problems, but it’s still at least somewhat entertaining, and the stunning special effects help. The backgrounds, which range from busy walkways to gorgeous forests, tinted with sunlight and bright foliage, look exceptional, as does each detailed character model. In the fights, the different animations for the styles are flawless. It makes the battles nearly as graceful and smooth as the movies that Jade Empire is inspired by. As beautiful as the graphics are, some camera issues occasionally pop up during the fights. When the main character is against a wall, the camera sometimes stops focusing on the actions and gets confused. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, but it can still be frustrating.
There’s plenty of fighting and conversations to be had in Jade Empire, even though the game lasts about 20 hours, even after tacking the abundant side quests. Still, there’s a lot to do, which can net precious silver and experience points. Despite the short length, the world does feel large due to the varied environments and abundance of characters. However, the load times between these areas are terrible, and in one specific spot, it’s particularly bad. You can fight your way through the imperial arena, but each fight needs to load, which seems to take minutes. After a quick one minute fight, it needs to load again. There’s a decent amount of these fights, and the loading times almost makes them unbearable. Typically, it’s not usually this frustrating, but it’s never decent, either.
Despite some issues, Jade Empire is just further proof that Bioware is currently one the premier developers. This epic ode to kung fu movies joins the ranks of Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate as some of the better RPGs around. It has a story done perfectly, and the action is slightly above tolerable, so most of the serious problems can mostly be overlooked. This game comes recommended, whether you like martial arts films or not.