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The Jade Empire is a land of lush forests and mountains based loosely on ancient china in the same way a Dungeons and Dragons style RPG would be based on a fantasy medieval Europe. 20 years ago the Empire was dying from a terrible drought, thousands died until one day the Emperor declared that by his power the drought was over, and it was. Now the empire prospers yet the land is suffering, plagued with demons and restless dead. You play a young student in a small town martial arts school, one day your master takes you aside and tells you that you have a hidden past and that (wait for it) a great destiny is meant for you.
On first impressions similarities between Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the old republic are obvious. The style of the 3D environments, the conversation menus and the light/dark system will all be pleasingly familiar to fans of the star wars RPGs. However, great attention to detail has been shown to the interface to give it its own unique style in keeping with the eastern theme. There are only three stats in the game: Body, mind and spirit, Body being health, spirit being mana and mind being used for weapons and slow motion.
The unique character building and inventory system separate Jade Empire from the usual "Stock up on potions and bigger weapons/armour" RPG format. There is no armour system. No health potions either, health is regained in combat by spending/stealing spirit points. There is only one of each type of weapon.
Instead, the focus is on is on acquiring and upgrading fighting styles, combat is all in real time and you can switch between your four chosen styles at any time using the dpad. Each style has a different purpose, some are strong, some are magical, some stun opponents, some enable you to turn into a 20 foot golem and start stomping on heads. Combat is exciting, but rarely frantic. It still relies more on tactics and preparation than quick reflexes.
The land of Jade Empire also draws on a few steampunk ideas and between exploring and fighting on foot there are sections where you take to the skies in your wood and canvas aircraft and fight enemies in an old school shooter minigame. These sections are fun, but a little pointless. You usually have the choice of skipping them if you don’t feel up to it. In one chapter you are given the option to do a couple of shooter missions for a reward, the reward being an upgrade to your ship so can do more shooter missions, great.
Like KOTOR you are given the ability to choose between light side and dark side, this time in the form of two opposing philosophies, the way of the open palm and the way of the closed fist. The way of the open palm is about harmony and understanding your place in the world, the way of the closed fist teaches that power is the ultimate virtue. Interestingly, there is a little more to the philosophies than good and evil. One challenge asks you to prove your understanding of the closed fist, to do so requires that you understand its central ideas and have been paying attention to the information the game has given you, simply acting evil will result in failure. There are multiple quest solutions to accommodate both paths and certain styles and gems will only be available to one side but for the most part it doesn’t really have any bearing on the ultimate course of the game. You could play through as a disciple of the open palm the whole way through and at still the last minute commit a couple of atrocities that push you towards the evil ending.
The party system is very simple. You get a choice of one follower at a time who will assist you in combat in either an offensive or supportive role. Aside from distracting enemy attention though they are pretty useless fighters, so your selection will mostly be based on whose personality you find most interesting. Your companions themselves are an interesting assortment, some obvious (The Dashing Rouge) some not so (henpecked bun maker, demon possessed little girl). My first time playing through I didn’t take much time to explore their back stories so I was pleasantly surprised when I chatted to them properly in my second game. I had no idea for example that one of your characters has a hidden, selectable personality, or that it is possible to develop a same sex romance (which is surprisingly well executed, its not at all cheesy or gratuitous). Personally though, I feel that is that there isn’t as much development of the characters as there could be, which ties into my main complaint with the game.
By RPG standards Jade Empire is short. Although the locations are full of side quests and opportunities for development you don’t visit as many different places as you may expect. To get a satisfying experience you have to explore every dialogue option and frivolous quest, if you are in a hurry to do the next story mission the adventure will be over before you know it. There is also a lack of depth in many aspects of the game, your end game character will always be a balanced powerhouse for example as there is no reason/way to make them focused on magic, stealth or diplomacy. The plot has a couple of interesting twists but is mainly an expedition from A to B. The general impression is that Bioware intentionally kept the experience light to appeal to casual console gamers rather than fans of stat heavy, in depth PC games.
Normally once I finish a good RPG I feel like taking a break from the genre altogether for a while. The moment I finished playing Jade Empire I began a new file and started playing again. It says a lot about my feelings for the game: I enjoyed it, but at the same time didn’t feel quite satisfied after finishing it.