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Game Profile
April 14, 2005
Jade Empire 2

Jade Empire: Special Edition

 Written by Chris Reiter  on April 25, 2005

Review: Karate here. ::taps head:: Karate here. ::taps heart:: Karate here when wax-on, wax-off only! ::taps crotch's lemonade/whipped cream dispenser::

It's hard to think that most people you know and meet out there in the world doesn't or has never lived a double life. Take the every day Catholic school girl as an example. While you can view this sweet girl in your mind being faithful to the church who schools her, it's easy to also imagine in your darkest desires her stripping off that plaid-plated getup and revealing a highly gorgeous body underneath with her own rambunctious design. Well, if you're into that sort of thing anyway. Think about teachers. Sure they're professional educators, but they're also people. One time in their life, they could've been part of a gang. Think about doctors. Are they really trying to help people, or are they in the profession for the money? Face it: all humans are born with a conscious that leads us to do good things or bad ones. Our internal moralities shape the conclusions we wind up with. For every decision we make, our growths depend upon this subconscious-woven road. It is an interesting thing to think about, in how one can measure their own collective destiny based upon their ethic actions. That's why the legendary team behind such RPG classics as Baldur's Gate and the more recent Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are back in doubling their efforts to duplicate, or rather recreate the immense success established with the Light and Dark tales taken in their 2003 Star Wars epic. Teamed with Microsoft this time, BioWare brings gamers the first-ever martial arts-based RPG that dives into your soul and asks if your side is more yin or yang: Jade Empire.

Some people will tell you that ghosts do exist. Close-minded others influenced by hypocrisy laugh at those silly bedtime stories. There are weaklings who marvel upon the strongest of whom they know. Instructors try to steer those under their wings in the right direction. Jealousy overrides compassion. Evil endures in the background, and it's now returning to finish off what has already started. In one mystic land wrought with ancient enemies, there lies a humble village far outside the boundaries of the greater world known as the Jade Empire. There are histories born elsewhere hidden from this simple town that houses decent families and students. You, however, are no mere mortal. You are the prodigy child: a senior student who has mastered skills far greater than any below your rank. Yet, you are not one to brag about your position. You are not the type that would rather point out others' foibles than help them get their head straightened out. You are NOT that somebody who's going to CHEAT, LIE, and STEAL. Are you? With a master impressed by your progress already, your training is almost complete. Choose your story wisely, because it's about to unfold right in front you.

Treading from the path left behind from their work on the popular Star Wars RPG franchise and leaving its 2004 sequel to Obsidian Entertainment, you'd probably figure fans felt that BioWare had rather large expectations to live up to for their next incarnation. That when they announced that their next project would adapt the likeness of the role-playing model used in their Star Wars release in some martial-arts themed environment, they needed not to fail. Experiencing Jade Empire firsthand, it's easy to see that BioWare didn't go wrong. They couldn't go wrong. After all, Jade Empire exudes its likeness from BioWare's Star Wars game in major doses. Everyone who has already familiarized themselves with LucasArts' previous action-RPG behemoth, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, should have no trouble in at least being aware of the formula in which Jade Empire presents. Why? Because Jade Empire is in many ways a game that repeats what BioWare formerly did create.

Going by the example Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic set, BioWare reforms in Jade Empire a few of the methods that dictated the game's entire structure. For one, the light and dark paths are back. Whether your "create-a-hero" persona in the game travels by the way of good or evil, a balanced meter depicts whether your star ascends into brightness or descends into darkness. This time that system is known as Open Palm (for light) and Closed Fist (for dark). This means of morality measurement may feature a different name and relate to philosophies outside the Star Wars universe, but it's still the same kind of game setup. Either you're more lenient toward the kindness and selflessness of others or you're treating others cruelly and being just as bad as you want to be. Your hero/heroine of the game may approach a woman at one point whose husband is unmercifully being beaten by a gang of men each and every day. There's no such explanation for this crux in his life. The wife then asks of you to save the poor chap. You can choose to investigate this crime simply for the sake of rescuing him, or you can do so by negotiating a nominal fee (with the added sincere or insulting dialogue selections). This particular objective leads to fending off the gang of men, and to a long-forgotten secret, and to a love connection session with experience and fortune if your following is of the Open Palm. Closed Fist followers would receive some of the same benefits with an added rare item; however, the story doesn't conclude to the same happy ending. Your character turns darker for your greedy actions, and you'll continue down the easier, dishonorable road. More so than this single example, you're able to get involved in numerous mission types that may or may not cross your paths on the main road. When you're not buying amulets or magic styles to add to your ever-growing list of things that'll potentially enhance your character's stats (the amulets act as the equipment replacement for Star Wars' lightsabers and armors), you're finding silver or these trinkets stored within chests or vases and also earning them in missions that'll challenge you to different manners of tasks. You'll have a shot at it all (or most), from initiating in the role of a bounty hunter, protecting the weak with your expertise skills, to winning a debate between yourself and an impressive bastardized Englishman.

Having mentioned your character as a "create-a-hero" isn't far from the truth: that in fact whatever your character type you choose, their morale rate will ultimately be of your making like was just explained. But aside from this, the arrangement of how your character comes to be is once again done by choosing amongst a list of homegrown default character classes from BioWare. Amongst your options are male and female heroes or heroines that may excel in one particular area of combat, while not so much in the rest. There are magic users, quick types, a strong man, and also some classes that roll a balance of strength, spells, and speed all into one flexible ball. It'll be important as to which selection you choose, obviously since combat reflects on your attributes. If say you'd prefer to perform quickened circles around your enemies more so than you would to cast tricks on them, then the speedier one would the be the one for you. Me personally, I went with the balanced female named Wu the Lotus Blossom. Not only is she gorgeous, but she's got the body, spirit, and mind of a warrior with harmonious attributes versed in each of the three governed aspects. How this affects combat exactly relates to its basis. Health, or body, magic, or spirit, and speed, or mind, are depicted with red, blue, and yellow gauges at the top left of the screen. Attacking opponents is similar to BioWare's previous game (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), as battles are strewn through real-time segments. As in, if you spot some enemies on patrol up ahead and approach them, life bars will immediately spring over their heads and so begins the rampaging. The differences in Jade Empire, however, include: the screen no longer pauses automatically at each encounter to allow for selection of an initial attack. Aside from some basic standard moves that are very easy to comprehend -- being to kick/punch (A), charge punch (X), defend (B), and turn on/off focus mode (Y) -- there's also a whole slew of magical attacks that can be upgraded over time and mapped to the D-pad controls. Often you'll find yourself brushing up against some enemies that are fairly simple to put down -- which can include humans, rat demons, ogres, and even ghosts. But then, some are not. So it's best to always try and change your tactics and find an opening when the chance happens.

By this, I mean that you'll also often find that battles can be quite difficult when you'll see how enemies can and will team up to heightened numbers of six or so. Like and unlike in BioWare's Star Wars RPG, your leading man or lady will partner up with several others. Although, don't expect there to be three allies supporting you in battle at once. That number diminished to two in this game -- where the computer commanding the teammate can either attack and contribute their share to the defeat or to support you and aid you from the sidelines to keep you alive as you'll conquer over all. Even without a tripod to support yourself though, the battles can flow well enough, just so long as you know what you're doing. It all comes back to the basics for this. Every individual character attacking onscreen can only lock onto one single fighter. Your character may get a couple to face while your partner may get a whole bunch of them -- and vice versa. There a few stances enemies take position in that you'll need to set your moves by if you're to succeed successfully. When an enemy is without a shield barrier around them, this leaves an open window to attack normally with the regular kicking and punching action. If a shield is up, the charge move must then be made to knock them out of their surrounding force field. This maneuver involves your character igniting a blue electricity field around themselves and smashing the opponent fiercely to damage them more so than in a default advancement. Evading and defending is also a possibility here. Your character can lift a force field around themselves, roll sideways, and flip straight over opponents any moment immediate danger approaches. When a battle turns into a war you might not be able to handle under normal conditions, slowing down the speed of the enemy and energizing your pace inside a black and white focus window allows you to concentrate on dangers easier and better your chances at winning. When the focus option is on, this method also strengthens magical effects. Magic isn't always needed to win a fight. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Paying attention to the status meters of your own character is always the best idea to do, where the magical chi in the game is liable to be spent on more than a single aspect. Jade's chi meter dispenses the big hero of the story with a refill of life when needed. But also, this blue bar is simultaneously the power provider for any one or a combination of magical strikes. If no chi is present, no magic can be used and no life can be retaken. When activating spells though, it's possible to choose one version of magic, then switch to another one in mid-attack to create powerful combo strings. There breathes in the game a wide variety of spells, giving you fireball blasting, staff slinging, stone freezing, demon transforming powers and more. There are tons of techniques to obtain the more quests are completed that relinquish these special powers as payment, so it's likely you'll be wanting to switch between them often.

Don't get me wrong; Jade Empire is a good game. Fending off people and different things, however, isn't the greatest thrill ride. The combat system, while interesting, is kind of poky and predictable at times. Aside from the diverse attention created toward the magic system, Jade's only got a couple of default attacks that will leave you using the same tricks as you did before in every last fight pretty much. Or so it seems that way at least. Enemies are stupid. Then again, so is your partner. The AI usually likes to start off with a spell or a charged attack. You'll begin by throwing normal blows. Then they'll switch to the shield. Then you'll flip over them. Then you'll knock them out with your own charge. And while all this is happening, the action isn't lighting fast. Enemies kind of just stand around waiting to be hit. If you're not actually rolling and flipping around the screen, your flow of movement is also low on batteries. In other words, it's like you're trying to run when your character in reality is minimally pacing themselves when you really want them to fight faster. Whomever your ally is, no matter what, for some reason they're never of the same skill level as your own. Well, naturally, that might be the case because it's impossible this time to equip friendly helpers with anything. But it's pathetic when for example the partner has trouble draining even a fragment of one ghost's life and then perish in trying, when you're the one who's just buried two spirits and now are just beginning to guide the third to the same fate. Aside from these problems (and one camera that ricochets into awkward and confusing positions on occasion), Jade Empire is manageable enough so that it's easy to understand, learn, and get somewhat addicted to on the whole.

A common quip gamers noted against Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, were that many of the game's talkative NPCs who'd be engaged to discuss with you a barrage of questionable relevant topics (inside an animated close-up view of their and your faces), would share a duplicate mug of another character model met already before. How many times do you really want to be conversing with Greedo or Bib Fortuna clones? In Jade Empire, the Attack of the Clones is back. Even though it's not true -- when Chris Tucker joked about the Chinese in Rush Hour 2 -- from a certain angle he's right in saying, "All ya'll look alike!" Jade Empire makes this notion true, on some fronts at least. Not that it matters much, but it is sort of annoying to see some of the "lesser characters" get recycled into the bodies of completely different personas with the same facial mask on. You can pretend like they're different people, though it's kind of hard to picture one thug you've eased the troubles of ends up becoming an evil soldier elsewhere or a guy on the verge of transforming into a cannibalized creature against his will. Visually, some of these models boast a ton of detail, such as a training instructor named Smiling Mountain at the start of the game. A fat man with rosy cheeks and a set of bold eyebrows makes gawking at him kind of hypnotic. Not every character is given the same level of attention at a unique scale, which is unfortunate. Of course, the game is not limited to just the caricature dialogue sessions either. In Jade Empire, there is a hugeness to the world where assortments of the people living in it stand around and walk around in the enormous city life environments. These person bodies outside the chat window aren't the cream of the crop when it comes time to grading their appearance, though they don't take away from the entirety of the game. People in Jade Empire are usually attired with armor, robes, and at times a more creative apparel to dignify the more distinctive of these folk. Such as it is, across the board there isn't much to gloat about the character models of Jade Empire. They're there. They're fair. They won't get in your hair.

There might not be much of a striking display of character bodies themselves. There is, however, more when it comes to the battling that's done. All the flipping and rolling maneuvers take on an elegant form while the main character of the game can literally perform a difference between evading defenses -- from cartwheeling backwards, to leaping into one position and then another, to flipping straight over the enemy. Topping that off is the bevy of magical attributes you can possess. Fire and ice balls will go flying, enormous radiating circles will canvas the ground, and demonic transformations will change you into the big and the ugly. The pretty good looking ugly, anyway. Still, the quality of characters in general have a sameness in goodness with the levels. This point being that Jade Empire isn't the greatest of graphical greats. Thing is, is that Jade Empire's environments aren't tremendous. They're detailed, good looking, but embody something of a drabness inside. Tons of tall and faded swaying grass patches are laid out across the paths you'll walk across. Tons of brown and earthly colors paint the buildings, caverns, and mountainous regions you'll explore. You see where I'm going with this? Jade Empire, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic before it, implements this world with degraded colors that extract the excitement from getting sucked into the game. There are tons of hued lights in the environments, be it cast from the glowing whites around objects or from torches and such. Although, to that effort it's not like the game becomes less dark. The way the art direction is displayed isn't gritty is what I'm getting at. Jade Empire contains a PC friendly style. Coming from a longtime PC developer, you'd expect as much. It's a good way to go to establish Jade Empire and its kin of "PC-type-console-RPGs." I just wouldn't say it's the best direction.

Soothing and relaxing orchestral melodies settle the score for Jade Empire's sometimes musical awareness. Meaning, apparently the jukebox isn't always plugged into this fantasy realm. Off and on, and you'll catch flute and string instruments subtly, softly rowing through the background in an oriental-tuned measurement as the large-scaled towns/cities are traversed. Switching over to the more nefarious side of the picture, the game receives a bit more of a darker melody to set the exploring mood inside the game's insidious enemy-bound territories. While the music disappears from time to time, it does kick in whenever enemies are presented so to strike the rhythmic tempo up of each harrowing confrontation. The soundtrack, as expected, is of decent filler quality. Really, the same can be said as much about the audio found within the game. About the quality that is. Good but not great, the sounds of your feet and your rolling, your magical enchantments signifying themselves with blasts and dinging effects. Enemies thrust their clinging blades and staff weapons forward and downward, swishing them, and can just the same create some of their own instances when magic becomes sound. Best of all probably besides the bare boned applications, is quite a collection of voices from some people you know and some you don't. With the talent present in Jade Empire, it's likely you'll recognize some of the voices from other games, shows, or similar mediums that you can't precisely put your finger on. The majority of the voice work done is pretty good, especially considering that much of the characters have tailored to them a matching personality. At times though, some voices just don't look the part of the person (such as an elderly woman's voice for a woman who looks to be in her 50's) -- or generally, the voices are placed only to rule another generic character. Be it stern, funny, angry, or sad -- overall there are many divergent characters to talk to, in order to find a good supply of effectively voiced variances in practically the whole package.

Bottom Line
Having said what is said, it's really easy to tell that BioWare could've just skipped on Jade Empire entirely and developed the sequel to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Jade Empire and the BioWare's previous Star Wars RPG outing are almost one and the same game. You choose a character. You figure out what they're going to be in the world. You meet companions that are willing to fight along your road to righteousness or wrongdoing. You fight for others or for yourself. Jade Empire is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic all over again. It's not the same game. It is, however, a likened journey that'll leave you completing many of the same actions you have in the other game, only this time under a different guise. For this reasoning, Jade Empire isn't an awful game. It's a good RPG you're going to like, even if you have already done the whole Knights of the Republic dance before. And if you haven't, then you're definitely in for a treat.

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