Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jade Empire Review

Like an Open Palm to the Head

When citizens complain about a lack of street lighting, they don't usually mean all in one place.
Despite the number of games I've played which have come from Asia, I have only played two whose stories take place in Asian settings: Okami and now Jade Empire. The latter is surprising considering BioWare is located in Canada. Also, considering the controversy BioWare ignited in 2012, it may come as a surprise to many gamers that they created an RPG once that was not Mass Effect or a Star Wars derivative. I once started Jade Empire a few years ago but ended up abandoning it for reasons I cannot recall, but it might have had something to do with the difficulty. Thus, it ended up in my backlog again, not to arouse my interest until almost eight years after its creation. Regardless, I have been digressing for an entire paragraph now.

Jade Empire's story takes place in a fictional ancient Chinese setting whose name you can guess by now. You are given the opportunity to choose from a variety of male or female player characters, but they are not customizable in appearance whatsoever, just character stats. No matter whom you choose, the story is the same, and only a handful of interactions with NPCs and your romance options are affected by the gender. The player character begins the tale at a martial arts school up in the mountains in the village, Two Rivers. Here, you are Master Li's very special student with an important destiny that is continually alluded to during the introductory act. Eventually, the village and the school are attacked, your fellow students save for one, the spirit medium Dawn Star, are slaughtered, and your master has been kidnapped, presumably by the Empire's minions. So begins your empire-trotting tale to learn your destiny and save your master. If I sound sarcastic about having a wunderkind player characters, it may be because I think it's cooler to find out you're special than to have everyone at the beginning of the game remind you ad nauseam.

If you thought cell phones were huge way back when, get a lot of this coffee maker.
Overall, the story is a mixed bag. The setting and the folklore behind it are the most impressive qualities with just enough magic to make it intriguing without delving too far into high fantasy. The result is a believable land with strong traces of ancient mysticism and gods. Along your journey, you will also meet plenty of unique characters, which add to the rich setting with personal tales of strife and triumph, some of whose outcomes to affect through side quests. A number of pre-designated characters also join you on your quest and assist you in battle. The main narrative, which drives the player along, is just OK, though. Nothing is thrown at you that you've never seen coming, though the laudable twist is handled gracefully. Where the story fell short is in the rather brief cluster of chapters that make up the conclusion to the game after the twist in the fourth act. It feels like the developers felt a need to pad the time until the ending, so they just threw in some repeated areas with almost none of the exploration or the side quests offered by the first three quarters of the game. To top it off, your time is extended needlessly with battles of escalating difficulty instead. The pay off for your troubles is an extremely brief cutscene with the final boss followed by text explaining what became of your companions. I now question whether or not BioWare ever really knew how to wrap up a storyline.

That said, Jade Empire is still enjoyable to play; I clocked in about thirty hours of gameplay between the main quest and all the side activities. Before the crux of the narrative even comes to pass, Two Rivers offers a number of optional missions to complete, which net you bonus experience and money to really start prepping yourself for the challenge ahead. These are but a taste of the deeper, more relatable side quests that you encounter during your travels around the Jade Empire. Unsurprisingly, the game features a binary choice system where good is called The Way of the Open Palm, and evil is called The Way of the Closed Fist. Although one character argues that neither path is inherently imbued with good or evil, the system's implementation is pretty rudimentary. Open Palm is colored blue, and Closed Fist is colored red. I need not explain further. However, the methods behind gaining favor with either path are varied. Depending on your character's stats, you are able to influence NPCs into doing what you ask of them using charm, intuition, or intimidation. The leanings are situation dependent, but even if you're not being intimidating, it can be obvious when you're trying to convince someone to do something that is ultimately not right, so don't be surprised when you get that red glow about you. Killing folks with abandon isn't the only evil action to take.

We're all done freaking out about this kind of natural phenomenon, right?
The experience you earn from completing quests and doing battle allow you to upgrade your three main stats: body, spirit, and mind. Increasing these influence the bars for your health, chi (magic), and focus (weapon dexterity), but the three unique combinations of each affect your level of charm, intuition, and intimidation for conversation. Battle is focused on using an impressive array of fighting styles – martial styles involve physical attacks with your limbs, weapon styles need no explanation, support styles inflict status effects but no damage, magic styles allow for a bit of ranged fighting and status effects, and transformation styles allow you to turn into a powerful but chi-draining spirit. Not every style works on every type of opponent, either, so it's necessary to stay on your toes when fighting varied groups. Each level you earn also nets you points to apply to improving each of these styles to become truly powerful. The variety of styles you earn or buy during the game outnumber the amount you can bring into battle (10 on PC, one for each hotkey), so you should have no trouble customizing battles to fit your own perception of your ultimate martial arts fighter. I really enjoyed this aspect of combat, and I only wished there was an option later on to reallocate skill points to newer skills you wish to replace older ones with. This is a minor complaint, though.

Battles actually take place in the same environments you traverse, so it's highly possible that saying the wrong word to someone in conversation could result in a fight right where you stand. The only time this becomes a problem is when the battlefield borders feel arbitrarily drawn, and learning that you can't evade because of an invisible wall can lead to doom. Problems aside, what I did like about this feature was that some battles were actually total surprises. Compared to Mass Effect where a giant room or corridor with a lot of waist-high walls meant inevitable cover-based combat was afoot, environments in Jade Empire are varied enough that you honestly can't tell when battle is coming (unless it's a respawn point) and may end up surprised. Overall, combat is satisfying and offers a lot of variety and engaging difficulty. Sometimes, the difficulty spikes when fighting larger groups of spirits in one of the earlier acts of the game (I cursed a lot), but I did find that exerting patience and defensive maneuvers (things I suck at) do lead to triumph.

Even the chickens are holy.
Beyond combat, Jade Empire offers open environments to explore in its second and third acts, which comprise the bulk of the seven act game, believe it or not. The Imperial City in particular, aside from being the largest explorable area in the game, features a slew of side quests and activities to undertake. I was really baffled by how much time I spent there ignoring the main quest, though the writers did throw in squeeze points where you have to proceed with the story for a mission or so to continue with ongoing side quests. One of the city's side quests requires the player to go round after round in a fighting arena. But unlike similar implementations in games like Borderlands, as you progress through the rounds, more side quests and stories spawn from the characters you fight and those who control the arena. It is practically a stand-alone game in itself!

Despite being almost eight years old, Jade Empire is a treat to look at even if it is readily apparent that technology has come so far since its release. There are a lot of organic and large environments with winding paths, and many areas feature details which provide unique character and charm. Despite its impressive size, the Imperial City could have used more variety and colors in the wall and ground textures to be as captivating as the characters seem to think it is. (It's not the Citadel.) Also, the HUD is a rather blocky and large and could afford to be implemented more gracefully. The soundtrack, composed by the amazing Jack Wall (total fanboy), is wonderful. It manages to evoke the Asian setting while layering more modern orchestral compositions over traditional instruments. Most of the voice acting, by contrast, felt a little stiff and forced especially when coupled with the rather silly conversation animations of the character models. Now is a good time to mention that the player character never speaks aloud, only through text options, something obvious that BioWare fixed for its next game.

A ship! This can only have a positive outcome!
Jade Empire was a fun game, and I am glad I picked it up again (ah, the power of a Steam sale) and tried my hand at it a second time. I really enjoyed the battle system and how powerful I felt by the end, and the side quests added a lot of needed depth to the overall story that the main narrative really lacked. Even though it's showing its age, it's definitely a solid RPG to try out if you've got thirty hours to kill.

All screenshots taken by me through Steam. The camera turns with the character, so no face for you!

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