After nearly two years in development, BioWare's Jade Empire is done. The dream project from the Canadian developer that fermented for nearly a decade in the brains of the company's founding doctors and finally found a form on the Xbox just hit our offices this past week, and we've started our way on the long road to martial arts mastery and general badassness. Having had the good fortune to see the game evolve from the short demo revealed at 2003's Tokyo Game Show to the final epic we're just getting started with, we've been anxious to find out how all the various aspects of gameplay that we've reported on would come together. Although our review will hit shortly, we thought we'd get in one more look at the game to see how the adventure unfolds.
Our time with the game over the past two years has given us a good idea of what to expect from the early portion as you begin your journey. There is a good chunk of content to be discovered as you get started. Amid the expected tutorial sequences, framed as conversations with various non-player characters, and your basic exploration of the martial arts school where you'll start the game, you'll get a taste of the little touches peppered throughout the game to give the experience some depth. Your discoveries will start out simple enough, such as a crate that's off the beaten path or some basic puzzles to solve in dojos, but they will become more challenging as you progress. Another, more subtle, aspect you probably won't notice at first is the start of the closed-fist and open-palm system, which, for fans of Knights of the Old Republic, is Jade Empire's spin on the light-side and dark-side mechanics seen in the last KOTOR Xbox role-playing game. While the system will play a significant role in Jade Empire, it's initially just some terse responses on the conversation trees you'll get when interacting with the NPCs.
One thing that stands out in this initial segment of the game is the impressive world that has been built for the adventure. Above and beyond the polished visuals and technical prowess on display, we're impressed by the game's art style and the signs of life strewn throughout the locations you'll explore. All the little touches--such as animals calmly milling about, NPCs walking around, or even seemingly mundane details like plant life swaying in the wind--sell you on the fact that you're exploring a new world. These little touches complement the Xbox-centric effects, such as light bloom, and give the proceedings an ethereal quality.
As far as the combat goes, anyone expecting a carbon copy of KOTOR should expect to be left wanting. Jade Empire's fighting mechanics are much more dynamic and option-filled, and they offer you the opportunity to tailor your virtual self to your liking. However, that said, the system isn't so complicated that you'll be lost. At its most basic level, Jade Empire's system is the coolest version of rock-paper-scissors you've ever seen. By this we mean that you'll quickly pick up on what attacks and fighting styles are effective against which enemies, and you'll adapt your combat behavior as needed. But, if you like dying, you can feel free to go ahead and try to use the thousand-cuts style against a golem. For those who aren't up on their golem fun facts, we'll just say that when you think "thousand cuts," you should also think "golems are immune" or "death comes swiftly to those who try to use it on golems." As you learn new skills and combos, you'll be able to refine your alter ego into a wicked butt-kicker. By the end of the game, your fighter will be radically different from what you started with, which certainly gives you a sense of the passage of time and the growing maturity of your fighter.
As good as the visuals and gameplay are looking right now, what anchors Jade is its story. While it's tricky to go into much detail without spoiling the story, we can say that Jade Empire features a rich story that will satisfy players looking to get lost in an adventure that's heavy on surprises. Although the early part of the game that sets up your quest seems fairly routine--it features the expected RPG elements, such as a talented individual with a mysterious background who is destined for potential greatness--Jade Empire isn't really a by-numbers affair. If anything, you should expect to have your head messed with a few times by some of the very cool twists the story will take. The presence of the NPCs and the possibilities they offer as they follow you and interact with you in a number of ways, including romantically, seem to ensure that there will be plenty to keep you busy.
Based on our initial time with Jade Empire, we have to say we're digging what we've seen. The game seems to be a polished and well-done RPG that is poised to be another gem from BioWare for the Xbox. We're curious to see just how far things go with the open-hand and closed-fist paths as well as with the various romantic story arcs. Jade Empire is slated to ship later this month. Look for a full review of the game soon.