8.1

Jade Empire is an RPG that features a well written story in an original eastern-inspired setting. Great replay value.

Jade Empire takes place in a world inspired by the mythology of ancient China. You begin as the prodigal student of Master Li, a master of the martial arts in the wuxian tradition. When assassins destroy your village and kidnap your master, you must leave the secluded crèche of your school and journey towards the imperial city to rescue him. Numerous companions - ranging from a boyhood friend to a celestial bureaucrat looking for a leg up - will join you as you search for your master and piece together clues about your own identity.

Jade Empire is at least as much about developing that identity as it is about the quest to find your Master. You will go about that development by picking up pieces of your back story as the game progresses and by making conversation and story choices that feed back to your character as movement along either the Path of the Open Palm or Path of the Closed Fist. Knights of the Old Republic fans will equate this with the light-side/dark-side or good/evil dichotomy, but the interpretation in Jade Empire is more nuanced. I respectfully disagree with the official review that the available choices in Jade Empire boil down to an expression of moral extremes. The choices are, at any rate, important. The value of Your OP/CF rating (which is opaque to you) determines whether you can engage in some side quests, whether you can use certain styles and items, and the endings you will experience. This results in a story that is linear in the broad strokes, but has multiple significant plot branches that customize according to your choices.

That story and its setting are the strongest things Jade Empire has to offer. Multiple fan-boy moments are in store for players with an interest in Chinese mythology and culture (one of the students in Li's school, you may see, is doing recognizable tai-chi). For those without, the setting is still interesting and the game offers ample opportunities to learn about it. The gamer who is astute will discover multiple resolutions to side quests and some of the main quests, and the possibility of romance with several different female characters (I didn't explore prospects with any of the male characters). It is even quite possible to complete the game without experiencing large sections of the plot (for example, Lord Lao's Furnace).

The player who doesn't want to take hours to explore every permutation of the story will still enjoy the visuals and the excellent voice acting. The imperial city is particularly impressive, and the necropolis is downright creepy. See the official review for a good description of the audio/visual elements.

Some players will also enjoy exploring and developing the different martial arts styles you will pick up during game play. You will have two at the start of the game and will have the ability to learn many more as it progresses. Each style is reasonably unique and possesses its own strengths and weaknesses. You will have to play the game through multiple times to explore them all. You will also be able to equip a number of stones which increase your various stats, make power-ups more likely, inflict damage on your opponents, etc.

Critics will find some design flaws in the Jade Empire environment. You will find the staple jars, urns, casks and other items that can be broken open for loot in most RPGs. You will even find bones that can be searched in a rather un-heroic fashion for silver and other goodies. The game is inconsistent when it comes to offering more than that. Some areas, like the necropolis, encourage exploration with well developed ambiance and the inclusion of features (like gravestones) that should logically be observable. Others are very clearly intended just to channel you from one encounter or plot point to another, especially early on. Either way, exploration doesn't net you much except satisfaction of curiosity.

Not that you won't find items and power-ups through exploration that you'd miss out on without it. You will. It's just that those things don't confer much benefit because they only incrementally improve your character's numerical characteristics, and success in Jade Empire is tied more to your twitch skills than to character improvement.

Players who enjoy number crunching and strategizing will probably be disappointed. Advancement of your character involves distributing stat points to improve your stats and style points to improve the various styles you acquire. Your stat choices are of little relevance unless you decide to make your character extremely lopsided. Your style choices are more important, but there is little benefit to developing more than 3 or 4 styles and you'll quickly figure out what those are going to be. The result? You don't have much to think about when making your advancement decisions unless you're consciously trying to make the game harder.

You may want to do that, though. The game isn't all that difficult even on the Grand Master setting. The effective strategy for most encounters is to jump around yoda-style to confuse your opponents and wail on things with your chosen (once sufficiently upgraded) weapon style. Use Spirit Thief when Chi gets low (or Red Minister towards the end of the game). Rinse and repeat, substituting empty handed for weapon style when facing incorporeal opponents. The only aspect of combat that changes with difficulty is how proficient you must become with this strategy. The fights involving main villains towards the end of the game introduce some additional elements but still follow the same template.

Your companions could add to the experience, but they don't. In fact, they might as well be innocent bystanders in battle. Just leave them in support. You'll forgive them their incompetence when they demonstrate what wonderful story pieces they are.

Playing a martial artist was one of the aspects of Jade Empire that attracted me the most. Once I learned the formula for success, however, I began to wish I could skip the combat elements (which were more chore than challenge) and just play through the story. This is my biggest complaint about Jade Empire - it doesn't fully deliver on the offered thrill of being a prodigal martial artist.

I will admit, though, that decapitating lotus assassins never got old.

Overall, Jade Empire delivers an excellent experience despite its flaws. It's a perfect rent-before-you-buy title. You can finish the main story and a few side quests in just over 10 hours while leaving enough unexplored that it is still worth a buy if you enjoyed it.

Good show, BioWare. Good show.

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