The PC version of Jade Empire retains the great story and setting of the Xbox original, but the streamlined combat and core design haven't aged as gracefully.
- Complex story and characters rank among BioWare's best
- Pretty graphics and superb voice acting bring the gameworld to life
- Alignment system is well designed and adds replay value.
- Simplistic combat is unexceptional and unfulfilling
- Limited character-customization options make leveling up unexciting
- Only a scant few additions over the Xbox version.
PC gamers have been waiting patiently for almost two years for BioWare's Asian-themed role-playing game to make it to their platform of choice. And in many ways, it was worth the delay for anyone who hasn't already played the Xbox version. Jade Empire: Special Edition features a terrific story that, like most great tales, is as engaging now as it was when it was first told. It's set in a marvelous mythological land of monstrous demons and martial arts that's inhabited by hysterical and heartbreaking characters, each with his or her own fascinating story. If you cherish strong narratives in games and have appreciated the developer's previous efforts, this one won't disappoint you.
Still, two years is a lot of time for the cracks to start showing, and even with the added benefit of slightly improved artificial intelligence and a couple of new fighting styles, the shadow of other role-playing and adventure games looms more heavily over the simple combat and scant leveling options. Enemies do exhibit better defensive behavior this time around, but battles retain their general simplicity. You still collect amulet gems and have a large variety of combat styles to upgrade, but without an actual inventory to manage or gear to collect, Jade Empire feels less fulfilling next to more full-fledged RPGs. With both the combat and the customization options left underdeveloped, it doesn't matter whether you look at the game as an RPG or an action adventure; either way, there is some noticeable missed potential.
Yet Jade Empire: Special Edition is a very good game with a lot to offer those who haven't glimpsed the beauty of its world. From start to finish, the enhanced graphics rarely fail to impress, thanks to lush landscapes and unusual and fascinating character designs. Your journey takes you from a martial arts school, to spirit-infested ruins, to the blue-tinged afterlife itself, and it's easy to get swept up in the artistry of such fantastical places. Blocky character models and washed-out textures may occasionally catch your eye, and you wouldn't use Jade Empire to test the limits of your fancy graphics card. Still, the game is colorful and full of life, and it runs amazingly well, without the occasional frame rate hiccups and long load times of the Xbox version.
While the visuals enrich the game with a storybook glow, the audio design truly brings it to life. The combat effects are satisfactory, if not particularly noteworthy, but the voice acting is mostly superb, capturing the essence of each character. What makes it more impressive is that there is simply so much of it, and none of it is difficult to listen to. The Eastern-hued symphonic soundtrack fits the visuals nicely and is both beautiful and understated.
The detailed production values will pull you in, but it's the impressive number of choices that will keep you engaged. You'll be faced with a lot of decisions that push you in the direction of either the "open palm" or the "closed fist," rough equivalents of good and evil paths. These choices are found within the dialogue, most of which is lengthy and all of which is written with finesse. For instance, at one point you are faced with the option of poisoning an upcoming martial arts opponent before your fight begins, which earns you some coin but is a less honorable approach. On the other hand, you can tip off the intended victim to the plot, retain your honor, and earn a new combat style in the process. Or perhaps you refuse to do the dirty deed, but don't say a word. Whenever you are faced with such a choice, your decision will affect your alignment, which in turn affects elements of the story and other factors, such as which fighting styles you get to learn. Most--if not all--of Jade Empire's replay value is in finding out just what happens if you follow one path or another.
Battles aren't nearly as dynamic as the dialogue, although on the surface, the fighting sounds appealing enough. You'll gather a number of fighting styles along the way that you can map to the number keys, and you can activate any of the 10 you've assigned during combat, which is an improvement over the Xbox version's maximum of four. Styles include martial arts styles like Legendary Strike; weapons styles like Dual Swords (learned from the aforementioned potential poison victim); magic styles like Ice Shard; transformation abilities, such as the endlessly useful Jade Golem; and support styles like Storm Dragon, another helpful skill. The PC edition features two new styles, Iron Palm and Viper; however, though they're fitting additions to the existing styles, they bring nothing new to the table, and you get to use only one of them depending on your alignment. It's also perfectly possible that you may not earn either one, since you have to read the correct scrolls to unlock them.