Jade Empire's sometimes repetitive combat is more than made up for by the game's fun dialogue and beautiful setting.
TUC1991 wrote this review on .
As with most BioWare games, Jade Empire's story is one of its greatest assets. The plot follows a very special student at the martial arts school located in the idyllic town of Two Rivers. As you might expect, the village is soon devastated by an oppressive military force that captures Master Li, the wise head of the school, and our hero is forced to travel across the Empire to save his master and learn the truth behind the mysterious Water Dragon. Along the way, he or she will battle lost spirits, pick up a number of colorful followers and help roughly half the population of the nation with their personal problems. Though the narrative gets off to a slow start, it builds up plenty of momentum by the game's second half, and the plot twists are both numerous and clever (if not as shocking as KOTOR's).
In terms of gameplay, Jade Empire feels pretty much like KOTOR with fully real-time combat and fewer stat-based RPG components. Though (as with KOTOR) you'll never hear your character's voice during the conversation sequences, these are the most involving parts of the experience, with entertaining dialogue and plenty of opportunities to play the villain. Much like KOTOR had Light and Dark Side options, conversations in Jade Empire can go the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist, and the morality system works well (even if it's not quite as flexible as the separate Paragon and Renegade bars in Mass Effect). The characters in Jade Empire are an exaggerated and entertaining lot, with some of the most interesting being an eccentric inventor, a little girl who is possessed by two competing demons and a heavenly accountant who is annoyed with the paperwork the player's activities are generating. Unfortunately, you'll usually only be able to bring along a single companion at once, so I never felt like I had enough time with everybody. Still, many of the comedic and dramatic situations Jade Empire puts you in are terrific, including partaking in a series of arena fights, negotiating with a rat-demon, saving (or further ruining) a bungled theater production and engaging in a battle of wits with an insensitive European (who is voiced by none other than John Cleese).
The combat, on the other hand, is entertaining, but also too shallow and easy. While various martial arts styles, weapons, magical attacks and transformations are at your disposal, you'll rarely have to use more than one or two different tactics to obliterate your enemies. Even the most hyped bosses go down relatively quickly, and the game's sole firearm (a musket named Mirabelle) is so devastating against physical targets that the final boss never even got a chance to hit me. To counter this, enemies can deploy impenetrable magic shields, and much of the combat it spent waiting for enemies to drop their shields before furiously clicking the left mouse button. There are also no armor options and little ability to control teammates, making for the most simplistic BioWare action experience yet. Once again, the combat isn't bad by any means, but it's not the main reason to play the game. The flying sequences (which play like an old-school vertical shooter) are similarly shallow-but-entertaining, providing some welcome variety (even if they wouldn't have stood well on their own).
Visually, Jade Empire looks a lot like KOTOR with some Chinese art design thrown in (which is unsurprising, as it uses the same Odyssey Engine). While this isn't the most technically proficient game in the world (some textures are too blurry and the vertical shooting segments can look pretty dated), the detailed Asian setting more than makes up for any issues. The lighting and water effects are also handled pretty well, and the facial animation is quite good for what was an original Xbox game. The FMV cutscenes, however, are blurry and don't mesh well with the in-game ones. As far as sound is concerned, it's a little strange hearing many of the Jade Empire's population speak with American accents, but the voice acting is generally solid and the music does a fine job setting the tone.
Though it is let down by some repetitive combat, Jade Empire's funny dialogue, memorable characters and beautiful setting more than compensate for its issues. The game isn't particularly long by RPG standards (I went out of my way to complete every side-quest available and finished the game in about twenty-five hours), but it is densely packed with atmosphere and engaging conversations, so while you'll wish there were more of it, the title doesn't feel rushed or unfinished. It's unfortunate that Jade Empire, sandwiched between the much more acclaimed KOTOR and Mass Effect, has been overlooked by so many; it may not be quite as good as either of those games, but it's every bit as deserving of a continuation.
+ Colorful characters and entertaining dialogue
+ Plenty of plot twists to keep the narrative interesting
+ The mystical Chinese setting is very immersive
+ Neat voice actor cameos
- Combat is a bit too repetitive and shallow
- Not enough character customization options
- Blurry FMV cutscenes
Reviewed on 10/16/2011