Journey to the East
Jade Empire is set in a fantasy world based on ancient Chinese mythology, but as you near the game's end, you discover it to be a likely allegory for the turbulent times we currently live in. You begin the game by choosing a character to play as, one of six – three male and three female characters are available. Each has slightly different attributes, but since you can dole out attribute points pretty much as you see fit, choosing a character is based mostly on which you like the look of most.
The story begins with you as a graduating student of a martial-arts academy; you are the crème de la crème of the student body, as it were. But happenstance brings an evil to the small village where the academy resides, and your master's past catapults you into a grand adventure.
Jade Empire is labeled an "action RPG," but it's so much more. In many respects, I liken it to Phoenix Wright or other such adventure games, because you'll spend more time delving into the game's many characters than you will in combat, something not only rare in an RPG, but pretty much unheard of. In my 30-plus hours of gameplay, I spent zero time level grinding – none. The game offers you more experience from reading various books and scrolls than it does from combat, and this is a world worth learning about. The dialogue and story are unsurpassed in a video game. Many RPGs, including the infamous Final Fantasy series, have offered fine stories with quality dialogue, but Jade Empire earns its mature rating more from its intellectual content than from the violence it portrays.
When you are fighting, however, the combat is simple yet entertaining. There are various martial-arts styles to choose from, allowing your character to throw out some flashy moves and attacks. There are also magic styles, support styles (which allow your character to line up more powerful attacks, as well as inflict status effects upon enemies), weapons styles, and transformation styles, which afford you the ability to transform into powerful, mystical monsters that can dole out ungodly damage.
Though the combat is both fun to play and to watch – and it's great there's such variety – the fighting can be too easy. Even in the game's default setting, the enemies don't offer too much resistance, with the exception of a few demons you'll encounter later in the game. You can tone the difficulty down even further, but the game doesn't penalize you at all for doing so. I'm glad Bioware (the game's developers) offered multiple levels of challenge so that all mature players could enjoy this incredible story, but there should be some incentive to fight on the higher levels of difficulty – better items, extra story content – something.
No matter, the story sustains any minor drawbacks the combat seems to throw into the mix. There is just so much depth here. There are no minor NPCs – each is fully fleshed out, and the sidequests in Jade Empire feel more like mini RPGs than they do the typical sidequests found in almost any other game.
That said, the game wraps up a bit too briskly. As you near the end, everything moves at a breakneck pace, and the finale is capped with a battle, of all things. Since the combat can be made so easy, the ending feels a tad anticlimactic. Truly a shame when you consider the many profound ideas weaved into the story.
On the production front, the game is mostly amazing with a few hiccups along the way. The character models are some of the best seen in a game from last generation, and the environments, too, are mostly breath-taking. True analog movement of your character, obviously motion captured, and the expressions of each character, including NPCs, are uncanny – everything is clearly conveyed, no matter how deep or subtle the emotion.
The sound, however – as has perhaps been noted in countless other reviews – is just out of this world. Not a single line of dialogue is delivered silently. Hours and hours of voice work, much from actors you're bound to recognize. The musical score is equally ambitious, with themes often subtle, though perfectly pronounced within the gameplay.
What is not so great about Jade Empire's production, however, is its load times. If there is one fatal flaw (though not truly fatal), it's the game's terribly long, terribly frequent load screens; they're an abomination. For a game so incredibly story driven, load screens too often take you out of the experience and slap you back on the couch, controller in hand, sitting idle. Additionally, there are some odd graphical and aural glitches that occur on occasion, including but not limited to major slowdown during combat.
In the end, though, Jade Empire offers some truly inspirational content. There are ideas laid out in this game you are rarely exposed to in some of today's finest literature, let alone in a video game. It's a deep and compelling tale, one in which you help shape through the many choices you're given along the way. The game's issues can be mildly irritating at times, but those issues maintain no footing alongside the magnificent wellspring of adventure that lies therein.