Jade Empire: Special Edition Review

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.

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.

I'll take door number one, Monty.
I'll take door number one, Monty.

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.

This little girl isn't everything she seems. Do the flaming red eyes give it away?
This little girl isn't everything she seems. Do the flaming red eyes give it away?

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.

The choices sound interesting, but once you get used to the different types of enemies, it usually boils down to the same rote clicking. Each style has main and alternate attacks, as well as a power attack. You can also activate focus mode, which is essentially like bullet time. The majority of your attacks will use up one of your two sources of strength, chi or focus. On paper this sounds fine, but in practice, you merely lock on to an enemy and slash or punch him a few times, and he dies. If it's a larger enemy, maybe you'll use Toad Demon to poison him or Paralyzing Palm to stop him in his tracks and then slash him up without too much interference. Most encounters--even many boss fights--really are this simple. To help alleviate this carryover problem from the Xbox version, enemies in this translation block attacks noticeably more often, and there is an unlockable mode of difficulty available for players looking for a greater challenge. But the added level of difficulty it imparts doesn't make the combat more interesting. That's not to say it isn't enjoyable at a basic level, but it's relatively mundane.

The combat can be dull--but it sure looks cool.
The combat can be dull--but it sure looks cool.

If you're a keyboard jockey worried about how combat will control on the PC, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that it works smoothly with a keyboard and mouse. When you enter combat, you will automatically lock on to the nearest enemy, and your movement will center around that enemy until you kill him, choose another enemy, or disengage from targeted combat completely. It's a console-centric system, but it doesn't feel out of place on the PC, and the camera is good about repositioning itself behind you when you leap over an enemy or tumble to the side. You attack with the mouse buttons and move in a mostly traditional manner with the WASD keys. Switching styles can be somewhat of a pain in the midst of combat if you need to activate one mapped to a higher number key, but as a rule, the controls work perfectly fine. If you prefer to use a gamepad, however, Jade Empire also supports that option, and it functions much as it did with the Xbox original.

You may initially find yourself fumbling in the menus looking for an inventory screen, but you won't find one--at least, not the kind you're looking for. Your character has no kind of armor, and if you purchase a weapon, it always replaces the one you were using before it. Instead, you'll search for gems to insert into the amulet you wear, which offer buffs to your health, chi, intuition, and more. Aside from quest-specific items that automatically enter your inventory when you discover them, these are the only things you will ever collect that you have any semblance of control over. As you level up, you will earn points you can spend on your health, chi, and focus, as well as skill points to spend on whichever fighting styles you prefer. However, leveling up doesn't bring with it the excitement you may be used to with other RPGs, simply because gaining a level doesn't open anything up to you that you don't already have.

You star in a play as a woman playing a man playing a woman. It's like Victor/Victoria, with you as Julie Andrews.
You star in a play as a woman playing a man playing a woman. It's like Victor/Victoria, with you as Julie Andrews.

Jade Empire: Special Edition overcomes these nitpicks with plenty of small details and surprises. You'll build a little collection of companions throughout the game, and you can choose which one to have at your side at any given point. While they are only a minor help during combat, each one brings a unique perspective, and several offer a sorely needed flash of humor and attitude. Some side quests, such as one in which you memorize some lines for acting in a play, are well designed and add some variety to the dialogue and combat. There's also a top-down arcade shooter minigame to play whenever you take an airship to another city. It's just a little throwaway entertainment, but it's fine as a change of pace.

Whether or not you should play Jade Empire: Special Edition entirely depends on whether you've already played it on the Xbox. If you have, the few additions and enhancements aren't worth another purchase since they don't add anything truly noteworthy, and unlike the Xbox-to-PC conversion of Fable, which extended that game by several hours, the PC and Xbox iterations of Jade Empire take the same 20 hours to complete. But if you missed it the first time around, the great story and fleshed-out setting make it well worth a look.

The Good

  • 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

The Bad

  • Simplistic combat is unexceptional and unfulfilling
  • Limited character-customization options make leveling up unexciting
  • Only a scant few additions over the Xbox version

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.