The History of Jade Empire

The Jade Empire. Fashioned from the Void by the will of the Great Dragon and blessed from its creation, the empire stands at the heart of the civilized world – a cultural wellspring in a sea of barbarity.

Two Rivers is a humble village far away from the dizzying spires of the city of Jade Empire – Two Rivers is your home. You are a young orphaned martial artist living in Two Rivers training under your powerful Master Li and living out your simple but rewarding life. The funny thing about a simple life is that it is often not as simple as it seems…

The world of Jade Empire could easily be cut straight out of a classic Kung-Fu or Wuxia movie.  It is set in a world full of magic, martial arts, mystery, demons, and deception. This intrigue and combat means that Jade Empire is the first Bioware title to ever receive an M rating from the ESRB. The world is not a peaceful place – the Emperor Sun Hai is a powerful man.  The Emperor is so powerful that after a decade of drought he simply declared it over and it was so.  That level of power doesn’t come without a price, so what is the secret of the Emperor, and how do you fit into the story? 

Knights of The Old Republic was a great game in the richly detailed world of Star Wars.  Jade Empire eclipses KOTOR in every way in the graphic department.  Gone are the glitches of framerate, replaced with even more detail and special effects.  Gone are the flat faces of KOTOR, and in its place are the vivid and animated reactions of your enemies and your friends.  As the game begins you will face single opponents but as you progress you’ll find yourself fighting against multiple enemies as well as powerful demons and incredible sorcerers at the same time.

Depending on which character you pick you may find yourself using weapons for combat or hurling fire bolts at your enemies.  As your power grows, so do the effects associated with it.  Using focus blurs the world into a gray overlay and allows you to act with impunity.  Larger blasts of fire throw off smoke and sparks upon impact.  Transformation into demon form flashes the screen white and gives a soft glow to the area.  I think the folks at Bioware sat down and said “Give me a list of every cool effect this little box can do, lets pry those into the game…I’ll go get the crowbar”. They then sat down and picked some fantastic martial artists and motion captured some of the best in-game animations seen to date. The second you cast a powered-up Dire Flame bolt you’ll know what I mean. Some of the effects included in the game are bump-mapping, rim lighting, physics-based cloth, skeletal system, and overbrighten just to name a few. Additional touches such as insects flying around, dust in the air, or grass shifting in the wind make the game just that more immersive. While Jade Empire isn’t as next-generation-looking as, for instance, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, it is certainly one of the best games that the Xbox has seen, graphically speaking. 

Bioware’s previous games have had great voice work.  Jade Empire continues this trend but gives a voice to almost every character in the game.  Each character is unique with their own personality and they don’t just sit around and wait for you to interact, they carry on with their own lives and interact with each other.  Some of the minor characters in Jade Empire also speak the “Old Language”, a self-described Asian-themed language created just for the game.  All of the voice work straddles the line between being very serious and being comically-close to cheesy.  I have yet to encounter any bad voice acting in this title.

The music in Jade Empire is similar to that of KOTOR.  The music guides the game, swelling during times of great conflict and fading into the background during the times in which you travel within the world. Instruments such as Mandolins and Violins punctuate the music making it incredibly reminiscent of traditional Chinese Kung-Fu movies. 

There are two sets of controls in Jade Empire, one for combat and one for exploration. 

Combat Controls:
The combat controls allow you to switch targets clockwise and counterclockwise with the triggers.  The left analog moves the character and the right analog controls the camera.  X is a power attack, Y toggles the focus mode, B is block, and A is attack. The white button performs a Chi heal and the black button toggles a very powerful Chi strike.  The D-Pad will get the bulk of your attention as it allows you to seamlessly switch between 4 styles that you can remap at will.  In addition to the basics, there are combinations such as B+Up which makes your character perform a forward flip. 

Exploration Controls:
The exploration controls are similar to that of the combat controls.  Your attack buttons are replaced with more context sensitive buttons such as roll, toggle minimap, focus-mode run, or the action button which will allow you to talk to people or interact with objects.

Given the shift towards an action / RPG hybrid, the camera again becomes important.  For the most part, the camera is well behaved but occasionally it becomes confused and will get stuck behind objects.  A quick roll to the side will easily fix this but it happens every once in a while and bears mention.  This is also remedied by the fact that you can pause the action at will readjust your bearings. 

Jade Empire’s storyline starts off very simply but quickly moves into something far less routine.  There are rumors that the spirits are unable to cross over and are being forced to wander the land.  This is only the tip of the iceberg and the game expands from there rapidly.  I won’t spell out the story but suffice to say it is a rich storyline filled with twists and turns beyond the brain-wrenching offered by KOTOR. 

Just as in previous Bioware games, there is also a romantic subtext to the game.   Given that you can chose a male or a female character, there will be at least one completely unexplored thread for your second run through the game. 

Jade Empire’s combat engine will be the largest departure from previous Bioware titles.  The combat engine is more heavily suited to action than the more stop-action KOTOR.  Given that you are allowed to choose from several pre-made characters that you can tweak to a degree, your combat experience may be more angled towards magic use, high speed, high power, or a more balanced fighter.  You can also learn new styles and power them up through a simple point-allocation system upon level-up so you aren’t stuck with one particular power over another.  Some creatures are immune to Thousand-Cuts style, others are resistant to fire – your job is to pay attention and switch up your attacks accordingly.  By the end of the game you’ll find that you have become a force to be reckoned with, and as in previous Bioware games you can chose whether you wish to be a force for good or for evil. 

Just like KOTOR, you can pick up followers along the way.  You can only use one follower at a time and you can set them to either fight by your side or have them act as a support unit.  When in support mode, your follower will be ignored by the enemy bringing all of the heat to you.  They will level just like you do and become stronger as you progress.  As they grow stronger they get new attacks and support powers making them powerful allies instead of the usual fodder.  They also have their own agenda and may conflict heavily with your chosen path of good or evil.

Another aspect of combat is something called a “harmonic combo” that can be unleashed on a group of enemies destroying them in fast fashion.   This is enhanced by your followers when they act as support units.  When you engage an enemy a small circle will light up, if you can switch back to a combat style and get off a power attack you will unleash your harmonic combo.  In some attacks you may turn your enemy to stone and then shatter them into a million pieces or for a weapon style you could remove their head from their shoulders.  All of this may sound complicated to manage with multiple enemies but the game is very well balanced and eases you into more difficult combat as you learn the game and progress through your styles.

To help further enhance your abilities you will obtain an artifact that has a sockets used for gems that are obtained throughout the game.  The gems will enhance your body, mind, spirit, conversation skill, or combinations therein.  Some gems are tied to specific accomplishments or alignments so not all of the best gems are available to every character.  You also can get new styles by defeating certain enemies.  For instance, when I destroyed a Toad Demon I learned the Toad Demon form.  It is up to you whether or not you wish to build up this power and become a shapeshifting martial artist.

When I got to sit down with the folks at Bioware at E3 they explained that they made a top-scrolling mini-game to blow off steam between coding sessions.  Once folks got a look at it they insisted that it be included in the game.  It adds a good break from the serious subject matter with some old school shooter action.  Once you have completed the shooter sections you can go back at any time and play them individually from the main menu.  Additionally, some bonuses and techniques are only aligned with good or evil and you will have to pick a side and head towards the extremes if you want those powers. 

After the very long load times in KOTOR II, I’ve gotten many questions on the load times for Jade Empire.  The team has spent a great deal of time working on not only expanding the areas but also shortening the load times. 

Mark my words, Jade Empire will be standing on the Game of the Year podium for RPG titles, if not overall Game of the Year.

There are a great many titles that are fantastic but only last for a short few hours.  Jade Empire, much like every title from Bioware is a game that you will play more than once and it clocks in at roughly 25 hours for a single run-through.  There are three difficulty settings in the game, the final difficulty being on-par with Ninja Gaiden.  The game is epic and the good and evil choices make it more likely that you’ll replay it even more than twice.  Even a casual player will find something they can enjoy in this title.