Because my wife is away skiing in the North Country, you all benefit from what has to be, for me at any rate, the fastest game review ever. I played Jade Empire from start to finish in one marathon ten hour and fifteen minute gaming session, and without a multiplayer component and with essentially no replay factor in the single player adventure, that’s all there is to it. That doesn’t make Jade Empire a bad game, just a short one. In fact, Jade Empire is actually one of the more engrossing RPGs that I’ve played recently, and it is only the too-easy combat and a fairly minimalist RPG system that keeps it from greatness. Oh, and it has one of the most jarring and peculiar minigame interludes ever.
You begin as the star martial arts student at a martial arts school on an island somewhere. Most of the other students treat you with a mixture of idolatry and admiration of your hard work, but true to all game plotlines, one student resents your success and believes he should be number one – you’ll be fighting him before too long. Interactions with other students are handled through mouse clicks on simple dialog menus. Very quickly you realize that your menu of responses fall into one of two philosophies: the open palm (good) or the closed fist (evil). In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. Some magic gems only work for “good” or “evil” characters, and some quests and combat styles are only available to “good” or “evil” people, but if there’s a major good/evil branch to be experienced in this game I didn’t find it.
A quick tutorial takes you through the combat system which is handled with the mouse and a few keys. Combat is quick and fluid, easy to control, and the little animations of the characters doing martial arts moves are well done. There are a number of different martial arts styles that you can choose to fight in with catchy names like “thousand cuts” and “iron fist,” and you can hot key up to ten different styles to switch between at any time. Though they all look different, they more or less fall into two classes: ranged attacks and melee attacks. On the whole I stuck with just two or three styles the entire game and they served me quite well. The leveling system, which has you spend points to improve individual styles, is sort of weighted so that you advance the styles you start the game with right away, and then mostly keep advancing and using those same styles as the game progresses. What I’m trying to say is that styles that you pick up later in the game are unlikely to be used much because you’ll already have mastery of the styles you picked up earlier in the game, and the newer styles are significantly less damaging because they have not had points spent upon them. That’s a big failure in the RPG leveling system that drives you away from experimenting with different combat styles.
You meet with your teacher, a kindly Mr. Miyagi type, who tells you how proud he is of you, to avoid the mean student because his dad is a powerful guy in the empire, and then he sends you through a dank cave of self discovery a la Star Wars force training. When you return from the cave you find that the school is being attacked, and during the attack your teacher is kidnapped by mysterious flying machines called, creatively, flyers, that look like giant bugs. Your teacher is perhaps not the simple martial arts master he appears, but is instead linked to greater intrigues within the empire. You decide to pursue his kidnappers in one of their flyers, and this is where the peculiar minigame comes in. It’s a vertical scrolling shooter a whole lot like the old Galaga arcade game. I fully realize that is a reference probably 20 years in the too distant past for 90% of the people reading this, but that’s the best one I can think of. Your flyer is at the bottom shooting upwards, and enemies come at you from the top and sides. At several points in the game (whenever you fly from one place to another) you run into this strange minigame, but at least they always give you a choice not to play it, and there doesn’t seem to be any experience awarded for playing it, and so for the most part I didn’t. It’s almost like they stuck the game in there because they had a license to an old Galaga ROM lying around.
And so you fight your way across the empire, accepting quests, righting wrongs (or, if you’re close fisted, wronging rights), getting involved with intrigues great and small, and trying to figure out the mystery of who exactly your teacher is, and who you are for that matter. It’s an excellent plot told through interactions with other characters and brief animated clips, though towards the end of the game it becomes a little movie heavy, and you almost spend more time watching than playing. Combat quickly becomes quite predictable. Strong melee opponents you slice up from a distance with some ranged style, and you duck and dodge ranged opponent attacks until you can close the distance and cut them up close and personal. The only time you get into any real trouble is when dealing with a number of enemies that gang up and push you into a corner. It’s all very easy. The “boss” battles, which are typically one on one, are almost laughably easy. The final combat of the entire game against the head honcho, the battle I’d been training up for the whole time, ended without him even landing a glove on me.
As you travel across the great and varied lands you will pick up almost a dozen companions, and for most of the game you can choose a single companion to accompany you on your travels (the others waiting back at camp or some such nonsense). Somewhat artificially, you can swap the companion traveling with you with one you left behind in camp at almost any point in the game. These companions have only a single martial combat style each, so in some combat situations they do quite well, and in others (where their style is “incompatible” with the monsters attacking you) they are knocked unconscious almost immediately where they remain until the combat is over.
Once you’ve worked your way through the plotline, that’s about it for Jade Empire. There is, as already mentioned, no multiplayer anything. You can replay the entire game on master level, though that is literally playing through EXACTLY the same game only with more difficult enemies using the advanced character you just completed the game with. It’s especially goofy because none of the experience awards are changed in the game, so early in the game where 10 XP gets you a level is a big deal, but later on it takes thousands of XP, playing through on master level still has the early enemies worth 10XP, so you could well go through more than half the adventure without gaining a single experience level. You can also, if you wish, play through some of the minigames. I have no idea who would want to do that. They could, I believe, have included a sort of skirmish arena combat for a single player relatively easily (they have arena combat in part of the adventure, so why not bring it out of the game as a stand-alone?). It would have been cool to stage a fight, say, between you and your teacher. They don’t offer that.
As RPGs go this is a super light one, even lighter than Titan Quest, more along the lines of Dark Messiah. You have three characteristics: body, spirit, and mind. Body determines health points while different martial styles consume a combination of spirit (chi) and mind (focus). At each level you get a few points to divvy up amongst those three stats. You also get a separate set of points to allocate into particular martial combat styles to improve damage or speed or reduce the chi/focus cost. And that’s pretty much it for the RPG portion of the game. There is no inventory to speak of. You may carry one weapon, and buying a new one automatically replaces your old one. There is no armor, you collect no potions, no scrolls, no wands, and there are just a few temporary plot-related items in your inventory that serve no purpose except to solve very specific plot points (I found gears, now I can fix that machine, etc.). There are several dozens of types of gems that can be found and purchased throughout the game that give you stat boosts or certain skills – they occupy the vast bulk of your inventory. You also accumulate silver, but as near as I can figure except for purchasing gems (which I did infrequently) or new martial combat styles (which I did never), there is no purpose to the silver other than to watch it accumulate.
Artistically, though clearly they have done a lot of work on the character models which are quite intricate, the engine overall looks dated, and is not nearly as crisp and attractive as Titan Quest or Neverwinter 2. The third person over-the-shoulder camera only occasionally gets lost in the trees or other landscape feature. The music, voice work, and architecture all do an effective job of enriching the Asian theme of the game, but combat sounds are a little flat. Later in the game some of your attacks will actually decapitate your opponent to a fountain of blood from the severed neck. That’s zany good fun!
I’d like to summarize by revealing that I personally like fighting games of this type a great deal, and often wonder why we don’t have a God of War for the PC and instead must settle for lame ports like Resident Evil 4. I’m willing to let the outstanding plot carry the somewhat lesser though still enjoyable combat engine and the thinness of the RPG elements of Jade Empire. If you’re not a fan of fighting games in general, this one isn’t such a shining example of the genre (though it may well be one of the best you’re likely to find among the paltry selection available on the PC) that it’s likely to excite you, but if you’re looking for a quickie martial arts chop socky adventure, this could be just the ticket.