Jade Empire is good, but it's not great.
I hate to be the one to tell you that, but it's true. It's a lot of fun, and if you're an Xbox owner or RPG fan, it should be in your collection. There's enough imagination, wonder, replay value, and humor packed into Jade Empire for three games.
At the same time, it's got a weird feel to it, especially as you get near the end. Jade Empire is less of a great game in its own right, and more of an amazing foundation. It sets up apocalyptic struggles, then doesn't deliver; it promises freedom and exploration, but it's surprisingly linear; and right when it feels like it's about to really get going, it's over. Jade Empire feels like it's missing about ten crucial hours.
It starts on a great note. Jade Empire is set in the alternate fantasy China of wuxia films. Think of Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with their nonchalantly superhuman martial artists, amazing cinematography, and Chinese classical music, and you're about halfway there. Now add a healthy dose of steampunk and some of Bioware's idiosyncratic characters, and you've got Jade Empire.
Bioware's put a lot of time and effort into designing one of the first truly unique fantasy worlds to appear in a CRPG, and it shows. After a couple of hundred RPGs featuring third-generation Tolkien ripoffs, sullen and effeminate teenage swordsmen, and Western-style feudalist kingdoms in dire peril, Jade Empire is a breath of fresh air.
Your character is a martial artist, raised from birth in a fighting academy on the outskirts of the Jade Empire. Outside the village, angry ghosts are roaming the land; the Emperor's elite bodyguards are pursuing some secretive, dark goal; and, as usual, there are bandits, monsters, and demons lurking in the wilderness. When your village is attacked, your master decides it's time to tell you some secrets he's been hiding. Cue epic quest.
At the start of the game, you get to pick a couple of martial-arts styles and an area of expertise, which translates to how your three stats--Body, Spirit, and Mind--are initially arranged. There are quite a few styles to choose from, and you'll learn many more over the course of the game.
In a fight, you can switch on the fly in real-time between all the styles you know, with up to four hot-keyed to the D-pad. This lends itself to some ridiculous combos, but it also grants you an amazing amount of flexibility. You can theoretically learn every style in the game at once, although you're probably only going to be able to master a few of them.
These styles encompass empty-hand fighting, magic spells, weapons, status-inflicting Support attacks, and abilities that transform you into various monsters. You'll need to master a bit of each to get through the game.
The monsters you'll face are often immune to at least one style, so an overspecialized character is going to find himself in a lot of trouble. Magic and weapons also consume your Chi and Focus points, respectively. Fittingly, then, the game is all about finding a balance.
Combat in Jade Empire, at its best, can resemble a particularly frenetic kung-fu movie. Your character's always yelling out style names as he or she switches techniques, and all the combatants are usually flipping and rolling around like mad. You can drop into Focus mode to slow the action down for an all-too-brief period of time, or bring a follower with you to help draw the enemies' fire.
Outside of combat, you'll explore vast towns and labyrinths throughout the Jade Empire, getting from place to place via the use of mechanical flyers. You can get sidequests from random villagers, go hunting for treasure in ancient ruins, use your flyer to play a shooter minigame that's almost good enough to stand on its own, and meet a couple of hundred unique and entertaining NPCs.
You can follow two paths in Jade Empire, the Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. They aren't wildly dissimilar to the Light Side/Dark Side choices in Knights of the Old Republic, and they have a similar effect. Some styles and items can only be used, or can only be used well, by followers of a given Way. You'll also receive a different ending based upon your Way, and reportedly, there's a third ending available for players who try to stay neutral.
So far, so good. Jade Empire has a great combat system, the graphics are pretty good (although I've got to say they overuse that soft light effect), the classical Chinese music really helps to set the tone, and Bioware wrote the script, so it's entertaining and it contains a couple of serious twists. The Ways provide replay value and the
Here's my problem. I was about thirteen hours into the game when I ran out of subquests and had to pursue the main storyline. About three hours later, the game ended. I was going out of my way to do everything in the game, and it only lasted about sixteen hours. If you count restarts, it might've been eighteen.
They were, for the most part, good hours, and I had a lot of fun, but Jade Empire does not end so much as it stops. After a lot of buildup and excitement, with the promise of an epic struggle and an equally epic final battle, it fizzles out. Some plot threads are hastily wrapped up; others are abandoned entirely, or turned into paper tigers. The loading screen talks up game features that're only used once. It's crazy.
Into the bargain, there isn't a lot of room for exploration. You're pushed along a relatively narrow plot track in Jade Empire. Maybe I was spoiled by KOTOR, but I was looking forward to flying around and seeing what I could find. Instead, you can only access an overworld map once, and only then to revisit one old location. They set you up with a huge world, and don't let you explore it.
Jade Empire is probably the best original RPG on the Xbox, and I like it quite a bit. It has all the ingredients to be a hit, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if this was the beginning of a long, great franchise. As it stands, however, it feels like I'm missing ten hours' worth of gameplay. It's a testament to the strength of the rest of the game that I really want those hours.