Jade Empire

Jade Empire is the "new" game from Bioware, creators of Neverwinter Nights and the mighty Knights of the Old Republic. It’s the successor to those two games, with an evolved game engine and simliar RPG gameplay. And it’s been on consoles for quite a while now, only recently arriving on the PC, hence the quotes around new.

Bioware have bestowed the title "Special Edition" on the PC release in honour of new features and upgrades over the console version. I don’t know what these are because I never played the console game and I haven’t read any reviews of it. I bought the game because it’s a Bioware title and because I enjoyed NWN and loved KOTOR. That says a lot about those games. What does it say about this one?

The game is set an oriental-themed world straight out of a Chinese kung fu movie. Martial arts and magic are the order of the day in a quest and class RPG that looks at first glance like KOTOR in the east.

The differences soon become apparent.

Whereas KOTOR employs a turn-based combat system founded on D&D rules, Jade’s action is all realtime. The speed and accuracy of your attack are determined by your skill with the controls in addition to your character’s stats. Stand too far away from your opponent and you’ll swing at thin air.

Character development also deviates from the D&D ruleset. Your primary stats are Health, Chi and Focus. Chi is depleted when using magic. Focus is depleted when using physical attacks. Health is depleted when someone whacks you over the head with a big stick. All of these can be boosted by crystals (lightsabre crystals anyone?) and recovered in various ways, some of which are related to combat tactics. KOTOR essentially had Weapons and the Force. Jade gives you combat Styles which you learn from NPCs and books, and which you can switch at any time during a fight.

The Thousand Cuts style, for example, comprises light but fast punches, whereas Legendary Strike deals slow, powerful kicks. Some styles are classed as Support; they deal no damage but have some useful effect. The Spirit Thief style increases your Chi with each hit, for example. There are also Form styles which literally transform you into a particular creature for a short time. Some styles are ineffective against particular types of opponent so you will find yourself switching between them a lot.

Each style offers three attacks: a light and strong attack activated by the left and right mouse buttons respectively, and an area attack activated by pressing both buttons together. An interesting facet of the combat styles is that some can be chained to produce combos which will insta-kill an opponent. To pull off a combo you usually need to perform a strong (and slow) attack from two styles within a short period of time. The complication is that the strong attacks can be interrupted if you take damage while winding them up. Light attacks can’t be interrupted once started but they can be blocked (strong attacks can’t).

Another feature carried over from previous games is the recruitment to your party of various characters you meet along the way. You can only take one "henchman" along with you at once (KOTOR let you have two) but you can swap them at any time. The evolution of this particular part of the game is that your sidekick can be set to Attack or Support mode. In the latter state they won’t fight at all (and can’t be attacked) but will grant you some benefit such as increases your rate of healing.

All this adds an element of tactics to the combat which benefits it greatly as just running around whacking stuff would otherwise be a little unsophisticated. Yet Jade does still feel like a console game and it isn’t helpd by the usual lack of effort to use the keyboard and mouse we’re used to from developers porting console games.

Bioware also continue to insist on using low resolution, pre-rendered movies to advance the plot in various places instead of doing their cutscenes in-engine. Even the scenes that are rendered on the fly are non-interruptible and since you can’t save the game in combat you’ll find yourself having to sit through a particular boss’s speech a few times too many if you don’t defeat him at the first attempt.

Yes there are bosses and yes there are pointless 80s-style arcade subgames which achieve nothing except waste part of the development budget. Must be for some kind of tax break.

Yet despite the consoley foibles, the game is still compelling. Why? Because it’s a Bioware game and the engine and controls are not what we’re here for. As you would expect, the story is engaging and the plot keeps moving nicely. The secrets of the Jade Empire are there to be discovered but if you prefer to chat to every NPC and uncover every side quest you can do that too. The amount of detail and attention these guys put into their RPGs is remarkable.

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