Incarnate has summed up the flaws that he saw in Jade Empire with his usual adroitness. It is my goal today to provide a more thorough run-through of the whole Jade Empire experience and enlighten you as to why you should only rent this game, not buy it. Bioware has secured a place in the minds of gamers as a company that can get good games made. Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, Shattered Steel, and, of course, MDK 2 are all titles that every gamer should have played. No, more than played; immersed themselves in. Surely any game that comes from a stable like this has to be a true champion. Right?
The graphics in this game are very impressive. The environments are beautiful, the characters modeled incredibly well crafted, and the animations will cause your eyes to orgasm. The areas vary greatly, ranging from your small mountain school to swamps to the Imperial City. There is a lot more in the game, but I do not want to ruin anything for you. I never noticed any hiccups in framerate or badly meshed textures. This game truly is a joy to look at. I almost feel bad because I feel like a game that looks this good should require more of a description, but you know how good it looks. You’ve seen the screenshots, and if you haven’t, they are scattered throughout this review.
If you read the descriptions that Bioware bandies about regarding gameplay, you might expect an epic battle that rages throughout the game. You would be disappointed. The gameplay is almost what you come to expect from a Bioware RPG. The story is well developed and there is a cornucopia of NPCs to talk to, sidequests to complete, and good (Open Palm) or evil (Closed Fist) points to gain while doing it. How does all of this impact the gameplay? Well, if you want the full Jade Empire experience, there are a lot of people to talk to. And the voice acting was excellent (but I’ll cover this more in Audio). You were free to run around and fight an obnoxious European or compete in the arena or even embark on a series of “1943” style scrolling airplane shooters. This game seems to have it all in terms of NPC interaction. It is the fighting that’s the problem. I defeated the final boss by jumping over his head and attacking him from behind several times and repeating. He never hit me. This is the final battle of the game and I never got touched. Even on hard. Now, if you are Incarnate, you merely transformed into the Jade Golem and killed him in a few hits.
The combat system was interesting but did not seem fully fleshed out. Bioware will tell you that you need to get other styles so that you can be ready for any situation you find yourself in. You’ll never really use any style other than the one you start with because you have spent the last 10 hours of gameplay time and experience leveling up your current weapons and styles, so when the developers feel magnanimous enough to drop another style in your lap, you don’t want it. I don’t want Leaping Tiger when my Legendary Strike is fully leveled up. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense. And we’ve all seen the videos of Ling picking up the two hams and fighting with those. I must have missed where else you could do that, or maybe it was just that I had a sword and didn’t need to pick up table legs. While the idea is interesting, it doesn’t quite work when the player already has a weapon that does 125% more damage than it started out with.
I feel like I am just copying Incarnate here, but I feel that I need to talk about it as well. What was wrong with the stats? I upgraded my Focus, Chi, and Body and my bars were all very long. That’s all good. But I couldn’t tell if I was really doing any more damage than I would have at the beginning of the game. In fact, there are no new characters to fight after you finish the first half of the game. And none of the enemies are really that hard. I know it sounds like I am just bashing the game, and maybe I am. You’ve seen the other scores this game has gotten and you know that people like it. Hell, I liked the game. I am just jaded enough to know when a game is good, but could have been much better. This game suffers badly from a case of the CouldaShouldaWouldas. That said, I did enjoy watching combat and I loved wading through bad guys. I wish there had been more combat on a greater scale. I loved fighting 2 ghosts at a time, but I am supposed to be the best martial artist in the world. Jackie Chan fights more people while asleep and hog-tied. Not to give anything away, but there is a part of the game when a huge army of golems is advancing towards you. And there are a lot of them. Yet I was not allowed to fight them because they would have killed me. No they would not have, I am Furious Ming. The game could have been better, should have been better, and would have been better had there been more combat and more advanced combat.
Another problem that the game suffered from was the linear nature of the areas. There was no real exploring because there was nowhere to explore. When you walk through the swamp, all of the roads (both of them) lead to the exact same place. You cannot find yourself out in the middle of nowhere just looking around (which is probably a very good thing considering the already long load times). I understand that not all RPGs strive for a Bethesda style open RPG, but it would be nice to see a little effort to at least make the levels somewhat convoluted. We like to get lost.
My last, but certainly not least, gripe with the game was loading times. They were horrendous. I complained about this in Brothers in Arms and I hoped with a passion that I would never suffer such indignities again. Well, Bioware, you shattered that fragile dream. I mean, twenty-five to thirty seconds to load an area that you can run across in that same amount of time? When you fight in the arena, most of your fights will run shorter times than the loading it takes to put you in the arena, let alone the additional thirty seconds it takes to get you out of the arena and back into the bar above the killing grounds. I appreciate graphics as much as the next guy, but I would rather have seen a more plain game without load times than Jade Empire as is with horrible load times.
The music in the game was very good. It had a definite Eastern feel and I guess that the biggest compliment that I can give it is that it did not stick out. It just seemed like a very natural part of the gameplay experience. The sound in the game was very good. Although every once and a while the sound would glitch as you were fighting, leading to some interesting silent martial bouts. The aural experience that stood out the most in my mind was the voice acting. Bioware must have some sort of genie that sits in their office just conjuring talent out of thin air, although that could explain why no other games seem to be able to match them. A few times I felt like I was in a kung fu movie, but other than that the voices were spot on. Excellent emotion, inflection, intonation, enunciation, and some other words that end in -tion. As much as some of the gameplay aspects bothered me, the voice acting made me want to keep talking to people. If there was a grade beyond an A+, the voice acting would get it.
The game really was pretty fun. My biggest problem with it is still the simplistic nature of the combat and the loading times. I understand that a more complex combat system would have cluttered the game, but maybe some better enemy AI that could at least adapt to you. Or hordes of easily decapitated fiends that I could wail upon until my thumbs cramped. The load times were what really deadened the fun-factor for me. When you can go chance clothes and still beat the load timer, there is a problem. The Xbox has a hard drive. And I find it very hard to believe that a level from Jade Empire is larger than a level from Halo, which has no problem loading the whole thing.
The game was very easy to play. I speak not of the difficulty of the enemies, but of the learning curve and controls. You are introduced to fighting at the very beginning and can beat the game by hitting just two buttons. The game is an RPG, so gamers who have never played one before (although I don’t know why you haven’t, slacker) might be a bit lost trying to find there way from sub-quest to sub-quest. Otherwise, the game is very slick and very simple.
While Jade Empire had more than its fair share of problems, I was still satisfied playing the game. While I wish that the load times were not there and that the combat had been at least a bit more challenging, Bioware knows how to create a world. The story of the game is a typical Bioware story, but your party members also have stories. I think Bioware forgot that they gave them stories because the most important side story, that of Dawn Star, was completely ignored. It might be part of a sequel, but why would they not flesh that out? Jade Empire truly is a beautiful game that is almost more beautiful because it succeeds in spite of its flaws.
Gameplay – I’m giving the gameplay a 90 in spite of the problems it had. Load times that derailed the flow of the game and combat that could not have been more simplistic all hurt the game, but I just had too much fun playing it for some reason.
Graphics – A 95 only because there was quite a bit of clipping in the cut scenes and … oh, yeah, the load times sucked.
Sound – 97. The sound in this game was excellent. If it weren’t for that glitch which caused the sound to cut out in some fights you would probably be looking at a 100.
Music – 93. Pretend that you are in high school. It’s still an A, but it won’t set the curve. The music was good but not groundbreaking.
Fun-Factor – Again, like gameplay, this suffers because of the load times. I think I actually had more fun talking to people than fighting near the end of the game because of how fighting became a series of leaps over their head followed by a series of sword cuts to their back as they were engaged in their own attack on empty air. 90.
Usability – The game was very slick and streamlined. At least Bioware had good UI people and control layout people who were able to make a simple game fun to play. 95.
Reviewer’s Tilt – As much as I have maligned the game, I enjoyed it. I left the game with an overall good feeling. I won’t play through it again (because of the load times), but I have recommended that game to almost everyone I’ve talked to. Recommended that they rent the game. 95.