Sitting down to play Jade Empire was a very pleasant experience. I’d just given up on a not very satisfactory game. It had been a while since I’d played an RPG, so I was primed for the experience. I selected a character without too much agonizing, entered the initial area, talked to a few people, got some hints of the world. Wandered around, got a feel for the scenery. Got some plot information, a plot-related task, a side quest. And not a single false note to be heard. I relaxed more and more, putting myself into the hands of the game; I must have played it for five or six hours that first day, which is a rarity for me.

So: what’s it like? Like Shenmue, it resembles an interactive martial arts movie, but one based on older Chinese themes instead of modern Japanese/Chinese themes. It’s perhaps a bit strange that Japanese video game studios have no compulsions about making movies based on western themes, while western video game companies don’t commonly make video games based on eastern themes.

Here, aside from making a perfectly nice world to set the game in, the choice of an eastern theme has a concrete effect on the game design. RPGs based on western fantasy models tend to have one character who is a fighter, one character who specializes on offensive magic, and one character who specializes in defensive magic. (And they typically throw in a fourth character for good measure, perhaps a thief or ranger or archer.)

This sort of specialization is, I would hypothesize (not being an expert), perhaps less a part of eastern mythological themes. (Or perhaps BioWare is counting on my ignorance, and using exoticism as a cover for opening up game play.) Your character can fight with hands, fight with weapons, cast projectile spells at enemies, heal herself, and transform into monsters, among other things. You’re free to emphasize one aspect of your character over others if you wish as you level up, but the game in no way forces you to do so.

Or rather, as you progress, not just as you level up: while your basic power improves as you level up, you gain new capabilities in other ways as well. You learn new techniques as part of quests or through purchases. You have an amulet that you can add gems to to tweak your stats. As a result, you have quite a lot of choices in you you develop your character. And those choices aren’t set in stone: you can change your fighting techniques during a match, and you can change the contents of your amulet to, be, for example, more focused on persuasion when wandering through town while more focused on defense while in a dungeon. In many ways, this flexibility in improving your character reminds me more of the Paper Mario series than of a traditional RPG (though it’s rather richer than Paper Mario); I like it. I haven’t played BioWare’s earlier Xbox RPGs, the two Knights of the Old Republic games, but I suspect that being a Jedi gives them a similar flexibility.

This, in turn, changes the plot, party, and gameplay dynamics. While most RPGs have you start off controlling a single character, and focus more on that character than other party members, you really are focused on the party as a whole (or at least the subset that you use frequently): the party members are, for example, a necessary part of any battle in a traditional RPG in order to provide you with a sufficient range of capabilities. In Jade Empire, however, your main character can do everything by herself. (Or himself; you choose your main character from several possibilities of both genders.) You do end up accumulating quite a sizeable party, but experience doesn’t apply to them, so you don’t have to worry about leveling them up. Instead, you choose one of them as a companion while wandering around, but you can change which one accompanies you relatively frequently; the companion can fight with you in the battles, but you’re always a much more effective fighter than your companion. Your companion doesn’t even have to fight: you can choose to have your companion stay out of the battle and give you support (e.g. heal you). When you do the latter (as I did for the second half of the game), your companion ends up feeling more like another form of equippable item than anything else.

This, in turn, allows your party members to play a part in the plot that is somewhat larger than in normal RPGs. Their motivations and loyalties are often somewhat unclear; and if it’s necessary for them to disappear in order to further the plot, the game can do so, secure in the knowledge that it isn’t depriving you of valuable leveled-up characters. Having said that, the game does still fall into the typical RPG trap of excessively large parties: several party members play no significant role in the plot, and wouldn’t be missed if they were removed from the game. As is, the question of “just what are these other party members doing while I’m off adventuring, and why aren’t they helping me fight my battles?” still arises.

Another huge effect of your do-it-all main character is that it frees the game from the need for turn-based combat. If your fights involve four party members, it’s hard to avoid turn-based combat. But if your fights involve the main character plus a single largely ineffective sidekick, having you directly control the main character while the computer controls the sidekick works fine. While I’m willing to play RPGs with turn-based combat, it is a drawback for me; I like this way better.

This also makes it natural for battles to take place in the normal environment, though you can’t avoid them in the way that you can avoid them in, say, Paper Mario. Fortunately, there’s rarely any need to avoid them: the battles are at set places, there are no wandering monsters, so battles never interfere with your exploration. (Skies of Arcadia still makes me shudder.)

Like BioWare’s earlier RPGs, you can play your character as good or as evil. Which is a fine feature, but not one that I’m likely to take advantage of: I basically never replay games, and in any event I don’t want to play my character as evil. Of course, like almost all RPGs, there’s one gaping hole in the notion of what constitutes good behavior: when going through other people’s houses, you’re free to break pots, open chests, and in general loot your hosts blind.

And the game made one very good design choice that is much more unusual than it should be: while it has the traditional three difficulty levels, you can change the difficulty level on the fly. I played through almost the entire game at the middle difficulty level, which was a good match. But there were two boss battles where, after struggling with them for a while, I decided that I wasn’t enjoying them, and (in one case) would probably have to replay some earlier areas to leave myself in an appropriate shape to beat them. Which I didn’t want to do. (It didn’t help that they were preceded by load screens and cut scenes that I couldn’t skip.) So I simply changed the difficulty level to easy, won the boss battles (and had fun doing so), and set the difficulty back to medium. Which was much more fun than spending an extra hour or so on those battles.

It’s a nice looking game. Though the cut scenes actually look rather worse than the in-game play; pity they didn’t use the in-game engine for more of the cut scenes, and use less compression on the remaining ones. (If one or the other is going to look good, they made the right choice; Final Fantasy this isn’t.) I have no idea why the game is rated as mature; I didn’t mind Miranda watching while I played it.

Despite the above paean, the game does have some flaws. It’s divided into seven parts; the first is a sort of training area, where the possibilities of the game are opening themselves up to you. After that comes a smallish city, and then the capital city. In both of those parts, you have a good idea of how the game works; you can do the bare minimum necessary for the plot, or you can pick up perhaps a dozen or so side quests. I chose the latter strategy; I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was wondering, however, what the next part was going to be like: the whole game so far was drawing me to the capital city, so I was curious about (and looking forward to) the major plot shift that would send me out to other cities to explore.

There was a major plot shift (which wasn’t entirely to my taste, but that’s fine); it didn’t, however, send me out to other cities to explore. Instead, parts four through seven of the game were all dungeons, with essentially no side quests to perform; all put together, they took less time to complete than part three by itself. I’m not sure what happened – maybe they had a larger game mapped out, completed the first half of the game and the dungeons of the second half, and then were forced to publish. In any event, the balance of the game ended up out of whack, and the game ended up a little short. Normally, I would be quite happy with a game that took me 15-20 hours to complete – a lot of RPGs could use some slimming down – but I was enjoying this game enough that I would have preferred a 25-30 hour game where the dungeons at the end were replaced by a couple more cities.

Great game; I wasn’t sure if I’d play Knights of the Old Republic, but if this is what BioWare is capable of, then that game has vaulted to the top of my to-buy list.

(Well, near the top of my to-buy list: I just went out and bought We Love Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus, and Pirates!. But I’ll get to it soon!)

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