Now, if you’re going to play Jade Empire – and I strongly suggest that you do – then do yourself a favour and don’t switch the game to easy difficulty unless you really, really have to. On easy, fighting is a breeze, and you’re not really getting the most from the game. On medium, you’re kept pretty busy but there are a few truly nightmarish difficulty spikes. On hard, you’re kept sweating, and switching styles is critical to your survival. Luckily, you can change the level at any time outside of combat.
That’s enough about game mechanics. Part of the genius of Jade Empire is that it makes them so unnoticeable that you don’t even realize why they’re brilliant until you actively stop to think. As with any great RPG, the things that really keep you engaged are the storyline and the game world. The latter is simply amazing. As with ICO, Viewtiful Joe or Final Fantasy, Jade Empire is a game where the graphical achievements go beyond polygons per second and shader effects to the realms of art, creating a world of delicate forests, rushing waterfalls, fragrant blossoms, dank caves, bamboo groves and waving grasslands.
The characters could have walked from the set of Hero or Crouching Tiger, their nature engrained in walks, stances, facial expressions – even combat styles. The spirits, monsters and demons, all freshly drawn from old Oriental mythology, are an object-lesson in great creature design, exotic enough to make a change from the usual orcs and goblins, while being weird enough to capture the imagination. In short, Jade Empire is a thing of beauty, albeit one that sometimes takes the hardware one step too far. Load times may be minimal (thank goodness), but slowdown makes an appearance from time to time.
However, like SW: KOTOR, it’s the storyline and subquests that keep you playing until the early hours of the morning. Whether you take the Way of the Open Palm (think Yoda) or the Way of the Closed Fist (think Darth Vader), the plot opens up into a classic tale of greed, hunger-for-power, reparation for old sins and restoring the balance. The villains are dark and mysterious, some of the heroes have cloudy motives, and there are plenty of secrets that will come to light before the game reaches its climax. From a remote monastery to a stricken village to the heart of the Imperial City and a mysterious temple beyond, Jade Empire shifts from small beginning to an epic struggle with ease.
And it’s not just the big stuff that counts. The script is frequently superb, making you think about every reaction and the sort of character you want to be. The sideplots are touching – two ghostly waifs looking for peace – or broadly humorous – a matchmaking mission for a lonely local gangster. Time flies when you’re having so much fun.
I’m sure some RPG veterans will be sickened by Jade Empire. They’ll complain that the game is slightly more linear than SW: KOTOR, about the lack of party management, items and weapons, in-depth skills training etc, but I think they’re missing the point. There’s more to character development than adjusting stats or optimising weapons and armour, and the kind of character development that counts – a journey from novice to hero, a rise to honour or a descent into darkness – is what Jade Empire does better than anything outside of Zelda or SW: KOTOR. Engaging, entertaining and never less than superb, it’s a clear contender for Xbox game of the year.
Without the safety net of a big-name franchise, Bioware has created a stunning action RPG, filled with the spirit of Eastern fantasy and wuxia heroism. By any but the most nitpicking yardstick, Jade Empire is a classic.