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Wuxia: a Chinese genre of storytelling, roughly meaning a kind of knightly, heroic fiction but in practice the Chinese incarnation of fantasy. It’s a world of chivalry, heroes, mystic powers, mysterious swordsmen and vengeful ghosts. It’s a world now associated with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers, but it stretches back to TV shows like The Water Margin, Eastern blockbusters such as The Bride with White Hair, Dragon Gate Inn, Zu: Warriors and A Touch of Zen, and a huge collection of quasi-historical novels and pulp fiction. Wuxia is the lifeblood of Jade Empire, Bioware’s first game that can’t rely on a big-name license. Between them, the spirit of Wuxia and Bioware’s impeccable RPG credentials have made Jade Empire one of the most thrilling games you’re likely to play this year.
It’s not that Jade Empire is a total departure from Baldur’s Gate or (particularly) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The roots show in the game’s basic structure – an engaging storyline told in chapters, but heavy on the sidequests for added taste – in the way the game steers you along two paths depending on the moral choices you make, and in some elements of the interface and presentation. However, Jade Empire also feels like another step on Bioware’s quest to democratise the RPG; to make a fantasy adventure that anyone with any sense will want to play.
So this time, that means an action-RPG, as similar in feel to Legend of Zelda as to SW: KOTOR. Combat is now firmly in real-time territory, inventory management extends to little more than managing power-up gems in a mystic medallion. You no longer have any sort of direct control over a party. Instead, you select followers from an ever-growing team, and they help you mop up any baddies and occasionally offer some smart advice. You can still tailor your character to suit your own style by emphasizing certain skills or building specific combat styles, but Bioware has made the process practically transparent for those who don’t want to. In terms of the interface, Jade Empire feels no more like an RPG than, say, Devil May Cry 3 or Silent Hill 2.
But an RPG it is – just one where the game mechanics are as brutally effective as any flurry of kicks in Once Upon a Time in China.
Let’s talk about the combat in more detail. It might be real-time, but we’re not talking Dead or Alive: Ultimate. Instead, there’s a basic attack button, a charged attack button, an evade button, a button that uses spirit power for a handy instant heal, a button to toggle on using spirit power to add extra damage to attacks and – best of all – a focus button, which uses stored focus power to slow down time Matrix style and give the more fearsome opponents an arse-kicking they won’t forget. Simple.
But the trick to Jade Empire’s combat is in the styles department. Fighting styles are assigned to directions on the digital D-pad, and vary between aggressive, weapon-based techniques, defensive skills, magical attacks, spirit-draining counters and more. Needless to say, different foes demand different styles. Malignant ghosts are immune to swordplay, but can be whipped apart with a robust hand-to-hand style. Magicians are best tackled with fireball attacks from a distance, before rushing in to finish them with a burst of close-up attacks. Hordes of swordsmen need to be broken quickly with aggressive styles, then the stragglers mopped up with basic attacks. A vast boss won’t like the edge of your blade, but to keep on fighting you’ll need to drain some spirit from them. It’s an easy, but very satisfying system.
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