- Review Price: £32.00
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.
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.