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Jade Empire

01 May 2005

Epic with a capital “E”As I sat listening to Henpecked Hou and his wife ‘having words’ (actually Mrs Hou was having much more than her fair share, while Hou was having precious few) - the opening credits rolled. It was right at the start that I was reminded that although Jade Empire had an excellent plot, with its fair share of twists and turns, humour was always lurking beneath the surface, ready to leap out at the first sign of a raised fist. Indeed, for me, some of the game’s more memorable moments are its funniest.  Bashing a guard around the ears with a roasting ham raised a smile, as did meeting Lustful Lao who lurks around the Imperial City’s Arena and who asked my female character if she knew the fourteen essential differences between a bowl of steaming, sweetened rice and a night of fiery passion. The Imperial City is home to several wonderfully amusing characters; Qui the Promoter of the Arena’s fights who needs a dictionary instead of score-card and Philosopher Shendao who could be speaking great wisdom, then again he could be quite senile.

With 352 speaking characters and 82 voice actors, the job of matching voices to characters must have been a daunting job, but the result is absolute perfection.   Every character’s voice matches exactly; Black Whirlwind, the large, drunken, fight-happy lout has, as you would expect, a deep gravely voice, while Henpecked Hou’s reedy voice matches his small, wiry build to a ‘T’.  But the superb casting of John Cleese as the voice of Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontelebottom the Magnificent Bastard was a masterstroke.  He plays the part of a ‘Barbarian’, a foreigner, or ‘Outlander’, who attempts to best you in a debating contest, and even though he sets the topics himself, his extemporary verbosity is rivalled only by his extreme bad taste.  Not to be outdone by the sheer numbers of voice actors, the authentic Chinese instruments played by the large orchestra provide a magnificent backdrop to each of the game’s settings.  While in combat the pounding drums make your blood race, yet soft, soaring, flutes set the scene in the serenity of the Scholar’s Gardens.  Though the background and scene-setting music was beautiful and well placed, I was disappointed that it wasn’t always present.  There were several times the setting ached for music but there were nothing but a weighty silence, and sadly, the same thing happened frequently during combat.  Maybe it was just that my battles were over before the accompanying drumming could kick in.

If there’s one thing Bioware has brought us consistently over the years it’s been excellent combat systems and in Jade Empire they’ve really outdone themselves. To get the combat moves exactly right the creative team watched dozens of Martial Arts movies, some going back to the early 70’s, and from those movies they came up with a ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ type of scenario.   The Block beats Fast Attack, Fast Attack beats Heavy Attack and Heavy Attack beats Block style is very easy to learn.  It can, however, take quite a while to perfect.  Your four ‘favourite’ attacks are placed on the D-pad and can be changed in combat either on the fly or by pausing. There are also other types of fighting styles including Support, Martial, Transformation and Magic - each with their own flair and effectiveness.  There is only thing more deadly than a Master pounding you with blocks of ice, heaving balls of flame at you and then transforming into an electrifying Jade Golem, and that’s a couple of axes separating head from torso in one fluid motion. 

If we look at the past titles that Bioware has given us; Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights Of The Old Republic, we can expect a meaty plot, with a couple of unforseen twists and some memorable and strong characters.  And that is exactly what we have.  The Myths and Legends of Ancient China inspired the Jade Empire of the game’s title, and the character we play is a young Martial Arts Student in a tiny, forgotten, village.  On the day our revered Master is kidnapped and the village is burned to the ground we learn that we are destined to fulfil a place in history far beyond our wildest imagining.  The Spirit of the Water Dragon appears to tell us that the dead are not returning to the ‘Wheel of Life’ and only we, the last of out kind, can put them to rest.  Little do we suspect as we set out to find our Master that we will be grappling with the highest person in the land, nor that we will learn that our Master is not what we believed him to be.  As we journey across the Empire we gather loyal Followers about us that further our cause and help us to fulfil our destiny.  Yes, it is the staple of the RPG plot; an orphan must seek his/her destiny and save the world against impossible odds.  But Jade Empire does it so well that we hardly realise that we are singing the same old song.

My body is a well-oiled templeUnlike other RPGs, Body, Mind and Spirit Bars have replaced the Health and Mana Bars.  The Body - or Health - Bar shows, as usual, how physically well we are.  The Spirit, Chi - or Mana - Bar shows how much magic we are able to preform, and we can also use it to heal ourself.  The Focus - Or Mind - Bar show how much battle concentration we have.  And our ability to use weapons also comes from Focus.  When you gain a level you receive three points to allot amongst Body, Chi and Focus, and depending on the type of character you are playing allotting one point to each is not necessarily a wise thing to do.  When levelling up you also receive a set number of points to spend on upgrading your fighting styles.  During the game you will receive an Amulet that functions much like your ‘Inventory’ and as you find, buy or are given Gems you place them in the slots to make you stronger, more defensive, faster and even safe from Traps. 

Jade Empire is Bioware’s first, new, intellectual property, and that means that they have had complete creative freedom to come up with some of the most innovative and fresh ideas around today.  And that is exactly what they have done.  The real-time action and the motion capture style of movement in combat is extremely good, and as a result we see fast, seamless and fluid movements from all the fighters, not just our own character.  The team did, however, carry the Light/Dark side character concept from KOTOR into Jade Empire.  But that’s not a bad thing.  The way of the Open Palm, of the Closed Fist and the neutral approach, offer you three different ways to experience your journey through this gorgeous land and its quirky characters.  And as I pick up my controller to select a new character for my second play through I know that I will not be alone on my journey through the ancient and mysterious land that is the Jade Empire.