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Neil Booth
18 Mar, 2007

Jade Empire: Special Edition Review

PC Review | Still special or getting jaded?
It's odd to think that of all the orphans scattered around the world, quite possibly being raised by wizened old guardians in small country villages, exactly none of them will turn out to be the lost heir to an ancient throne, or be in any way obligated to save the world. Strange, but true! Unless, of course, they happen to be the central character in pretty much any RPG you care to mention.

So it’ll come as no surprise to discover that Jade Empire: Special Edition casts you as, oh yes, a humble orphan in a small country village being raised under the watchful eyes of a (*sigh*) wizened old guardian. What’s going to happen next? Anyone who answered with something along the lines of a sudden attack that results in the destruction of the village and the revelation of an earth-shaking destiny gets 100XP and a miserly handful of bronze coinage.

This is not to suggest that Jade Empire is a disappointment - far from it. In fact, it gets a lot of things right. It’s just that some RPG cliches are so common, and have been ploughed into the ground so often that it’s difficult to resist a little head versus monitor action when Jade Empire kicks off in this most tired and familiar manner.

Jade Empire clings pretty tightly to the RPG template that Bioware have been using for quite a while now, most notably with Knights of the Old Republic. A suitably epic storyline, dozens of sub-quests, character building, stats based advancement, dialogue trees and inventory management are all present and correct.

The inventory is handled in a uniquely low-maintenance fashion. Rather than the usual Handbag From Hell routine – ten screens of pebbles, plants, broken artifacts, four swords, a battleaxe and nineteen subtly different helmets – JE’s inventory is largely invisible and takes care of itself. If you pick up a small statue it will install itself in the Plot Items section of your journal. When you’re in a situation where it’s useful, the game will let you know.

It’s a wonderfully seamless approach that could, arguably, be accused of over-simplification. Part of the appeal of RPGs is that compulsive urge to get Lots of Stuff, then get Better Stuff with which you can Hit More People Over the Head. There’s a certain pleasure in shuffling your gear around an inventory, arranging it in interesting ways or flogging it off at inflated prices. You’ll have to judge for yourself how important this is to your enjoyment of an RPG, but Jade Empire provides a good alternative to the usual stuffed suitcase method of inventory wrangling.

And really, Jade Empire has no need for a traditional inventory because this isn’t about crashing about the countryside collecting deadly weapons and smart new hats. This is all about becoming a deadly weapon. Martial arts, see? Everything you need to smite evil is already attached to your wrists and ankles.


Rainbow islands.

Rainbow islands.
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As you move through the game, you’ll pick up new styles of fighting in which you’ll gradually become more proficient. Rather niftily, some fighting styles combine with other styles to unleash deadly Harmonic Combos. In effect, you whack someone really hard with one style, switch to another style (within a time limit), whack your foe really hard again and wait for the fireworks to begin.

The combat is defiantly real-time in nature, and it’s a smart choice by the game designers. Once you get in the swing, it all feels very martial artsy as you leap and bound around the place, laying down the smack. There’s a small amount of tactical thinking required too – this isn’t just a “click on the enemy and wait for them to drop” mechanic. In the heat of the moment, you’ll have to choose the right fighting style, then the right move or block depending on what the bad guy’s trying to do to you. It’s a fluid, satisfying system that constantly evolves throughout the game, giving you more interesting choices and combinations.

Graphically speaking, Jade Empire isn’t going to steal Oblivion’s sparkly Prom Queen tiara, but it’s far from being an ugly duckling. In fact, JE’s gorgeous character design has the edge on Oblivion’s often freaky looking cast. The environments of Jade Empire are varied, beautifully put together and add a lot to the immersiveness of the game. Also, Jade Empire doesn’t require the Herculean system requirements of Oblivion or Neverwinter Nights 2. As always, though, the more grunt you can throw at it the better, particularly considering the real-time combat. You don’t want things bogging down at the wrong moment.


Never a cab around when you need one.

Never a cab around when you need one.
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All the dialogue in the game is spoken and the voice acting is a mix of surprisingly good and predictably awful. We’re hovering around a day-time TV level of performance here. It doesn’t really mar the game but it’d be nice not to have to sit through so many tediously wooden exchanges. And mark my word, you’ll be doing a lot of sitting through, too. Jade Empire loves a chat! It’s not uncommon to have five minutes of plot-shunting exposition, followed by a pre-rendered cut scene, then a post-cut scene chinwag and an extensive dialogue tree to click through. Is it just me, or is the Thankyou. Goodbye option always the most tempting?

Considering the combat is so much fun, it's frustrating when everything gets mired thigh-deep in plot. Fair enough, you need some story to keep you involved, but games are not books. Let’s go kick some heads! Please? You can speed through the dialogue with some rapid left-clicking but it’s a shame to fast forward through an admittedly engaging story simply because it just doesn’t know when to shut up.

There’s a blizzard of sub-quests here if you’re up for it, though you might begin to feel less of a bold adventurer and more like a harried fix-it guy/girl covered in post-it notes. By the time the umpteenth peasant starts tugging at your shirt sleeves and begging you to sort out their love life, agricultural mishaps or business ventures, you’ll be wondering why they can’t just fix their own damn problems. Getting involved in anything outside the main plot-line, though, is always optional.

This is as good a place as any to touch upon one of the odder design choices in the game – the inclusion of a top down, vertically scrolling shoot-em-up. Whenever you have to travel significant distances in the game, you have the option to play a shoot-em-up for a minute or two. It's a jarring detour from the otherwise intricately crafted fantasy world and pretty much kills the atmosphere stone dead. Thankfully, you can always decline the offer and get back to the real meat and potatoes of the game.


A 2D distraction in a 3D world.

A 2D distraction in a 3D world.
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Ultimately, Jade Empire is both very accomplished and a bit worn around the edges. Bioware routinely excel at making these kind of games, and that's the rub right there: it's routinely excellent. There’s a huge amount of enjoyable gameplay on offer – at least 20 hours - and it's presented with style and flair, but it’s difficult to get away from the feeling that we’ve been here before. It’ll be interesting to see how Bioware’s next big title, Mass Effect, deals with some of the pitfalls of this particular kind of story-based, conversation heavy roleplaying. Early glimpses of Mass Effect seem to promise much more interactive conversations, and that can only be a good thing.

In spite of its shortcomings, Jade Empire: Special Edition does provide an enduringly good time. The world is rich, detailed and different enough from what has gone before to justify its existence. The lack of dwarves and elves is a big help, even though most of the fantasy stereotypes turn up under different names. Streamlined inventory management and a fun combat system that melds well with the martial arts theme all combine into a good, solid CRPG.
The Score
A good, dependable RPG from the masters of the genre that would benefit enormously from some fresh ideas.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

Related Jade Empire: Special Edition Content

Jade Empire: SE on Steam
17 Feb, 2007 Cheap and easy.
Glory of the Roman Empire Review
18 Jul, 2006 How to build an Empire 101.
Jade Empire Limited Edition Confirmed For PAL Release
02 Mar, 2005 Bioware’s forthcoming Xbox RPG set to be released in standard and limited editions.
9 Comments
7 years ago
I never played this on my Xbox so I will probably be getting it for my PC now. I'm not going to turn away a Bioware game, thats for sure.

Nice review, Neil!
7 years ago
Quote
The inventory is handled in a uniquely low-maintenance fashion. Rather than the usual Handbag From Hell routine – ten screens of pebbles, plants, broken artifacts, four swords, a battleaxe and nineteen subtly different helmets.....

And really, Jade Empire has no need for a traditional inventory because this isn’t about crashing about the countryside collecting deadly weapons and smart new hats.
That actually made me lol.Haha the bit about the various hats cuts me up.Good review.
7 years ago
Great review Neil - despite having virtually no interest in the game itself, I really enjoyed that.
7 years ago
when its going ofr like $25 2nd hand at EBs on XBOX you could get a 2nd hand console and the game for only $40 or so more the then $90 rrp they are asking for the PC version. Too much for a title released too late on the PC platform frankly......
7 years ago
Get a secondhand xbox console for $15.Tell him he's dreaming....
7 years ago
read my post again --- I said $40 or so more then the $90 PC rrp.

So...... that is $130 or so ....... for the 2nd hand console & game. Not so unrealistic............
7 years ago
emech wrote
when its going ofr like $25 2nd hand at EBs on XBOX you could get a 2nd hand console and the game for only $40 or so
Console($15)+game($25)=$40

That's what i read.

Try to punctuate in future.It's the fun.
7 years ago
Love the review Neil; I've always really liked this game, played through it about four times on the Xbox... might well get this PC version too. icon_smile.gif
7 years ago
Gaw, shucks! Makin' me blush... but thanks everyone, glad you enjoyed the review.
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  Out Now
European Release Date:
  Out Now
Publisher:
  2K Games
Developer:
  BioWare
Players:
  1

Extra:
Minimum System Requirements
Windows XP
Pentium 4 1.8 GHz or AMD Athlon 1800XP
512 MB RAM
8 GB free HD space
1x or better DVD-ROM drive
NVIDIA GeForce 6200 or ATI 9500 or better (Shader Model 2.0 required)
100% DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card and drivers
DirectX 9.0 February 2006 (Included)

Recommended System Requirements
Windows XP
3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 or equivalent processor
1 GB RAM
8 GB free HD space
1x or better DVD-ROM drive
ATI X600 series
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 series
or higher recommended
100% DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card and drivers
DirectX 9.0 February 2006 (Included)

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