I'm on an epic quest. I mean that very seriously. This is a truly Epic Quest, deserving of not one but two capital letters. We're not just talking about personal revenge here, although there's a healthy dose of that involved, of course. No, this is altogether more serious. Someone's only gone and screwed up the natural balance of all creation. Ghouls walk the earth in a downright distressing way, places are getting firebombed left, right and centre, and there's a bloke with really, really bad fashion sense marching around in black armour, which can never be good. And who's got to clear up this mess? Muggins here, that's who.
But first... First, I think I might help this woman find a husband. I'm sure it won't take long. Then I'll... Wait, what's this? Someone's nicked something from you? I'll go speak to the ruffian. Then maybe I'll find a small girl's lost cat, or something. After all, it's not like I'm in any hurry to sort out the disrupted balance of heaven and earth or anything, is it! Oh.
I'll save the world in a minute
Jade Empire is all about procrastination. It's not quite reached the levels of distraction which Yu Suzuki's fantastic Shenmue games managed - at least you're consistently reminded that there's a world that needs saving, unlike Shenmue, which was perfectly happy to let you spend weeks feeding kittens and playing old arcade games while your father's killers gradually died of old age. However, it's certainly a game where you'll occasionally lift your head from the sub-plot you're exploring and wonder if perhaps you shouldn't go and do something about the evil machinations of the Emperor's ominously named right-hand man. Then you'll put your head right down again. Who cares? You're having fun.
Of course, this isn't really new ground for Bioware. Their previous games - such as their last Xbox hit, Knights of the Old Republic - have ably demonstrated their skill at weaving together a complex web of sub-plots and side missions, crafting a fine tapestry with the main plotline simply serving as the central seam that holds the whole thing together. It's still worth stepping back and admiring that talent, though, especially in this game - the company's first attempt at building its own fantasy world from scratch, rather than telling stories in someone else's universe.
Jade Empire, as you've probably established, is loosely based on the legends of China - although Bioware has been careful to stress that it's not actually ancient China, which allows them to play around with all manner of elements ranging from geography to the inclusion of technology (often magic-powered) such as aircraft. Your character starts out as the star student of a martial arts school in a remote village, and in typical RPG style, you and your companions are quickly caught up in Much Bigger Things - to wit, the aforementioned ghouls, firebombings, and balance of heaven and earth - and sally forth to travel around the Jade Empire putting things right.
Restore Balance by Breaking Heads
Putting things right, in this context, involves interacting with a wide range of fantastically scripted and voiced characters, each with their own personality quirks and many of whom will ask you to do things for them. Some of these missions might involve just talking to people, using your personality traits (charm, intuition or intimidation) and Bioware's superbly detailed dialogue system to get what you want; others involve kicking some heads in to get your way. Many missions will actually conflict directly with each other, so you have to choose which side to take, and those decisions will directly affect your path through the story. Fans of previous Bioware games will be familiar with this concept - for those coming to Jade Empire from action titles or with more familiarity with Japanese style RPGs, it's quite a revelation to have so much choice in terms of the storyline.
So far, so good. Great script, an imaginative fantasy world, interesting and varied characters, loads of missions, moral dilemmas and a wide open, branching storyline. These are all areas where Bioware excel, and fans of their earlier work will be more than happy with the quality on display here, while newcomers will be enthralled to discover what they've been missing all along. I could probably add a few paragraphs here about how amazing the graphics are and how good the music is, stick a 10/10 on the end of the review and take off early for lunch.
I won't, though. For a start, I'm trying to slim down for summer, and for another thing, I'd be doing you a great disservice by glossing over the one truly weak point of the game - namely the actual mechanics involved in walking up to people and punching their lights out. It's something you'll end up doing quite a lot in the game, and sadly, it's really not quite as much fun as it should be.
Unlike previous Bioware games, Jade Empire - in keeping with the martial arts theme of the world - uses a completely real-time combat system. You press a button on the pad, and that maps directly to an attack which your character performs. There's a basic light attack, an unblockable but slow heavy attack, a block button, and you can roll and jump around the place like Jackie Chan on speed. Pressing both attacks at once gets you an area of effect attack. Certainly, your character collects experience points and levels up a vastly simplified set of stats (Health, Chi and Focus) every now and then, but this is more an action game than anything else.
Lights, Camera, Oversimplified Action
Unfortunately, you get the feeling that Bioware tried to create a really excellent real-time combat game and then pulled back from the edge just before they got there. Aficionados of action games were probably reading the list of commands in the last paragraph with something of a furrowed brow - and yes, I'm afraid that it really is that simple. Or at least, almost that simple. Jade Empire's big idea is the inclusion of dozens of different fighting styles, ranging from weapon styles to unarmed martial arts styles, magic abilities, support styles that don't damage directly but might slow an enemy down or steal their Chi (which is used for magical attacks, or to replenish your health), and even transformation styles which morph you into a powerful monster.
Four of these styles can be mapped to the four directions on your D-pad, and you can access the rest of them through a pause menu during combat. The idea behind the game's combat system is that while fighting in each individual style is very simple, the combination of different styles yields a range of more interesting techniques. This almost works. Fundamental combat in a single style is very simple, and basically consists of mashing the A button in front of an enemy's face until they start blocking, at which point you hold down the X button to break their block and then mash the A button some more until they die - lather, rinse, repeat.
In theory, as you progress through the game you should start doing different things; switching over to a support style to slow down an enemy, for example, and then starting a "harmonic combo", a multi-style combo that kills an enemy instantly, then flicking between a few other styles to deal a sequence of withering blows. In practice, there's little real incentive to learn to do this properly. Even on the higher difficulty setting, Jade Empire's combat never really gets massively taxing - you just need to pay attention to your health, position yourself well, pick a decent style and hammer the A button a lot. At the lower difficulty level, you can ignore most of that and just hammer the A button, even on tougher boss characters.
It's not that combat in Jade Empire isn't fun. A vast amount of effort has gone into creating loads of detailed, interesting enemies to fight, and many of your styles are hugely impressively animated. There's a lot to be said for watching people beat the stuffing out of each other in a wide range of fantastic martial arts styles. It's just that after you master the basics of combat, it doesn't feel like there's very much more to do, and this is certainly a game which you'll be lead through by a desire to unravel more of the fascinating story and learn more about the great characters, rather than by a burning will to participate in more of the rather pedestrian battles.
Glory of the East
Remember I said I could have written a few paragraphs about awesome graphics and headed off to lunch? I still haven't had lunch, but let's talk about those graphics. Jade Empire looks absolutely beautiful. It's by far the most impressive of Bioware's games from a graphical perspective, and one of the most impressive games we've seen on a console, full stop. Each location is lovingly modelled - although not very interactive, which is a little disappointing - and effects like water, weather and fire are beautifully done. The whole thing is suffused with a dream-like glow, which brings instant comparisons with Big Blue Box' Fable. It's probably fair to say that while Jade Empire aims for a different kind of graphical style to Fable, it's more accomplished overall in this regard, with a far greater variety in environments and a truly astonishing number of differently modelled and animated people and creatures to encounter.
Unfortunately, the whole thing is marred slightly by some inconsistency, which feels like a hangover from Knights of the Old Republic. The frame rate is generally fine, but has a really nasty habit of chugging badly at key points in the game - something which is quite ugly and unacceptable in a console title. Worse again are the occasional short pauses we saw during combat, which really broke up the action quite badly. The last thing on the list of graphics-related frustrations is the load delays, which are frankly enormous, and happen rather too often for our liking. It's particularly disappointing that these seem to have actually got worse since KOTOR, rather than better. Sure, the graphics have improved as well, but it's a real shame that the trade-off seems to come down to huge load delays every time you step across a threshold.
It would be very easy to gloss over these concerns and simply be swept away by Jade Empire. It's a truly beautiful game, which presents a lovingly crafted and genuinely fascinating world, a host of fantastic characters and a great sense of freedom in terms of your actions in what is mostly a very polished package, and I'd happily recommend it to any Xbox owner. However, in trying to strike a balance between action and stat-based combat, Bioware seem to have fallen between two stools. Action fans will find the combat too simple, while RPG fans will find the inability to customise their character to any major degree frustrating. As a hugely enjoyable new game from one of the world's most talented developers, it deserves a place in any collection, but it falls sadly short of the status of all-time classic which some seem to want to confer upon it.