Jaded Empire

As I mentioned the other day, I recently picked up Jade Empire . I’ve played it throughout the weekend and have some comments.

Jade Empire

Jade Empire

The game is, at its heart, Knights of the Old Republic only with Kung-fu masters and asskicking instead of Jedis and lightsabers. This is not a criticism. It’s what every single person who buys the game is looking for. The summary is that Bioware has delivered exactly what everyone wanted, and I’m enjoying the game a lot.

On closer examination, the game improves on KOTOR in some ways but also (unsurprisingly) fails in some of the same places. Let’s take a look.

As regular readers may remember, I wagered psu a case of beer that Jade Empire would use the same D20 engine, internally, as did KOTOR. I am lucky that psu doesn’t actually drink beer, because I am willing to concede that I was wrong.

There’s a lot here that feels like D20. There are still “stats” representing your overall power level, but they are far enough removed from D20 that they were clearly developed in-house. The combat system is completely new. Co- author psu referred to it as “Soul Calibur-like” but it’s not as polished as that. Really, what you have here is a game that plays like an RPG but then, every so often, makes you play a round of Street Fighter.

Your character’s stats (of course) determine his or her studliness in combat, as measured in three ways. Body feeds directly into the amount of damage you can take before keeling over and dying. Spirit determines the amount of chi you have. Chi can be used to heal yourself, to power magical spells, or to enhance physical attacks. Mind determines the amount of “focus” you have. Focus is used for attacks with weapons and also allows you to enter “focus mode” which slows the world down to a crawl, a la The Matrix (or as in the game Max Payne).

Instead of feats or skills, your character learns different fighting techniques over time and can power them up in different ways. There are bare- handed martial-arts techniques (effective against most enemies, including the undead), weapon techniques, magical techniques, and “support” techniques which don’t deal direct damage, but instead cause special effects (such as slowing the enemy down, or draining their chi). Different techniques are more effective against different enemies, for different reasons. Learning to switch between them in the middle of combat is the key to success.

One way in which Knights of the Old Republic improved upon its Dungeons and Dragons predecessors was its unashamed elimination of drudgery. Inventory management? Gone! Carry as much as you like. Stat management? Click this magic button and the game will manage it for you. Save points? Surely you jest. Save every 30 seconds, if you like! (And I do).

Jade Empire brutally cuts the nonessential aspects of play even closer to the bone. Inventory management is reduced by getting rid of nearly every type of carryable item except weapons and “essence gems.” You have character statistics, but the rock-scissors-paper nature of combat will require you to abandon subtle strategy and enhance them all at roughly the same rate. Your companions presumably have inventories and statistics as well, but you don’t get to see them: the game manages them for you.

There’s less drudgery. There’s more fun, watching R get bigger. All of this is good.

What I’m enjoying the most is the plot. It has its cliche elements, but not to the level of being offensive. It follows the by-now-nearly-an-immutable-law- of-nature Bioware pattern: constrained sandbox beginning, wide-open “second chapter,” and a more tightly scripted endgame portion. It turns out that your character – and I bet you didn’t see this coming! – has a Mysterious Origin and a Very Important Destiny to fulfill.

You also get to decide whether you want to be good or evil. Oh, excuse me, I mean, if you want to “follow the Way of the Open Palm” or “be a disciple of the Way of the Closed Fist.” This is one of only two areas in which the game disappoints. I understand the desire to provide an incentive to replay the game, but the implementation is clumsy; it shows me that the game designers were students of the Way of the Ham Fist. To be clear, I’m not complaining that the game offers the player the choice of being an insufferable puritan or a vile blackguard, I just wish they hadn’t tried to formalize its effect on gameplay. It feels like they just wanted to reuse as much of the KOTOR design as possible, and in this one area I think that was a mistake.

The other (small) problem with Jade Empire is that, like its predecessor, it has terrible, terrible puzzles. As long as the game stays in its “find this person, and kick his ass” mode, it’s fine. Occasionally, though, it tries to give you a puzzle to solve, and the puzzles are insultingly bad and trivial. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: Jade Empire is a mass-market game, and they are afraid that if they make the puzzles interesting “too hard” they will alienate a large number of players. This is a dumb attitude. Providing alternative routes around tough puzzles is one thing, but dumbing them down is just hurtful to everyone involved. If you really think that puzzles are going to ruin the game for your players, then there’s an obvious solution: don’t include any. Throwing in a few lame clunkers that can be solved through brute force just wastes everyone’s time.

Since most of the puzzles are on optional quests anyway, this doesn’t ruin what is an otherwise enjoyable game. It just tarnishes it a little.

Those complaints aside, I do want to reiterate that I’m having fun playing the game. I think you shouldn’t believe the hype being heaped upon the game by, well, just about everyone. This is not a perfect game, by any stretch of the imagination, and the 9.8, 9.9 ratings being showered upon it by the gaming press simply demonstrate how meaningless such numbers are. Jade Empire is not a perfect game, nor an innovative game, nor a future classic. What it is, however, is a superbly balanced game. It is a game that most of its purchasers will play through to completion, and will provide a satisfying experience. I’m not trying to damn it with faint praise. Given how terrible most games (and specifically most RPGs) are, this is quite an accomplishment.

The cost of all this superb balance is that the game lacks daring. In places where the game’s designers had opportunities to make something strong and sharp (such as the aforementioned puzzles), they instead intentionally made something soft and dull. I understand the tradeoff. Had I been producing the game, I might have made the same choice. But I can still feel some regret for the shadow the nonexistent, sharper game casts over the one I actually own.

If you have an Xbox, you should buy Jade Empire.

If you’d like a personalized Jade Empire name, be sure to visit The Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory, as well.