There are times when you play a game and know that you're playing something just that little bit special. Typically, it's around 2am in the morning when you have work the next day, and the penny drops that you really have to stop and get some sleep. This is the feeling Jade Empire gives me every time I play it. It's very, very hard to put down. After the relative disappointment of Knights of the Old Republic 2, I had approached Jade Empire with an air of almost desperate expectation. Little did I know that all my hopes had been realised so spectacularly.
RPGs come in many shapes and forms, from number-crunching stat-fests to more intricate story-led epics. Jade Empire comes from the Bioware stable, developers of the universally acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights, and definitely falls into the latter of these two categories. Jade Empire isn't based on an existing pen and paper RPG game, so Bioware have built the whole game from the ground up, with not only their trademark attention to detail, but also with the intention of streamlining the traditional RPG numbers game to the absolute minimum. Whilst this approach is bound to disappoint the d20 worshippers, it will no doubt please the people who break out into a cold sweat whenever they're confronted with a character sheet full of statistics. There's still a pleasing amount of character customisation available, however, providing a significant level of replay value, plus the incentive to play as both male and female protagonists, thanks to the inclusion of NPC romances into the plot.
In many ways, Jade Empire is the true spiritual successor to Knights of The Old Republic, so it should be made clear at this point that if you didn't especially get on with KotOR, the odds are that you probably won't like Jade Empire, either. There aren't just passing similarities in the storytelling method, but also with the interface design and the character alignment system. Make no mistake, though, the overall atmosphere of the game is very different.
'The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon influence is very much self-evident'
The transition to genuine real-time combat and the fabulously authentic mythical Chinese graphical styling bring to life a truly unique game world. The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon influence is very much self-evident, not just in the aesthetic look, but also in the combat. Jade Empire blends Magical and Martial combat styles with Weapons styles (for example, dual sabers or long sword) plus the somewhat more esoteric Support styles, which do not deal damage, but instead alter the states of enemies to make them easier to strike with the other damage dealing styles, or in the case of the unique Spirit Thief style, steal Chi (used to cast magic and heal) from attackers.
The combat is the chicest chop-socky you're ever likely to see outside of a Hong Kong cinema, with plenty of variety and verve. Being able to map four different combat styles to the D-pad allows players to seamlessly switch combat styles without pausing the game, and each style is wonderful to watch. The Leaping Tiger style, for example, causes the player to grow Wolverine-style claws (the inevitable lawsuit is probably being worded as I write), and power attacks smash effortlessly through blocking shields, causing enemies to be catapulted through the air. Magic styles, such as Stone Immortal, can encase enemies, leaving them powerless, or helpless and panicking, immolated by the magical fires of the Dire Flame style, an ethereal dragon wrapping symbolically around your character as you unleash the area attack.
At first, it may seem like the fighting mechanics are very simplistic. Moves are restricted to standard attacks, area attacks and power attacks, with blocking and dodging being your defensive options. Attack combos are limited to standard attacks, which might lead you to believe that combat is a simple exercise in button bashing. Whilst you can certainly defeat enemies in this manner, there is far more depth to be found. Switching between Magic, Support and Martial styles in mid-combat can allow you to perform "Harmonic Combos", which produce power ups of either Health, Chi or Focus (Focus is consumed when you use Weapons styles, or when you enter Focus mode: essentially the game's version of bullet-time). This rewards a player for experimenting with different fighting styles, and also comes into play with tougher enemies, like demons or undead, which are immune to certain fighting styles. Magic styles can be used to soften up enemies at range, allowing you breathing space to Chi Heal if you have been wounded, before closing in to finish off adversaries with Martial or Weapons styles. Defeating some enemies, such as demons, will reward you with the ability to transform into different fighting forms - the Jade Golem is particularly potent.