April 19, 2005

Jaded Empire

by peterb

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 cliché 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.

Posted by peterb at April 19, 2005 06:06 PM | Bookmark This

I think Bioware has gotten so used to trying to provide the whole good & evil path thing that now that I've gotten into a rut. (Yes, I'm shamelessly extrapolating from the first three hours of gameplay.)

I'm also disappointed that I feel that I have 50/50 odds of losing any fight, and since I can't save my game in-fight or replay the fight, I end up saving constantly & defensively. (Then I get lulled into a false sense of security and lose 20 minutes of exploration because some fight I didn't see coming knocks me on my ass.)

But it's pretty, and the story is good so far, in that Bioware-standard way, and the kung fu is fun if weird. I think I just need to accept reality and turn down the combat difficulty.

Posted by Eric Tilton at April 19, 2005 11:51 PM

I find the combat system wonky in sort of the same way the shooting system in Resident Evil 4 is wonky. It just doesn't feel quite solid and responsive at times, and the actions of the avatar are a bit unpredictable, like your aim in RE4.

Every once in a while it's like you are watching the turn based system from KOTOR, but without the cool queuing system. Anyway, Pete can buy me a coke.

I think I'll change things up by playing light side this time, since I always played the KOTOR games dark.

Posted by psu at April 20, 2005 07:40 AM

I'm loving the story so far, though am admittedly also a big fan of Hong Kong films. I do wish the combat was a bit more involved, though I'd guess they didn't want to completely alienate a lot of their turn-based fans. What I really wish was that blocking was more interactive or they'd at least move their arms to defend against kicks and punches instead of putting up a goofy shield.

Also, I think one of Bioware's writers is really enjoyed being on debate team or trying out for drama club in high school. I can always count on coming up to the point where my main character can just randomly take time out from saving the worlds to do a bit of street theater.

Posted by Adam Rixey at April 20, 2005 11:11 AM

I forgot about the one major gameplay improvement that Jade Empire provides versus KOTOR.

When you are running around lost, you can hit "b" to jump and roll to break up the boredom of running around lost. This isn't quite as good as the Ratchet and Clank flippy jump or wrench wacking. But I'll take it.

Posted by psu at April 20, 2005 11:22 AM

I think the game has the best story of any RPG I have played so far.

The characters are extremely well done and will stick around as some of the most interesting personalities ever created in an RPG. The Black Whirlwind should get a game for himself!

Your dialog choices are also very cool, I have yet to find a situation where I have to pick a response my character wouldn't want to say. Excellent stuff.

I also love the combat system, in KotOR I spent like 50% of my time either watching the paused game or working the horrible inventory system - Jade is nothing like this - the combat is reasonably fast and the difficulty levels make hell of a difference. If you feel underchallenged, Grand Master mode is very very hard, not quite as hard as the highest level of Ninja Garden perhaps, but close.

If you own an Xbox, get this game. It's as good as it gets for an Action RPG for the Xbox.

Posted by Adam Benter at April 22, 2005 12:42 AM

Wow Adam, that's high praise. How many RPGs have you played? Overall, I have found JE to be a very pleasantly put together collection of mediocre and non-risky game design elements. It isn't great at anything and. just barely in some cases, manages not to be terrible at anything either. I'm shocked that so many people have given it such high reviews and it makes me seriously question the state of games today that this is considered revolutionarily great.

Posted by CorvusE at April 22, 2005 08:56 AM

JE isn't especially innovative or risky.

That's okay; not every game has to be a daring experiment.

It does what it sets out to do very well, though, and I'm having a lot of fun playing it.

To preempt CorvusE's semi-snotty "how many RPGs have you played?", I've been playing pretty much as many RPGs as I can get my hands on for the past 20 years or so. I've played better RPGs in the past, but I'm still really happy I bought JE.

Posted by Nat at April 22, 2005 03:19 PM


Does anyone actually consider JE to be "revolutionarily great"? Most of the high reviews I've seen praise it not because it reinvents the wheel (or invents a newer, rounder one), but because it is implementing the same gameplay everyone wanted, with great style.

Posted by peterb at April 22, 2005 03:28 PM

Does a game have to be innovative to be "good"?

Most of the best games I've played recently are well implemented, but do not really introduce any truly new mechanics. IMHO there are good reasons why this kind of innovation is rare, and in general high production values and good gameplay and packaging are more important and innovation in most cases.

Posted by psu at April 22, 2005 04:19 PM

Oops. I need to learn not to comment when I'm in a mood, eh? I apologize for being snotty.

The reviews I saw for JE seemed to indicate it was miles and away beyond KotOR, or any preceding CRPGs in story, combat, and innovative gameplay. I haven't found that to be true. Have I enjoyed playing it? Sort of. Were my expectations too high going into it? Probably. Do I hate it? No, but I do find it sadly lacking in the very qualities I saw trumpeted in early reviews.

Again, sorry for the attitude.

Posted by CorvusE at April 22, 2005 04:28 PM


Don't worry about it -- welcome to the weblog. I read your review as well, and thought it was interesting. I'll share this comment there as well, but since I'm here...

I think the key to understanding Jade Empire is to look at it from a strictly commercial standpoint. Bioware is a company that has made succesful products by combining good technology with other people's intellectual property and licenses (D&D, Star Wars, etc.) Jade Empire is about more than just telling a good story and creating a game, it's about Bioware trying to create their own, wholly owned intellectual property. It's actually a pretty big gamble on their part. If they succeed, though, they'll be able to take treasure baths for a few years.

Given that, it doesn't surprise me at all that they are being conservative in terms of some of their gameplay choices. They _need_ to dilute some aspects of the game to appeal to as many people as possible precisely because this is their own IP. They need to get it in front of as many eyes as possible, to create demand for future games in the "Jade Empire Universe." (This is also, in fact, why the game takes place in the "Jade Empire Universe" rather than in "ancient China." -- the former is trademarkable, the latter is not).

All of that being said, I don't necessarily disagree with your characterization of their design decisions as "non-risky," and I tried to touch on that in my review.

Have you looked at any of Jeff Vogel / Spiderweb Software's games? I think he's doing a lot more of the Ultima-style, character-driven, risk-taking storytelling that you might be pining for. I beta-tested Geneforge 3, and I think it's right up your alley. You should check it out. (http://www.spiderwebsoftware.com/)

Posted by peterb at April 22, 2005 06:20 PM

Thanks for the welcome peterb. A morning of hosting problems led me down the path of cranky.

You're absolutely correct, of course. Jade Empire is exactly the game that Bioware wanted to create and, more than likely, exactly the sort of game that the market wants.

I have played Spiderweb software games, but I haven't checked them out recently. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by CorvusE at April 22, 2005 06:25 PM

I enjoyed it quite a bit, all the more so because my fiance currently has my ps2 so she can play DDR which leaves me short of good rpgs to play. Speaking of which, is there a good listing of worthwhile rpgs on the xbox? There are a lot of really bad ones.

Posted by Doug at March 6, 2006 04:16 PM

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