Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two (aghrivaine) wrote,
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two

Jade Empire: A review

Arguably my favorite video game of all times was "Knights of the Old Republic" by Bioware. It had everything I wanted in a game - not only a good storyline, amazing visual effects, exciting gameplay, and competent voiceacting... but I got to be a jedi! A real (virtual) Jedi!

So when the same company announced that they were releasing "Jade Empire", an RPG set in mythic China and evoking the fantastic 'fu duels of Channel 48's Black Belt Theatre of my youth - I was as excited as a masochist at Linndie England's family reunion. I was all a-quiver with anticipation, a full two years before the game came out. I'd check the website from time to time, hoping that I'd forgotten the release date and it was actually already out. I pre-ordered the game, and carefully budgeted the money ahead of time, even though money has been really tight lately.

Man, what a let down. In the Buddhist sense, expectations are the downfall of Enlightenment, so I suppose I ought to be grateful to Bioware for helping me find my Buddha-nature. In order to help *them* get in touch with their Buddha nature, I'd like to pick up a Kyosaku and beat them retarded. And truly, beating people retarded is about the only gratifying element of "Jade Empire".

Cut for long review of "Jade Empire"

There are upsides, to be sure - visually the game is beautiful, evoking China-that-never-was-but-ought-to-have-been with tall grasses, stone lanterns, intricate tea-houses and gardens and stunning lighting effects in elegant ruins. The voice acting is generally adequate too, with the over-use of the usual suspects that voice most video games balanced out by delightful cameo appearances by recognizable voices like Brian Murray and even John Cleese.

But the upsides don't cancel out the negatives, which are boring gameplay, an overly simple fighting system, and a storyline that is hackneyed in the extreme and utterly predictable.

The game starts out in a remote fighting school in the hinterlands of the Jade Empire, where predictably it is revealed that the main character (you) is the last of his kind, and destined to restore order and balance to the Force Empire. What is it with this story? It's been told a zillion times, and seems to be the only story that fantasy books, movies, comics, games - whatever - can come up with. I'm troubled by this. In the really real world, nobody is born to fulfill any particular fate, and in the whole history of the world, no one has ever been the last of his kind, only to eventually triumph and rejuvenate his lost order-species-tribe-religion-clan-whatever. So why is it something that is so common a trope in fiction? I don't even think it's a particularly compelling story, in that it redacts any sense of personal merit and accomplishment and replaces it with some mysterious cosmic destiny. What if, instead of being upstanding and heroic, the particular last-of-his-kind special-guy was just an amiable slacker who really didn't want to work that hard. Destiny would propel him to success anyway, right? It would be like being the hero of a movie, and someone handing you the Script in Act I. You could just loaf your way through the rest of the story, because you'd know it's all going to turn out in the end. So this story is lame, and it needs to stop. All you potential writers out there - you're on notice - knock it off. This one's been done, and done to death. Even Tolkien had the good sense to turn it on its head, by making the deeds of Aragorn essentially windowdressing for the real work of saving Middle Earth, which was done by a shrimpy ponce and his un-clever gardener.

Okay, so immediately you're launched into a story that you've heard a million times. (And oh, by the way, you have to avenge your master. Just for good measure.) It would all be tolerable if there were good twists and turns, as there were in both KOTOR titles... but alas this is just straight-forward go-here-and-find-this-thing and then go-there-and-beat-that-bad-guy-retarded. Even that could be saved if the actual fights were more interesting - and all the potential is there. You can learn styles with exotic names like "Legendary Strike", "Spirit Theif", "Thousand Cuts" or "Stone Immortal". (My personal favorite is "White Demon" which looks like the kind of geeky, plodding stuff you'd learn in a suburban YMCA shotokan class -- i.e. the fighting style of the awkward White Demons of America.) The styles are either magical, support, martial, weapon, or transformation styles. Unfortunately, they're all pretty much the same, and none of them do particularly visually interesting things. Legendary Strike has kicks and does a shade more damage than Thousand Cuts, which is moderately faster. But there's no drastic difference between them, and no particular reason to choose one over another. Whatever style you specialize in, you don't have to use any particular strategy against a practitioner of a different style - all you need to worry about is whether to block, use a fast attack, or a heavy attack. In theory that makes for a "rock,paper,scissors" battle where you have to react to what your opponent is doing. In practice, you can just leap around like a jackrabbit on a speedball, and then hit them with light attacks until the drop.

The magical styles are all basically the same - a bolt attack, a heavy attack with a status effect, or an area of effect attack. They all look a little different, and have slightly different effects, but are basically interchangeable. The same is true of support styles, which do something like steal chi, paralyze an opponent, or slow him down. Weapon styles are basically all exactly the same, except for the weapon you happen to be smacking people upside the head with. Transformation styles involve transforming temporarily into some kind of a demon or another.

Different enemies have immunities to different things - ghosts are immune to support and weapon styles, while demons are immune to magic and support styles. So, it's important to be competent at one of each type, except transformation styles which are useless as anything other than flavor. Fights get to be fairly repetitious, despite their different immunities, your enemies are still basically vulnerable to the jump-around-like-monkey-that-really-has-to-go defense, coupled with occasional swipes.

You do have followers, and like the KOTOR titles they all have backstories that they'll reveal over time as you get to know them. Some of them are pretty funny, and the opportunity for romancing one or another of them is amusing. In a first for Bioware, same-sex romances are actually possible, too. But the romances are cheesy and overblown. Nothing to match, for instance, the incredible power of the moment in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" when Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are drinking tea in an abandoned hut in the middle of a bamboo hut, and with the restraint born of years of repression, Li Mu Bai admits, "This makes me happy, this place, here with you." The yearning that the two of them feel for each other is palpable, though held back by the constraints of society and their own rigid decency. In "Jade Empire" character who you're trying to romance say things like, "I feel much for you. We will speak of this later. I am excited about it." Can you feeeeel the looooove?

Unlike KOTOR or KOTORII, you don't get to level up your followers along with the main character, and only one of them will accompany you at any given time. I just put them on "support mode" and forget about them, as they're basically useless as anything other than a chi-battery. Levelling up your own character involves increasing three attributes, and then putting points into your various interchangeable styles. There's no particular items to acquire, either - just gems that will increase your stats in various combinations. Gone is the careful shopping and outfitting of KOTOR, and your character never visually changes throughout the story... regardless of whether you choose to follow the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist. In Kotor, if you chose Dark Side, you became hunched and withered and pale, like Pope Benedict - whereas if you went Light Side you glowed faintly and were radiantly healthy and upright. Your choices of armor and clothing in KOTOR were reflected in-game, but in "Jade Empire" there's no such variety.

Jade Empire is a game that has the visual and sound design (the music is proto-Chinese and sometimes very effective) that is top notch, as is to be expected form Bioware, but is a creative flop. It's a tired and hackneyed storyline with flat characters, boring character-development and unthrilling gameplay. What a let down.


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