Jade Empire: First Impressions

By Shamus Posted Thursday Mar 29, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 29 comments

I picked up Jade Empire last weekend, and now I’ve finally managed to clock a few hours on it. It came out on XBox a couple of years ago, but is only just now finding its way to the PC. The game is a story-driven RPG from Bioware, very much a descendant of Knights of the Old Republic. Instead of a Jedi in a galaxy far, far away, you play a Martial Arts student in ancient China. There is martial-arts driven magic and a dash of steampunk to keep things interesting. My usual list of impressions from the first few hours of the game:

On the left is my character Endo.  He’s made of 100% beef, but he’s also dressed in a silly outfit. I really wish there were more options for controlling how he looks.
On the left is my character Endo. He’s made of 100% beef, but he’s also dressed in a silly outfit. I really wish there were more options for controlling how he looks.
The visuals are astounding. Don’t believe the screenshot gallery, which is loaded with flashy combat pics and character portraits. Those are nice, but the real eye-grabber in this game is the lush and varied scenery. I have to resist the temptation to fill this post with screenshots, because this is a game that compells that sort of sharing.

The graphics engine behind the game is fantastic. It looks better than the much maligned Neverwinter Nights 2 or the much celebrated Oblivion, yet it runs smoother than either of them. It doesn’t just run a little better, it outpaces and outshines the performance of the other two games in just about every way you can measure. The load times are very quick, almost momentary. Framerate is flawlessly smooth. Note to publishers: This is what you get when you let your developers finish the job!

I love martial arts, both as an art form and as a display of athletic prowess. This ballet of violence is hard to capture in videogame form (most fighting games sacrifice the grace of movement for visceral appeal by speeding everything up) but Jade Empire does an admirable job. It really is fun to see the characters do their thing.

Every time I enter a new area I am astounded at how disgustingly gorgeous this game is.
Every time I enter a new area I am astounded at how disgustingly gorgeous this game is.
There aren’t any options for customizing your character. You pick from six pre-made characters and then are allowed to fiddle with their stats in trivial ways, but that’s about it. I don’t see any way to change clothes, so you are going to be looking at the same guy or girl for the duration of the game. I can see why this was done, and it isn’t a terrible crime, but all the same I found myself wishing I could alter my character’s appearance or at least change outfits.

As with KOTOR, there is a light side and a dark side path through the game, (called the Way of the Open Hand and Way of the Closed Fist, in this context) which means I’m going to go through this game at least twice. Given the number of varied weapons and fighting styles you can study throughout the game, I imagine the final toll this game will take on my productivity will be fairly high.

The characters and dialog are instantly compelling and wonderfully varied. Voice acting is superb. Some characters are funny, some are charming, and some enrage in a way that only a truly well-written villain can. So far this game is on its way to being the best RPG I’ve played in years.

Note to commenters: No spoilers please.

LATER: In the comments below:

I imagine it'd be slightly more difficult on the PC, merely due to it being the type of game more at home on a console.

This is what I expected. I had my USB Dual Shock clone all ready to plug in, but as it turned out I never needed it. They did a beautiful job of porting this thing to the PC, and moving from a thumbstick & d-pad to mouse and keyboard. Really, if I didn’t know this game was a port I never would have guessed it. The controls feel smooth and natural. This is a rare thing, and Bioware should get some praise for that. I’ve played a lot of ported games which were just saddled with console-centric thinking, and they were frustrating to play. (A very common mistake is complete confusion over how to use the mouse. Console developers are simply baffled by this strange device. Usually they neglect to offer an option to “invert” the y-axis, which means look up & down is backwards for a large percentage of the audience. Or worse, they stupidly offer the option, but ALSO invert right & left movement. Idiots!) Beyond Good & Evil is an example of a great good console game which was ruined in the process of porting it to the PC.

Proper porting is tricky business. It means doing more than replacing the thumbstick with the mouse. It means changing how the camera moves and how the user navigates the menus. It means adding options to change the game resolution and a bunch of other stuff to control visual quality and performance. It means adding the ability to re-map the controls on the keyboard. It means you can cram more text on-screen (due to increased resolution) which means you might have to re-think how information is presented to the player.

The team at Bioware made this a clean, seamless port. Nice job.


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29 thoughts on “Jade Empire: First Impressions

  1. TooMad says:

    First! Looks like I will have to gamefly this game next.

  2. Pixy Misa says:

    (called the Way of the Open Hand and Way of the Closed Fist, in this context)

    What, no Way of the Boot to the Head?

    I have it for my Xbox. :) Somehow, I’ve never had time to play it. :(

  3. Corvus says:

    I played it through the requisite 3 times — once purely good, once terribly evil, and once just making decision as I felt like making them. I found that it got pretty repetitive and I was eager to be done with it well before the third run through was over… unlike KotOR and Fable which amused for a majority of the three run throughs.

    But I did enjoy it on the first go!

  4. The Gneech says:

    Jade Empire is the best CRPG I’ve ever played, and I’ve played several. You’ve made a good choice!

    -The Gneech

  5. CryptoKnight says:

    I’ve been in the mood for a new RPG for the last few months. I’m done with Oblivion (and its issues), tried to like NWN2, Guild Wars has lost its fascination, and I have played KOTOR enough I can recite dialog. I even considered back sliding into Diablo II.

    Jade looks to be right up my alley. If your reviews continue to be positive, I’ll make the leap.

    Love what you’re doing here, Shamus, especially DMotR.


  6. jbrandt says:

    Yeah, I’ve been playing this for the past few days and really enjoying it.

    On my slightly-older system it gets a big laggy during combat– I had to turn down a lot of the graphical frosting and reduce the resolution to 800×600 (I can play Half-Life 2 at 1024×768) to keep fights winnable. Overall, though, it’s a beautiful game. The setting is nicely realized, the characters are interesting and compelling, and the game itself is designed with almost no inventory management– no hauling around tons of healing potions or whatever. It’s very streamlined. The voice acting is even quite good, with a surprise guest voice actor awaiting you in one location. Lots of fun. It does get pretty tough as you go on, though. I’m currently saved with 2 fights needing to be fought to continue those quests, and each of them is VERY VERY HARD.

  7. Janus says:

    I just beat this game (on Xbox) a couple weeks ago. It is, indeed, one of the more excellent RPGs I’ve played. Makes me wish there were more martial arts fantasy RPGs out there.

  8. ShadoStahker says:

    One question, then, to eveyone who’s played the game.

    I own NWN (the first), but have never finished it. By a certain point (usually somewhere in the second chapter), everything begins to get repetitive, and it becomes (to me) a boring dungeon crawl, interspersed with small bits of story, with nearly identical scenery in all places.

    If I was to pick this game up (as it sounds incredible), would I be happier? Do the gameplay and combat drag as much as NWN can?

  9. ShadoStahker says:

    By the way, I’ve been told that Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark are both better at keeping the story moving than the original campaign, so this gives me hope. But the original campaign drags after a while, for me.

  10. Malkara says:

    I played (and beat) this game around when it first came out for Xbox. It’s a great game, in many respects. I imagine it’d be slightly more difficult on the PC, merely due to it being the type of game more at home on a console. Also, by the way, the game isn’t actually in ancient china. It’s in a fictional land, based on ancient china. :-D

  11. Evil Otto says:

    Jade Empire’s one of my favorites. I’ve played through it three times now, and though I thought the “Dark Side” ending was a little disappointing it doesn’t fail to impress. Cool story, interesting NPCs (each with extensive backstories), and a few surprises. I just wish it had been longer.

  12. Vegedus says:

    Hm, Jade Empire kinda slipped by me. While I was aware of the games existence, the lack of publicity and some meh reviews made me lose my interest. Oh, and the fact I don’t have an xbox. Though, I wasn’t really planning to get it for the PC either, but this first impression has peaked my interest. Will be looking forward for your posts about the game.

  13. SimeSublime says:

    I have to agree with Vegedus. I don’t have an Xbox, so I hadn’t payed the game much mind. When it finally came out on the PC, I’d heard enough negative commments not to buy it. Sadly, I can’t remember what the comments were, I just have a negative image of the game in my mind. I loved KotOR and (though it may get me killed for saying it here) NWN2. I’ve also loved Baldur’s Gate 2, Fallout and Planescape: Torment. I was hoping if somebody’s played it they can give me an idea of whether or not it would be worth getting. It’s just too expensive for me to buy not knowing about it.

  14. Andre says:

    Jade Empire was fun, but I found I bought into too much prerelease hype. There was no way it could be as good as the hype I was following, and sure enough I didn’t get as much out of it as I expected. Don’t get me wrong, it was great, but it felt a little oversimplified compared to KotOR and NWN (to which it had been compared), and the combat got repetitive after a while… enough so that it made the game itself repetitively boring somewhere around 75% completion. But then again, I feel that way about most RPGs. I’m glad they gave the graphics a bit of an update… the game is something like 3-4 years old now, right? Hard to believe it tops Oblivion, though. Perhaps because it’s not as open-ended, they were able to utilize camera and lighting tricks and code tweaks to make it look better without taxing the hardware too much. That’s how console games manage to look progressively even on the same system, right? Compare God of War 2 to one of the first PS2 games, and see what I mean. That’s still the same system.

  15. DaveJ says:

    I enjoyed on the xbox and thought about downloading it.

    The thing that irritated me was the good/evil thing. It was sold to me as not being good or evil. It was going to be a different philosphy about whatever. But really Open Palm was good and Closed Fist was evil. It was lame.

  16. Rebecca says:

    I did try some video games, Shamus, and I wrote about it here: http://redcoast.livejournal.com/71114.html

    Thanks so much for all your help.

  17. Malkara says:

    It seems they actually -did- something in the few years it took them to port the game to the PC. That alone’s pretty amazing.

  18. Amy says:

    *wry grin* I actually bought my x-box back when Jade Empire came out, for the explicit PURPOSE of playing Jade Empire. And, although I have several other x-box games, Jade Empire is the _only_ xbox game I have that I actually played to completion. Of course, since Balder’s Gate II and Balder’s Gate, followed by IceWind Dales and then NWN I and KOTOR are my favorite games, I pretty much worship anything made by Bioware.

    Of course, I put the x-box away last week when I got my wii. I guess I’ll just have to get Jade Empire for the PC. (after I’ve gotten bored of my new wii games).

  19. Malkara says:

    Jade Empire for the Wii! Now there’s an idea. Ahahaha. That’d be amazing.

  20. Mordaedil says:

    No offence Shamus, but this is why they called Jade Empire an “X-box seller” :P Old news. I understand why yhou’d put this out now, but still, surely you see the irony of praising a 3 year old game?

    PS: I was too only introduced to the wonder that is Jade Empire a few months ago, when Bioware started selling it off their site as a download, making me a hypocrite.

    But a happy hypocrite.

  21. Eddy says:

    I got this when it came out a couple of years ago on XBox. I thoroughly enjoyed it (I played Fable and this back-to-back). The way of the Closed Fist was, for me, harder to do than way of the Open Palm — I think the game is slanted story-wise toward the “good” options. Still, it’s a fun game, and I look forward to a sequel.

  22. Shamus says:

    understand why yhou'd put this out now, but still, surely you see the irony of praising a 3 year old game?

    I don’t see how it is ironic?

    This is actually something that bugs me about games and their industry (Well, the “gaming media”, actually): The obsession with what-came-out-this-week. Man, if the game is good, who cares how old it is? This gets worse in the PC world, where the games that came out this week require a computer coming out next week.

    I prefer preying on the long-dead titles in the bargain bin instead of going after the fresh meat on the “New Releases” shelf, like some sort of gaming vulture. The games are cheaper, the system requirements are lower, and if there are any problems a patch is probably available.

  23. Luke says:

    I think you sold me on this one Shamus. I will definitely look into picking it up.

  24. Pester says:

    I played Beyond Good and Evil only on the computer, and I loved it. I played it five times in a row. Maybe you could do a review of that game, at some point?

  25. Robert says:

    I didn’t like Jade Empire all that much. It was very slow and after playing through KOTOR 1&2 it just came out way too short for me.

    And for the guy who was talking about NWN draging on, yes Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark do a much better job with the story.

  26. Felblood says:

    I liked KOTOR, but I love Jade empire. When I was palying it I became obsessed with collecting as many different fighting stiles as possible.

    Not only was it fun by itself, it helped keep the fights interesting through the course of the game.

    This in addition to having the best delivered twist in gaming history. From the subtle buildup, to the sudden shocking revelation that leaves you with only more questions a twist that could have been stupid and cliche left you reeling with awe and confusion.

    My only beef was with the scene with the water dragon’s corpse. It took me forever to figure out what I was looking at with those camera angles, and until it did the conversations I was having with my horrified cohorts didn’t make any sense.

  27. Baud says:

    I’ve finished it yesterday, I got it free from origin.

    I intended to play it since I read your article a few months ago and it was great!

    The setting is great and I loved a lot the story, even if I spoiled myself the plot twist with your excellent article (I didn’t remember the whole story, but knew I was going to be betrayed by master Li).

  28. baud001 says:

    Also I forgot to add that it was still very good looking

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