Jade Empire: Character System

By Shamus
on Jun 7, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

(NOTE: I wrote this weeks ago and then forgot all about it. Recently I was playing a different RPG which brought all of this to mind.)

Being a real-time fighting game, Jade Empire is very different from other character development systems. (“Character development” in this context means the player increasing the stats of their in-game persona – leveling up, and whatnot – and has nothing to do with developing characters in the sense of establishing personalities and getting to know NPCs.)

Some games are very level-driven. Diablo is a good example. In that game, having good equipment and decent skills at playing will tilt the odds in your favor, but never so much that you could overcome a monster ten levels above you. Levels are everything in that game. By the time you finish Diablo, you will be doing at least an order of magnitude more damage than you were at level 1. If you were to take a level 1 Diablo character and transport them to the final levels of the game, it would be impossible to play. Even the weakest monsters would kill the player in a single blow.

Jade Empire sits at the opposite extreme. Levels just don’t have much impact on the game. You have three stats (Body, Spirit, and Mind) and each level you get a mere three points to spend on these stats. In the long run, those points just don’t ammount to much. In my game, a majority of my points came through questing, and just 28% of them came as a result of leveling up. This means if I had gone through the entire game and remained at level 1, my stats would only be 28% lower by the end. Where in Diablo an end-of-game character might be doing ten or twenty times more damage than a new character, in Jade Empire your damage will – at best – double during the course of the game.

The other aspect of the leveling system is the sheer simplicity of it. Three stats, plus points to increase your various fighting styles. There are no character class, no races, no feats, perks, birthsigns, background attributes, special abilities, or any other way to make your character distinct. You can allot points to your three attributes at the start of the game, but their initial values are so minor that this has little effect in the long run. The most meaningful choice you can make is selecting a starting fighting style. Everything else is cosmetic.

By contrast, games like Neverwinter Nights, Fallout, and Oblivion offer a multitute of choices at the outset and even more choices as you progress. The character development systems are deep and (if you’re into this sort of thing) facinating, allowing the player to devise various strategies on how to build an optimal character to suit their playing style.

Jade Empire leaves out nearly all of this. This is not a bad thing. I personally might like the game more if the character growth ladder was taller and more complex, but I strongly suspect there are players out there who welcome this change. I imagine this game will really appeal to people who get bored with the min/maxing, chart-reading, number-crunching fussing around, and just want to charge out there and smack some heads, dangit.

This was actually a pretty bold move on the part of Bioware, to release an RPG with very little stats-building in it. It seems obvious now that they pulled it off and it worked, but there was a real risk that they could have alienated a lot of the more “hardcore” RPG fans.

Still, without a deep character development system the game has to rely on story and gameplay, and these aspects of Jade Empire shine bright. It’s only now – after multiple trips through the game – that I’ve begun to look at the character screen and wish there was more for me to do there.

UPDATE: a little excess has some interesting observations about the Jade Empire system (I actually agree with the various complaints) and then compares various stat-building systems.

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20929 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Hal says:

    So . . . how did you raise your stats, then? With levels? The others came from questing? How did that work?

    Your post brough to mind Final Fantasy II (JP). There were no levels in that game. Instead, everything was built on use; the more a stat was used, the stronger it became. Swing a sword a lot and you do more damage with swords. Get hit a lot and your HP go up. Cast white magic a lot and your MP, and your skill with white magic, go up. And so on.

    Not a bad system, per se, except that characters had to specialize in one thing, at the very beginning, or risk being nearly worthless towards the end of the game. Magic was especially prone to worthlessness, as each spell had separate skill levels too. I beat the game, but only by the skin of my teeth. I had one character who did the heavy lifting on the final boss, and only because he’d gone unarmed the entire game.

    Whatever that’s worth.

  2. Telas says:

    I imagine this game will really appeal to people who get bored with the min/maxing (Check), chart-reading (Check), number-crunching (Check) fussing around (Check), and just want to charge out there (Check) and smack (Check) some heads (Check), dangit (Check).

    Yep, sounds like me. :D

  3. I think it was Ultima VII which nuked the heavy traditional stats system in favor of only three scores – Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence.

    Rumor has it that “Dexterity” didn’t actually DO anything, actually – they intended all three stats to be more cosmetic than anything else, durn them. As a result, the game was more heavily equipment-based.

    This made it easy for them to press the “reset” button in Ultima VII part 2: Serpent Isle, where they took away all your cool gear and let you start over again.

    Still, I’m a little more in favor of a richer customization experience. Jade Empire seemed to me to be much more of an action game with RPG elements than the other way around.

  4. Scott says:

    Oblivion (and its predecessor Morrowind) are on another extreme altogether. The game does have a huge amount of character development possible, but because the game increases in difficulty as your character progresses, the final boss could be defeated at level 1.

  5. Nick says:

    I really enjoyed Jade Empire, but the lack of interesting character options did bum me out a bit. I love spending the first 10 hours of an RPG working out the stats and playing around with character builds. I love looking forward to what skills or abilities I want to push, and which ones I’ll let fall by the wayside. It makes the geeky side of me happy to push all the numbers around, and it makes me more emotionally invested in my character.

    The Jade Empire system does have its upsides, though. I like that there was no way to make, through unwise selection of stats and playstyle, a pointless and ineffective character without realizing it. (Try taking Speechcraft as a class skill in Oblivion, max out the disposition of half the residents of the Imperial City, then try fighting a simple Bandit; sent me right back to the sewers, it did.) I also like that there is no pressure to min/max.

    On balance, though, the joys of deep character development systems are just to great for me to have them taken away without feeling their loss.

  6. James Blair says:

    Yeah, I guess this is one of those “pedantic nitpicking” posts. I hope there’s enough nostalgia in there to make up for it…

    The three-stat system started in Ultima 4, I think. They also associated the stats with the three “Uber-Virtues” Truth, Love, and Courage. Since Spirituality was supposed to represent all three “ubers”, the real munchkin player knew to skew his answers to those character creation questions toward Spirituality if possible, or one of the two-stat virtues if not. Sometimes you were stuck with a bad choice, such as choosing between two one-stat virtues.

    That system was pretty much intact throughout Ultimas 4 to 7. Serpent Isle, and anything labelled “Ultima” after that, wasn’t very good IMO. These games were railroads of the worst sort compared to the earlier games!

  7. Skip says:

    I think there needs to be a happy medium. Don’t force me to min-max, but allow me to if I want to, and make the game easier if I do. But also allow a slider on difficulty so that if I did min-max and decide I want it to be a bit more challenging, I can.

    It’s interesting that Jade Empire did that. Because Knights of the Old Republic very definitely didn’t. And when I attempted to play through it I didn’t consult any character-building FAQs, or anything. I just played. And at every level up I went with the suggested skills. About halfway through the game I reached a point where my character was unplayable.

    At that point, I went back and looked and realized that the suggestions were bad, I’d chosen extremely poorly, and I was going to have to reroll. I shelved the game instead and never picked it back up.

  8. Joshua says:

    This brings to mind the thoughts I’ve been having recently about switching from playing NWN(1) online in a persistent world to playing LOTR Online, an actual full-out MMO.

    In the first-game, the actual persistent world, with only a thread-bare story even though it had hundreds of areas, was more about the many, many different ways to build a character to fight the same challenges. LOTR Online, on the other hand, has very little in the way of character tweaking, relatively speaking, and instead just has huge areas to explore with hundreds of different quests to complete. Although there are different skills to learn, they’re available at every trainer in the game, and everyone with any cash will have the exact same skills. I imagine this was done to ensure balance, but it does limit the variation. However, when going through the entire game can take months, you don’t need as much in the way of variety in your playing experiences.

  9. Janus says:

    I think the one area where level mattered was in building up your fighting style. I maxed out the longsword style and then I kicked ass through the whole game. Seriously, any opponent I could use my sword on fell easily. A maxed-out fighting style (especially weapon style) is very potent.

  10. Scott D. says:

    I loved Jade Empire for mostly the same reasons. I am very much looking forward to Mass Effect from Bioware and hope they keep it as simple and fun. But the real glory of these games is in the deep story and characters. A lot of CRPGs don’t even attempt the same level of storytelling.

  11. Brian says:

    Odd. While the above description of Jade Empire would almost certainly hook me, I’m currently knee-deep in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, a game that positively thrives on heavy amounts of stats, down-to-the-percentage calculations of accuracy, and a terrifying amount of Class/Job combinations (turn your Fighter into a Ninja and teach him Doublesword to enable him to use two ridiculously powerful sabers at the same time, or turn him into a Hunter to equip a Greatbow and watch him use sword techniques from halfway across the battlefield! …Wait, what?). Maybe I’m just one of those guys who likes RPGs in general?

  12. RibbitRibbit says:

    I think you nailed exactly what I liked about this game. Add the easy to use interface and the cool story and some REAL character development for a change (no, I don’t consider raising my Pick Locks skill “development”). Jade Empire, simply put, rocks.

  13. DocTwisted says:

    It does sound like a nice break from the RPGs I’m used to playing… but the “real time” aspect worries me a bit. I’ve been spoiled by the FF series, Disgaea, and Front Missions into being able to take all the time I want deciding my character(s)’s next move.

    Does Jade Empire have a wait mode on it too?

  14. Bryan says:

    As much as Jade Empire has a good number of side quests and a few possible directions the plot can go, it is rather linear, and I never quite felt like I was supposed to identify overly with the character. Whearas in Fallout, for example, you’re supposed to somewhat be the Vault Dweller, in Jade Empire, who you are is much more fixed, your choices are simply how that person will fall upon the “good/evil” axis. I think that is an intentional part of Jade Empire’s design.

  15. Den Store Frelser says:

    There’s no wait mode, but you can pause the game. Jade empire plays more like a fighting game (Final Fight, Double Dragon and the like) than an RPG. Just tap that attack button and you’ll be a hero in no time.

  16. Dan Hemmens says:

    What struck me about the Jade Empire system was that it looked an awful lot like the sysytem Bioware *wanted* to use for their other games, but couldn’t because they were restricted by the requirements of a D&D-based game.

    Half the skills and feats that get ported over from TT to CRPG don’t get used, and the other half get changed into combat abilities (Tumble, for example). Half the “options” in – say – NWN2 are plain inviable. I mean nobody takes the +2/+2 feats in Tabletop, much less in a CRPG where you’ll be doing 80% fighting, 15% talking, 5% everything else.

  17. Telas says:

    I’m an avid PnP gamer, and I think Dan hit it on the head. Tabletop and CRPG are pretty incompatible on a few fundamental levels (Shamus’ Door of Frustration, “decision tree” social encounters, etc).

    The blindingly obvious answer is to either design a computer game, or design a tabletop game. Don’t cross the streams, or you end up frustrating both ends of your gamer spectrum, regardless of what your non-gaming marketing geniuses tell you.

    OTOH, TTRPG conversions work in RTS games (Baldur’s Gate, etc), but tend to fall apart in single-player “real time” (including pausible) games. I have not enjoyed a NWN game nearly as much as I enjoyed the BG series, but I do like Oblivion and Jade Empire.

    Sorry for the muddled logic; it’s early. :)

  18. Shamus says:

    Telas. I’m right with you on that one. I actually have an ages old post on the topic.

  19. Lee says:

    I don’t mind games with these limited character stats one bit.

    The ones I do mind are the ones that combine any of the following factors:
    * Critical choices at the start of the game (most notably, class and starting statistics)
    * An inability to alter critical choices once made
    * A lack of documentation on the character-stat rule system (i.e. what do I get for +5 Intelligence? Is that better than what I get for +5 Strength?)
    * A lack of Recommended button for every character choice
    * A character-building system that holds true to this theory: If a character was created by making selections at random, but played compentently, it would be near-impossible to complete the game with said character.

    Ironically, I’m fond of the Neverwinter and Knights of the Old Republic games, which (despite exhibiting many of these qualities) are based on a ruleset I know well enough to plan my character ahead of time.

    Conversely, I stopped playing Puzzle Quest after an hour because I’m terrified of getting ten or twelve hours in, only to find that my character is worthless. A quick search yielded no recommended builds online, and frankly, I’m so busy nowadays that I don’t want to redo a game… I don’t have time to play them once as it is. :)

  20. Arson55 says:

    Brian, did you ever play the original Final Fantasy Tactics? It is a far better game.

  21. Tola says:

    So . . . how did you raise your stats, then? With levels? The others came from questing? How did that work?

    Levels provide some stat boosts, but during the game, you can find and buy many, many Techniques that either raise a specific stat(Focus, for instance) or combinations of the three main stats, or combinations of the two. And then there are Gems, which are the equivalent of Equipment in Jade Empire, which do the same.

    I disagree that you weren’t forced into anything. In one, case, and one case ONLY.

    The last boss.

    The problem is thus: He uses Focus. He has a large bar of Focus. I found that a standard ‘Jack of all trades'(My own character) did not have enough to match him. And there is no way to recover Focus. The result is that after you run dry(And you will), he can still slow down time and easily kill you.

    I have beaten him, but only via using a certain optional weapon, or AI exploiting by using stunning moves-The AI will try to slow down time whilst stunned-it doesn’t help it, but it does drain it’s bar. It DOES feel like an exploit.)

    If you’re able to run him out of Focus, it is then a challenging fight, but doable with enough skill. Whilst he’s got it, though, you run the risk of insta-kill with no way to stop it.

  22. Shamus says:

    I always just beat the crap out of him in jade gollum form. That thing does RIDICULOUS damage. It’s the only part of the game where I use it.

    (I didn’t use it because I hate the transforming styles. Nobody else in the game has them. They don’t make a lot of sense. I mean, how much kung-fu practice does it take before you can turn into a giant toad? It just seems silly.)

  23. M says:

    Bah, Jade Empire is nothing. Try Jadeclaw on for size. ^_^

  24. David V.S. says:

    I’m with Telas and Shamus.

    I liked how the game was an action game with a lot of story and real characters. It was not trying to be an “RPG” in the traditional pen-and-pencil sense, which worked exceedingly well.

    The frosting on the cake was that Jade Golem form. A player could distribute his/her martial arts experience among lots of different techniques because of a desire to play with them all. This would be fun. In most games this would mean you would not excell in any one technique enough to use it to win the most difficult fights. But the designers of Jade Empire put in a Neigh Invulnerable power to allow even those “mediocre at everything” players a way to proceed past the difficult yet unavoidable combats.

  25. Dan Hemmens says:

    Re: Last boss.

    I always went for stunning styles (mostly storm dragon). Against a single opponent there is literally nothing they can do once you’ve stunned them. Stun, hit, stun, hit, stun, hit, you just pound the bejeezus out of them while they’re standing around convulsing.

    It’s one of those things that falls down the gaps between “exploit” and “legitimate tactic”. The game has abilities that let you stun people. The game lets you reapply those abilities before they wear off. The game makes those abilities last well long enough to stun your opponent, punch them, drain their chi, and stun them again, before the stun wears off. Doing that makes every single fight you ever get in trivial, unless you’re fighting Demons or Ghosts.

  26. Warstrike says:

    Lee: As far as I can tell, any start for Puzzle Quest will be playable. (2nd time through, and my wife is playing a 3rd class) You can get enough spells off enemies, and make appropriate rune items, to get through the game. Not to mention that a lot of good can be done by just paying attention to the consequences of your moves and not just giving the DS free damage. I’m sure there are some easier paths, but you shouldn’t run into the whole “Need to restart because of not reasing the hint guide first” issue.

  27. Tola says:

    I always just beat the crap out of him in jade gollum form. That thing does RIDICULOUS damage. It’s the only part of the game where I use it.

    I…tend to not like that form, and ESPECIALLY in that fight. Not only can’t you see your target(Size issue), but the thing has a minimum range-up close, he’ll slaughter you. And he WILL get up-close.

    Different strokes. I prefer Mirabelle and reducing his Focus that way.(The weapon acts EXACTLY as it does when used against you, sapping all three bars. Shame he(and all enemies) has infinite Chi, but I’ll take what I can get) Only on the higher difficulties will he have Focus left-over.

  28. JoshR says:

    I also went for the storm dragon style of play here
    Which meant the hardest fight in the entire game was the arena fight where if you had a slow acting fighting style, you ended up fighting everyone at once.
    albeit, once you realise that mouse 1 + mouse 2 will produce an AoE lightning storm that stuns everyone, most fights become easy.

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