(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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