Solid Title With a Few Flaws
When Jade Empire fell below $5 during the rush of holiday sales on Steam, I decided to pick it up and play through it, considering I never did get around to playing it before. All I really heard about it up to that point was that it was an RPG by Bioware, with real-time kung-fu fighting and a story loosely derived from Chinese mythology. So I played through the first few hours, and I got hooked.
The story starts out like one from a classic kung-fu flick: you are an orphan being raised by a kindly old man who also happens to be running a school of martial arts, when soldiers from an evil empire burn down the village, take your master, and slaughter nearly all of your friends. So you begin a long journey to get to the Imperial Palace, free your master and maybe save some people along the way.
I think I've become a little spoiled after playing Mass Effect and some of Dragon Age: Origins, because the game seemed to have a simple morality system to it: The Way of the Open Palm (good guy) versus The Way of the Closed Fist (evil guy). Most of the choices in the story were essentially "I'll help you for the good of everyone" or "Fuck off and die if you can't do it yourself." Me being the goody two-shoes i am, I chose the Open Palm path. You get a lot more experience points for making Open Palm decisions, and access to the Stone Immortal style halfway through the game.
The story was kind of interesting, as you learn about the quirks behind the different followers/henchmen you pick up through the game. From the hilariously violent Black Whirlwind to the mysterious Silk Fox, each one of them has a small history that you will probably learn about as you progress through the story. As you run through the world, you have the option of taking up to one of these followers with you, and you can either use them as an attacking ally or have them provide a form of support from the sidelines like making your weapon arts stronger or constantly replenishing your chi. Considering how pathetic the attacking AI is, it is usually better to have them support you from the side.
Fighting essentially is done in a small area where you are standing (sometimes enforced with invisible walls) and you have access to several different types of styles to fight your enemies: martial (basic punches and kicks), support (mostly used for paralyzing or slowing opponents), transformational (turn into a giant beast and wipe the floor with your enemy as long as your chi doesn't run out), weapons (self-explanatory) and magic (shoot ice, rocks, or fireballs at your enemy). You can even mix these styles in mid-fight, which is even better when trying to adapt to your enemy.
The problem I had with the fighting system is that somewhere near the last half of the game, it became incredibly easy to simply transform into the Horse Demon or even the Jade Golem and beat down all of your opponents. And if you run out of chi? Simply alternate between the Storm Dragon style and your favorite marital art style while spamming the attack button. If you're just fighting one human boss, he won't be able to move an inch as you whittle away his life bit by bit. The ghost enemies provided a decent (sometimes frustrating) challenge, but even they could be wiped out quickly using a transformational art.
The graphics were nice, or at least they were nice by 2005 standards. The sound was buggy in some parts. The morality system was pretty basic, the AI was not that good, and the fighting became pretty easy in the last half of the game. But having said all that, I enjoyed the story very much and the fighting itself was actually quite fluid and dynamic for an RPG made five years ago. I appreciate the work they put into the game to give it a nice pseudo-Chinese atmosphere, including the vaguely Confucian setup of both the Earth and the Heaven realms that they created, and if Bioware ever makes a sequel to this game I will definitely be interested in picking it up.
For the incredibly low price Jade Empire is at now, if you haven't played it before you should definitely give it a chance.