marino's Jade Empire (Xbox) review

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BioWare Takes a Few Risks in the Wake of KotOR's Success

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Jade Empire is the latest epic from BioWare.  If you've been living in a cave for the past decade or so, BioWare has built a solid reputation in the RPG world with the likes of Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and most recently Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  Jade Empire is their first Xbox-only title as well as their first game based on a completely original world.  Jade is loosely based on the mythology of ancient China, but make no mistake, the game isn't based in historical China.  It's a grand world of martial arts, magic, and demons.  The game differs from its predecessors by giving you full control over the combat in real-time rather than a D&D style turn-based system, and while feeling a bit stripped down, Jade Empire makes up for it with an excellent story, a slew of unique characters, and more twists and turns than even KotOR.  Jade Empire isn't a perfect game, but it's definitely a sigh of relief for Xbox owning RPG fans.     
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Jade is one of the most strikingly beautiful games on the Xbox.  Not only are the landscapes gorgeous, but the entire world has a feint, mythical glow about it.  NPC's are wandering pretty much everywhere you go, and you won't see the same green twilek 47 times in this game.  The character models are great, and the lip synch is done very well.  The combat sequences look great as well, although fairly limited in design (more on that later).  On the flip side, Jade is haunted by the same framerate and load time issues as KotOR.  Having such beautiful environments eases the pain from the load times, but it's still not ignorable.     
Jade Empire is BioWare first take on real-time combat, and quite frankly, it shows.  It sounds great in theory, since it's a game based on martial arts you should feel like you're in the thick of the combat.  But in reality, it's almost a button masher.  The game features a plethora of different styles you can switch to on the fly using the D-Pad, but almost all of them simply require you to mash the A button to do combos until the enemy blocks, at which point you press X to do your slow, yet unblockable move.  You do have an area effect attack by pressing both, but that's it.  You can enhance your attacks by using Chi (mana), or slow down time using Focus.  You can also use Chi to heal yourself in real-time, which keeps the combat fast and moving.  Your block button also serves as dodge and flip when combined with the analog stick, and you'll be using it alot.  Fights often boil down to mashing A, then X, then flip over and repeat.  While it's better than keeping the KotOR quasi-turn-based style, it's not as good as it could have been. 
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The character development also seems a bit simplified.  Once again you can choose what kind of person you become through dialogue choices.  Open Palm is to Light Force as Closed Fist is to Dark Force.  It's not as cut and dry as before though, as Closed Fist doesn't seem completely "evil" per se, but rather simply a different way to go about things.  Unlike KotOR, you don't have an inventory except for the trinkets you apply to your amulet that add minor stats.  If you buy a new sword, it simply replaces your old sword.  You can only carry one type of a given weapon at a time.  You don't collect armor upgrades or change the appearance of your character at all.  With all that said, charming or intimidating people is as enjoyable as ever, and even without visually upgrading your character, the gameplay still allows you to feel as if you are personally molding your character.  It's nice when you can actually role-play in an RPG, rather than just ingest a predetermined story.     
The sound design very well may be the high point of the game.  The voice-overs are excellent, and some of the characters speak a made up language often referred to as the Old Tongue.  It's amazing the amount of lines they recorded as almost every single person along your path has multiple things to say, and seldom do they repeat.  The music is also definitely worth mentioning.  The light strings and woodwinds fit the environment perfectly.     
Replay Value 
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The story of Jade Empire is massive.  Not only will you be living through the story, but tons of lore are scattered throughout the world.  BioWare takes pride in their storytelling and rightfully so.  Your first few hours, you are bombarded with information, and right when you think you've got the jist of it, the story starts twisting and turning all over the place.  I won't spoil it here, mainly because it would take to long to even explain the beginning.  Much like KotOR, Jade offers you a seemingly endless amount of choices in dialogue.  Almost every time you interact with an NPC, you are given multiple options for repsonses ranging from goody two shoes to asshole.  Sometimes the lines aren't as black and white as that, and you must choose how to respond based on what you think you and/or your character would say in that situation.  Playing exclusively to either Open Palm or Closed Fist offers different quests that you can't get otherwise.  Obviously, all of this means that its impossible to see and do everything the game has to offer in one, or even two, plays through.  On top of that, you will also get different responses based on your gender.  So the combinations are virtually endless.  On your first time, the game will take roughly 20 hours or more depending on how OCD you are about trying to do everything you can.  Playing through a second, or even third time, will be almost as rewarding as the first if you choose a new path.     
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Overall, Jade Empire is a great game.  It does feel a bit dumbed down in terms of the inventory management found in most RPG's.  It's almost as if BioWare decided to tear down the turn-based wall that turns off the casual gamer, and then decided that since they did that, they may as well go a few steps further by removing most of the elements that slow down the gameplay.  The problem with this is that the game is still largely story-based with lots of dialogue, that will turn off the casual gamer anyway.  So, RPG fans may miss their elaborate character micromanaging, but the rest of the game makes up for it.  The story is great and it takes place in a beautiful world unlike any you've seen before in gaming.  If you liked BioWare's past games, you'll like this one as well.  If you enjoy games with elaborate stories, this one is a no brainer.  The game's weaknesses are completely overshadowed by its strengths.  The storytelling masters at BioWare have delivered once again.     
*** This review was written for shortly after the release of the game. ***

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