Hello loyal readers. Right off the bat I should apologize I’ve been lacking in updates for the past few days. I’ve been busy getting resettled into my old house and packing for my move at the end of the month–updates may be slow around the first of August as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that I haven’t gotten a good idea for my next article, but fear not–I’ve got some stuff planned, and some things I’d like to try. This site is in flux at the moment, and there’s gonna be some awesome stuff coming in within the next month or so, so look forward to that.

That out of the way, I won’t leave you without any kind of entertainment. So, let’s talk about Jade Empire.

Yeah! Jade Empire! Anyone else remember this? This game was Knights of the Old Republic developer Bioware’s follow up to their big hit, and I always felt that this game was never as well received as KOTOR was. Jade Empire came amidst a flurry of hype, plenty of build-up and talk in the leading magazines, and I know it sold decently, but it never caught on in the hearts and minds of gamers as KOTOR before it or as Dragon Age or Mass Effect after.

There’s plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the game isn’t all that great. Now, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad per se, but considering its pedigree and considering what came before it, the game is oddly…shallow. It is still an open-ended RPG like KOTOR–you create your character, picking from one of three builds–speedy, bulky, or balanced–and one of four initial fighting styles–fast, very fast, balanced, slow–and are unceremoniously dumped in the midst of your idyllic martial arts school that is just begging to be firebombed by the time the tutorial ends.

The game goes through all of KOTOR’s basic motions–you talk to various peoples around town, find out what their problems are, and then you have a choice of being heroic and nice and help them out or the choice of being a colossal asshole and kick sand in their faces. Yes, the moral choice system is back, but instead of “light side/dark side” (or the more clever Renegade/Paragon system of Mass Effect) you have “Open Palm” and “Closed Fist”–to fit into the ancient China motif, I guess. Though the game describes these two philosophies as being more complex than just “good or evil”, in execution it rarely plays out the way they describe.

The Way of the Closed Fist = Bloody Giblets!

Rather, Open Palm people are calm, collected, and totally non-confrontational. They have the power to destroy, but choose only to wield it if necessary. They believe harmony is better than anything else. Closed Fist users are supposed to be “Might makes Right” sort of pseudo-fascists, who believe that only the strong survive and have little sympathy for the weak. If you are enslaved, it is because you were not strong enough to defeat the slavers, etc. Not evil, but a harsh philosophy–right?

Not so much. Jade Empire basically boils your choices down to this: nice guy or bully. You can help an old lady across the street or break both her legs and that’s it. People complain that KOTOR’s Dark Side choices are nothing more than cartoon supervillainy, but Jade Empire’s Closed Fist is just being a schoolyard bully, full stop. While occasionally the actual philosophy behind it is brought out to justify your decision, the game opts early on to ignore any nuance or subtlety to the choices and just make them clean cut, black and white “good” and “bad”.

Combat is a fun change of pace from KOTOR. They ditched the turn-based dice mechanics for a real-time, combo-driven system. It’s tragically simple, meant surely to appeal to those pasty, vein-clogged bloated seals whom all RPG developers feel is their target demographic (I’ll refrain from expressing my own insult at the assumption), but it just translates as dull. Combat isn’t particularly difficult, and no enemy can really throw more than the same two tricks at you time and time again, so the only time you are ever in any danger is if you just get way too cocky and pick a fight with too many foes at once. You can beat the game just by blocking and using your quick hits, and the first two styles you get in the game are more than enough to carry you through.

Oh, yes, let’s talk about the styles, hm? This part I actually like. Instead of managing equipment and armor and a big inventory, just about all of your skills and stat boosts come from styles and tactics you learn from various martial arts masters. Your styles are essentially your weapons, and they come in 4 types–support, magic, weapon, and coconut–I mean, martial. You can have any 4 mapped to the D-pad at any time, and you’ll find that you’ll always have the same three on at any time, so the only main variable is what you put in your fourth one. After getting a third of the way through the game being a heroic kung-fu fighter, I decided to use that slot for the one gun you get in the game, which amounts to a “win” button, as fists < bullets.

Tactics are essentially your armor and accessories. Learning them usually boosts one stat whilst detracting from another. Since there are only three stats, you have to be careful in how you balance yourself, though keeping every stat well-developed isn’t too hard to do. Anyway, it’s a nifty system–a bit shallow, sure, but it does eliminate most of the genre-typical micromanaging and lets you go about murdering things.

I haven’t beaten the game yet, but the storyline is pretty basic–your master is kidnapped, you have to go get him back, and also maybe save the world from a zombie apocalypse. I’m…really not joking that much. Within the first ten minutes, you are informed that there is no room in Hell and the dead are overrunning the living and you are the only person whose fists are strong enough to punch ghosts. Yes, in this game you punch ghosts to death. I give it points, if only for the sheer cheek of it all.

EDIT: The game’s story is actually quite decent, if a bit rushed towards the end. There’s a really cool twist near the end and the characters all shine as much as they can. It’s not stellar, but it’s probably the best part of the game.

If anything radical changes as I get further in it, I’ll post my thoughts, but as it is, the game is an interesting glance back at an older age of RPGs, and for 12 bucks on Xbox Arcade, there’s no reason not to pick it up–though I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It’s got its big flaws–dull combat and a shallow morality system–and add to this the fact that the developers seemed to run out of ideas for their setting long before they’d run out of gameplay time, and you find yourself with a game that could have been amazing, but is only mediocre at best.