Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thirty One - Jade Empire

BioWare RPGs dropping like flies in the Sollosi househould. Less than 48 hours after I knock out Dragon Age II, Jade Empire wraps up. Verdict: pretty good.

BioWare's Jade Empire began life as an XBox exclusive RPG in 2005. The two reasons I didn't get into it at the time were the words "XBox" and "BioWare." Yes, I used to be a BioWare hater, or more accurately a BioWare disdainer (if that's even a word). Why? Well, probably hardware envy. Never owning an XBox or a very powerful PC prevented me from playing any of their major games - the PC I'm typing on right now is the first time I've ever owned a computer capable of playing games in the year of release. I might have begrudgingly admitted that Baldur's Gate or KOTOR seemed pretty cool (which they did), but it was easy to dismiss them as being inferior to my precious PS1 and PS2 JRPGs because I had no means of playing them. Basically, they were sour grapes.

But now I have a PS3 and a PC more than up to the task of playing BioWare games, so I've been indulging in them this year. Loved the #$&@ out of Dragon Age: Origins. Thought Dragon Age 2 was pretty good. Gave up on KOTOR because its PC version is wackadoodle. Currently in the very early stages of playing the first Mass Effect, and just saved the world in Jade Empire. First of all, I'll get my one big complaint out of the way: Jade Empire is too short. My total playtime ended up being about fourteen hours, which is simply unacceptable for an RPG of this ambition. There, now that that's out of the way, let's get to the game.

Jade Empire is a martial arts RPG set in a fictionalized version of Medieval China. Yup. As an enthusiast of kung fu films and East Asian history, of course this game appeals to me. Does it live up to its premise? Mostly, yes. You start out as the star pupil of martial arts Master Li in a peaceful mountain village, but before too long bandits arrive there, kidnap Master Li for reasons unknown at first, and you set out after him, accompanied by another one of Master Li's pupils.

The game's storyline isn't bad at all. It has a clear arc, characters with a lot of personality, plenty of interesting detail, and an adequate resolution whether you choose to play Open Palm (heroic do-gooder) or Closed Fist (maximum dickery). It gets a little RPG-dramatic and hackneyed at times - Dawn Star is a really stereotypical RPG love heroine that made me wish I had gone the gay male route for this game (really), and they use the "he was his brother all along!" plot device at least three times (not kidding). The characters are alternately memorable and forgettable. Dawn Star was a bit of a weak heroine, but the romantic alternatives Sky and Silk Fox are much more realized, interesting characters. One of the other characters was such a boring, lifeless RPG stereotype that I actually forgot about him and was surprised he was still around when he performed a noble sacrifice late in the game.

So the story was enough to keep me playing, which is good because the gameplay was at times a struggle. I'm 100% certain I would like this game much better on a console. The combat consists of a four button attacking/guarding system that lets you switch martial arts styles on the fly and create special "harmonic combos" with opportune switches. Playing on a PC, I have two mouse clicks as attacks, space bar for guard, shift for heal, and number buttons for style switches. Bottom line, I haven't played enough Starcraft to have a reasonable difficulty curve for advanced techniques like Harmonic Combos. It took me long enough to get dodge and guard timing down. If I had face buttons for the four key actions and shoulder buttons for style switches I would have been much more adept at this. Even if that meant fewer hotkeys. Having a mouse for a camera instead of two sticks was a blessing and a curse, as navigating between areas outside of combat was a breeze but my characters became easily confused switching between targets in battle.

I know I mentioned having other characters in your party a few paragraphs ago, but that was a bit misleading. Yes, you do have other party members ("Followers") but you only get one at a time accompanying you. They can either attack like a good NPC or sit there meditating, giving the player character a boost. I stuck with Dawn Star the entire game, since her boost healed my Chi constantly, and my chosen playstyle used Chi out the wazoo.

There are only nine stats in the game, but six of them derive from the other three. Body increases your Health, Spirit increases your Chi, and Mind increases your Focus. Health is self-explanatory, Chi gives you a mana pool for healing, magic styles, and shapeshifting, and Focus gives you a mana pool for weapon styles and also allows you to avoid traps better. I went almost neck-deep into Spirit, to maximize my healing and magic. The final three stats are dialog checks: Intimidation, Intuition, and Charm. They work just like coercion does in Dragon Age, and are each a sum of two of the three key stats. I kind of ignored the dialog checks in Jade Empire, generally hoping my Intimidation score worked out and then fighting through the throng if it didn't.

The different styles in the game allow for a good amount of variety in combat, but it usually boils down to using either your strongest style or one a particular enemy is vulnerable to, and then spamming attack, guard, and dodge. Heal when necessary. It becomes even less strategic when you learn the Jade Golem style (it's one of the shapeshifting ones), which is overwhelmingly overpowered against every enemy in the game EXCEPT for two of the types of demons and other Golems. Really, the best way to go is probably to stay balanced for most of the game until you get Jade Golem, after which you do nothing but pump up Spirit. For most of the game I was regretting my neglect of weapon styles, but after I got Jade Golem my regret waned a bit.

But of course, this wouldn't be a BioWare game without great dialog and the freedom to choose good or evil actions, and on these fronts Jade Empire mostly delivers. The sidequests are interesting and fleshed-out, the karma moments are occasionally neutral but eventually get quite stunning, and the main story arc keeps you invested. Overall, Jade Empire is good, but lacking in some BioWare and RPG traditionalism and probably better using a controller.

Games Beaten: 2011 Edition

1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
5. Flower
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II
31. Jade Empire


If you read my previous post, you'd think my next game to play was 3D Dot Game Heroes and you'd be right. If you think that's my next post as well, then you'd be wrong (!?). #32 is going to come later today, and it's a cop-out if there ever was one. Really.

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