Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
March 2007

Jade Empire Special Edition: A Fine Polishing of an RPG Gem

Spring! The sun is coming out, the snow is leaving and great games are finally back in season. The winter was a little rough for PC gamers (aside from the World of Warcraft expansion) but thankfully the drought is over and quality titles are filling the shelves. Two of the games I have been waiting for have been released in the last month: Jade Empire and Supreme Commander. Since I don't want to spoil the Supreme Commander experience until I update my machine, I decided to go with the PC RPG release that I've been looking forward to for months, Jade Empire.

Jade Empire isn't entirely a new release; it originally came out for the Xbox back in 2005. Bioware has long been a PC RPG powerhouse, releasing hits like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, so this departure from that platform felt like betrayl to the PC faithful. Thankfully, Bioware healed the wounds when they announced that they would be releasing a special edition for the PC. After many months, they have delivered, and oh is it beautiful.

The "special edition" of Jade Empire keeps everything from the original Xbox title but adds in improved graphics and AI and a more intuitive user interface. While I don't think the game has fundamentally improved with the additions, it is a nice consolation after waiting so long for the release.

Leave the Elves and Tights at Home

Jade Empire isn't set in your typical role-playing world. No elves, no fairies and no generic swords or shields. Instead, JE is based on traditional China, and whether it is accurate to that tradition or not, it is a unique and fun shift from classic RPG-land.

OK, how about this for a story idea: Boy has mysterious powers but doesn't know his true ancestry. Lots of bad stuff happens, boy saves people and learns who he really is. Boy kills great evil one, saves the world, life is happy. What? It's been taken? By every third game? Well, you can add Jade Empire to that list of narratives with this structure. Despite this repetition in themes, as I played through I realized it really isn't a bad base for a game (or movie for that matter; seen "Star Wars"?).

Beginning the game, I was presented with a number of characters that I could take out on my journey. Each of these had varying proportions of the game's main stats: health, focus, and chi. Being new to the world, I decided to go with a balance of the three and was soon on my way. Jade Empire has a great way of introducing the player into the world and in the small village I had the opportunity to practice on other students of my martial arts academy.

Little magic men are no match for my axes

Things weren't rosy for too long before a bunch of thugs and assasins came in and started bashing heads. With my extreme kung-fu skills I was able to repel the attack and the real story began in full. Throughout my journeys I was presented with options of things to say and do which would lead me to be more good or evil. Depending on your choice--either the Open Palm (good) or Closed Fist (evil)--you will have access to different weapons, fighting styles, and quests, which gives Jade Empire some replayability.

As I progressed, I assembled a motley crew of accomplices which really spiced up fighting and dialogue. Henpecked Hou, for example, was completely useless as a fighter but could provide support by chucking bottles of ale to me; this would activate my Drunken Master Style, which was supposedly good. While Hou was fun for about two battles, most of the allies I gained were traditional fighters and helped in the many battles I found myself in.

Woven throughout the basic framework of saving the world is a rich culture and a lot of memorable settings that you really wouldn't find in a Tolkien rip-off. For example, I was helping out a village by ridding them off some cannibalistic cave dwellers when I found myself in front of a gate to a "heaven". Jumping through the gate I appeared in a world of rainbows and magical foxes who were doing battle with Rhino and Horse demons. Pretty crazy, but it worked.

Fighting off demons in the magical-fox world

Or later, I stumbled across a British explorer who somehow found his way into the Jade Empire and was taunting the locals with his talk of Queen and crumpets. Like anyone in my position would do, I challenged him to a fight, and despite his formidable rifle, I kung-paoed the pompous pom back to Britannia.

Almost Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

At the heart of the action in this action RPG are the fighting styles learned and used throughout the game. You begin with only one martial arts style of your choice, I took "Thousand Cuts" which, true to its name, got in a lot of strikes in just a short time. Just punching and kicking gets old, though and thankfully things get a lot more interesting as you pick up styles with weapons, magic, and good ole-fashioned martial arts.

Among the various weapons you can pick up, my favorites are the staff and the rifle. The staff I picked up pretty early on in the game and is great for doing damage while staying out of foes' reach. If I really don't want to get close to something, say an angry elephant demon, I pull out my rifle that I took from the Englishman and let loose on the elephant. The rifle does a massive amount of damage and the sluggish reload time isn't too bad if your element is sluggish.

In Jade Empire you can fight, fly, and even 'act' in a play!

If getting a little scuffed up doesn't bother you and you just want some serious hurting power, the Toad Demon does the trick every time. Don't count on being able to really see your enemies or to chase after them, but if they make the mistake of getting within your poisonous webbed fists, they are going down fast. Finding the right style for the right foe is one of the most enjoyable parts of Jade Empire.

Overcoming the Ordinary

Jade Empire had the tough task of trying to separate itself from games that are similar in a lot of ways. Throughout my adventures I was often reminded of Fable, another action RPG released to PC and Xbox. Both had a similar good and evil system, both had mysterious characters finding their destines, and the combat system felt somehwat the same (though in my estimation Jade Empire's is far superior). By establishing an entirely new setting and making fighting a highlight instead of an obstacle, Bioware has created yet another RPG classic.

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