reviewed by Tony Walsh
13, 2005 | The Empire Strikes Back
In a galaxy far, far away, you are the most promising of students--the
favoured apprentice of a venerable and wise master. You have been
trained in the deadly and mystical arts common people only dream
about. As your schooling concludes, your master reveals your pivotal
role in the future of the Empire. Leaving your academy behind, you
embark on a series of dangerous adventures, accumulating diverse
companions whose loyalty may be earned or demanded, depending on
the path you have chosen. Will you choose compassion, respect, and
openness, or strength, power, and aggression? Dark or light, you
cannot escape those who oppose you: a masked, darkly-armoured villain,
and the Emperor himself stand in your way. In your time of greatest
need, your faith in your friends--or your command over them--may
end up saving universe from ruin.
Despite similarities to themes explored in the Star Wars
universe, the latest action-based role-playing game for the Xbox,
Jade Empire, doesn't take place in that galaxy far,
far away. Instead, this story unfolds in a whole other universe--a
realm invented by Canada's BioWare Corporation and based loosely
on the history myth, and legend of China. It's no coincidence, though,
that Jade Empire shares commonalities with The Empire
Strikes Back. BioWare developed the 2003 hit Xbox role-playing
game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arriving at
an award-winning gaming formula applied to the 2004 Knights sequel,
and streamlined for use in Jade Empire.
Jade Empire appeals to our sense of adventure, binary morals,
and relationship-management. As with any role-playing game, you
select and control a primary character (the hero of the story),
and as your adventures progress, decide which of your hero's attributes
and skills to increase. Your decisions in character development
aren't simply limited to statistics, however. Jade Empire
involves a strong theme of morality--replace Star Wars' "Dark Side"
with "Way of the Closed Fist" and its "Light Side" with "Way of
the Open Palm," and you've got the idea. There are two paths to
tread, and each choice you make in your adventures will sway you
in one direction or the other, affecting the outcome of certain
situations and relations with your traveling companions.
With Jade Empire's focus on martial arts and mystical battle,
you'll be able to select from a broad range of spectacular fighting
styles, including weapons-forms, hand-to-hand, shape-shifting--
even the command of the elements themselves. Combat reasonably captures
the degree of action found in most chop-sockey films, but the lack
of mid-air wire-fu is a little disappointing. Not that there's much
to complain about. Jade Empire's problems are few, but notable:
Game play is paused too often and for too long during "loading"
of new material, and the Xbox hardware is occasionally pushed beyond
its limits, resulting in staccato action during fight scenes. These
technical shortcomings are thankfully diminished in light of the
game's artistic strengths.
The lands and peoples of Jade Empire spring from a potent
blend of the real and mythological, paying homage to Chinese culture
and traditions with archetypical (not stereotypical) characters
and creatures. Your hero's journeys will span sedate human settlements,
dangerous caverns, ghost-infested haunts, and the heavens themselves.
The attention to detail is outstanding (and surpasses BioWare's
previous efforts), although the addition of "Tho Fan," a fictional
language crafted specifically for the game, is a bit of a wasted
effort. While Tho Fan will be indistinguishable from Klingon for
most gamers, most of the characters in Jade Empire speak
in unaccented English--there is no shortage of conversation to engage
in, so actually being able to understand the characters most of
the time is always appreciated. The game's dialog is both slightly
sophisticated and lightly-humorous (with infrequent bouts of "cheesiness"),
offering refreshing engagement for the cultured gamer, and elevation
for the lowbrow. The overall storyline is classic but well-crafted,
following your character's struggle to right a great systemic wrong,
and with enough twists along the way to keep things lively.
Jade Empire is not Star Wars, despite sharing similar
themes and retaining the best attributes of BioWare's award-winning
Knights of the Old Republic. With its homage to Chinese culture
and focus on action-oriented role-play, Jade Empire aspires
to the heights of director Zhang Yimou's Hero or House
of Flying Daggers. Jade Empire may not transcend the
galaxy of video games, but it definitely reaches the heavens.
Walsh is a Toronto-based freelance Jack of all Trades, practitioner
of the Arts, avid gamer and renegade digital anthropologist. He
keeps a near-daily journal at clickableculture.com
but lives at secretlair.com.
email for info