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Jade Empire
for Xbox
reviewed by Tony Walsh

May 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.

Tony 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.

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