Moments like these are why we love Jade Empire: four members of a deadly assassin's guild have our character and her companion, a small girl perhaps eight years old, surrounded. The assassins haven't got a chance.
Magical claws sprout from our lovely avatar's wrists and we tear the first opponent to shreds with a quick flurry of strikes and kicks. We vault fluidly over and behind him. We land just in time to initiate a magical combo that traps a second assassin in a stone cocoon and then summons a twenty-foot serpent to breathe fire in a circular arc around us. We pull out the only flint rifle in Asia to give the remaining targets a taste of lead, but the little girl with us has already taken care of business. She turned into a twelve foot-tall demon and effortlessly gutted them with its giant, clawed paws.
This is the world of Jade Empire, where everything looks, sounds, and feels slightly more exotic and otherworldly than real life. Throw out your preconceived notion that Jade Empire is just developer BioWare's previous hit, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in an ancient Asian setting. Yes, both are RPGs dressing as action games. Yes, both have a wide cast of interesting party members, as well as excellent, well-paced plotlines full of "Are you good or evil?" decisions and intricate conversations. But there's a lot more here than that.
The combat system, for example, blows away anything in a galaxy far, far away. Jade Empire throws you into battle with just one companion at a time (chosen from a nine-slot roster) and gives you over two dozen bare-handed martial arts, magic, and weapon styles. They can be upgraded over time, and you can have any four equipped at any given moment, switching between them with a single tap of the d-pad. You even get bonus points for beginning a combo with one style and finishing it with another.
This actually becomes a dilemma; almost every style is intriguing, but once you've spent a fair amount of points upgrading a few of the early styles, you'll feel penalized for switching to new ones. Granted, when they enable such awesome powers as the ability to freeze enemies solid; transform into a flaming, horse demon; or wield a sword as gracefully as that chick in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you'll still make time to try out as many as possible. But it would have been nice if upgrade points were re-assignable or just more plentiful, so we didn't feel like we'd forever lost the chance to upgrade one skill every time we beefed up another.
A similar concern crops up among your entourage: a cold-but-righteous ninja babe, a crazy inventor who loves explosions, a young girl possessed by not one, but two demons, and more. They all deliver amusing dialogue, but some are so much more useful in battle than others that we found ourselves only using two or three regularly.
Of course, your preferences may vary. In fact, BioWare is counting on it. Like KotOR before it, Jade Empire sets up the scenario well: the star student at a small kung-fu dojo in a tiny village, you set off on a quest through an exotic, mythical Asian land in search of your kidnapped master. But it doesn't really tell you what kind of person you are; that's up to you. The player has frequent chances to be good or evil, and your choices affect which party members may or may not fall in love with you, which skills and items you can use, and which of the game's endings you'll get. The differences aren't as great as those in KotOR, but they make Jade Empire worth playing through multiple times.
Jade Empire is a near-masterpiece. Its sumptuous graphics provide enough eye candy to give your pupils diabetes and its combat system will frequently propel you into new areas just to kick the asses of a few more enemies. Yes, the fighting could be better balanced (hit three times/flip over enemy/repeat, works far too well) and your in-game choices could have greater impact. But after the credits roll, you'll know exactly what kept you playing those 25 or so hours, as well as what makes you want to play for another 25.