We’re trying desperately to replenish our chi before our scantily-clad female character wades back into kung fu combat with a flaming horse demon. Of course, that’s pretty much par for the course in Jade Empire, BioWare’s latest role-playing epic in which the traditional fantasy trappings have been replaced with a mythical Chinese setting. But being a port of a two-year-old Xbox title, is this a case of glorious reincarnation or ageing master?
The first act introduces you to the controls and the story. Ghosts inhabit the world of the living and after your home-town is destroyed and your master is taken by the Lotus Assassins, it’s a non-stop action ride to set the world’s problems straight. Expect a journey packed to the rafters with a fantastic supporting cast and a wide variety of inventive foes, from arrogant fellow students to animal spirits and creepy ghosts.
Jade Empire is set in a massive and lush world, which borrows liberally from several Far Eastern influences. The game offers some of the most beautiful levels we’ve ever laid eyes on, with plenty of variation too, from fungus-lit caves through haunted forests to (quite literally) small slices of heaven. Everything feels like BioWare has poured it's heart and soul into the game, from the inclusion of an entirely made-up language to the masses of scrolls, signs and conversations that fill in the back-story and work to create an accessible and hugely believable world.
Incidentally, the morality system seen in Knights Of The Old Republic makes a partial return here, though it’s been toned down substantially, with less of the black-and-white moral decisions. They’ve also cut back on a few non-essential RPG staples, with slimmed-down character development and not an inventory in sight. However, don’t fret because it all feels marvelously balanced and you’ll soon forget that you ever needed those things in the first place.
As you may have realized, however, the core of the gameplay is action. Unlike KOTOR, Jade Empire offers real-time combat using different kung fu techniques and to their credit, BioWare has done a pretty good job of mapping the mass of controls to the PC. Once you’ve got past the first hurdle of getting your fingers accustomed to the multitude of controls, you’ll soon discover that the system is relatively easy to pick up but a bit trickier to master. Just bashing the light attack button may eventually win you your first few fights, but if you actually manage to get to grips with swapping styles, dodging, blocking and using the harmonic combos for maximum impact, combat becomes far more satisfying and you’ll start to feel like a true kung fu master. The fluid animation of the characters really helps things along too, making you feel like you’re right in the thick of the action.
There are a few concerns though. The game always defaults back to the last style used in battle once a fight begins (even if you’ve changed this in between). Plus, despite the richly designed environments, low-res textures still abound.
However, with a great story, tons of missions, beautifully rich settings, satisfying fighting and brilliant characterization, all swaddled in over 20 hours of play, Jade Empire has transcended its Xbox roots to reincarnate itself as a high-kicking, epic RPG for PC. The chi is strong with this one.