Currently, if you look on the main page of our website, you'll find a poll asking you to select what RPG developers should be spending the most time on. With a fairly dominating 57%, (story/dialogue) is winning. If you look over at BioWare's website, you'll discover a nearly identical poll. There, with an almost as impressive 47%, (involving storyline, numerous side-quests) is the winner. In both polls, categories for things like graphics, equipment, skills and monsters are getting almost no play at all, which seems strange to me, because those are the areas upon which marketing departments if not the developers themselves seem to focus. You've seen the ads: 5000 monsters! 2000 skills! Over one million unique pieces of equipment! And, oh yeah, an engrossing story... that spans two dozen beautifully rendered continents! Too often when I play a role-playing game, if there's any real story at all, it's just enough to get you from your starting village to the final boss battle, and little thought or ingenuity is put into it.
Which brings me to Jade Empire: Special Edition. This is a game that should be a good test for the people who participated in the polls. It has the best story I've seen in a game since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), but it has very little in the way of equipment, distinct enemies, or character development, and while its graphics are nice, they're not exactly going to wow anybody.
And so, this makes me wonder: which is going to sell better, Jade Empire: Special Edition or the next story-challenged Diablo-style action-adventure that rolls off the press? Given the polls, you'd think that Jade Empire would sell tons more, but I don't know. This is one of those questions where I wish that game sales information were in any way possible to find, because I really have no idea which way the market might lean. Do people really look for a good story when they purchase a game, or is that just what they say they look for, when it's really the pretty pictures that grab their attention? Perhaps those marketing departments have it right, but I hope not.
The Special Edition
Anyway, before I meander too far away from the topic at hand, let me get back to actually reviewing Jade Empire: Special Edition. The Special Edition is not really a new version of the game. It's not an expansion pack, and it's not trying to be like The Lost Chapters were for Fable. It's basically a straight translation of the Xbox version of the game (released in 2005) into a PC version.
Of course, there are a couple of additions. There are two new fighting styles (viper and iron palm) and two new enemies (rhino demon and ghost lord), and there's a new (jade master) difficulty level (which allows you to play the campaign again with a character who has already finished it), but that's about it. All of the other changes have to do with modifying the game so that it looks and works better on the PC, and they include things like higher resolutions, more hotkeys, more autosaves, and mouse support. That is, unless you really loved the game, if you've already played it on the Xbox, there isn't much reason to buy it for the PC.
Jade Empire takes place in the Jade Empire, a fictional land that bears more than a slight resemblance to ancient China (among other things, it has problems with (horselords) to the north, and a visitor from the far west sounds suspiciously like John Cleese). The empire is run by an ambitious emperor, who recently ended a drought just by commanding it to stop. However, he hasn't been seen in some time, and in his place, his enforcer, called Death's Hand, and his private army, called the Lotus Assassins, have taken center stage. Given their names, it's probably not a surprise that the empire isn't in a golden age, and that the peasants are very careful about what they say in public.
As the game opens up, you take on the role of a student at a small martial arts academy. One day bandits attack the academy, and, after you've helped repulse them, the master takes you aside and informs you that you have a great destiny ahead of you. Soon enough, the Lotus Assassins strike at the academy. They kidnap the master, and you chase after them, first with the goal of rescuing the master, but then with the idea of dealing with Death's Hand and his assassins, and putting the empire back to rights. Along the way you meet up with some companions who offer to help you, you find that the dead aren't staying as dead as they should, and you get into a tremendous number of fights.
When BioWare developed Jade Empire, they took sort of a minimalist approach to character development. Each character only has three ability scores -- body, spirit, and mind -- and each score affects a lot of things. For example, the spirit score affects how much (chi) you have, and chi can be used to power spells, add damage to melee attacks, and heal your character. Similarly, the mind score affects how much (focus) you have, and focus powers some weapon attacks, and you can use it to slow down time during combat. That is, all three scores are important to all classes of characters, and you have to be careful about how you spend the ability points you receive each time you gain a level.
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