A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Jade Empire - now available on PC close to you

One of the best games I had on my old Xbox (no number after it) was Bioware's Jade Empire that caused many a gamer much aggravated pain by having been made exclusively for the Xbox console. I picked the game up quite by chance - it had a picture of a pretty girl with a sword on the box, and the game description of saving an ancient Empire or destroying it appealed to my then very prominent longing for the East - I was listening to j-pop and writing to my japanese friends and dreaming of a time when I could travel to China or Japan, but the plane tickets were costly and music and games were, at the time, all I had. I didn't even watch any anime at that time, although I must say I would have, had I had the knowledge of the internet I have now.

But the point of this post is the Game, not my Japan-longing teenage heart. I started the game off with - not the prettiest, but with reasonable good-looking - female character, Ling the Scholar, whose Spirit attribute is elevated (although this does not really mean much after you can start leveling her up, since the difference in the beginning is only by a few points) and Body is lower than usual. I played the game, made my choices, died a few times and by the time the handsome, though a little blockishly animated rogue started talking weird things to me about having fallen in love with my character even though his character entered the game looking for his lost wife... I was already past the silliness of what the other characters sometimes said to me and thought this relationship thing was rather neat. Plus, using Sky as a follower is also neat, since he is not only a rather good fighter with his double swords, but in reserve mode he fills your Focus meter, which one needs if one is to fight with swords. (Because of course I'll take the sword, you can keep you silly staff.)

In any case, I found the story compelling, the characters hilarious and my own quest captivating in its simplicity and with the naivety of youth was rather quite surprised by the ending(s). So when the game came available to PC players around the world in Good Old Games I naturally jumped at the chance and at the price, which was discounted at the time of its release. So, now I once again have Jade Empire, even if the Xbox console has been long gone from my life.

So what is different with the PC version to the old Xbox powered one? Naturally, you control the character with the keyboard and the mouse, rather than the bulky controller Xbox seems to be cursed with. Other than that, well... The game runs a bit smoother, loads new scenes and places faster and doesn't skip with the subtitles if they fail to keep pace with the dialogue. All positive then. Even the fight scenes, some of which I wasn't a fan of when playing with my Xbox, are much easier now that I can just click mouse left to attack and press space to defend. The only problem I've encountered so far with the default controls is the heal button, left shift, which is difficult to press in battle, when your fingers are busy on the four movement keys, so that one will probably need to be changed when the battles get a bit more serious. It says something that I only died once during the intro chapter of the game on PC, when on my Xbox the battle on the beach took several frustrated tries, careful planning and letting Dawn Star kill bandits and die before moving into fray myself - even during replays. (Because your followers jump right back up when the enemy is defeated, it's a viable tactic sometimes to let them soften the enemy a bit and keep dodging and handing down some easy attacks from afar before engaging the enemy for reals yourself. But don't use up all your Spirit on Magic attacks, because then you won't be able to heal.)

I've now reached Tien's Landing, which is the second, or maybe third chapter in the game, and so far so good. I'm actually looking forward to trekking down to the ghost-infested formerly flooded village with Dawn Star, as well as the Bandit Camp, where stuff needs to happen before we can be off flying to the Imperial City. So I thought I might as well write a bit of something of the game, since plot-wise there will be no surprises and I generally feel the PC version to be better than the old console one, so maybe this will encourage other people too to try out some old Bioware. I'll try not to include any serious plot spoilers, although some minor things may come up, so be warned! I've received help to writing of this review from Jade Empire wiki, which lists useful stuff like info on characters and places as well as quest walkthroughs and what-not, so go see that if interested.

The gist of the game is to save your kidnapped Master Li, who in the beginning babbles on about your destiny and how You are the last of all Yous in all of the world. Well, this is confirmed by a spirit that appears to you, although Master Li is a bit flabbergasted about this all. Before he can really do anything about it though, you need to go rescue Dawn Star (silly girls, let themselves be captured) and when you come back from you cabbage picking mission, the village is aflame and Master Li and your serenely peaceful kung fu school is in ruins. So, in order to make any sense of what has happened and also about what's going on, You and your new friends you pick up along the way, should probably, maybe, go and find the old geezer. While doing so, you are naturally given several sidequests to occupy your time, which are most often quite fun, as well as plot related quests, that can be frustrating, long and yet, oddly rewarding, as they almost always give you new friends or other stuff to travel with. Apart from your missing master, there also seems to something very wrong with the fabric of the world - the dead are being left haunting the living in the form of ghosts, unable to pass on; the skies are not giving the much needed water for the fields and the Emperor has withdrawn from the public eye, leaving the control of the Empire to a mysterious man in black armor (although the armor itself looks more red and blue than black, but that's not really that important). And somehow You seem to be in center of this whole mess, as the last of the Spirit Monks.

As most people know of Bioware, so too in Jade Empire can you be good or bad. Or, not good or bad per ce, but you can follow the path of the Open Palm or the path of the Closed Fist. So yeah, good or bad. Making dialogue choices either ups or lowers your Path rating - or whatever it is called - which doesn't really affect the game much, except that there is at least one sidequest available solely for the follower of each path. So, no worries, whichever one you choose. I generally play a good character, although in my later games I've started badmouthing the evil characters more, of which they always seem so surprised... Most characters do comment, if you generally follow the Open Palm but then answer to them in a manner of a Closed Fist follower, although the results often are the same no matter the means. 

Your character has three attributes which are Body, Spirit and Mind. Body is the same as your vitality and Strength, Spirit is your Magic or Ki and Mind is your Focus. When vitality runs out, you die, but luckily you can always replenish it with your Ki, which is also used for magic attacks, and can also be used to power your hand-to-hand combat. Focus is used to fight with weapons and when it runs out, you can no longer lift your blade. You usually get some of the attributes back from defeating enemies, who drop red, blue or yellow essence balls for you to pick up, or you can use certain followers in support mode to replenish your attributes - Dawn Star for Ki, Sky for Focus and can't remember who for Vitality. Maybe no one, since replenishing Ki means replenishing Vitality through healing. In any case. Leveling up means putting in points both in these attributes as well as your styles.

Styles are all martial in some manner, and there are a few different kinds of them. You have your basic fighting styles, such as Thousands Cuts and Leaping Tiger, which mean putting your fist to your enemy in a manner that hurts. In Leaping Tiger your character actually grows claws, which is cool, but I like the Thousand Cuts of the fast characters, so I often use that one. Then you have your support fighting styles, such as Heavenly Wave, which slows enemies down when you hit them or Paralysing Palm which does guess what again. Magic attacks include a choice of Ice or Fire in the beginning and later on Earth or Tempest as well. What they basically do is give you the ability to either shoot fire- or snowballs, or rocks or gusts of wind at your enemies from afar, or drop down a hunk of fire or ice or dirt or call up a whirlwind as a stronger attack. Each attack, be it martial, weapon or magic has the kind of "basic" attack formula and a stronger form, which is used to break through shields. This is all explained in your beginning bouts at the school.

Weapons, as mentioned, use up your Focus, so keep an eye on that yellow meter. They are the strongest fighting styles there are, and for its speed, I like to use the sword Fortune's Favourite. The other choice in the beginning of the game is the staff Golden Hind (*Golden Star), which is a bit stronger than the sword, meaning basically that it drains your enemies out of their health in bigger chunks, but which is slower to use than the sword. Also, your character holds the sword above their head, with one arm in front, in a kind of com'ere posture, which I think is fun. You can also get other weapons later on in the game. Another type of attack you will get early on in the game, is the summoning technique. That means summoning a thing to fight for you - the first one you get is a huge ass toad, which can do stuff, like... well, I can't remember what it does, since I rarely used it. I'll update this once I try it and see what it does. Summoning drains you Ki and your character is replaced with the summoned monster for all means and purposes, until it dies or your enemies die, whichever comes first. If it dies, your character returns to the fray.

When leveling up, you also get skill points to assign to all of your styles. All of the styles have three different attributes to level up, which vary according to the style. A basic martial style for instance will have Speed, Strength and something else..? Can't remember. This is becoming a very good post, I keep writing about something and then not remembering the details. Oh well. I'll update this later. In any case, your styles get better once you get levels. And remember to use the skill points. The leveling of styles isn't as straightforward point for point as it is with attributes though. You get X amount of points to use and the first circle costs 1 point to upgrade to, the second one 2 and so on. So you'll sometimes need to save up skill points or use all of the ones you earned with this level to a single advancement. It also requires you to consider which styles you keep in primary use and which you only tweak with occasionally - during the course of the game you get to learn more styles, so there won't be enough points for all of them. There isn't really a great need to power game with this one, although it naturally helps by making kicking enemies' butt so much faster.

The basic combat works in a "cue battle music" kind of way. You might be running down the hill, or your dialogue with an NPC doesn't go as smoothly as expected and presto, enter fight mode. This means you start moving a bit differently, the sword or flames appear in your hands or you just lift you claws up in a ready stance. You can lock-on to enemies of your choice and circle the lock-on between enemies with left tab, or fight in free mode. Your follower will aid you by fighting along you or by being in support-mode - you can switch this at least on the follower screen and probably there is also a hidden button to do is instantly as well, at least now that we're playing with a keyboard and not with a controller. In any case, you can always enter the menu and the battle pauses for the duration of it, if you need to check anything, switch styles or followers, or whatever. Switching the style you're using happens with a button as well, on the keyboard you use the numbers 1-4 to circle between them. You always have four styles ready to use and if you need others, you need to change their order from the menu. This is probably due to the controller controlled version having had four directions on the directional pad, which was used to switch between styles in days gone by. To ease the choosing of styles mid-battle, you'll always hear your character's voice actor booming "Long Sword", when you choose it, or "Dire Flame", when you switch to your magics, so you'll know which one you just chose. Very intimidating indeed. As mentioned previously, you attack with mouse left, defend with space, break defends with mouse right, heal from left shift or some other than the default button and control your movements from W, A, S and D. Once the battle ends, your character performs a finishing move and the battle music ends, signalling the return to more peaceful ways.

In dialogue with people you get choices to answer or question the NPCs with. Your character does not speak them out loud, but you can see from their face if the line is meant to be angry or jovial. This is the main way of moving yourself on the Paths, but also other things, such as success in fights for justice will also affect your Path rating. As mentioned, the Path does not affect your game much, but sometimes the way NPCs deal with you changes. Also, some dialogue options are more likely to the different Paths. Furthermore, concerning your attributes, you use Body attribute to intimidate, Spirit to persuade and Mind to be intuitive, so upping the attributes will also affect your success in using these skills in dialogue.

The game plot is rather railroady, which means that you can sometimes choose in which order you do things and sometimes doing something means you don't have to do something else, but can if you will, eventually ending up doing pretty much all the same things. Depending on male or female character your romance options are different; males get to pick between Dawn Star and Silk Fox or if they can't pick, they can always have both; females then again have the pick between Sky and Silk Fox. No boy-on-boy romances, I'm afraid.

In the end, when the plot thickens and betrayals are revealed and your destiny is unraveled and you get to actually make choices not seemingly pre-destined for you, you can actually, and this might sound like repetition, make choices! Whoa! Which affect the way the game moves on! But that is quite far towards the end and basically only determines the kind of ending you get. So enjoy your power.

I in any case like this game very much and recommend it to everyone. As the story is, in my opinion, the high point of the game, there sadly isn't much replay value if you can remember quite well everything that happened last time. Given enough time between the value of replay grows, as I've noticed of myself. Maybe  this time you'll do it with a different character and a different skill set, even, choose flame instead of ice and staff instead of sword (although I wouldn't) and have a whole new adventure of your own.

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