East Meets Quest
Electronic Gaming Monthly, April, 2005 by Jennifer Tsao
Balance. It’s not something we experience all that often in our modern lives—sitting in traffic jams, waiting in lines at bustling malls, eating super-sized meals.... Our games don’t always exemplify the ideals of yin and yang either. They’re laser-targeted at particular markets: sports, roleplaying, first-person shooter, stealth-action—even karaoke has its own genre.
So it stands out, when you’re talking to the folks at BioWare developing Jade Empire, that they can’t seem to give you the usual black-or-white, market-tested answer to any of your questions. Due out April 14th exclusively for Xbox, Jade Empire isn’t one of the company’s classic role-playing games, but it’s much, much deeper than your average action-RPG. It’s meant to be frantic and fast paced, but it’s also quiet and meditative. It’s short, but it can also be long. You’re not necessarily even making choices between good and evil. It’s a balanced experience the company hopes will have unprecedented broad appeal, almost a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for gamers.
Glimpse Jade Empire and you’ll see a world of ghosts—the spirits of mythological ancient China, with its imperial architecture festooned in jade, mahogany, and paper lanterns. Its grassy countryside crawls with peasants in tattered clothes, scruffy troops of bandits, and fantastical mythical beasts. Its village streets are lined with tea houses and brothels where men come to drink and courtesans greet them in pearls and silk brocade gowns. It’s a world seen through an artful lens, with soft-focus graphics that seem more appropriate in a Chinese watercolor painting, not a videogame.
“I really like all the moments of exploration,” says BioWare’s Ray Muzyka, “where you stop, turn on the first-person camera mode, look around the scene, and just enjoy it.... There’s just moments of,” he pauses, looking for the right word, “maybe transcendent beauty.” It’s clear that Jade Empire is the game he’s been waiting more than a decade to make. “In a sense, we almost formed the company with a few game ideas in hand,” says Greg Zeschuk, joint CEO (with Muzyka) of BioWare. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to become a martial-arts master? Over the years, we massaged [the idea], thought about it, and waited for the point at which we thought...we could actually do it.”
What BioWare has done is remarkable. The Jade Empire universe is the company’s first original intellectual property—so everything from the toad demons you fight and the Dire Flame attacks to the little Pekingese dogs you see along the side of the road are unique to this game. But perhaps more noteworthy is the gameplay—a balance of action and roleplaying unlike anything BioWare has done. The company built its reputation on acclaimed PC turn-based RPGs (most notably, the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, both based in the Dungeons & Dragons universe). Combining that expertise with lessons learned from its first console roleplaying game, 2003’s pivotal Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (XB), the company has created its first RPG with real-time, rather than turn-based, combat. “We got feedback from people who played KOTOR that...they were a little surprised that it was phased, turn-based combat,” says Muzyka. “Maybe they wanted it to be real time.” The team set about giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Now, with Jade Empire’s mixture of roleplaying, story-based exploration, and frenetic, fast-paced, yet still highly tactical action, BioWare is striving for the perfect balance—a veritable yin and yang of action and story.
Fists of fury
Jade Empire starts out much like any roleplaying game. You choose from six characters, each representing a different style of gameplay: male or female, fast, strong, or magical. You’re quickly immersed in the story: As a student at a martial arts school where strange things are afoot—evil spirits wreaking havoc and such—you are, naturally, compelled to investigate the occurrences. Right away, you’ll gain followers (party members who can help you in combat) and start building relationships with them through the dialogue choices you make. And then, after taking a few turns in the sparring ring at the school, you’ll be thrust into your first real battle.
On the beach as an invading bandit ship attacks, gamers accustomed to KOTOR’s strategic turn-based battles may find the real-time combat initially overwhelming. “You’ve got more immediate things to worry about,” says Zeschuk, “like the guy trying to punch you.” But the balanced gameplay—and the choices it gives players—quickly becomes apparent. Some may want to pause the action, take stock of their enemies, and get their best fighting options assigned to a quick-key (on the D-pad). Others will just do their best Bruce Lee battle cry and enter the fray without hesitation. “We’re really trying to enable different people to play the game in different ways,” says Muzyka.
The combat in Jade Empire, like any sophisticated fighting system, takes a bit of getting used to, but the basic controller layout is simple and elegant. It’s with the fighting styles available to you, rather than the actual button-pressing, that the true strategy occurs. You need to become familiar with the different genres of fighting styles and the individual styles themselves (see sidebar, opposite page). You’ll also have to learn about focus and chi—the life forces that power your health and fighting energy—and blocking and evading are crucial, as well. Combat circumstances change and evolve throughout the game; enemies get smarter, more powerful, and more resistant to particular styles, so you’ll need to use a variety of styles and attacks to be effective. This means action gamers will still have to think about what styles they’re using even if they want to power through the game, while roleplayers may become familiar enough with the options available to them that they can quickly assess what combination of styles best suits a given situation. “The tactics don’t come from how good you are with the controller; rather, the tactics come in with all the different things you can do at any given moment,” says Lead Designer Kevin Martens. Muzyka adds, “Really, Jade is quite revolutionary. I don’t think we’re aware of any RPGs that have this kind of dynamic combat mixed with a strong story line.”
Have it your way
It wouldn’t be a BioWare game without character progression and moral choices, and Jade Empire has its own code: the Way of the Open Palm versus the Way of the Closed Fist. These two sides evolved from the basic concepts of harmony and discord, order and chaos. But call it “good versus evil” and the developers will stop you in your tracks. “It’s kind of more complex than that,” says Muzyka. “Closed Fist is more...selfish is maybe a better way to put it. People should be strong, and people that are strong should be able to stand on their own.” Open Palm, on the other...uh...hand, means you tend to be more generous, and you realize some people need your help, which you are more than willing to give.
“It’s kind of like evil and good, but a different take on it, one we thought was more appropriate for the Asian setting,” says Muzyka. “There are situations where either approach is equally valid and neither is really good or evil, and frankly it’s a little more interesting that way.” Of course, Muzyka admits, there are some points where it’s a little more clearly good and evil—like when you can buy an injured schoolmate healing herbs, or herbs that will poison her—and then there’s always that puppy-kicking thing (see sidebar, above). But in general, he says, “There’s more of a moral choice.”
In this way, the game harkens back to Knights of the Old Republic and its light and dark sides; Muzyka specifically mentions his fond memories of playing through that game, the difficulty he had making choices for his characters. “Jade presents similarly challenging moments,” he says. “We really want to have those emotional moments where if you feel like you care about a character and something bad happens to them or a betrayal happens, you feel like it means something emotionally to you. That’s one of the ways you can measure a good story, if you have moments like that.”