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Gorgeous ‘Jade Empire’ has it all

The role-playing game "Jade Empire" has it all: Eastern philosophy, a drop-dead gorgeous setting and a powerful story about a world out of balance.
In this screenshot from "Jade Empire," a character freezes her foes with the Ice Shard, one of several fighting styles available.
In this screenshot from "Jade Empire," a character freezes her foes with the Ice Shard, one of several fighting styles available.Bioware Corp.

Why the rush towards next generation consoles with games like "Jade Empire" still hitting the shelves now?

Released for the Xbox last month, the role playing game "Jade Empire" has it all: Eastern philosophy, a drop-dead gorgeous setting and a powerful story about a world out of balance.

It's also an enjoyable fighting game blessed with moves that conjure both "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the rock 'em sock 'em video game "Tekken."

And if that wasn't enough, "Jade Empire" boasts its own language, Tho Fan, created specifically for the inhabitants of this quasi-ancient Chinese kingdom.

All of these elements are deftly wound around a classic — perhaps the classic — storytelling trifecta: an orphan with a mysterious past, a wise man with a dark secret and a mystical land where the natural and the spiritual collide.

The player controls the 20-year old orphan who hits the road after his (or her, the player's choice) martial arts school burns to the ground in a violent attack. The Jade Empire is falling apart. Angry ghosts are popping up throughout the land. Pirates and other thieves are terrorizing the peasants. Meanwhile, a shady government hit squad, the Lotus Assassins, makes mincemeat of any one who defies the emperor.

This sets the stage for a journey through a large setting of villages and cities populated by a typical array of farmers, townspeople and more nefarious folk and spirits. In typical role-playing fashion, encounters with these non-playing-characters, or NPCs, drive the story. They may prattle off a story about the land or, perhaps, request assistance in fending off thieves or rescuing a lost object.

Fortunately, "Jade Empire's" writers have avoided the creaky role-playing game dialogue boilerplate — a pox on "Lord of the Rings" and their "thees" and "thous" — for natural sounding and evocative dialogue. There's often a sense of humor in the give and take between characters. The voice acting is top notch. It needs to be with colorfully named empire inhabitants such as Sagacious Zu and Gao the Lesser.

The quests your orphan undertakes shape how the story unfolds. In one early scene, the player has the choice of either saving a fishing village's livelihood by releasing an upstream dam or keeping the dam up to avoid any bad karma from spirits whose grave lies near the dam.

Karma is a big deal in "Jade Empire." Your character can choose the path of good, "Way of the Open Palm," or evil, the "Way of the Closed Fist," and there are repercussions. Other Eastern philosophies like reincarnation and the spiritual and mental qualities surrounding the practice of martial arts appear in dialogue and convenient little signs posted throughout the empire.

These ethereal notions are most manifest in how the orphan "levels up" during the game. Abilities are broken into three areas: body, mind and spirit. It is spirit that controls the orphan's "chi," or inner energy used to heal wounds or deliver devastating blows.

Inevitably the orphan's journey leads to self-discovery, another role-playing game requirement. The orphan holds a certain mystical power than can be used to put to rest the ghosts, the assassins and the overall government corruption.

If this story of an orphan with special, shall we say, Force-like, powers sounds familiar, it could be because "Jade Empire" comes from BioWare, the same game developers who gave us another well-crafted role-playing game, "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic."

But "Jade Empire" is wholly original in its look and its inspirations.

Graphics look amazing. Environments run from rural villages to a teeming city. Wildflowers individually sway in the breeze. The quality of light is always changing, from sun rays streaming through storm clouds to dusky sunsets. But don't get too comfortable: Dark flying contraptions, belching black smoke, occasionally fly overhead to turn scenes of harmony into hell.

The game's graphics are at their best when conversation gives way to fighting.

There are a number of fighting styles ranging from weapon-based fighting to more magically influenced styles powered by your orphan's "chi."  Up to four styles can be mapped to the Xbox D-Pad's controller and are meant to be used in conjunction to trigger what the game calls "Harmonic Combo."

My favorite fighting style, Heavenly Wave, was hardly effective in take down combat, but it's ability to slow down opponents made it a great set-up when used with the appropriately-named Leaping Tiger.  More importantly, Heavenly Wave looked beautiful when executed.  A chi-based move, calling up Heavenly Wave puts your character through a series of moves that looks like he (or she) is drawing up energy through the Earth, unleashing New Age-y sound effects and briefly warping your view of the game.

The fighting experience is in real-time and more fluid, i.e. easily controllable, than one would expect from a role-playing game.  But if there is any one fault it is that some styles are simply too powerful.  A player can go through the game using just one or two styles.  That's a fault fighting game enthusiasts can't ignore.

Still, "Jade Empire's" fighting may be the closest thing to Zen I've experienced in a fighting game.

And that may explain why "Jade Empire" works. From the language to the martial arts ethos to the bits of regional religion we cull from discussions with the locals, "Jade Empire" gives you the feeling that its makers have tried to capture not only a particular look and feel, but a philosophy as well.

As the story progresses, we learn that a civilization founded on a balance between nature and the spirit world has been plunged into discord.  A deity, responsible for both the people's water supply as well as the dead, has been killed by the emperor for in the hopes of a quick relief from a drought.  Now water is in less supply and the dead walk the earth.

Biologists would call this crisis a world out of balance. As every role-playing game player knows, it’s time to kick butt.