Without a doubt, one of the best games to ever grace a console is Jade Empire. I just can't tear it apart. The developers have really done their homework and have obviously subjected this game to serious scrutiny during all phases of its development. Don't let the RPG tag scare you. This is an action RPG with real-time combat. Complete with a great story, plenty of characters, great animation and a combat system that incorporates weapons, magic and supernatural moves there is not a boring moment in the entire game - and it's a long one at that.

Jade Empire plays like an epic Chinese movie. Kung Fu is blended with ancient Chinese legends for a game that is unpredictable and captivating. It's just as amazing to watch as it is to play. The moves all seem perfectly choreographed and are reminiscent of the ballet in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The game is also full of references to old movies including those of Jackie Chan and the Wu Tang series. Having said that you know that you can expect the unexpected. It balances situations of dire seriousness with comic relief. One character in particular is voiced by one of my favorite comedians, John Cleese, of Monty Python and Faulty Towers fame.

At the start of the game you can choose from six characters, evenly split into sexes. Each have slightly different abilities but you can customize them to your specifications as you progress. Steeped in ancient Chinese philosophies you will choose your path of good, evil or neutral while nourishing your mind, body and soul with essence that is rewarded for good fighting technique.

It's amazing how this whole ancient Chinese concepts fits into the classic RPG format that was originally designed for the fantasy-based dungeon and dragons. We have hack and slash weapons, warring factions, an intricate story with lots of back history, interactive characters, team play, a huge map and the ability to increase one's skills through experience. You could say that the RPG was invented for Jade Empire.

Beginners and veterans alike will worship the combat system which is both simple and deep. It starts out with a few basic moves allowing you to get used to it as new moves are added as you go. There are plenty of opportunities to test out your new moves. Basic attacks are facilitated by the A button. The X button yields more powerful attacks but unlike the basic attacks they take time to charge and can leave you vulnerable. Two of the most fundamental and important moves are the block and the dodge. Blocking and dodging will help buy you some time until you can get in a position to pull off a special attack. Dodging consists of rolling dives, backflips and other hyper-gymnastic feats that are great fun to use.

The targeting system allows you to take on one enemy at a time. The unwritten rule of the old Kung Fu movies states that the hero will take on one enemy at a time from a swarming horde and move on up the chain of command to finally confront the boss. By moving the cursor around you will highlight the enemy that you will fight while the others patiently wait their turn.

Although the different characters may have different abilities, they all have three main components that fuel their moves: Health; Chi and Focus. Chi is magic. It can be used in combination with fighting moves to unleash some really devastating attacks such as fireballs. It can also be used to recharge your health which is something you don't want drained. Focus lets you slow down time to use your weapons more effectively. By combining these moves and fighting styles you will have a vast array of combat commands available with a minimal of fuss. Button mashing is not encouraged but at least you don't have to memorize a lot of combinations.

Leveling up is fast and easy. The interface is a joy to work with. You won't be agonizing over each and every detail. By virtue of the path that you've chosen and the styles of combat that you prefer, these decisions are basically spelled out for you, although at no time do you feel forced into a choice. The interface is just arranged to be more user-friendly, not restrictive.

Followers are characters that comprise your party. You don't directly control them and you can only take one into battle with you. Your follower will help distract enemies during a melee. They will also help charge your Chi and Focus by meditating for your. These followers are complex characters and each one has a different motive for following you, all of which is revealed through conversations. The depth of information you can glean through conversation is directly related to your charm which is upgradeable.

There are so many facets to this game which can be affected by the choices that you make that you will definitely have to replay it several times. There are three different endings. I've only seen one and I'm just dying to see the other two.

With incredible smooth animation and rich, detailed graphics the story of Jade Empire is literally brought to life. On rare occasions the camera will get stuck behind some of the scenery which is only a real problem when you're in the middle of a fight. The music elicits a range of emotion from serene calm to severe calamity. Voiceovers are equally amazing which is virtually unheard of for a game that relies on ancient China as a backdrop.

Jade Empire is more or less an interactive movie. It's fast paced with streamlined RPG features that takes the tedium out of micro-management yet still allow for a stunning degree of choices and overall freedom for your character. The production values are second to none and the all-important story is one of the best in recent memory. It's got great replay value with six different characters, multiple moral paths and different endings. I don't think you have to read between the lines to figure out that I really love this game. Definitely check it out.

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System: XBOX
Dev: BioWare
Pub: Microsoft
Released: April 2005
Players: 1
Review by Dan