Most reviewers are describing Jade Empire as an action RPG. This is not strictly accurate. Jade Empire is more of a fighting RPG. Other than combat there is only one situation where you need any action skills at all, and that's a vertical scrolling shooter mini game, that you don't actually have to play (there's a menu option to skip it.) In action RPGs there are things like difficult jumps, environmental hazards, and hidden secrets requiring manual dexterity. In Jade Empire when you encounter a trap a die roll decides whether or not it affects you, and though there's a really neat animation of you leaping away, you have no control over it. This is important.
The RPG part of Jade Empire is pretty solid. If you've played Knights of the Old Republic or other Bioware games you should recognize it. The game it most resembles, actually is Neverwinter Nights. This isn't a bad thing, that's a great title, but the mechanics of the Bioware role playing system are pretty tried and true and you won't encounter anything overly novel here. The plot is driven by fighting and conversations, the latter of which feature a good amount of control and, at times, some pretty great writing and voice acting. If you've played a previous Bioware RPG you should get the hang of it right away, if you're used to more traditional console fare the freedom of choice in terms of conversation and morality will probably be new, but it's never daunting.
One are in which Jade Empire does differ from previous Bioware titles is in character management. The old titles, even KOTOR, used AD&D rules adapted for the computer. This game uses a proprietary system and it's greatly streamlined. There are three attributes, body mind and spirit. Each is linked to a single meter of useful energy, health, chi, and focus. Health is pretty self-explanatory, chi does what Mana does in other games, namely it's used as fuel for spells (In this game you can also heal yourself with it) while Focus is unique to the game. You can use focus for three things: To speed up navigation of the game world through focus running, to activate a short but powerful 'bullet-time' effect that slows your enemies down greatly so you can beat them down in combat, or as fuel to use weapons. We'll get to that in a bit.
Aside from the three main attributes the only thing you really need to worry about in terms of your character are combat styles. Jade Empire's combat system takes place in real time, with you fighting your foes using a variety of styles you learn during the game. You start off with a few and can gain many more over the course of the adventure. Combat styles are broken down into five main categories, with one style not fitting into any, though I'll let you discover that one on your own. The five categories are martial (hand to hand combat), magic, weapon, transformation and support. Transformation styles allow you to expend large amounts of chi to transform into various opponents you have defeated and use their abilities against other foes. Support styles are basically the replacement for 'effects' in other games. You can use them to do things like paralyze, slow, or poison your foes. After you get a style you can upgrade it with "Style points" as you level, making it do more damage, speeding up the attack, or making it easier to use.
The combat system seems like it should be very complex and rewarding, but it's not. There's a whole lot of stuff you can do, but not a lot you need to do, especially at the default difficulty. In theory you can fight with all sorts of complex strategies. For example you could use a support style to slow a foe down, blast him with magic, and then finish him off with your twin axes. In reality what you'll probably do is end up just attacking with a martial style or a weapon until he falls. Part of the reason for this is that the game is easy, and foes are predictable. You have a very powerful dodge function at your command which you can use to avoid virtually any attack AND to vault behind enemies at will. Enemies will continue attacking where you were for a few seconds while you burn away at their health from the back. Many fights devolve into you vaulting over an enemy's head, whaling away until he turns to face you, then vaulting over his head again. Rinse and repeat. There's a rock-paper-scissor thing going on too. You have weak attacks, strong attacks, and block. Weak attacks are quick but don't do a lot of damage and can be blocked. Strong attacks are very slow, cause both damage and knock back, and can penetrate blocks. There's an area attack that can be useful for clearing out foes when you're surrounded, but doesn't do any damage so rarely comes into play. In the beginning of the game enemies will block after a few weak attacks and then you can use strong attack to knock them down, but towards the end if you try to strong attack an enemy will just stop blocking and start hitting you with weak attacks while you are vulnerable. Because you can just jump over his head and attack him on his undefended flank there is very little reason to use strong attacks late in the game.
As mentioned before the game is not difficult. The reason for this is mostly the enemy AI, which is pretty stupid. It never quite figures out how to counter the dodge and attack strategy. Sometimes you are attacked by multiple enemies, some with projectiles, and these encounters can get tough, though for the most part enemies will hang back and let you deal with their friends before attacking you. You have an ally through most of the game, but they are stupid too and will often run off to fight an enemy far from the thick of things leaving you basically alone. Sometimes they provide a useful distraction but mostly they serve just to hold a single fighter at bay while you do the heavy lifting.
Despite being easy the combat in Jade Empire is not particularly boring, because it looks damn good. The character models in the game are, for the most part, excellent, and the animations match pretty well. There's a fair amount of gore if you are willing to do the work to uncover it (killing enemies in spectacular fashion requires something called a harmonic combo which is basically a specific series of attacks that results in a beheading or something. They're not worth the effort after you've seen them a few times.) The game also remains interesting by restricting your supply of health, focus, and chi. There are no healing items in the game, although enemies do sometimes drop healing power ups, and most of your energy will be drawn from shrines, which are fairly rare. You'll not often run out of any of any type of energy, unless you use magic or weapons a lot in a boss fight, but the threat is there and sometimes you feel like you're in more danger than you really are.
Speaking of limited items, the inventory system in the game is very simplistic. Basically you have money, silvers in Jade Empire, and you have gems which substitute for inventory. Gems generally give you more health, chi, or focus or augment an attribute tied to them. Sometimes they have other effects, such as increasing some social attribute, helping you gain XP faster, or acting as a damage shield. You can buy or find the gems, and equip up to seven at a time (Less in the beginning of the game.) Beyond that the uses for money are basically buying styles and occasionally bribing an NPC or buying upgrades to your ship for the vertical shooter. That's it. There are also quest items but you just pick those up as you go and there's no real management required. It works pretty well for the game, though it does feel a bit sparse.
Some of you may be wondering why I've waited this long to discuss the story of the game. It's because it's pretty typical Bioware fare, and you can decide whether you'll like it or not based on previous games or whether the subject matter appeals to you. The story is very solid, the world of Jade Empire is well-constructed with a strong background story available in books and scrolls throughout the kingdom, and there are plenty of interesting twists and unexpected revelations. It's a pretty typical "Young fighter goes on a journey of great importance" RPG tale. Like in other Bioware RPGs you can choose to be either good or evil. It's not represented as such, instead being called "Open Palm vs Closed Fist" but that's pretty much bullshit. A typical choice might go like this: A man died mistakenly believing his wife poisoned him and now his ghost is haunting his grave site looking for revenge. If you bring his wife to him and mediate, helping clear up the misunderstanding so he can have peace, you walk the path of the open palm. If you bring his wife to him and let him kill her, or if you destroy his spirit yourself just for kicks, you're closed fist. Simple. It's mostly a good story and RPG fans won't have much to complain about, though there are some pretty big plot holes.
The game is relatively short by RPG standards. Some say you can finish it in 12 hours straight through, and I believe it. If you exhaust every side quest you can find and spend some time sightseeing it can take up to twice as long, as it did for me. The game's environments do feel pretty restricted. There are no open roaming areas really, it's all on paths, and that's kind of annoying. The cities and countryside levels are smaller than in your typical RPG, usually constituting one or two maps with maybe a dozen sites of interest or fewer in each area. I would have liked a more open and meatier selection of areas, but at least there are no real duds in the bunch.
Be aware that the game deals a lot with ghosts and spirits and that the graphics and sound are really topnotch. There are times when after a few hours of play you might be slightly spooked, if that sort of thing gets to you. It's not really a horror game, but there are definitely some places that will have your skin crawling a bit if you play alone at night.
There's not much more to say about Jade Empire. The graphics and sound are great, with a few niggling issues like frame rate or voice over that cuts off too soon, but nothing that will disrupt your playing experience. The fighting is adequate, if too easy, and there's a good balance between battle and conversation. The setting and story are great, especially if you're into ancient China (which clearly inspired the Jade Empire) and the voice acting and writing is top notch. Look for John Cleese in an absolutely FABULOUS role once you get to the imperial city.
Jade Empire ultimately comes off as an RPG for people who aren't sure they like RPGs. The action is clearly designed to keep twitch gamers occupied while the short length and low difficulty makes it manageable for the casual gamer. There are no brain busters, no points where you're not sure what to do next (I only got stuck on one side quest, and that was because of slightly buggy collision detection) and you're never in one place too long. Hardcore RPG gamers will want to pick Jade Empire up just because the story is too good to pass up, but will likely feel as I did that it could have been a meatier, longer, more engaging experience. That's too bad, because what's there is good. Jade Empire is like a meal at a good diner. You enjoy it while it lasts, might remember it fondly for a few days, but it doesn't stick with you like some of the really great RPGs do. Hopefully Bioware is at work at a longer, tougher, sequel because with some tuning the fighting engine could be great, and I really enjoyed the setting. This is one that you can't complain about at full price but will be a real steal once it hits the bargain bin. I give it an 8 out of 10, a 10 out of 10 if you're just getting into RPGs and hoping for a little action along the way. Good stuff.