Look, ma, no orcs! I'm playing a fantasy RPG that isn't regurgitated Tolkien! Jade Empire's world isn't entirely original - it's ancient China with kung-fu magic and creepy animé-style spirits - but it's fresh enough to pass for it in the shamefully stagnant gene-pool of gaming.
The belated PC version we're talking about here is prettier and has two new fighting styles, but they're secreted away and it's otherwise indistinguishable from its Xbox uncle. I suppose if you've played that, the review pretty much ends here.
It's nice that BioWare are so comfortable in their shiny new universe that they don't feel the need to explain it all to you up-front, but that confidence backfires slightly when they forget to give you any reason to care. For the first four hours.
The opening scenes are quaint - you're the star pupil of a small martial arts school, and there's a precocious fellow student to deal with (voiced seethingly well by Serenity captain Nathan Fillion) - but the characters are tiresomely simplistic, and when they all burn to the ground in the first ten minutes (uh, spoiler? - Ed) it's something of a relief. Your sole motivation for the first umpteen chapters is the vague goal of rescuing a dislikeable mentor who can clearly take care of himself; CCTV footage of your local library gets interesting quicker than this. You could be entirely forgiven for losing patience with the whole thing long before you get to the good stuff.
Which is why I'm here. I am a kindly (yet naked) humanoid fox, summoned from the spirit world to tell you - whom I shall hereon refer to as "grasshopper" unless you strenuously object - to have patience, and that Jade Empire is very good indeed.
Now, grassho- yeah, OK, that was irritating me too. Jade is an action roleplaying game with 'action' in italics and double-underlined in red biro. Combat is frequent, real-time and heavily weighted towards reactions and quick-thinking. In fact, the main form of character progression is acquiring and developing new combat styles to switch between mid-fight: martial arts, weapons, magical projectiles and vast but cumbersome demon forms.
For that reason the fights themselves, like the story, the characters and the quests, don't get into their stride until a few hours in when the techniques you've earned and bought start to mix in interesting ways. But when they do, and your little psycho in a mini-kimono starts to run rings around, daze, freeze, beat, smash and crush a swarm of goons or beasts without taking a hit, it's sublime.
You could equally be playing as the burly baldy, the lean monk, the thigh-highs coquette or a few others, but after this your appearance won't alter. The most unusual thing about Jade Empire as an RPG is that there are virtually no items to snatch - there's not a Godly Plate of the Whale or King's Sword of Haste in the land. The only trinkets you'll accumulate are gems that grant you small and unexciting bonuses to your stats, but it's surprising how little this matters. Because the combat system is so good, the promise of new styles, enhancement points for your existing ones and even just the chance to try out new tactics you've thought of is more than enough to keep you beavering away.
It's your choice of these that defines your character, and they have a lot more meaningful impact on the way the game plays and feels than any fancy shoulder-pads or glowing sword. Jade needs a little more narrative punch and pace to qualify as properly addictive, but you'd be hard pressed to point to a game since Diablo that mixes 'action' and 'RPG' this intelligently.