Monday, January 11, 2010

Backseat Designer: Jade Empire's Fighting Styles

I'd never really given Jade Empire a whirl. I knew it was good, but never developed a hunger for it because I didn't own an xbox. It took a Steam sale price of $5 for me to get the game, and even then it was one of those "I know I ought to but don't feel like it" moments normally associated with eating your vegetables. But once I sat down and started playing, that ambivalence towards the game was quickly gave way to delight. Fantastic story, graphics that still wow by virtue of some fantastic art design, and (most relevant to this blog) some really neat bits of original game design. It always warms my heart to see an rpg system that's custom-built to fit the game's premise on a fundamental level. The implementation of these design elements has its share of flaws and balance issues, but I can avoid fixating on them when the designers' hearts were clearly in the right place.

There's already plenty of other sites offering previews and reviews of the game, so I'll skip to the subject of this particular post. Eurogamer's review of the game lays the matter out nicely:
Jade Empire's big idea is the inclusion of dozens of different fighting styles, ranging from weapon styles to unarmed martial arts styles, magic abilities, support styles that don't damage directly but might slow an enemy down or steal their Chi (which is used for magical attacks, or to replenish your health), and even transformation styles which morph you into a powerful monster.

Four of these styles can be mapped to the four directions on your D-pad, and you can access the rest of them through a pause menu during combat. The idea behind the game's combat system is that while fighting in each individual style is very simple, the combination of different styles yields a range of more interesting techniques. This almost works.

I'm in agreement- the martial arts styles are great stuff, but a handful of mechanical changes could go a long way towards improving what is already a solid experience.

You get new styles throughout the game. Sometimes you're offered multiple styles (literally or not) and must pick one, with the ones you didn't pick usually becoming available for some extra coin after another chapter or two. I especially love cases where your actions lead to someone offering you a new fighting style as an unexpected reward; the fighting style is always thematically linked to the person teaching it, as though the game was converting them into a new toy for you to kick ass with. It lends a degree of flavor to your abilities (and a sense of accomplishment to your character's development) that's far beyond what most RPGs can offer.

In light of this approach, the designers a pair several smart decisions when it comes to improving the styles you've obtained. First, they didn't make it too important. All of a style's special abilities are available from the get-go rather than having to be unlocked, and heavily investing in a given style will only make it roughly twice as damaging as the style you neglect. This keeps the player focused on choosing which styles to use and then learning to apply them effectively. Second, they gave the styles escalating upgrade costs while slowly increasing the number of points players received to spend on those upgrades. You're free to invest points in a style you've already improved or one you just received, rather than having one option be inferior.

Taking these elements into account, here's the big change I'd make: Each style gets a passive secondary benefit. You constantly receive the secondary benefits of all 4 styles you've got selected, regardless of which one you're currently using. One style grants a small increase to your attack rate, another boosts the damage of your power attacks, a third reduces the cost of chi strikes... This would probably replace the option to level up different aspects of a given style; either way, the secondary benefit would improve in relation to how much you'd leveled that style up.

Make this change and you make good on the concept of a player's individual styles combining to produce something more. It adds a layer of strategic depth, that of choosing and refining your unique approach to combat. In-game, it represents your character drawing on the fundamental lessons they've learned from the different styles they favor.

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