I’m sure you may be wondering why I’m reviewing Jade Empire. ”This game’s pretty old, so what’s the deal, Laevatein?” Truth be told, I suppose there’s neither rhyme nor reason behind my choice this week. I recently finished it for the first time, so I guess now’s as good a time as any. Anyway, Jade Empire is Bioware’s fifth game, and is probably their most unique one of all, at least in terms of setting. It’s also important as Bioware’s first original IP. In many ways, it’s pretty unique, insofar as Western RPGs go. I often like to think individual RPGs need to be more unique, too. However, I think Jade Empire is a pretty good example of why uniqueness alone doesn’t cut it.
What stands out the most about Jade Empire is its setting. For a western game, choosing a very Asian setting is certainly uncommon. All characters seem Chinese (or pseudo-Chinese), the lands seem Chinese (or, again, pseudo-Chinese), and the mythology certainly seems Chinese (pseudo-Chinese, once again), with one exception. For those who want settings other than your token Tolkien-esque setting, I suppose this is a very good thing. Jade Empire is very different. I suppose it’s like what Mulan does for Disney movies. It’s a shame that only a pretty small slice of the world is presented in the game, but given the tale Bioware wanted to tell, they probably couldn’t increase the scope much more. I also get the feeling that the setting is pretty much just a regurgitation of your standard wuxia setting, but I don’t know enough about that to say.
The story may seem like your average Bioware plot, but I think it’s a lot more unique than that. While your standard Bioware plot has you hailing from humble origins, you having to leave your place of origins for whatever reasons, your father figure or mentor murdered, and the spectacular revelation of your past, Jade Empire does a few things differently. Not too differently, I guess, but still differently. There are some setting elements that switch up much of the story’s dynamics. For instance, there are quite a few gods in the story, and you interact with them quite frequently. Overall though, many elements of the narrative, such as pacing and cohesion, will seem pretty familiar to Bioware fans. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to say “Jade Empire is pretty much a wuxia film” and call it a day. It’s also very linear, so take that as you will.
However, I thought Jade Empire’s plot was pretty memorable (though not entirely the good kind of memorable), and I still have some points to cover. Let’s get one of the stupidest parts of the overall narrative out of the way. The morality system. As you may know, I’m not a fan of morality systems, and much rather prefer systems that denote relationships rather than some mystical sense of absolute morality. In the presence of gods, morality systems seem excusable to a degree, because the setting has already established some sort of absolute morality, or at least morality that exists above humans. Even with this, it surprises me that Jade Empire gets the morality pretty damned wrong.
An NPC conversation early in the game revealed how nuanced the morality was. The game’s morality revolved around two different philosophies, the Way of the Open Palm, and the Way of the Closed Fist. You can imagine how the two play out, but the NPC stressed how Open Palm has its downsides and Closed Fist has its upsides. For instance, the Way of the Open Palm requires you to help people in need, but the Way of the Open Palm can be too overbearing, and may even make the people you help very resentful. Meanwhile, the Way of the Closed advocates personal strength, first and foremost. If a Way of the Closed Fist practitioner saw a random individual getting attacked by thugs, they would not intervene to help (but neither would they join the thugs to attack the victim). The Closed Fist doesn’t do this out of malice, but to teach the victim to stand up for himself, and to defend himself (unless the odds are too much in the thugs’ favor; the Closed Fist would intervene to help the victim at this point). Ultimately, this is supposed to help them become better individuals.
While the downsides of Open Palm and justifications for Closed Fist are very much forms of Ethical Egoism, it’s important to note that there is quite a lot of rhyme and reason involved. Compare this to your standard morality systems, where you are good/evil just because, and usually the epitome of good/evil at that. Where’s the problem, then? It’s all pretty good lore-wise, but these nuances do not translate over to the game very well at all. Many of the choices you are presented are still along the lines of “pet/kick the dog” rather than anything I just mentioned above. The philosophy does show its head a few times, but not often enough. There is almost nothing to indicate in-game that there’s anything wrong with Open Palm, and any Closed Fist choice you could make is almost always somewhat sadistic in nature (rather than ultimately beneficial). It all seems like wasted potential, really.
Characters, meanwhile, are pretty bland. They often aren’t very memorable or special, and are usually there just to serve the plot. Hell, even your party members don’t seem all that interesting. Hell, some of them don’t have anything to do with the plot. It’s kind of sad when what should be the most interesting characters lose almost all of their relevancy about 2/3 of the way through. However, there is one character that manages to stand out quite a lot. In fact, said character stands out so much, he’s literally the best part of the plot (and maybe the whole game). This individual happens to be the main antagonist. I literally cannot describe anything about him, but I think he’s one of best Bioware antagonists. His reveal and pretty much everything about him were handled so well, with some pretty decent foreshadowing. The antagonist’s goals and ambitions are unmatched in the plot, and his methods are pretty damned awesome, too. Overall, I have pretty much nothing bad to say about the antagonist. If only I could say the same about the rest of the game.
Jade Empire’s gameplay is also pretty unique. It resembles a 3D beat ‘em up of sorts, with some RPG elements. You have three stats, body, spirit, and mind. These three stats affect both combat and roleplaying (through dialogue checks and the like). You also have various skills, fashioned “styles” in Jade Empire. Each style is basically a moveset you have access to when battling. Battle resembles a rock-paper-scissor like system. You have normal attacks, strong attacks, and guard. Normal attacks interrupt strong attacks, strong attacks smash shields, and shields protect against normal attacks. Styles refer to things like martial arts styles, weapon styles, and even elemental and transformation styles. Each style also has access to area of effect attacks. Of course, you have a few ways to move around (via rolls and jumping and stuff). You can also combine support and martial styles for very brutal finishers.
While it seems like you have quite a number of options, there really isn’t any depth to the combat. Once you get past all the bells and whistles, the gameplay is really pretty monotonous and unchallenging. Many of the styles you get are very overpowered. The support styles often give you such a large advantage, and the martial styles are very, very spammable. Weapon, elemental, and transformation styles pretty much make you a murdering machine. Hell, there’s a reason why you’re only allowed to bring along one ally at a time, and it’s not to make Jade Empire resemble Neverwinter Nights. Hell, the first weapon you get can cut through normal enemies in less than a second if you upgrade it a fair ways. In many ways, the gameplay is quite disappointing. There is almost no sense of challenge in the game, and when there is, it’s usually due to arbitrary restrictions placed on you, rather than any actual sort of difficulty. Eventually, I felt it a chore to actually fight things, whether the game was “challenging” or not.
On the flip side of things, the art and style were quite nice. The setting came across pretty well in-game, and that’s all thanks to the art assets and such. Characters are decently expressive, and enemy/creature designs are pretty unique and cool. I think there was a little too much bloom in Jade Empire, even by today’s standards, but Jade Empire is also far from what I’d call drab. The sound is also quite remarkable. Jade Empire has some pretty great voice acting (though everyone sounds like North American), and one of the characters is even voiced by a certain Nathan Fillion. The music is also pretty good. It’s both fitting and memorable. Sound effects are quite great.
Overall, I really wanted to like this game. Unfortunately, there are quite a few flaws, both mechanical and conceptual. While I really liked the setting and the main antagonist (and some of the other characters), so many elements were pretty mediocre, or just plain bad. I contemplated even dropping the game near the end, as it just got so tedious. If Bioware ever looks into Jade Empire again, I sure hope they rethink many of Jade Empire’s ideas.
–Some other characters
–Pretty decent setting
–Art and sound
–Most other characters
Publisher: 2K Games
Available on: PC
Genre: Action RPG
Release date: February 26, 2007