In the run up to April 2005, with development duties for a Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic sequel out of their hands, BioWare found themselves free to work on another passion project. This brand new RPG titled Jade Empire is about as far removed from a science fiction space opera as one can feasibly get, with players gearing up for a martial arts adventure heavily inspired by Asian mythology.
In true BioWare fashion, your chosen hero is also the chosen one of the game’s story; a budding martial artist who sets off on a fantastical journey to rescue their kidnapped master from an order of ruthless assassins.
We may not be in space anymore, but Jade Empire takes many a cue from BioWare’s previous game. Your Spirit Monk character is a mythical warrior similar to a Jedi; the Lotus Assassins heavily resemble the Sith; even the main baddie is an enigmatic figure who wears an armoured mask and speaks with a robotic voice, just like a certain Sith Lord people might be familiar with.
Combat is where things differ significantly. In Jade Empire players will be leaping through the air, channeling their chi and super-kicking baddies in realtime. This is similar to Sudeki, where players are given direct control over fighting; at the time very different to BioWare’s usual turn-based approach.
Fortunately, Jade Empire’s combat is a lot more competent than Sudeki’s. A key improvement is that players can lock on to individual enemies, which makes moving and attacking a lot more fluid. Players can freely change their martial arts style in battle, with different stances affording advantages over specific opponents.
For instance: demonic foes are immune to the support styles that deal low damage in exchange for helpful status effects, so in that case players might choose to equip a powerful weapon or an unarmed style to save Focus. As well as powering weapons, Focus is a resource that can be spent to initiate a potent slow motion mode that’s perfect for decimating partially frozen enemies.
Effects like this afford Jade Empire a cinematic quality. The frame rate suffers during some of the more intense fights, but players will typically always look forward to their next battle; a good place to be considering how combat-heavy certain areas are.
The action elements make for an exciting display at the expense of greater depth. Character building in Jade Empire is remarkably simplistic, and it’s made even more lightweight by the variety of martial arts styles that nevertheless feel similar to each other. Every level up brings bonus points for your monk’s vital statistics and style points that only ever boost your damage or lower your costs by a set percentage. Functional, though not hugely interesting.
This simplification makes things easy to get into, but I’m not sure the fast and furious combat totally makes up for the creaky game engine. The combat animations are very repetitive and the various styles can sometimes feel cumbersome to use. Enemies are dumb and will often just stand still blocking whilst you charge up a power attack. Playing on Hard difficulty does help make things more fun in this regard, though the high HP of some enemies can make certain battles feel like a chore, especially when the loading times are so lengthy.
I enjoyed playing this game when it first came out, but I never did bother to finish it. I’ve heard it said many times that the Asian fantasy theme is a harder sell than science fiction tends to be, but I’ve since discovered that the second chapter is what originally held me back. Quite simply: I found chapter 2 of Jade Empire to be a drag. The plot stalls in Tien’s Landing and some of the side quests there feel a bit generic despite the unique setting.
Tien’s Landing is a port town hit by an economic depression and I think BioWare almost did too good a job of conveying this topic because the place actually is depressing to be around. There is an NPC on every corner complaining about the dire state of things. It’s not helped by the surrounding area that includes a dingy forest and a bandit cave. They’re not locales players will be particularly eager to visit.
Chapter 3 takes players to the Imperial City and it’s here that you can appreciate the wonderful graphics to their fullest extent. The city is way more animated as the sun shines down on all the little civilians who are milling about the various colourful districts.
It’s also here that BioWare deploys their little trope where the player enters an arena to compete in various tests of might. I have to say though, it’s the best implementation of that trope I’ve seen. It’s a long and exciting side plot with intriguing schemes to uncover, some rock-hard fights to be had, and the odd follower quest that matures alongside it all.
Although, your allied followers are yet another ingredient that’s been heavily simplified. You can’t control their tactics when battling, and their support modes are almost completely overshadowed by your starting follower Dawn Star, who can handily restore your Chi resource used for healing damage and casting spells. Much better than relying on followers for their bone-headed fighting skills and weak damage output.
Chapter 3 is also around the time when your followers get anything interesting to say. Followers like the amusing Henpecked Hou and Black Whirlwind take a while before they start to open up to you, but some never do. Wild Flower turns out to be an especially bland follower despite having a delightfully unique backstory and occupying the vaunted “weirdo” spot made famous by KOTOR’s HK-47.
Romance options exist, including BioWare’s (I think) first homosexual romance story for both male and female characters. Saying that though, the romances here are a bit clunky and the gay romance is the perfect example of such. It’s not possible to go down that path as a male hero unless you act aggressively towards your female companions, and even then the final scene where the two characters kiss is only shown for the heterosexual romances.
Video games have always had a repressive history when it comes to the topic of sex, and whilst BioWare made great steps to mature their depictions in more recent times, Jade Empire is not really the place where that began. The game is surprisingly violent at times, to the point where we can see a man get blasted into bloody chunks by cannon fire, but no way can we show two ladies kissing each other on the lips!
It’s not the first instance where Jade Empire struggles to express itself consistently. The setting is inspired by the Wuxia genre of Chinese fiction and several character names play up to the exaggerated naming conventions that it made popular. Wu the Lotus Blossom and Scholar Ling are the sorts of names we’re talking about.
It gets a bit silly at times though. BioWare was not afraid to delve into parody, meaning you’ll get to meet a sex-obsessed oaf called Lustful Lao and a courtesan called Happy Endings. Give me a break!
Actor John Cleese has a notable cameo role as, get this: Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard. That being part of the game’s most memorable side quest by far.
Some of it is good fun then, but there are times where the setting clashes with American-sounding dialogue that has NPCs saying things like “Worst subject ever!” or them repeatedly saying “Yes, dear” to a bossy spouse. The writers also overuse long pauses and ellipsis in the middle of sentences to a degree that is seriously annoying. It’s like they’re trying to make the dialogue sound more dramatic, but it just comes across as pretentious instead.
The moral choice system — another Knights of the Old Republic influence — returns with players acting under the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist. Whilst the writers intended to have player decisions represent more than just the concept of good versus evil, this is exactly how it turned out. Every choice feels obvious and free from dilemma, and the alignment bar has no major effect on gameplay, which is a terrible waste of potential.
It doesn’t feel as if there are many diverse character builds because of how simplified everything is. There needed to be a costume editor or something to change your character’s appearance. Player characters never change from the default model they started with despite ascending to a god-level scrapper. A little customisation would have been welcome.
Jade Empire is also one of BioWare’s shorter RPGs, clocking in at 20-25 hours or less if the optional content is not factored in. It’s more linear in design, with fewer areas to visit and less freedom in the order in which you visit them. Being shorter means that the simplified gameplay won’t outstay its welcome, but it also means there is less value in a second playthrough, especially with the lacklustre moral choices and follower relations being what they are.
More than anything though, it is still nice to play something from a period where a big company was still willing to take a creative risk. What Jade Empire really needed was a next generation sequel in the style of Mass Effect 2 — a bigger production that could have worked out some of the kinks and brought the combat to life a bit more.
But who knows? Maybe one day a proper sequel can still happen and finish what this decent first entry started.