No preamble this time. I did it. I played the game you people voted for. After the 12(!) hours it took me to beat this game, I can confirm that Jade Empire is indeed a RPG of questionable quality. Ok, that's maybe a little harsh. It's fine, and I might even go as far as to say that certain aspects of it are great: It has an unique setting as far as video games are concerned with some pretty great art direction and some well-done supporting characters. However, in the grand pantheon of Bioware games it's nothing special. Oh, I'm sure that Sonic RPG is still a piece of work (and now I feel the sudden urge to play that and mock it relentlessly), but as it stands now Jade Empire is my least favorite Bioware game*. And that's... fine. Not every game has to be a winner, and I'm still glad I played it.
This can partially be blamed on simple perspective. Had I played this game in 2005 when it came out and KotOR was still my favorite game of all-time, I bet I would've liked it a lot more than I did now. But I was a Nintendo kid, and thus did not have an "Xbox The First", leaving me with nothing but KotOR II to sate my need for RPGs. By the time the PC version of this game came out (two years later) I had moved on to being really obsessed with Oblivion and sort of regretting the purchase of my Wii. Oh, and Mass Effect came out. While that game wasn't the second-coming of RPGs for me the way it was for some people, it still stands that my opinion has been colored by the story-focused RPGs that have come since, be they from Bioware, Obsidian or CD Projekt RED. Doesn't help that I just played Mask of the Betrayer too, if we're just going to throw in everything.
Stop me if you've heard this before: You are an individual of humble origin thrust out of your home after violence occurs. You are the only one who can save the Jade Empire because you are special (the last of the spirit monks) and because of that you are hounded by the forces of (obvious) evil. Along the way you pick up a group of colorful companions who are probably romance-able (bonus points here for being the first Bioware game with homosexual romances and also you can apparently have a threesome?). Sounds familiar? Yeah. Jade Empire's world is what stands out more than its main story, borrowing heavily from Imperial China and a bunch of other Asian mythologies that don't get their just due in Video Games and for that I will give it points. Also to its credit, the late-game twist in Jade Empire subverts this to a degree: Your life, up to that point, was all part of an orchestrated plot by your master to get revenge on his brother, the emperor and gain the throne himself. And then he kills you (but of course you don't stay dead). I'd say that's about on-par with "You are Darth Revan", and maybe just as obvious in hindsight.
I played the game "Closed Fist", which the game tries to pretend is motivated self-interest instead of just Chaotic Evil, but yeah, it's still binary moral choice with all the subtlety of an anvil and significantly more interesting than playing the role of the Lawful Good "Open Palm" character. Much like KotOR, perhaps suspiciously so, there comes an end-game moment where all of your party members realize that your murderous psychopathic behavior actually meant something and you can force them into your service against their own wills. Also you can poison the waters of the empire and seize the godlike power of the Water Dragon for your own evil ends! Because you're evil. I feel like there are some companions you can convince to your way of thinking, but I guess I didn't talk with them enough for that, or any romance, to happen. Your companions are interesting on their own merits if a bit one-dimensional (the sacrifice of one party-member feels rather unearned, to be honest), though I appreciate the little girl with two demons inside her. That's pretty great.
You'll notice that I haven't even mentioned the gameplay. That's because it's terrible but also easy. As long as your character has a decently fast attack style you can get through 90% of Jade Empire's combat by mashing the A button and occasionally pressing X when you need to break someone's block. There's no real nuance to be found. Just pick the handful of styles that allow you to keep your enemies constantly hitstunned and go from there. It's also a pity that you get some of the more interesting styles, like Viper and Red Minister, near the end of the game when you've already put points into the same styles you've been using since the beginning of the game. Similarly, there's no subtlety to stat building. All three stats are important enough that you might as well keep them evenly balanced, unless you really didn't care about using Chi strikes, or whatever. Your party members aren't capable of doing any sort of appreciable damage, which is why you should keep them set to "Support" at all times, where they can constantly restore your health/spirit/focus. I also need to mention the Storm Dragon style, the description of which implies that it does damage over time, but really just stuns the enemy for an absurdly long time, allowing you to beat them with impunity. It works on the final boss too, which is probably the saddest/most hilarious part. You can also equip gems, but most of them just add to your stats or conversation skills, with only a few having really interesting effects.
And then there's the thing where the game is short. I beat it in 12 hours, with only a few passing glances at walkthroughs to see if I missed anything super-important. There are only two major hub areas in the game, the imperial city and Tien's Landing, both feel tiny and constrained, though still packed with their fair share of Bioware-esque sidequests (The best of which is probably a debate about whose culture is superior with a stereotypical european white-male conqueror voiced by John Cleese.) Once you get past those two areas, the game is pretty much over and is soul-crushingly linear from then on. It doesn't surprise me at all that the game can be beaten in 2 1/2 hours if you were to critical path everything. Then again, I'm not sure if making the game much longer would actually make it much better, given the combat. But of course, if I wanted more Bioware writing, I could find better writing in most of their other games.
Because that's the thing: Everything that Jade Empire does has been done better in most other RPGs, those made by Bioware and otherwise. I don't think it's terrible by any means, but no game exists in a vacuum. I'd like to hear arguments from the people who voted for this game why it's so special, because I'm really not seeing most of it, though I do see enough potential that I would be very interested if Bioware ever made a sequel (unlikely). Hopefully my next blog won't be for a while, either because Chrono Cross is long or because I find a job. Either would be acceptable to me, the latter moreso than the former. And that's it. Don't do drugs! Unless you have to in order to not die/hate yourself, like me. Then... do them. Also, before I forget: The steam version of this game is messed up and if you don't want to do a bunch of tinkering with permissions and have to run steam in administrator mode, probably get it from GOG.
*: A case could be made to me that Neverwinter Nights is secretly the worst game Bioware has made, given its atrociously boring original campaign, but I feel like it earns a better spot in my mind between Hordes of the Underdark, the multiplayer and the wide number of fan modules that have been released.