By AdventFalls 22 Comments
You've been there. Your friend picks up a game from your collection, and you swear upon your mother's life that it's not complete rubbish or that people need to know about it. Said friend rolls his eyes and returns to whatever games 'made it'. We've all been there, calling that game a guilty pleasure, callinh it 'the critics just don't understand it, man', calling it what you want, we all like a game that just never got noticed or people actively hate.
This doesn't seem like one of those games at first. Jade Empire was released on the XBox and PC in 2005, receiving positive reviews and selling at a decent clip. On top of all that, it was developed by Bioware between its astounding successes of KOTOR and Mass Effect. But it's within that frame of reference that this game suddenly qualifies for a defense. Amongst the Bioware stable it's the black sheep that no one ever acknowledges. When compared to games like Baldur's Gate, KOTOR, and even more recent stuffs such as Mass Effect 2, the legacy of Jade Empire is decidedly more muted. Even amongst reviews at the time the reception was less positive than most other Bioware games. Despite this, I manage to hold it in as high a regard as Bioware's other works even if others disagree due to its attempts to differentiate itself from its predecessors.
Jade Empire was Bioware's attempt to do something completely different. After several games where the entire conceit of combat hinged on whose turn it was, Bioware decided to create a real-time martial arts system. Instead of a fantasy world that drew inspiration from Western lore and more recent fair such as D&D, the game turns to the other side of the world and generates a world inspired by ancient China. This definitely helps the game stand out from its peers who'd all gone the other direction.
People can quack all they want about Bioware games sharing similar plot points and story arcs, but Jade Empire sells them quite brilliantly. While the story isn't quite up to par with others in the Bioware stable it's still a Bioware game- meaning you're already at a good starting point. Each story beat feels like part of a puzzle; you can see there's one missing fact that you know if you could discover would turn everything on its head.
The characters themselves are split between the memorable and the necessary, a split that afflicts most Bioware games. This time the balance is more on the memorable side, with only one or two characters falling into the 'your mileage may vary' territory. Bioware's romances return in Jade Empire, but with intriguing twists. For those of you interested in batting for the other team, Jade Empire actually allows you to do so regardless of gender. It allows for players to try and influence those character's way of thinking in manners that really do help sell their interactions with the player.
That brings us to the combat, and this is where things get much dicier. While Bioware deserves a lot of credit for trying a new combat system, the end result isn't nearly as complex as any of its previous entries. Combat only relies on three different stats, each of which creates derivative stats. The combination of martial arts, weapons, magical styles, and transformations all combine to create some visually inspiring stuff for an XBox-era game, and it makes you feel like a complete badass from a kung-fu movie. The flip side is that it can be mind-numbingly easy once you know what you're doing, and you'll figure it out fairly quickly since there are few stats to tinker with and you'll be favoring only a few different styles. There are only a few fights that can actually present a challenge to the player, and those actually end up hinting at something that could've been iterated on.
The game is also very short, especially for a Bioware game. Most games from the company have several towns to visit. This game has three, and access to them is limited by how far into the story you've accessed. It makes the game feel much smaller than it should, which brushes up a lot against its epic storytelling towards the end of the game. For people who don't have a lot of time on their hands, that actually makes Jade Empire an easier recommendation in that they'll actually have the time to commit to it.
With all of that said, I have to talk about the game's morality system. This time it's clad in the philosophies of 'Way of the Open Palm' and 'Way of the Closed Fist'. They're ostensibly not supposed to be simple 'good and evil' choices, and either one can be construed as a 'wrong choice'. With that said, the system is almost completely ruined by the game's execution. While the fluff definitely supports a complex morality system, in practice Open Palm choices are altrustic and 'good' and Closed First are selfish and 'bad'. On top of that, the system is binary like KOTOR; gaining Open Palm points diminishes your Closed Fist tendencies just as surely as Light Side points did to the Dark Side. This is really a game where two meters might've worked out better; one that measured which philosophy you followed and one that measured how you followed it.
The system just seems to lack any kind of accountability, especially at the end of the game where a late-game decision can outright swing your character to the other side of the Open/Closed spectrum. KOTOR I had a similar problem, but that decision had some accountability in locking you out of certain end-game gear if you took the swing and the morality system wasn't as complex. Here, the swing is just a slap in the face.
With all of that said though, you're still left with a damn good game. The story is epic, the game is short enough so that you don't tire of the simple combat, the morality system at least tries to not be a simple choice between being a saint or a rapist, and the setting is unlike anything most mainstream gamers have experienced.
It's on Steam for $15 and available as an XBox Original for 1200 points. It's a pretty damn good bargain at that rate, but Steam has a history of offering deals on the game if that's too much for you. Pick it up if you want an RPG that does something different.