Jade Empire is a forgotten gem deserving of a retrospective. A game that explored the possibilities of the 3D action role-playing genre. A journey into a world that is unlike anything I have experienced. And I believe it is time to give it a retrospective that shows the beauty that lies underneath the age.
Released in 2005, Jade Empire came after the success of the much beloved Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Otherwise known as KOTOR) which showed tremendous potential for Bioware in the home console market.. During this era, Bioware was more known for their top-down isometric RPG’s such as Baldur’s Gate. The developer coming from an era that was reliant on D&D’s turn-based formula (resting on the classic board game’s reliable shoulders) before the steady transition into real-time combat. However, during this transitional period for the developer, they signed a deal that their future games would be Xbox exclusive which resulted in Bioware playing a key role in serving as an ambassador for why anyone would buy an Xbox console.
Yet, major success was on the horizon for Bioware. The developer then went on to create the world-renown Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises that they are still riding the successes of today. But in between that time of Star Wars and the boom of Mass Effect, they released what would become a forgotten gem. The developers first original IP since Baldur’s Gate. My favourite game of all time: Jade Empire.
I will admit, I have spent far too much of my life up scouring the internet for rumours of a sequel. I’d happily take a remake, even a remaster! Alas, only simple ports have turned up, but it is evidence that Jade Empire is not dead. Yes, I admit that there are biases here for me wanting to shine light on this game (I did say it is my favourite game), but I must retain a level of journalistic integrity and breakdown the features that I believe an audience may still appreciate today.
First, though, I want to share a personal anecdote for the importance of the game to me before delving into my Jade Empire retrospective. This will be brief but I feel it is necessary to display full honesty.
A Childhood Shaped By Jade Empire
When I was growing up I didn’t have a lot. I don’t mean to imply that I was in abject in poverty, that is not the case. But my family were in a position of pay check to pay check. This meant that there wasn’t a lot of money to spare for things like games, movies, etc. So, I learned to treasure each opportunity I had. Most of these games were licensed games found in a bargain bin like the Rocky game or Shark Tale.
Now, my dad had a neighbour who was just as much of a nerd as I was, if not more. They would often swap games with each other which gave me the chance to feast on new content. Then the day came, the fateful moment when my dad’s friend handed him Jade Empire. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Combat that felt more like a dance, dialogue options, a story inspired by eastern mythology.
Noticing Jade Empire’s Influences
Soon after I saw House of Flying Daggers which very much showed me that the game was in the vein of wuxia/ action films as well as all manner of Chinese legends I was later exposed to. Jade Empire feels like a work of honest reverence that other works such as Avatar: The Last Airbender also represent. Ultimately, I fell in love with this game.
Jade Empire has shaped me as a person granting a need for this retrospective. It inspired my love of Asian history, Chinese mythology, cinema, etc. Some may view the studio’s approach to be nothing more than an Americanized cultural mishmash, but I found it to be a valiant attempt by Bioware to tell a story with the influences they love. The game still remains a staple of my life now as I play it almost yearly. It is this experience that has made me want to share this retrospective with you, dear reader. I will examine it fairly, with a critical eye, but I truly believe there is still value held within this game and that any gamer should at least try it out.
The Simple, Yet Thrilling, Story of Jade Empire
Jade Empire begins in the village of Two Rivers, which stands as the player’s hometown. You play as a student of a certain Master Li who has been training you since you were taken in as an orphan, your life barely having begun. After a pirate attack on the village, your master reveals to the player that you have a secret identity, one that shows a destiny that has been put in place by forces beyond human control. You are the last of the spirit monks. But before learning more than the basics, Master Li is kidnapped. And it is up to the player to go on an epic journey across the jade empire and rescue your master from the clutches of the evil emperor’s madness.
I have deliberately kept this plot description vague and locked into the first act because it is the journey of this game that makes it so compelling throughout the grand arc. Yes, it is a simple story that holds the storytelling cliches of the hero’s journey archetype so often seen in fantasy fiction.
However, the storytelling is so tight that it makes for a thrilling adventure. And it can often be the case that such simple storytelling can be a breath of fresh air among a sea of narrative complexity. The companion characters and other side quests, in typical Bioware fashion, are the key component in what makes the narrative so memorable with diverse voices on the politics of the world and side stories that show the total devastation the empire has faced in its recent past. In short, it is not so much the throughline that makes up Jade Empire as it is the components within it.
A Slight Issue With the Worldbuilding
The only issue I wish to raise here is the delivery of worldbuilding. While the previously mentioned narrative aspects do a fine job at presenting a complex and exciting world to the player, much of the context of the jade empire is delivered in randomly placed scrolls that deliver simple text on the history and customs that can often make for an immersion breaking and lacklustre form of delivery. It could be good for some players though because the opening hours could be viewed as exposition-laden. Yet, I felt that this is a minor issue when compared to thrills of exploring the secrets of Thieves Landing, gaining the opinions of your merry band of mouthy sidekicks such as Dawn Star (the player’s childhood friend), Silk Fox (the charming rogue) and Sagacious Zu (the brooding bad boy), and gaining further lore from NPC’s scattered throughout the land.
Besides, it is easy to get lost in the fantasy of the place, taking in the beautiful vistas and staring in wonder .Sure, the presentation isn’t the polished cinematic antics of Dragon Age but it is still something to behold.
Jade Empire’s Gameplay is the Shortcoming
Unfortunately, Jade Empire has not aged well in terms of its gameplay. The combat now feels clunky as you look at ways to shape your character around your playstyle and tackle opponents. The pace of exploration can also feel limited as certain areas begin to feel labyrinthian at times that are less by design than by the simple aging process that happens to games of its era. I found this hard to admit writing this Jade Empire retrospective. Yet, one could also argue that its age is part of the charm, exploring an old way of playing games before the homogenised approach we have now.
It is also interesting to note that the shortcomings are from a place of growth. Unlike many of Bioware’s older titles, Jade Empire is not turn based. Sure, KOTOR wasn’t either, but it took the developer some time to come to grips with action RPG’s. I mean, we remember Mass Effect 1’s combat right?
There is Still Much to Experience in the Gameplay
However, I must insist that you do not let this put you off. Once you come to grips with how the game handles, Jade Empire unlocks its depth in combat. You will use the core components of chi (magic) and focus (weapons) in combination with your general fighting styles. As well as the magic and weapons there are also plenty of martial arts philosophies you can adopt as fighting styles. With this you are able to use general magical abilities that allow effects such as ice that stuns alongside flames which burns your enemies. Plus, there is also transformation magic that allows for you to temporarily turn into powerful creatures that deal large amounts of damage.
Furthermore, the stats system in the game is streamlined to allow the player to engage in the narrative. For a player such as myself, this is perfect. I’d much rather be exploring the world than hanging out in the menu pressing buttons to increase the player’s skill advancement. Yes, it can feel like an arbitrary pile of points to some, but it does allow you to focus on the game rather than the systems if you’d prefer.
The aging of the games’ systems are negated by the fun you have exploring the many combat options at your disposal.
An Intriguing Morality System and Bioware’s Journey
This is the last feature I will speak about. I want you to explore the game for yourself and find what you love about it. The morality system is the embodiment of a Bioware game. In Mass Effect, you have paragon and renegade. Dragon Age is a little more ambiguous. In Jade Empire, you will encounter The Way of the Open Palm and The Way of the Closed Fist. Of course, this represents good and evil choices. Think of the Mass Effect–style meters.
While it is simple, I truly love this system. The reason relates to how it impacts the world. Simple choices on this path can make characters align themselves further with you or begin to detest you. Some choices can affect the fate of an entire town. The negative choices are frequently appealing. Save the town or gain money? Speed up a questline through a heinous act or go through a longer process? In Jade Empire it is up to the player to follow their own path.
Not only that, the player is faced with a myriad of fascinating moral philosophies – perhaps they may even be one of the most interesting parts of the game – that make the world come alive for the player.
On the surface this is simple. Yet, the morality system in play here creates a strong sense of agency for the player. Plus, it is great to see the beginnings of what would become a key feature in Bioware games.
Please Try This Game!
We come to the end of my brief retrospective on Jade Empire. As you can probably tell by now, I love this game. The compelling story delivered in a way only games can. A deep yet outdated combat system. An intriguing morality system. None have come as close to shaping my gaming interests. This is Bioware’s underrated gem.
I hope my Jade Empire retrospective has given you some level of desire to explore my favourite game. I truly believe this game deserves more love. Until the day we get a Jade Empire sequel I will continue to sing its praises. You can get Jade Empire on PC and on Xbox’s backwards compatibility now!
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