Before Mass Effect and Dragon Age cemented Bioware’s place as the greatest western RPG makers in the world, there was Jade Empire. Released in 2005 to critical acclaim and upwards of 70,000 sales worldwide, it was yet another successful title for the company. However being launched between the titans of Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and Mass Effect (2006) left it somewhat overshadowed and the franchise was never continued. This is a huge shame, because in many ways Jade Empire is one of the finest examples of western RPGs ever made.
Anyone familiar with Bioware games will feel right at home from the beginning. Your peaceful and humble existence learning martial arts in an oriental village is disrupted by a vicious attack from the dark forces of the Imperial Lotus Assassins. Your home destroyed and master captured, you have no choice but to make your way to the Imperial City and save, or avenge, your master before it is too late. Before this your Master has told you of your mystical origins as a Spirit Monk and given you the amulet which will hold the key to solving the mystery affliction being felt across the land: the dead are not able to go to the afterlife. As with all Bioware stories however all is not as it first appears, and before long you will be picking up rogue warriors, Faye princesses and even demons, all the while uncovering a terrifying political corruption which will shake the Empire to its core. Yet in the midst of all this grandeur there is a deeply personal tale of a hero (male or female) finding their way in the world, and the motley crew of similarly lost souls who, through her, find themselves also. Add to this: magic, massive battles, pirates and more and you have yourself a story every bit as good as Mass Effect or KOTOR.
It is a chief tenant of Bioware games that the gameplay compliments the story and Jade Empire is no different. There are the usual array of attributes and abilities which levelling up will improve, ranging from fire and ice spells to different martial arts and swords or spears. Interestingly the conversation skills are here handled very differently, being based on your attributes and not levelled separately. For example, if you are have high ‘body’ (strength) and ‘spirit’ (mana) you will gain intimidation. The conversation trees meanwhile work in exactly the same way as KOTOR, giving you a list of options with the occasional skill check for optional paths.
It is with the combat however that Jade Empire really shines. Right from the beginning you are taught to backflip huge distances using the B button, to quickly navigate the battlefield or avoid attack. This quickly becomes second nature and lends the battles a unique, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon style flair unlike anything else. Players start with one martial art depending on their character choice, which will be either strong and slow, fast and weak or balanced. Each has advantages over other styles and come complete with charged strong moves. Additionally players can use the secondary abilities of chi (mana) and spirit (endurance) to increase damage and slow time respectively, though doing so will drain the relevant energy bar. All this unfolds in real time with little or no frame rate issues, making battles both hectic and beautiful displays of martial prowess matching any of the finest martial arts films made.
The soundtrack is a wonderful blend of oriental instruments with epic overtones suitable to the grand mission which you embark upon, but it is not afraid to delve into darker tones in the more morbid areas, like the graveyard and Lotus Assassin fortress. It compliments the world perfectly, moving you, rousing you and unnerving you in all the right places. Similarly the world itself is well realised, with a number of believable minor characters complete with interesting side quests, such as helping restless spirits find peace or duelling a British Imperial in both combat and debate.
Despite all its many fine points there are a few gripes I have with the game. First of all, the story’s pacing is a little slow, featuring a long build up before you leave the starting village, so that when you do it feels like you get to the Imperial city much too fast. This leads to the other main criticism, that there are too few areas to the game, or at least too few before the Imperial city. After your starting town you visit one other and solve its problems before arriving in the heart of the Empire. It feels a little rushed and lowers the world building aspect. Fortunately the game more than makes up for this with the many varied areas of the Imperial City and the vast third act with surprising volume and extra areas to explore.
In the end then, Jade Empire is an excellent, oriental themed RPG along the lines of KOTOR and other Bioware games. You will travel with companions, you will foil evil plots and you will save, or destroy, the Empire and finally discover who you are in the process. And you will pull this off, just like Bioware did this game, with amazingly cool and powerful martial style.