It’s funny the things that the brain remembers given the correct prompting. Prior to my recent playthrough of the game I only remembered three things about Jade Empire, an RPG by Bioware released way back in 2005 (before Bioware was known for Bioware RPGs). I, even then, remembered hearing literally nothing about it prior to getting it as a present for something or other. I also remember though how much I enjoyed the game, it’s colourful world, it’s characters and it’s choices. I also remember Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard… Cause that guy was an absolute fucking hero… Even if he hadn’t been voiced by John Cleese!
I picked it up again for the first time in almost 9 years, playing the newer Steam version instead of on the Original Xbox, and very quickly my brain began to remember bits and pieces of my original playthroughs. I remembered choosing the exact same character model and starting skills/stats as I did when I first played about 2 minutes after starting the game. I was running around the starting area and enjoying the way that the “back-apron” of my chosen character model became stuck half-way through my character whenever he moved and so the fabric flapped around in the middle of his abdomen and legs, and then my brain informs me that this amused me when I played it on the Xbox as well. Soon more and more bits and pieces started to fill in, parts of the story, characters, even segments of dialogue. All in all, the nostalgia hit me pretty hard, and so it was hard to not enjoy my time playing it.
Even if nothing else, Jade Empire is an interesting history lesson. It shows what Bioware were doing before they became properly famous and it shows where they learnt all the tricks of their trade. They made mistakes making the game, sure, but these were mistakes that they worked on and carefully fixed so that Dragon Age and Mass Effect could be as epic and well-liked as they are. It was a learning by doing process. Indeed, the game bears all the hallmarks of a Bioware RPG including, but not limited to, a large and impressive world with a rich lore, squadmates, talking to squadmates, mini-games, sexy scenes, gay sexy scenes and enough dialogue to fill a few novels with text.
In fact, replaying it also had me chuckling at how oblivious I had been at the tender age of 13/14 as I missed pretty much ALL the sexual references and definitely missed all the darker and more devious subjects and tones of the game.
Of course, as an older game, it is possible to now use the gift of hindsight to point out where they went wrong. For example, the combat. In both Mass Effect and Dragon Age they slowed down the fighting a little to make it weighted and provide a sense of impact to blows, whereas Jade Empire is quite the opposite. Obviously they wanted to get across the sense of speed and ferocity of Chinese or Japanese martial arts and so blows come in quick flurries (or you use the strong attack to break blocks). This usually ends up meaning that every fight ends up with you stun-locking each enemy one by one, and slowly chipping away at their health. The few mooks who cannot be stun-locked and who you actually have to use some tactics against are few and far between and blocking is a laughably useless affair (I can almost sense the Dark Souls players laughing at me).
Movement is a bit clunky as the player character isn’t quite so manoeuvrable as one feels he should be. Abrupt changes in direction cause the player character to pause before moving, something so noticeable even I picked up on it. In combat as well, it is often extremely difficult to judge whether you are actually in arm’s reach of your target. Double tapping a movement key causes an action roll in that direction, but in combat it often falls too far or too short so that you are juuuust out of range of striking your target. So you go through a whole trio of swings, just swiping at mid air, before finishing the combo for the target to THEN be in range and give you a little smack on the nose.
Squadmates also are obviously even more useless than in any subsequent BRPG. Their attacks do so little damage that you might as well fight on your own anyway, while their hopeless AI means that they tend to get killed pretty swiftly if they are left fighting their chosen target for too long.
Dialogue also shows several flaws. Between every sentence there is a pause of indeterminate length before the game decides that the individual speaking is ready to move onto the next line of text. This not only ruins the flow of the dialogue but also makes moving through it incredibly frustrating. More than once I would click the skip button after the talking character had been paused for half an hour, only to accidentally skip the next line of dialogue before it had even started. Interestingly, this is also an issue that my brain remembers picking up on back in my youth.
As well as this, dialogue is often far too similar between characters. It’s an issue I encountered in Kingdoms of Amalur as well. Whenever one meets a named individual with dialogue, a true RPG player would always go through each different option to see if the individual provides some interesting information, quest or training. In Jade Empire, far too many of the random characters in the game say the same thing in a slightly different manner. For example, in the Imperial City you meet dozens of characters whom you can ask to inform you about the Imperial City. In any other RPG you would expect a few of them to mention one thing, a few to mention another, allowing the player to pick up on bit’s and pieces of information for a variety of side quests around the major hub. In Jade Empire, each NPC informs you of pretty much the same thing, but you still can’t make yourself skip any of them in case you miss the ONE NPC who IS actually important.
The story as well is a little bit predictable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s capable of surprises and twists and turns, but overall it tends to be the player character who is the last to pick up on everything and not the player. Characters and squadmates also tend to fit fairly nicely into various traditional tropes and roles as well, including the “drunken-brawler-who-fights-for-fighting’-sake”, the “character-who-was-treated-differently-because-of-her-abilities-which-actually-are-incredibly-relevant-to-the-plot”, the “Princess-who-is-a-strong-independent-woman-guys” and the “bad-guy-who-left-the-enemy-and-has-joined-you-but-somehow-nobody-really-picks-up-on-him-having-been-a-bad-guy-until-he-fucking-outright-admits-it”.
The thing is though, these issues, and many others can be attributed to the age of the game. It is a simple matter of the developers lacking the knowledge they have these days along with a case of streamlining and improving on the flaws and bumps the game contained. I’ve already said that Jade Empire was a learning experience for Bioware and I think that they drew a lot from it as inspiration for their later games. Indeed, some of the squadmates of Mass Effect and Dragon Age actually bear some resemblance to the squadmates of Jade Empire.
Taking it for what it is though, it is still very easy to overlook the flaws in Jade Empire for the same reason one could overlook the flaws in Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Bioware did a truly outstanding job in creating a unique and exciting world to explore and learn about. The whole Oriental style of the game provides an exotic and mysterious element to it, as I understand it Bioware drew heavily from Chinese, Japanese and various other culture’s mythology.
They don’t just go ahead and create a world for you to explore but also provide a history for that world, a religion, a way of life. Their story-crafting may still have been in its infancy at this stage, but their world-crafting was already starting to flourish. It’s a game which is a delight to explore and learn about, even with its clunky movement and fighting and olde-timey graphics.
Take the morality system, which has since become the staple of a BRPG. In Jade Empire they made an attempt to distance the morality choices from “good” and “evil”. Instead the “Way of the Open Palm” is about harmony and being helpful to those in need (so basically good) while the “Way of the Closed Fist” is about discord and actually making people help themselves. You are not supposed to be inherently evil, you simply value strength and so you might help someone because you feel they have earned the right to have your help. Of course, that was the INTENTION, but in reality the game does tend to fall back into the “good” versus “evil” thing, but it was nice to see someone try something different.
Overall, I think Jade Empire remains an actually excellent game and a very worthwhile buy. It may not be as shiny as modern games, but it has everything it needs to make it genuinely enjoyable to play through, even so long after its release. For £8.99 on Steam you can gain at least 20 hours of playtime from the game, even if you don’t do absolutely everything. Just don’t expect it to break any new ground or shatter your expectations.