Jade Empire Reader Review
For most avid fans of the Western RPG genre, Bioware is synonymous with two vital facets of a decent roleplaying experience: writing quality and atmospheric immersion. Make no mistake about it; throughout its fifteen years in existence, the Canadian powerhouse has delivered time and time again on both counts, churning out some of the most memorable, iconic RPG titles in gaming history.
So, to reiterate, Bioware’s name has long been etched into the hallowed rock of gaming folklore. When one reaches a position of such reverence within the entertainment industry, however, living up to one’s own lofty reputation inevitably becomes an increasingly demanding task, and of similar inevitability is the fact that, sometimes, a 100% strike rate just isn’t possible. Cue Jade Empire, Bioware’s 2005 Xbox offering.
For the sake of clarification, Jade Empire is far from a bad game. In fact, it’s a very solid, serviceable product, much like a can of WD-40 or a classic Mini before the days of BMW’s push towards global domination. But, while you can expect your trusty WD-40 to help lubricate your rusty door hinges, it would be more than a little optimistic to depend on it as a viable deodorant spray if you harboured any hopes of enticing a member of the opposite gender group home for a stimulating evening of China tea and homemade almond fingers. In a (sort of) similar way, expecting Jade Empire to transcend the RPG formula and redefine the standards by which the audio-visual experience is measured was, perhaps, asking a little too much.
To anyone who followed the plethora of preview articles and developer interviews scattered over the various media outlets, Empire certainly looked promising on the grounds of its eye-catching presentation. Set in a world reminiscent of ancient China in all but name, the game thrusts the player into the role of a young, mute, wild-eyed student who, fresh from having his life of idyllic wholesomeness callously thrust away as soon as the basic gameplay tutorials have been taken care of, sets out to either claim vengeance or restore peaceful order to his civilisation, depending on the whim of the player. Typical Bioware so far.
What follows is a plot that, although simple and basic enough to draw in most consumers, generally plays it safe for the lion’s share of proceedings. For the vast majority of the game, the tale unravels in a rather disappointingly ho-hum, laborious manner, with little in the way of significant experimentation or originality coming into the fray. Philosophical ramblings uttered by the player’s cohort of misfits rarely amount to anything of real consequence, whilst the major plot devices utilised in the first half of the narrative are often predictable and uninspired. Thankfully, though, things do genuinely pick up as the adventure nears its climax, bringing together an intriguing mixture of surreal spirituality and classic toil against adversity that finally ushers in the level of immersion that one associates with a Bioware title. It’s just a shame that the events preceding the final few encounters aren’t quite so compelling.
My biggest gripe with Empire is its array of non-player characters, an area in which Bioware is normally as strong as an ox with a supply of growth hormone supplements. The player is first allied with a naďve, dainty lass named Dawn Star, whose cardboard personality resonates with very little gusto during one’s first few hours’ foray into the wild abyss. Later on in your journey, you’ll become acquainted with the cloaked princess, Silk Fox, an initially promising character who, ironically, after donning her veiled façade, only serves to become more faceless and run-of-the-mill. And it just wouldn’t be a Bioware experience without the humour, or perhaps lack thereof. In its previous titles, the company has generally provided us with a single figure who, despite being given a respectable backstory, is presented as an unashamed form of comic relief from the gritty, raw nature of the game’s main quest. In Jade Empire, we’re blessed with not one, not two, but three capering buffoons, all of whom may raise the occasional, isolated grin before running out of steam and rendering themselves almost completely interchangeable forms of irritation.
Perhaps the one light at the end of the tunnel as far as the non-player party members are concerned is a curious chap named Sagacious Zu. A conflicted, tortured soul hiding in vain from his past misdemeanours, Zu works as an all-too-rare rare example of a character in Jade Empire complementing the strong focus the game places on spirituality and ancient Chinese folklore whilst maintaining a consistently stimulating level of character development that allows him to stand out in his own right as one of Bioware’s finest personal creations. Considering their track record, that’s certainly no mean feat.
In any RPG, for all the exploration, dialogue and inventory micromanagement on offer, combat must still play a substantial role in proceedings. Empire is no different in this department, with exchanges of fisticuffs cropping up on a suitably frequent basis. Interestingly, Bioware made the decision to do away with its characteristic, turn-based Dungeons and Dragons combat engine and introduced a real-time fighting system, venturing into a new gameplay mechanic for the first time in several years.
The results are mixed. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly accessible system, one that eliminates many of the confusing elements that plagued many of the D&D games of years past. The major advantage of this is that it gives Empire a better chance of reeling in some of the more impatient gamers out there, and it must be said that taking down foes using a flurry of punches, kicks and weapon strikes is both satisfying and very easy to pick up from the get-go. On the other side of the coin, though, the system’s lack of depth becomes ever more apparent as the game goes on. As your character levels up, he or she may learn a range of new fighting techniques that may be brought into battle, but this does little to dispel the feeling that winning battles is simply a case of pressing the same two buttons over and over again until your adversary ceases swiping furiously at your pretty face. Not only that, but the ability to strategically leap over your opponents at the touch of a button causes the game to come hurtling over to the wrong side of insultingly easy, turning what might have been a lusciously choreographed skirmish into a particularly violent game of leapfrog.
A much more standard affair is the game’s dialogue system, which sticks to the tried-and-true formula of “listen carefully to interlocutor; select response from menu; watch consequences unfold”. And, fair enough, why change something that works so well? As so many RPG fans would agree, the capacity for freedom and personal choice in a game such as this is the true meat and potatoes of the final product, and Empire’s conversations provide a solid and thoroughly effective platform on which to shape the adventure to one’s own personal playing style. Of course, this formula brings with it the divisive old chestnut of moral choice into the ring, with the distinction between “good” and “evil” being as painfully obvious and lacking in a decent middle ground as ever, but the game at least nails the fundamental goal of letting the player feel in control of its narrative flow. Moreover, with a plethora of different endings, branching points and side quest resolutions on offer, replay value in Jade Empire is high enough to warrant multiple playthroughs before one’s appetite is truly satiated.
When it announced its intention to release Empire, Bioware had just come off the heels of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, quite possibly its most universally popular and critically acclaimed video game of its pre-Mass Effect days. The powers that be would, therefore, have been easily forgiven for cashing in on a successful, established franchise and putting themselves at the helm of its sequel. The fact that they didn’t may seem a puzzling decision in hindsight, but it was certainly an admirable expression of creative pride at the time, representing an attempt to venture out of a comfort zone and produce an exciting new intellectual property. It’s a little ironic, therefore, that Jade Empire ultimately comes across as such an inoffensive, unambitious and safe product, one that’s almost too afraid to mix things up for fear that it might embarrass itself. In effect, what could have been a powerful statement in favour of the need for new gaming icons became further proof that building on established series is, by and large, the surefire way to make money in a ruthless industry.
And it seems that the proof is now in the pudding, with Bioware now having settled with the idea of producing sequels to a small range of well-known, well-loved series, and even a return to the Star Wars universe. The future remains bright for Bioware, but Jade Empire will probably go down as the 21st century blockbuster RPG that time forgot. On the plus side, though, if a game holding an average critical review score of 89% on Gamerankings and Metacritic is thought of as one of your weakest efforts, how bad can things really be?