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Game Name:  Jade Empire
Developer:  BioWare
Publisher:  2K Games
PC Release Year:  2007
Review Date:  July 20, 2017

Play video games long enough and it is only a matter of time before development house preferences and trends start to become apparent between titles.  While this can be positive in a world of limited refunds on media, as it allows gamers a sense of what they will be getting in exchange for their hard-earned money, it is easy for designers to let this go too far.  Nothing is worse than booting up the over-hyped new release to find out that it is merely a reskin of its predecessor with a change in theme and more advanced graphics.  Given my relatively limited experience with their work, it had not occurred to me just how much BioWare games have developed this problem, essentially becoming a genre unto themselves.  Jade Empire was my latest foray into their catalog, and I was really disappointed to find the telegraphed plot twist and rehashed game systems that seem to have defined their games for years.  Despite a welcome change in scenery that came from trading in market-friendly settings for a reimagining of Asian history and mythology, I could not shake the feeling that I had played this game before, despite this being my first and only run-through.

Perhaps this disappointment would have been muted if Jade Empire had not falsely presented itself as something fundamentally different.  Players start out their adventure as an orphan attending a martial arts school at the far reaches of imperial control.  Not only is this a place where the ins and outs of combat can be learned through practice bouts with fellow students, which is a clever way to incorporate a gameplay tutorial, but this world’s competing worldviews are explained to gamers by a helpful instructor named Smiling Mountain.  The Way of the Open Palm is all about order and harmony; helping people, fixing problems, and otherwise living up to the Jedi ideal in a wuxia world without space wizards.  Where it gets interesting, though, is with The Way of the Closed Fist; an unusually compelling perspective that in many ways touches on the tenants of modern American conservatism.  As described, this philosophy espouses that might makes right and helping someone with a problem is merely making them weaker and overly reliant on others who may not be there to aid with the next of life’s many challenges.  While it is easy to label a viewpoint like this cold and a bit callow, only bleeding heart liberals could truly call it evil. 

Operating in this grey middle ground would have been a nice departure from the black and white brushstrokes that developers typically paint their creations with, if it had not been a lie.  Players will eventually leave this starting zone and once they are out in the wider world, the stereotypical BioWare game structure comes sharply into focus.  Character alignment turns out to be a binary affair that is ultimately based on how players communicate with the land’s many denizens, and as has been the case with sister titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, there are typically just three ways to respond: Saint, sinner, or pragmatist, with only the first two options moving a meter that determines which special gems can be equipped (analogous to armor in a more traditional RPG) and which fighting styles can be used.  Completely contrary to what was described as a philosophy of self-reliance and personal strength, the Way of the Closed Fist is only leveled up with the type of over-the-top responses that would characterize a comic book villain.

Similarly, BioWare’s storytelling tropes mar what would otherwise be a well-crafted narrative.  The Jade Empire is beset by a horde of restless, angry spirits that are unable to move into the afterlife.  As players help both the living and dead cope with this reality through a series of thematically relevant side quests, the root cause of the calamity is slowly revealed.  Well before the main character’s birth, the empire’s decadence and corruption angered the gods and ushered in a cataclysmic drought that threatened the kingdom’s political stability; enough so that the emperor and his brothers declared war on the heavens.  With their army gathered, they marched upon the physical home of the water dragon; a being of immense power that was responsible for both regenerative rains as well as passage to the underworld. With a brutal victory over her spirit monk protectors at Dirge, the emperor inflicted a harsh enough wound on this magical creature to leave her in a vegetative state that kept her from performing her otherworldly tasks.  Players eventually find out that they are the last remnant of the spirit monk lineage, and they must ultimately destroy the water dragon’s body so that she can be reborn and restore the natural order of life and death. 

Talk about an unconventional and interesting story compared to what Western developers are willing to risk with a big-budget release today.  Of course, getting to that point is a rehash of BioWare’s other titles.  Like Shadows of Undrentide, the game starts with an attack on the school that players call home, with the only difference being the kidnapping of a martial arts instructor instead of the theft of magical artifacts.  Like Knights of the Old Republic, players eventually need to infiltrate the Lotus Assassin sanctum in a setup that feels eerily similar to the Sith academy on Korriban.  Like that very same game, players must enter into a series of gladiatorial battles in order to win enough renown to progress through the story.  While the examples go on and on, none of them beats the “surprise” plot twist that was ruined by inelegant foreshadowing.  It does not take a genius to figure out that the “flaw” in the main character’s fighting style that every enemy combatant seems to reference was actually planted by an instructor who, thanks to more foreshadowing from player companion Sagacious Zu and some other minor characters, is not the kindly old man he appears to be.  When a reveal that is designed to setup the entire second half of a game is telegraphed a mile away, it just undercuts the whole experience.

Then there are the poor design decisions within Jade Empire that further eat away at a player’s enjoyment.  It starts with a combat system that should have been a strength, since it was a first for BioWare in the realm of real-time, action-based fighting that used motion capture from martial artists as the basis for in-game animation.  But while blocking, tumbling, punching, and kicking all look amazingly like something out of a kung fu film, the skirmishes maddeningly oscillate between too hard and too easy.  Shrines that can be prayed at to restore health, focus, and chi are few and far between, and are often absent right before a boss encounter, so the thousand little injuries from a nameless and faceless horde of enemies require that players slog on without healing to full, or make a long walk over previously cleared terrain to revisit these places.  On the other hand, boss encounters which should be the supreme test of a player’s skill, are undercut by magical fighting styles that transform players into unstoppable animals or golems as long as there is chi to be spent.  Combine this with a combat flight minigame for the game’s primary mode of transport that harkens back to the now terribly outdated arcade cabinet, Galaga, and long stretches of the game time where questing and combat are not evenly distributed, and it sets the stage for a level of player fatigue that actively impedes progression.

Jade Empire is a game that I wanted very much to like.  The Tolkien fantasy world of Dragon Age and space opera universe of Mass Effect are frankly a bit tired and overdone, so it was incredibly refreshing to see a time, place, and body of myths that is ignored by most of today’s development houses.  The more time that is spent with this title, however, the more players will realize this is all just a fancy coat of paint that is trying to cover over that now formulaic BioWare game model.  It is important to note that this formula has been finely tuned over the years and is legitimately good, so there are worse ways for new gamers or those with limited libraries to experience this style of game.  For the broader pool of more experienced gamers, though, the silliness of Henpecked Hou’s stories and the romances that develop with companion characters provide nothing more than a disappointing sense of déjà vu.

Verdict:  Not Recommended