I love me some Jade Empire. The game demonstrates a sea change in the way Bioware did business: launching into new worlds, trying out some custom rules, and changing the way the player engages the game.
In some ways, Jade Empire heralds Mass Effect. Jade Empire is an action game, made to be played with a controller in real time rather than in traditional RPG tactical phases. Like Mass Effect, Jade Empire is a wholly created world of Bioware’s own; until its release, Bioware was tightly connected with the Dungeons and Dragons world. (Even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tried to emulate D&D’s 3rd edition d20 rules system of feats and modifiers.) And like ME, Jade Empire gives you the slightly exotic, mostly sophomoric, androgynous booty call with whichever member of your party you chat up — as long as they’re of a suitably similar race.
Jade Empire comes with its share of Bioware baggage, though. The booty call is becoming an uncomfortable hallmark of new Bioware releases — previews seem compelled to point out that, yes, your character can have sex. The dialogs with NPCs present good vs. evil with the same glaring polarized duality of, say, gifting an orphan with an ice cream cone vs. setting a kitten on fire. Subtle, the morality ain’t.
In fact, this black and white moral world reveals a weakness, but whether the weakness is in me or the game, I can’t quite figure out. I always play the straight up good guy. It doesn’t matter if I set out to be the evillest rat-bastard to walk the Earth; I still end up a good-aligned softie. I feel like I’m missing half the game. Well, a quarter of it, maybe. At the very least, I’m missing the slight variants on the end cut scenes.
For this limitation I blame the skanky dialogue, mostly. Jade Empire tries to realign this axis into different combat styles, but it quickly falls into the usual heavy-handed thuggery. I just can’t bring myself to be a thug.
Maybe what I really want is for my PC to be more like Lex Luthor or Bablyon 5’s Mister Morden: a truly loathsome guy you love to hate, who is nominally “evil” for reasons you just can’t put your finger on. And who also threatens the existence of all that is good and decent in the world.
(Is that the best definition of “evil” we can come up with? “Stands against good?” What does that say for a similar definition of “good?” Come on, guys. Even Judas was a disciple first. And as for Darth Vader AKA Anikan Skywalker… well, we’ll never know about him until Lucas makes those prequels he was always going on about.)
This is still the game I look back to when I think of Bioware at its greatest, or at least at its most ambitious. It takes guts for a company to vault out of its comfort zone of fantasy and sci-fi to adopt a more exotic, slightly pulpy motif that had no comparable counterpart in the market. There was no guarantee that the game would break any new ground. It was a real business risk.
Risk pays off with unexpected reward, though. Jade Empire sweeps all the comfortable Bioware dependables into the blender, adds a generous dousing of classic Kung Fu movies, gloriously fantasises about a Far East that never was, strips away the dice rolls, and bolts on a Japanese fighty style, button mashing, Tekken-alike for good measure.
So I play Jade Empire. And I love it. I love it for the differences and I love it for the production quality I may not finish it this time around–I already know how the Good side story ends–but for moment-to-moment RPG fun, there is none like it. Jade Empire is a brilliant game: one I’m proud to have in my collection.