Have you ever come across a game that is almost offensively bad at living up to its potential? I'm guessing most of us who play games come across some every now and then that are more or less not to our liking, either because they don't strike any of our chords or because they're simply very uninspired.
I can't say that about Jade Empire though. It seems extremely inspired and could strike many of my chords but it never managed to bring any of its many, good, ideas to an interesting and fun fruition.
I had long been interested in checking out Jade Empire once I had first heard about it. A Bioware RPG? That no one really seems to talk about? A bit odd, isn't it? And it's about martial arts? Definitely sounds like it could be something I'd be having fun with.
Jade Empire was released in 2005 as an Xbox exclusive. That explains a bit about why it took me so long to take notice of it at first. In 2005 I had just started my 8 year adventure into World of Warcraft and was nowhere near an Xbox (I have still never played one). I don't think it was until 2007, when it was ported to PC or maybe even later than that, that it first caught my eye. As information about the game slowly trickled into my consciousness across several years my curiosity grew. It seemed really odd to me that the company behind games like Baldur's Gate, KoToR, Mass Effect and Dragon Age had also developed another (action) RPG that I at least seemed to be hearing very little about. Even more oddly, it seemed to have been originally well received and then fallen away into obscurity, at least when compared to the above-mentioned games.
|KoToR, another game that frustrated me but for completely other reasons.|
In it you play as a "Spirit Monk" and start out as the top disciple in a school for martial arts. So far so classic martial arts movie. I thought the game was off to a pretty decent start. The graphics looked typical for the time and functional enough without exactly being eye candy (I kind of have a nostalgic thing for those graphics though). 2005 was a year when game designers were able to start making character models detailed enough to not be laughable but still had pretty bland environments (just look at before mentioned WoW as another prime example).
Your master tells you of secrets he wants to finally divulge to you and you also get to try out some of the rather (wannabe-)intricate combat system that you'll be spending a truck load of time using throughout the game. In that first hour as you run around the school and try to make and break friendships the game seems quite promising. But it was also within that first hour I got the first glimpse into one of the bigger issues with the Jade Empire game design - the story telling and the pacing.
The overall story is nothing special nor worthy to write home to mommy about. You turn out to be, as mentioned, a special kind of warrior and you are quickly set on the path to save your martial arts master when the school is being attacked. As you travel through the world you meet new people that join your cause, for varying reasons, and also get involved in a bigger plot to save the kingdom from a seemingly evil emperor that has set the spirit realm in unbalance causing the dead to come back to haunt (and kill) the living. The story is fine, it's not bad and the characters you meet actually have the seeds of being quite interesting.
|Might not look like fun, but I still wish I could spend more time in each area.|
It's really unfortunate then that the pacing seems to have been set to "FTL". "Quickly" is definitely the key word here. Wherever you go or whomever you meet you barely get a chance to be there or talk to them until it is time to move on. When it first happened and I was unceremoniously thrown out of the martial arts school very early in the story I didn't think that it had to be a problem. But before long I noticed that this wasn't something that was limited to that first area. The second area you come to, a swamp filled with pirates and other scum people made it very clear that this was the style of the game and I started to get a bad feeling. In the swamp you get a quest to save a woman from pirates who have kidnapped her and are keeping her in a cave. One of the pirates is also linked to the martial arts school and your master, so seems to be a character that deserves a fair chunk of story time. Not so, the cave and the quest took some ten minutes to finish and that was basically the very swift end of that story line.
The game just continues at this break neck speed. Just like in Dragon Age and Mass Effect you're soon surrounded by an entourage of characters with which you can build relationships. Apparently. It was only by chance I managed to get into some sort of love story with one of the characters. Trying to build a relationship with them seems to not be encouraged, and whenever I try to strike up some conversation they shut me down after a few lines of dialogue by saying something with the essence of "enough talking and more action!".
Throughout the game you get the feeling that the designers have been extremely careful not to allow the player to grow bored of anything. But this is taken to the extreme where instead I am also not allowed to grow attached to anything. Areas come and go like I am looking through a Viewmaster. I am bombarded with new fighting styles a lot faster than I have time to try them out, develop them and have fun with them. The same goes for the characters that you meet. While they are all potentially interesting, from the young girl possessed by a guardian demon, to the crazy inventor or my childhood friend who can sense spirits, I am never given enough time nor opportunity to develop these relationships.
Speaking of the combat, it is another area in which the game unfortunately fails greatly. It almost saddens me to say it though because it really feels like a lot of love and thought has gone into the combat system, as there is, at least superficially, a lot to do and tinker with. Like I mentioned you get many different combat styles to fight in, and also magic and weapons. To use these you have both Chi (basically mana) and Focus (basically stamina) and depending on what you use to fight with you'll deplete one bar or the other. To add to this you can transform into various demons and ghosts and all of these different options have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on what enemy you are fighting. Each option can also have different areas strengthened with points you gain each time you level. For instance you can make a style or a demon hit harder or cost less chi/focus to use.
|Enemies are varied, but not fun.|
So there is a lot to do and take in and none of it is even particularly confusing. But why is it so gosh dang clunky to use? Your character moves like she is cosplaying a refrigerator and you get a lot more stressed about trying to wrestle your character around the fighting field than you ever are about the enemies. At normal difficulty the enemies aren't too hard, but the controls are so incredibly bad that you end up failing anyway because you can't target the right way, get in proper position to hit your target or avoid damage smoothly enough. It is extremely frustrating and feels through and through unfair whenever you fail a fight. It only took me a few hours into the game before I put the difficulty down to easy (something you at least thankfully can do) because I just couldn't take the rage-inducing struggle of the combat system any longer.
At the easy difficulty the game is unfortunately extremely easy. At normal difficulty it is probably quite doable but every fight becomes about a fun a chore as doing the dishes and just kills any desire to play the game. On easy I could at least breeze through the game quick enough to want to finish it despite its many flaws.
The soundtrack is one area where this game gets it right though. Heavily influenced with eastern sounds for obvious reasons, most (but definitely not all) of the tracks still manage to stay away from cliché territory and keep things interesting and fresh. But overall I find the tunes strong enough to hold for listening to even outside the game and I always consider that a mark of good quality. The sound effects too do their job well and there is a lot of different moaning, groaning and punching noises to accompany you in the many fights.
|The transformations are fun and varied, but equally clunky to use.|
Somewhere in the middle of the game you get to the Imperial City and I don't know why but suddenly the game really made me think of the first The Witcher game and how much better that game is than this one. Overall the two games feel similar in style and gameplay but The Witcher ends up being way more fun. While The Witcher is two years younger, it was pretty much agreed upon at the time that it was a bit outdated graphically and gameplay wise for its time. And still The Witcher gets everything right that Jade Empire doesn't. You get to spend more time in each area and with each story-character, allowing you to build relationships with them that make you care about what you do and what happens. The big city you end up spending most of your time in (Vizima) and the outskirts around it where you do a lot of the quests feel a lot more lived in and real and immersive. Quests and characters link together, you revisit them and they allow you to be a part of them. In Jade Empire it always stays at feeling like a stage that you will soon leave and even sooner forget everything about.
Yet it really seems like so much love was at least meant to go into this game. It's like they had all the time in the world to develop the ideas for the game and no time or money to actually create the game. Because, yet again, there is so much about this game that could've been truly great! You get to infiltrate an assassins guild and your master turns out to be the main bad guy in a plot twist that I stopped caring about before I even knew it was going to happen. You end up dying and have to fight your way out of the spirit realm. It could've been cool! It could've been fun! What happened?
Was it lack of time? Was it bad prioritizing? Like I mentioned before this game seems to have been quite well received when it was first launched, most of the complaints seem to have been regarding its short length (it took me 15 hours to complete playing about two thirds on easy, which to me seems like perfectly fine game length. But yeah, if you're comparing to Baldur's Gate that may seem short). Since I didn't play it at the time and haven't checked any revisited reviews of it I am unsure if it has just aged badly or really didn't click with me.
Jade Empire is just an empty shell of a lot of really cool ideas. It feels like such a waste both of your time but especially of all the things that actually could've turned out really well and made a good game. Some of these ideas Bioware did in fact take, either intentionally or not, and develop in later games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. While I am not a huge fan of either of those games either I would definitely recommend you play one of those instead of this one.
Images from mobygames.com, gamerselixir.com, amazon.co.uk, jadeempire.fandom.com, lparchive.org.