Review: Jade Empire03 Nov 2016 0
Review: Jade Empire
Released 06 Oct 2016
Good games never die, they don’t fade away either, they just get ported to new computing environments. A rite of passage for any truly great game is outliving its original platform. By this rough metric, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is BioWare’s best RPG, but Jade Empire is nipping at its heels with a new iOS implementation from Aspyr Media (aka the folks making sure Mac users don’t miss out on Civ VI).
Jade Empire’s never had the brand recognition of other BioWare titles (Baldur’s Gate, KOTOR, Mass Effect, etc.) and it’s often referred to as their most underrated RPG. In the context of BioWare’s catalogue, it straddles an interesting line. In 2005, Jade Empire was their first game based on an original IP (rather than D&D or Star Wars) and featured more action-oriented real-time combat (rather than order based pausable real-time), attributes it would eventually share with the more popular Mass Effect. So why did Jade Empire become a cult classic instead of a hit franchise? Because it was tied to an over-the-hill console? Because no one in the mid-aughts could be bothered to put down their Guitar Hero controllers (cue My Name is Jonas opening guitar lick)? Or is it simply an example of a rare misfire from the developer? Thanks to Jade Empire: Special Edition on iOS there’s never been a better time to investigate.
BioWare didn't skimp on the originality for their first original IP. Jade Empire is set in a high fantasy world modeled on Imperial China (though the creators are quick to remind you it is not China), and while somewhat reminiscent of The Legend of Five Ring's Rokugan, this was and remains these ten years later an underrepresented CRPG setting. Furthermore, any Crouching Tiger, Hidden Expectations you might harbor will be challenged after the first chapter when the wuxia-steampunk aesthetic takes center stage. Jade Empire's world is beautiful and frequently surprising and by the end you'll wish you got to see more of it.
Your entry point into this world will be one of seven pre-generated characters, for which there is little room for customization. These characters vary in their starting martial styles and distribution of three relevant stats, body, spirit and mind, which in turn determine your health, chi (mana) and focus (fatigue). In typical BioWare fashion they play a secondary role in determining potential intimidation, intuition and charm conversation options as well. In the end, pick whichever one you like looking at, because you'll be seeing them in a bunch of cut scenes and your starting configuration won't drastically limit your build options later.
As befits the setting, allies, NPCs and villains express themselves most vividly in their choice of fighting style. The game succeeds at giving each style a unique visual flair and character and thus unlocking new styles by tracking down trainers or completing quests is very rewarding. Your main character can "equip" up to four styles at any given time and you're incentivized to mix it up in combat. Weapon styles are highly effective against demons, for instance, but ghosts could care less about your Hattori Hanzo steel. Your hand-to-hand martial style of choice is moderately effective against all targets, but sometimes it really helps to have the proper tool whether that involves blasting spirits with a magic style or crushing mages by shapeshifting into a demon via a transformation style. For drawn out battles a support style can be indispensable, foregoing DPS to replenish health, chi or focus.
BioWare has vacillated between more full-featured inventory systems (some might say, overly prone to micromanagement) and more abstracted systems, for an example see the shift between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Jade Empire is on the abstracted end of things. The only “items” you’ll find in the game are combat styles, Diablo-style gems that boost your stats and/or secondary attributes and silver which is used to purchase combat styles and gems. New combat styles are very exciting, but gems are less so and while I could have spent more time min-maxing with the essence gems, I didn’t have to complete the game and finished with a fortune in silver. While there’s something to be said for not having to spend time contemplating the relative benefits of a +1 dagger vs. a vicious dagger with +15% chance of a critical hit, I don’t feel like this game struck a very good balance.
To dig a bit deeper into combat (which is what you’ll be doing for the majority of the game’s ~15 hour runtime), each style has a main attack, block-breaking heavy attack and an area attack. You always have the option to block, heal (using chi) or go into Kung-Fu bullet-time (using focus). You'll also be dodging and combat rolling around the battlefield like you're auditioning for a role in the next Devil May Cry sequel. For a game of this type, I really appreciated how tight the hitboxes for characters are. I never felt like I was taking unfair hits and eventually chose my favored style based on how the animated movements allowed me to dodge the most common attack patterns.
Unfortunately it probably sounds like I'm describing a much deeper combat system than the one you're likely to experience. While the fun of combat comes from trying on the various styles you come across in your journey, combat success largely comes from upgrading a few styles and spamming basic attack until your enemy blocks (which they might not) then either rolling away until they stop blocking or, if you’ve sufficiently upgraded your speed, hitting them with a heavy attack. On standard difficulty you’ll feel pretty godlike until about ¾ of the way through when there’s a noticeable uptick in combat difficulty. At this point, you might (like me) not have specced your character very well for the battles at hand and end up frequently reloading until you can apply some additional specialization points. The other sad truth of the combat system is that you’ll do just as well with your first four as you will with anything you pick up along the way. I longed for that heroic fantasy moment when I finally learned the one punch that would help me defeat the big bad, but instead I just learned that if you combat roll towards an enemy you can backflip over them and get a free hit or two ad infinitum.
Aspyr’s new implementation plays up the “elegant touch controls,” and I find them very serviceable for what is basically an Xbox port. Yeah, when you’re keeping your eye on an ogre you’ll hit heavy attack when you meant block and get wasted every now and again, and I’m not sure my swipes always translated directly into my combat roll direction, but these issues didn’t pop up often enough to frustrate me. The two issues I actually wish were ironed out are 1) the inability to switch targets in combat with multiple enemies (eventually my most effective group combat technique was to roll until the enemies were in a straight line and flailing in the general direction of the targeted enemy caught the others as collateral damage) and 2) the inability to turn off “advanced combat” controls that allow you to switch fighting styles by flicking at the screen rather than pressing the button for the specific style that appears in the top left. I too often found myself casting point blank magic missiles when I thought I was stabbing someone. Now, a caveat to my criticisms; Jade Empire supports MFi controllers and as I don’t own such a device (and had to google what they even were) I can’t attest to whether or not this clears up any of my complaints. But hey, if that’s a purchase you’re looking to justify Jade Empire has your back. Any PT users want to vouch for one of these in the comments? I do love me some toys.
I can’t conclude any discussion of a BioWare RPG without touching on the story and characterizations, even if Jade Empire is the most combat-focused entry in the developer’s oeuvre. Well, the main quest is a standard 8-bit plot with a few token twists thrown in, which won’t surprise veteran CRPG gamers, because we all bought tickets to this show for the side quests, the ally subplots and that sweet sweet PG-rated lovin’. Well, Jade Empire has all that, a thematically-integrated (if two-dimensional) morality system AND an optional scrolling space shooter mini-game (which is still more fun than driving around the Mass Effect M35 Mako). I live for the character moments in BioWare games, and this is where the writers hid their most surprising and gut-wrenching moments. Jade Empire has received criticism for taking less than 20 hours to complete, but I appreciate the contained experience. There’s something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more (instead of leaving the audience saying “You know what, !@#$ the Underdark!”). Taking part in the machinations of the Empire gave me the impression that this world was bigger than the half-dozen locales I ventured through.
The Jade Empire is a great setting, and if so much time had not elapsed since this game originally came out I’d say it’ll be great to see what else BioWare will do in this world. I would look forward to seeing the lessons from their more recent projects applied to make the combat system more compelling. But I have no reason to believe a Jade Empire 2 is on the horizon, so this artifact will likely remain the only opportunity for gamers to experience this unique take on martial heroics.