Retro Review: Jade Empire

Origin regularly offers up games simply for free, which is the one thing that elevates it above being merely the poor man’s Steam. One recent offering was an old martial arts-themed RPG from Bioware called Jade Empire.

The town of Tien's Landing in Jade EmpireJade Empire was never really on my radar, but hey, free is free, and I did like later Bioware games.

Took me until now to finally get around to playing it (unfortunately this means you’re too late to pick it up for free if this blog makes you curious about it). Ultimately the main trait it shares with more recent Bioware titles is that it’s a game that leaves me with mixed feelings.

The biggest surprise about Jade Empire is that its combat is actually pretty good, not something I expected to say about a Bioware game, especially one of this vintage.

It’s an unusual but interesting system. Essentially, you have three main options at all times: a quick, usually high DPS attack; a slow, heavy attack to break enemy blocks; and an AoE attack.

However, the effects of each of these three attacks changes radically based on your current style.

The best analogy I can draw for styles is that they’re a bit like the different guns you might have in a shooter. They’re bound to the number keys, and you can instantly swap between them at any time for no cost.

Combat in Jade EmpireEach style has different strengths and weaknesses, and while some merely amount to slightly different ways to punch people, others have far more unusual effects. Spirit Thief Style deals no damage but restores your chi (mana). Dire Flame Style allows you to hurl fireballs (at the cost of chi), offering an analogue to a mage playstyle.

Weapons also count as individual styles, and there are even transformation styles that allow you to shapeshift into a variety of strange creatures for powerful bonuses.

My favourite was Toad Demon Style, which transforms you into a giant, lumbering toad who slaps people into submission with its flippers for massive damage.

That is exactly as fun as it sounds.

That’s not to say the combat is perfect. In the greater scheme of things, it’s still not an especially exciting system compared to the best examples of RPG combat out there, and it has some minor quirks that can be annoying, such as some occasionally awkward camera angles

Still, on the whole, I’d count Jade Empire’s combat in the “win” column.

However, just as Jade Empire succeeds where many of its successors failed, it also lacks some of their strengths.

Battling cannibals in Jade EmpireAs you’d expect from a Bioware game, Jade Empire features a large cast of colourful characters who serve as your companions. However, they’re not nearly as well-written as their descendants in Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

A few of them still won my affection, notably the haughty but heroic Silver Fox and the roguish but lovable Sky. The biggest exception of all, however, was the conflicted Sagacious Zu; he alone stands with the great characters Bioware would later create.

However, the fact remains that if you go into Jade Empire expecting Mass Effect or Dragon Age quality character development, you’ll be disappointed.

The romances are especially confusing. As in later games, several of your companions can become romantic interests for your main character, but these romances are, well, a bit broken if you ask me.

I had intended to romance Silver Fox, but there never seemed to be any dialogue options to support such an effort (I only know she’s a romance option from reading about it elsewhere). Meanwhile, there didn’t seem to be any option but to romance Dawn Star (not without treating her with outright contempt, anyway). It seemed I was doomed to end up with her even though I was merely trying to be basically nice, a sensation like sinking into quicksand.

Meeting Silk Fox in Jade EmpireHowever, the romance never amounted to anything, leading me to wonder if I’d misinterpreted all that talk of “true feelings” earlier, or if I somehow ended the relationship somewhere along the line (without any blowback from Dawn Star?), or if the romances in Jade Empire are just that anticlimactic.

On the plus side, the fact that Jade Empire’s romances ultimately left me only confused and alone does make them a remarkably good mirror for real life, at least where I am concerned.

One twist that I did find interesting is that there are a few segments near the end where you will control some of your companions and make use of their unique talents. Although I grant it could become tiresome if overused, I’d like to have seen a bit more of this throughout Jade Empire — and maybe in later Bioware games, too.

Also mirroring later Bioware games, specifically Mass Effect, Jade Empire has a morality system based on two extremes, the Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. These are pretty much just paragon and renegade, right down to my maxing out my score for paragon/Way of the Open Palm.

The morality doesn’t seem to affect gameplay much, though given my dislike for rigid morality systems I’d count that as a positive. The biggest impact is that there are a handful of styles and quests that are only accessible to followers of a specific moral path — and really “handful” might be generous. I can recall only one quest and one style I was locked out of by not following the Way of the Closed Fist.

Playing as Silk Fox during a special mission in Jade EmpireAs for the main story in Jade Empire, it’s… okay, I guess? It’s a bit of an odd mix. The first 70% or so of the game is very slow and feels very predictable, but the remainder is breakneck and full of unexpected twists.

I feel as though I should have enjoyed the story more than I ultimately did. It left me feeling cold, but I’m struggling to understand why. The twists surprised me; the ending was a bit abrupt but mostly satisfying.

Perhaps there was just one too many big boss fights in close succession. Perhaps the relative lack of strong characters sucked some of the heart out. Perhaps the sheer oldness of the game began to wear on my jaded tastes after a while. Jade Empire’s graphics and gameplay have aged very well all things considered, but they’re still not up to modern standards.

Overall rating: 6.9/10 It might have warranted a better rating in its day, but it doesn’t shine as much as it could compared to modern games.

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