There comes a time when games are long, have problems that become apparent early in playing them, and feel like a time sink that will amount to the same conclusion, more or less. Jade Empire is one of those titles, and as I’ve hit 13 hours in the game and chapter three out of five, I no longer wish to continue, and feel as if I have a good amount of things to say about the oft forgotten Bioware title. As part of a new segment that will hopefully survive through my very spur of the moment decision making, called Partway Reviews. In which I review a game after getting to the point where I no longer wish to continue playing it, but still feel like saying things.
Jade Empire: Special Edition Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox, Xbox 360, Mac
Developer: Bioware and LTI Grey Matter (PC Port)
Publisher: 2K Games
Right out the gate, the plot of Jade Empire makes me question how far we as an industry have gone with our demands for narrative and character standards in order to warrant praise. As the unnamed main character, chosen from one of seven presets, is the last of their kind and has been foretold a great destiny onto them by the gods. Their journey helped by an assortment of “colorful” characters who follow them around for reasons that hold varying amounts of credibility. All of which tied to what I can only view as a nondescript mismatch of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and whatever else imagery from the several hundred years that I could not hope to name, because I barely learned about that in school.
Starting with the expected Bioware companion characters, I can’t help but feel a bit dismissive as I, well, dismissed all the characters fairly early as they were introduced, but for pretty understandable reasons, or rather a single reason. The companion characters are basically unnecessary. As most of them stay at a camp for the majority of the game, their involvement in events must naturally be lose despite how they more or less devoted their lives to you, which is very often unjustified. A childhood friend and third party with the same primary goal I understand, but as the roster is far too large given how you may only have one companion at a time, and far too often feels like some of these characters were last minute additions or were the type of thing most developers would cut. That, and perhaps it is due to how much talent has been spread across the voice acting market nowadays, but the performances feel very canned for ancillary characters and somewhere around satisfactory for the “Followers”.
Then there is the moral choice system, which I rather do like in theory. With two schools of thought being separated into open palm, a more charitable and helpful nature expressed by those who may suffer for their good intentions when it comes to worldly means, but will gain in unique skills. Or the closed fist, which is a more assertive and demanding mentality that can border on cut throat and will cause a less stable state of mind. Or so I believe were the original intentions, as the morality may as well just be good and evil, with the evil options being sealed off once you select that you wish to be good as this is a world of moral absolutism that does little but scoff at any form of moral grey. Despite how neither method is representative of how a normal human would act in these situations.
Both of which are sandwiched between one of the few games where I felt as if the side quests were more or less roadblocks for the main story of leading out one’s chosen destiny. As after the prologue, you are trapped in a town of little concern to the main story, with three very long main missions to embark on before getting to the destination that would have been where things picked up after the prologue. At least if not for how the surprising inclusion of wooden rocket planes happened to break down.
Unfortunately, sandwiched between the very common dialog scenes are combat sections, which I feel only a tad rude in saying that at least they tried. The combat in Jade Empire confused me, along with everything surrounding it. In terms of gameplay, your commands are more or less the following: attack, shield, shield breaking attack, dodge, heal, power up attack, slow down time, and switch weapon. On paper this sounds like a fairly simple, but potentially deep combat system, and it very well may be, if not for how you can win most battles by attacking and dodging. Which is what I did, not switching weapons 90% of the time, and only failing when I was hit in the face by an unstunnable juggernaut who hits like a truck, because it was immune to ranged weapons.
In other words, the combat is very unbalanced, with battles being almost amazingly simple to a pain in the butt at a moment’s notice. Though most challenge was lost even further when, five hours in, I encountered a little girl who channeled a demon, who I could set to heal me instead of pathetically slapping around the enemies and likely falling on its goofy face. So I basically had infinite health, and there was no reason to not use it. Must I even bring up the list of problems with this scenario? Even considering how your health regenerates very slowly, you can easily avoid any attack if you are paying attention.
However, the inter workings behind this ultimately futile system does raise even more questions as to what the intention behind this game was. Your stats are manipulated by three bars, health, chi, and focus. With chi serving as your magic that can act as healing juice or power juice, while focus is used to enter slow-down mode and power up a super weapon you get early in the game, but is not all that powerful than the starting one. Which could be due to how I quickly maxed out the damage for my starting weapon, as weapons are not replaced away in Jade Empire. While the final form of stats is influencing the big three and the dialog skills that go with them, not that I saw much of a purpose in including them, let alone tethering them to other stats.
There is one more thing I may be looking over, and that is an item that served little beyond a macguffin that had to be completed for the main character’s destiny, though it was only used as accessory slots. With said accessories mostly influencing your three stats, while leaving your offensive and defensive capabilities to fend for their very miniscule selves. I suppose I should not expect a character dressed in a dress to be able to take much damage, but I would also expect foot long claws to rip through flesh.
As for visuals, I was actually surprised by the texture quality available in this game, though the animations feel very much from the sixth generation. With arm motions during dialog sections more often than not involving some breed of bodily clipping as they move their joints like a machine, likely due to an absence of motion capturing. With battle animations being very quick in their execution, possibly too much so as predicting much aside from a super attack foretold by blue energy floating around a character model requires a bit more precision than the controls allow. With the constant flipping certainly not helping with making the large crowds that must be controlled very easy to visually predict.
Which is a list of issues that amount to the reason why I stopped playing this title partway through. It is very common for creators to look back at their earlier work and view it as far inferior despite prior praise, I’d argue for experiencing it myself. Yet, either due to evolution, the fact this game was an honest to goodness annoyance to get running, or the expectations gained after going through a generation playing well over a hundred modern games, Jade Empire seems to fit that role nicely. I mean, the combat system is very much incomplete for cripe’s sake.
A little bit on the pitiable side of things, as it is where the starting intentions, whatever they may have been, have apparently gone very wrong over the course of development, resulting in a game that, if it could emote, would be sad.