When I say the name Bioware, what’s the first thing you think of? Mass Effect? Dragon Age? Baldur’s Gate for the nostalgic ones out there maybe? I think of Jade Empire; possibly the most under the radar game that they have ever released.
In a time before EA tried to strangle hold every developer worth their salt in a tyrannical reign, Bioware ran free and happy creating games that blew people’s minds left and right with their intuitive mechanics and excellent storytelling. This was the beautiful era of Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) and Neverwinter Nights, when Bioware was at the top of their game. That’s when they invented the land of Jade Empire and spun a mythical tale for the ages.
Jade Empire was a classic Xbox exclusive, set in a fictitious oriental world where demons, spirits and monsters didn’t just exist, they lurked around every corner. Jade Empire was a land where airships roamed the skies and disputes were settled by the mettle of your combat ability. Unlike their previous hit Knights of the Old Republic which was based off of the d20 Star Wars system and allowed you to make strategic, yet vastly uninvolved, combat decisions, Jade Empire was a real time combat set up. Not just that, as you traveled across the land you could learn new martial arts, weapon, magic and transformation styles to make your warrior unique to your style of combat.
It did follow in the steps of KotOR in many other ways, but Jade Empire found ways of giving each of these similarities a special twist to make it theirs. For instance, followers were gained along the course of the story depending on your interactions with NPCs and decisions, very much like KotOR, but you had the option for using them in different ways. A follower could be set to Attack and they would fight alongside you as normal, or they could be set to Support which would give you a special bonus such as regenerating health or increased weapon damage, but your follower would sit out of battles in order to gain this bonus. It made you use more of your followers throughout the story as they became useful to each situation.
The karma system from KotOR also made a comeback in Jade Empire, but instead of the bland Good vs. Evil options that are still so common today, Jade Empire gave us Open Palm and Closed Fist. I know that just sounds like Good vs. Evil tailored to fit a game about Buddhist monks, but it’s much deeper than that. It was more about balance and harmony of the world vs. strength through adversity and the power that can only be gained through survival. The dialogue options for Open Palm and Closed Fist were tricky and often asked you to make extremely difficult moral decisions where there generally was no right answer.
If all of that isn’t enough to make you curious about Jade Empire let me say this: For anyone that went through the ‘big reveal’ in KotOR without someone spoiling it before hand, you know what it feels like to be shocked from a video game narrative. Somehow Jade Empire manages to pull the wool over your eyes in the same way that KotOR did without ever feeling put on or forced. The story weaves itself into you so seamlessly, pulling your attention front and center through its entirety.
When you have a niche genre that may not be met in this gaming world saturated with copy and paste shooters, it can be disappointing to say the least. I’ll always be happy that I found Jade Empire to fill that whole in my heart that longed for an epic martial arts inspired adventure. It’s a game that’s hard to forget long after you’ve put the controller down and gone back to the real world; and there will always be a part of you that will long to jump back into the Jade Empire after it’s all said and done.