The initial experience of even trying to get Jade Empire to run on a PC with a 64-bit operating system gives away a lot of the frustrations that are yet to come over the course of actually playing the game: if the player unfortunate enough to have hardware made in the last five years does not place an empty file with the title of “SystemInformation.xml” in the game’s directory and run the game, and Steam in the case of the Steam edition, as an administrative user, the game will, with the former fix, refuse to run and, in the latter case, crash at the first autosave point as the game will not have write access to the folder where it would like to make a record of the player’s progress. The configuration utility, by the way, will never run, no matter what is done. The way in which this is emblematic of the game is simple: it is full of bugs, but these bugs do have their own little workarounds that do not get too much in the way of an overall rewarding experience.
The first point in favour of Jade Empire is simply its setting: it defies received wisdom within the genre of Western RPGs in the fact that it is neither set in some futuristic science fiction universe, nor in some medieval fantasy setting. The fictionalised feudal China that is host to the action of the game is wonderfully realised through a world of genuinely interesting non-player characters to converse with, architecture that changes from location to location to a sufficient extent to provide each area with its own easily-identifiable visual identity and a player character skill tree that reflects a horrendously bastardised Chinese mythology that is in-keeping with the rest of the universe. The creation of a world with such a coherent and pervasive identity is perhaps not surprising when one considers that it was developed by the same Bioware that is responsible for Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, as well as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Rich lore within a gameworld is something that the company has delivered consistently, if one turns a blind eye to the litany of canonical errors in the end sequence of Mass Effect 3, so seeing this thoroughness applied to a world that is so departed from both dwarves and energy-based weaponry really is a treat.
A wonderful part of this universe is, as mentioned above, the people within it: quest-giving non-player characters are just as well written as the core cast of those who end up being central to the story in some way or other, and there is a great deal of humour for the player to be rewarded with if they choose to undertake the many sidequests available in the first three chapters of the game. The game’s first sidequest reveals this through the player’s hunt for Fen: a sentient being of great importance to a man whose path crosses with that of the player. Upon finding his wife, however, it becomes apparent that their marriage could not be classes among the “happiest” and that his primary concern was in fact for an ox. Little touches and tangential outreaches like this make the world a far more believable one than it otherwise would be and add more to player reward than seeing numbers associated with a character increasing.
The gameplay is, in many ways, typical Bioware: there is combat to be had, but the way in which a player comes out of situations of conflict may be contingent on choices that have been made in conversation. As always, there are certain crucial decision points that will determine how a given section of the game will play out, but the major points of player influence on the narrative come towards the end of the game and are heinously binary “good/evil” choices. The “good” and “evil” in the Jade Empire universe correspond with two fighting styles: The Way of the Open Palm and The Way of the Closed Fist. As much as the latter may sound like a poor excuse for developers to sneak in some clandestine humour around fisting, its effect on the game cannot even be said to be that profound. A rating either way of neutral between these two allows the player to use some items and combat styles over others, but it has no effect on the types of attacks used by the player or the types of responses available to the player during conversation. This is something that is handled far better by Mass Effect, while still retaining the complete absence of shades of grey in moral decision making.
The combat is a real highlight of Jade Empire, with a system of evades, light attacks, heavy attacks and blocks being bolstered by how fluid the experience of actually moving from an evasive manoeuvre into a flurry of attacks actually feels. Combining this with the variety of fighting styles on offer, whether these be the physical-attack based martial and weapons arts, the magical attacks or the transformations into demons that the player has defeated in previous battles, what is on the face of it a simple system becomes an incredibly tactical one of balancing use of the player’s chi (used for healing and magic) and focus (used in weapon-based attacks) with actions that recover these attributes in order to keep that attacks going. Even where the player must go on the defensive to regain enough chi or focus to be deadly again, the controls are responsive enough and the enemies smart enough for the flow of battles not to be interrupted.
As mentioned, however, there are flaws to be found in the game: every now and then, upon the player entering a new area, the camera likes to move itself from behind the player character into their head – a head that looks nowhere other than down, and the player becomes reliant upon the trusty top-right minimap and blind running against walls in order to find the next seam into another room that will cause the game to reload and re-place the camera. Saving and reloading does little to solve the problem, so progress can be lost at certain plot-heavy points in the game in order to load an earlier save where the camera was behaving. As much as the game has been described as “typical Bioware” here, this is just another instance of how Jade Empire is very much one with its stablemates.
Jade Empire is an enjoyable romp around a fictional China with some particularly rewarding combat. It does, however, fall into the traditional pitfalls of its contemporaries in its “black and white” system of morality, where the non-good option can only be pursued by being a completely intolerable dick, and through its being ridden with bugs that affect the gameplay experience negatively and tend to occur at the most inconvenient of times. It truly is a shame, however, that the EA takeover of Bioware has prevented any fixes being issued. The game is truly one worth playing, if only to see that WRPGs aren’t all orcs and space marines.