I started playing Knights of the Old Republic, but for some reason I felt the need to switch over to Jade Empire, which I ploughed through very quickly. It is not Bioware’s best game, but it is a really interesting one. It is also the first Bioware game that takes place in a world of their creation; all of their previous games were set in established universes, Star Wars and D&D’s Forgotten Realms. They did a lot right with this game, but it doesn’t quite feel like the vision for this game was fully realized.
It kind of pains me to point out the flaws in this game, because I really liked Jade Empire. That, however, doesn’t really mitigate the games problems, chief of which is that the game simply doesn’t feel finished. It starts out with a solid ten or so hours of RPG then ends with a mediocre 5 hour action game. Characters join you in your travels then all but disappear. It feels like all the time spent creating the marvelous world of Jade Empire cut a lot of time that could have been spent creating content for that world. There are a lot of interesting ways to deal with obstacles, but not nearly enough obstacles to deal with. I really enjoyed having a handful of different martial art styles and weapons to use, but by the time your options really open up the game is nearly over. You are joined by a lot of interesting characters, but there isn’t a lot for most of them to do and since you can only bring one along at a time there are not many opportunities to bring them with. The game just ends up feeling slight or incomplete. Especially past the midway point, when all the RPG stuff and sidequests disappear and it just becomes an action game with a leveling system.
That doesn’t even to go into how big of a piece of crap PC port of this game is. It simply doesn’t work a good portion of the time. There are points when the enemies don’t turn hostile and block passages. After I reached the capitol city the game started loading up with the camera pointing straight at the ground about half the time. I just had to quick save and reload to fix it, but it was plenty annoying. I still enjoyed the game, but it did its best to keep from doing so.
While the game doesn’t have quite enough content, what is there is pretty good. It has something of a middle ground between the good and evil of the morality system in Star Wars and the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy. The Way of the Open Palm versus the Way of the Closed Fist tries to not be good and evil, but the game doesn’t really let there be many good actions for Closed Fist. It is kind of a selfless/selfish split. Open Palm players help others out, Closed Fist players tell people to help themselves. The only real problem I have with this system is that it doesn’t really affect anything. There are some accessories that can only be equipped by players of one path or the other, but few of them have effects that aren’t duplicated. The big moral choice that inevitably comes doesn’t rely in any way on the choices the player made before. In some ways that is not a problem, it makes sense that the player could choose either option there, but it makes the morality system somewhat superfluous.
I did enjoy the plot and characters, though it never really rises past the level of cliché. The overall quest, first to find your lost master and then to right a great wrong, is nothing groundbreaking but it is enjoyable and well executed. Your party members can’t help but feel like failures because while most of them are interesting, there is just so little for them to do. Henpecked Hou is kind of hilarious, but he joins in the woods and just sticks around to avoid his wife. Funny, but there isn’t a lot there. Likewise Sky is just sort of there. The only ones with any real plot importance are Silk Fox, who really pushes the player along near the middle of the game and childhood friend and game long companion Dawn Star. Otherwise, they are just slightly amusing character outlines along for the ride.
In many ways Jade Empire feels a lot like the first Mass Effect. The world is cool and it is clear that a lot of time was put into creating it, but it is only explored through a somewhat rough game. Mass Effect got a couple games to fix its problems, and become something else entirely; Jade Empire is only one game. This is all there its. I liked Jade Empire a lot, though I can’t help but be left wanting more in a bad way. What Jade Empire does it does well, it just doesn’t do enough.