Saturday, October 13, 2012

Jade Empire review

    Wuxia is an underrepresented genre in Western medium, particularly fantasy. It’s huge in China but aside from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you don’t see much in the West. I think part of this has to do with the fact that there’s a lot of genre assumptions you have to adopt in order to fully appreciate the medium. 

    It’s not just martial arts, it’s supernatural martial arts. Anime has plenty of representations of the Japan form of wuxia but America’s one real contribution to the field, Star Wars, is hard to do without being accused of a rip off.
    Bioware’s Jade Empire is an attempt to do a full-on wuxia story set in Ancient Magical China. Honestly, I think this might have been where a lot of gamers tuned out. Dragon Age: Origins was ridiculously popular for being a straight adaptation of Tolkien-esque fantasy with a sexy undercurrent. 

    So was Knights of the Old Republic for adapting Star Wars and Mass Effect for Star Trek hybridized with Babylon Five. Gamers, sadly, do not have the same love for wuxia as they do these three existing fanbases. 

    Most a pity because this game is quite good. 

It even has John Cleese. Honest to God.
    The premise of the game is that you are the student of master Sun Li, the Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque ruler of a small fishing village with a curiously large martial arts school. Without going into much detail, your idyllic life of training and flirting with fellow students is about to come to an end. You’ll travel across, well, three locations, and participate in the usual Bioware side-quests. The plot of the game involves a conspiracy in the Empire amongst the Sith Lord-like Lotus Assassins, the fate of the Spirit Monks massacred decades ago, and the missing Water Dragon. 

    There’s a number of twists that most fans of Bioware probably know already due to cultural osmosis, given the game is almost ten years ago, but I would be remiss in pointing them out. Suffice to say, if you’re unspoiled, there’s one genuinely shocking moment and quite a number of smaller twists. Indeed, I’d argue that while it’s not the best written of Bioware’s games (that would Mass Effect 2 with Knights of the Old Republic following close behind) it’s certainly up there.

    The heart of any Bioware game is its characters and Jade Empire has an excellent cast of oddball screw-ups for you to assemble in order to save the world. I was particularly fond of Henpecked Hou, a formerly great martial arts master whose found himself in a horrific marriage, and Black Whirlwind, who is an affable psychopath. 

    The two major male (and partially female) love interests Dawn Star and Silk Fox are equally enjoyable for entirely different reasons. They form the Betty and Veronica of the romance set with Dawn Star being shy and gentle while Silk Fox is the wuxia version of Catwoman. The game adds an unusual surprise in the fact it's possible to romance both. Polygamy being slightly more acceptable in Medieval China than in the future or Feldaren, it seems.

    The combat system consists of you getting the opportunity to develop your own martial arts style. This can be sword, spear, fists, or any number of other variants with several additional styles learned along the way. I found it wasn't worth it to develop anything more than the initial fighting style and spear-fighting, though other gamers may disagree.

An example of the beautiful level design.
    Jade Empire has a morality system like Knights of the Old Republic, though it attempts to portray it as similar to the Paragon/Renegade system of Mass Effect. The Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist supposedly representing a person who seeks harmony with the world versus a person who seeks personal strength.

    This isn't how it comes off in the game as to be a practitioner of the Way of the Closed Fist requires you to be not just evil but ridiculously evil. For such a pretty and inoffensive-looking game, I can't recall any other title that allows you to mind-control someone into being your sex slave. You can do that as either a man or woman as I understand it. Eesh. As a result, I imagine most gamers who like portraying someone remotely redeemable will choose the Way of the Open Palm.
    The game isn't perfect, mostly because it feels surprisingly cramped. I'm fairly sure there was meant to be at least a quest hub for you to visit before the game ended. Also, your party is extremely large but you don't really ever get to develop many of them beyond the love-interests. There's no quests related to them like in Dragon Age and they're lacking compared to Carth or Bastila. Still, they’re up there and that’s more than most games by far. I heartily recommend everyone with Xbox Live pick this up, it’s only five dollars in points.


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