Imperial China has served as inspiration for some of fiction’s best stories. Few people have ever been able to capture the mysticism surrounding this period; however, BioWare’s Jade Empire, released originally on Xbox then ported to Xbox 360 and recently iOS, did just that. From the martial arts-based combat system, unique characters and decision-making that matters to the visuals and soundtrack, this 2005 title has been one of my all-time favorites.
In addition to what you expect in a typical BioWare game, this game also tackles real-life issues, such as love, addiction, loss and death in very tangible ways that make this 2005 title a must-play even to this day. Jade Empire is the culmination of all the things that the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games were praised so heavily for. Additionally, in true BioWare fashion, the great foresight to plan the twists and turns of the plot and the way that characters interact with each other (negatively and positively) are all masterfully crafted. You can be an evil dictator hell bent on world domination, or you can be a benevolent servant of the people traveling the land. Either way, you are free to choose.
As in other BioWare games, the decisions you make in conversations influence your path too. Embracing either the Way of the Open Palm (good) or the Way of the Closed Fist (evil), you set the precedent for your character’s fate early on. Those reactions are reverberated throughout the game.
Then there’s the free-flowing, martial-arts combat system. Compared to other RPG titles, which usually have some sort of turn-based style similar to KOTOR or any of the Final Fantasy games, Jade Empire’s combat is a breath of fresh air. Not only are you free to move about the area as you choose, but you are also able to switch combat styles on the fly. You can switch between 20-plus weapons, hand-to-hand combat and spirit magic styles, all of which are hot keyed to the D-Pad. They all accomplish certain goals and provide bonuses that the others do not, giving you the opportunity to exploit certain situations in enemy encounters. Giving you these abilities provides a certain level of immersion. You are making decisions on the fly as you might in a real fight. It’s engaging and well-balanced, which makes the experience an overall easy one.
Similar to how the combat perfectly portrays the fighting styles of this mystical and fictionalized period, the graphics in this game do a marvelous job of accentuating the beauty of the world and its inhabitants. While it is obviously apparent that this game is several years old, the graphics have held up to the test of time, still forcing the occasional stop-and-look moments. Jade Empire is one of the few games that seems to take the locales and build a game around them.
Let me explain. In Jade Empire, you visit flooded villages, heavenly realms, dark and spirit-infested forests and sprawling urban cities. Every single one of them feels real. You don’t feel like you’re in an area that was created for a game; rather, you feel like you’re in an area that was already there that the game happened to visit. They feel plausible. They are created with such an attention to detail that everything—down to the colors of the garments that people wear and the stones in the road—feel real.
The soundtrack, composed by Jack Wall, is one part soothing and calm and one part adventurous and exciting. The Chinese-inspired themes are passionately created with drums that pound as you enter into battle and flutes and harps that play as you explore the countryside. You always feel like the music is perfectly complementing your actions. This is something that seems to have been lost in modern-day gaming. Too many fans and developers alike focus on graphics, graphics, graphics. While the visuals are important, a good soundtrack can make every bit of difference to the immersion of a game, and Jade Empire nails it.
As far as characters go, Jade Empire is a prime example of how deep characters can be. From Sagacious Zu, the stoic warrior, to Kang the Mad, the eccentric scientist, each character fills a specific role. In addition to their combat abilities, they bring a unique perspective to your story as well.
For example, following the advice of Black Whirlwind (a massive axe-wielding warrior) will usually favor combat-based solutions to your conversations. The bonds you form in Jade Empire are unlike any game I have ever played. They are tangible and share very similar qualities with situations found in the KOTOR series. You have the ability to influence these characters, even so much as change their perspective on the world.
All of these attributes make Jade Empire worthy of a replay or two. Experiencing love, hate, joy and sorrow along the way make this game a masterpiece and one of the greatest titles to ever be released by BioWare.