Xbox have announced a re-release slate of old games, including one that is little spoken of now: the mythic Chinese fantasy Jade Empire. Sam Brooks writes about the game’s reception 13 years ago, and why it’s all but forgotten now.
It’s 2005. BioWare are coming off Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars RPG that won mass love and critical acclaim, and set BioWare on a path of Western RPG-making that appears to have come to a quiet and unceremonious end with Mass Effect: Andromeda.
So, following that hit, do they make a sequel to Knights of the Old Republic? Nope. They outsource that to Obsidian. Instead the game follows is a martial-arts focussed RPG set in a place that is China, but a fantasy version that the game bends over backwards to pretend is not China even though it definitely is. It’s an original property without a built-in fanbase. It’s in a location that is very rarely called upon for the genre. That game is Jade Empire. (Which you can buy right here, right now, on the Xbox store!)
Now, Jade Empire has all the hallmarks of a BioWare game before BioWare grew its beard with both Mass Effect (or at least Mass Effect 2) and Dragon Age. There’s the very binary and apparently arbitrary moral compass: either you’re saving the orphanage or you’re burning it down – there are no shades of grey. There’s also the near identical structure that almost every BioWare game has: you start off as a low-ranking member of something, then that something is burned to the ground and you’re suddenly forced into the role of saving the world. You collect plot coupons, then there is a huge revelation about your main character and then everything is resolved soon after, not particularly satisfactorily (especially once you’re aware of the structure).
What makes Jade Empire special and sets it apart, is that setting: the titular Jade Empire. Without getting into lore that is of interest to close to zero people, it’s a mixture of mid-century China (and you know how I love me some mid-century China video games) and Chinese mythology blended into one game. There are monsters, demons and gods in this setting, and they co-exist with the humans just fine. It’s an inventive setting for a game, in a genre where most games tend towards western high fantasy, a bleak post-apocalyptic scenario or a derivative anime setting, and it showed off how BioWare could create a world that had the potential for such depth.
There’s also a gentler and more meditative pace to Jade Empire that sets it apart from other BioWare games – the binaries of light side/dark side and paragon/renegade are neutered a little into the Open Palm and the Closed Fist. These philosophies are examined not just through what you, the main character of the game, choose to do and act, but through your followers and how they act. The Open Hand philosophy revolves around altruism, while the Closed Fist revolves around self-reliance, and you can choose to complete quests in ways that follow these philosophies.
In practice, this actually ends up being the usual moral conundrum of save the orphanage or burn it down, but the game’s attempt to explore these philosophies is genuine and well-intentioned, and it makes me wish that something more had come of it. BioWare attempted to go further down this road with the later Mass Effect games, where the choices between Paragon and Renegade options were less binary and more nuanced, and they eventually ditched this kind of dichotomy entirely with the Dragon Age games.
Jade Empire also has one of the best twists in a video game ever, a twist that rivals even their rightly considered ‘best ever’ twist in Knights of the Old Republic (you’re actually playing as the assumed dead villain of the Sith empire!), and arguably that twist is better remembered and known than the game itself. Spoilers ahead for a thirteen year old game, if you care: Basically, your master who took you in is revealed to be the evil brother of the Emperor, and right at the moment you’re about to confront him it’s revealed that he actually taught you in a way that gave him a flaw that only he could exploit, just so he could destroy you at the moment of confrontation. It’s a beautiful, Darth Vader-level of a twist, and arguably this game is more likely to show up on ‘best of’ lists for this one twist, than for any of the actual content.
Still, the game hasn’t really been heard of since it came out, and a rumoured sequel was quietly cancelled, likely in favour of BioWare’s future monster series Dragon Age. Even though it’s been fairly consistently ported to other systems (iOs, Steam, even the deadzone for gaming that is known as Mac), it’s never been a huge hit, even though it won a slew of awards upon release, including more than a few Game of the Year awards.
One reason for this is that Jade Empire represented the exact point when BioWare’s wardrobe of tropes was starting to become stale. The structure, the relationships, and even the mechanics are suspiciously identical to Knights of the Old Republic, and even older BioWare games like Baldur’s Gate. Even if you give an old house a pretty (Eastern) coat of paint, it’s still the same house and once you get deep enough into Jade Empire, you realise that.
There’s also less buy-in for Jade Empire and any potential sequel. Knights of the Old Republic didn’t exactly promise a sequel, but it’s a goddamned Star Wars game so you know that people are going to want more and more of it. Less so for Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, but these are still established properties with established fanbases. Even though it has a killer second act twist, Jade Empire wraps itself and the characters’ arcs up in a such a self-contained bow that even if people wanted a sequel, it doesn’t necessarily call for it.
Another perhaps less prominent but no less important reason for its relative failure is that however different and distinct the Jade Empire world is, it has a pretty consistent whiff of Orientalism about it. It feels very much like a Western take on an Eastern history and mythos. Especially when everybody is talking in American accents (except for the monsters, who speak in a likely problematic-these-days gibberish), there’s a sense that this is appropriating a different culture. If they were to make a sequel, there’d be a lot of work to do to make this world authentic (or as authentic as a fantasy world can be), not offensive or appropriating. And in this day and age, that seems like work that a triple-A company like BioWare doesn’t have the time or resource for.
But, despite all this, Jade Empire is worth a play, especially if you’re a ride-or-die BioWare fan like me (I actually somewhat liked Andromeda) and especially if you’ve played every other BioWare game for a hundred hours. It marks the exact point when BioWare realised their product and processes were becoming a bit rusty, they did something a little bit radical to rejuvenate their work, and didn’t quite make it. Not quite a resounding success, but not quite a failure either, and it’s so rare we get a chance to re-examine these things in the gaming world.
You can buy Jade Empire on the Xbox Marketplace here. It is also readily available on Steam, GoG and the App Store. Go forth!
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