When it comes to things involving martial arts, I’m more of a fan in passing. I like the idea of Kung Fu or Karate, but I very rarely seek out martial arts films or the like. It probably doesn’t help that there doesn’t seem to be a huge demand in media for this kind of genre. This is especially true in the realm of videogames. It’s often hard to find a martial arts game that is truly entertaining. I remember that god awful Bruce Lee: Legend of The Dragon game, which was absolutely atrocious in terms of both gameplay and presentation.
For the longest time, I never thought I’d find a martial arts game that topped Kung Fu on the Nintendo Entertainment System, that is until I discovered a somewhat obscure title called Jade Empire. Out of all the titles Bioware has put out, this one is probably the least known of them all. Sure, it sold well and has a fair bit of fans, but most people nowadays forgot it existed. I want to bring this game a bit more attention, in case we finally get that remake we so desire. So, let’s read our nunchuks and do a backwards flip into Jade Empire: Special Edition!
Jade Empire is an action RPG that originally came out in 2005 for the X-Box, and was later ported to PC, as well as other consoles. The version I’m going to be looking at today is the PC version. Jade Empire was Bioware’s first ever foray into the action genre, touting a combat system that was just short of a beat-em-up. Bioware made sure to pay careful attention to the lore of Asian countries, such as China and Japan. Bioware even invented its own Chinese-styled dialect just for the game.
Jade Empire proved to due well financially, prompting the developers to create a “Special Edition” version of the game. This version included a new playable character, some new items, and a few new side-quests here or there. The guys behind this project have gone on record saying that they want to revisit this game’s universe, though no sequels to the first game have ever been made.
Our story takes place in ancient China, in a small village. We take on the role of the young apprentice of Master Li, who is training our selected hero in various forms of martial arts. As it turns out though, you aren’t any normal apprentice. You are a Spirit Monk, a warrior who can wield unnatural and mystical forces, the likes of which most students can only dream of. One day, your village is attacked and everyone you have ever known is killed.
You set out on a journey to stop the various evil forces that plague the lands, as well as save your kidnapped master from the claws of the Lotus Assassins. You are joined by various allies along the way, including a mad inventor and a crafty thief. While the story starts out like typical martial arts fare, it quickly evolves into something more grandiose. It becomes a story that not only pays homage to martial arts films of the past, but also deconstructs certain elements of them.
Jade Empire’s is certainly nothing new or original, but it’s presented in such a way that it feels fresh. The characters that populate this world are well voice-acted and all have their own stories to tell. The allies you acquire work well off each other, giving this game some of the best character interactions I’ve seen in a mid-2000s RPG.
Not everything is sunshine and roses with the plot, however. Without spoiling too much, the last few chapters feel rushed. They aren’t as large as chapters 2 and 3, and are severely lacking in side content. On top of this, the two different moral alignments (Open Palm and Closed Fist) lose their nuances partway through. They go from being two opposing alignments with vague shades of grey, to being just “good” and evil”.
While I did thoroughly enjoy the story, I felt the plot fell off halfway through for me. It lost its nuance and ended with a cliche ending that overwrote your character’s alignment. Is it a terrible plot? Of course not! It’s probably one of the best plots that has ever been attached to a western RPG, at least in my opinion. I won’t lie in saying that it isn’t flawed, but I’ve seen Bioware games with endings that felt far more rushed.
It’s hard to discuss Jade Empire without comparing its combat to that of a fighting game, or beat-em-up. The game pits your character and one ally against various monsters and creatures, usually in a small location setup like an arena. Your character can perform various actions, including blocking, rolling, attacking, etc. Your character will often auto-target a single opponent, though you can always turn targeting off if you wish to smack groups of baddies at your leisure.
Combat is fast and dynamic, but not without its faults. For example, I felt that the forward flip move was way too overpowered. It’s a move that allows you to flip over an opponent’s head and smack them before they have time to turn around. It makes combat a joke, which is why I chose to only use it sparingly. What makes the combat in this game so special are the various combat styles you’ll acquire.
These can rang from summoning large rocks and spears of ice to toss at your opponent, to being able to transform into a giant toad demon. The large amount of styles always kept the combat from getting too boring for me. There was always a new style to experiment with, and this kept the combat varied. Certain styles are useless against certain enemies, so even the game itself enforces a varied play-style.
Combat takes place from the third person perspective, and puts you in the shoes of one of 6 (7, if you have the Special Edition) different characters. The characters themselves are very similar to one another, with the only differences being that each character has a slightly different focus. For example, one may have more chi or be a more balanced character. All 7 characters function more like classes than individual characters. They all follow the same plot, with only dialogue being different depending on the gender of the selected character.
While each character is essentially a blank slate, the allies they can acquire are not. These characters can range from a girl who can turn into a demon, a man who is proficient in the Drunken Master martial arts style, or just a big beefy man with two axes. Characters feel varied, and the way they can enhance both combat and gameplay give them even more variation. Not every ally acquired will be able to fight alongside you in combat, but most of them will provide a near endless supply of witty and entertaining banter.
The game’s main draw is its morality system. Instead of focusing on purely good and evil, it focuses on two different philosophies: Open Palm and Closed Fist. At first, these two alignments start as being two morally grey choices. While Open Palm and Closed Fist seem like your generic good and evil factions, there are hints in the game itself that it is not so. It ends up creating this unique feel of two factions that are neither good nor bad. As previous mentioned though, the game throws out this unique dynamic in the final chapters.
Despite this, these two factions can affect gameplay greatly. Certain styles and items can only be acquired if you pledge yourself fully to one side or another. This makes the game great for multiple breakthroughs, especially if you want to try those other styles out. On the subject of items, this game has a rather unique inventory system. Instead of being given different armor or weapons to equip, you are given a talisman instead. While journeying through this game, you will acquire many gems that can be slotted into this talisman. These gems will bestow many useful bonuses and stat increases onto your character.
I’m honestly on the fence about whether I like the talisman system or not. On one hand, it streamlines the complexities often associated with inventory systems in RPGs. On the other hand, it feels a little too simple. I felt less like some kind of mystical chosen one, and more like some kind of ancient warrior jeweler. I’m not used to inventories being stuffed with a single kind of item, it’s a bit off-putting. I guess that’s more a nitpick than anything else, but it still bothered me somewhat.
I felt that the gameplay was pretty entertaining, if a bit simple at times. The game relied a bit too much on its action elements, which really need some refining. Its too easy to flip over an opponents back, or overpower them with some strange demonic form. Certain jewels felt a bit too powerful, especially due to the fact that you can them early on. On top of this, the game was a bit on the short side. I did most of the side quests, while at the same time beating the main story. Roughly, it took me about 19 hours to do most of the stuff the game had to offer. This is truly disappointing, as I found myself really getting involved in the world and its characters. Still, despite being short, it was a blast to play through!
This game looks great for its time, but has not aged well. Character faces are not super expressive, and some cut-scenes can end up looking somewhat compressed on modern TVs. Voice-acting is stunning and features a variety of voice actors, all of which really help bring this world to life. The game also features a few celebrities voicing its cast, including Brian Doyle Murray! I was honestly surprised to hear his voice in this game, and it’s always a pleasure whenever he plays some over-the-top character in anything.
Voice acting is pretty great all around, but there are some sore spots here and there. For instance, any character who speaks in the game’s made-up Chinese language often use recycled lines. This makes it so it seems like the characters are saying the same three lines over and over again, despite the subtitles telling me otherwise. Its a not deal breaker, but it is very noticeable.
The graphics are fine and I found the game ran well on Windows 10, despite how old it was. Character designs are nice and varied, even if some of the side-characters look a bit generic. The background music in this game is fantastic! It really captures the feel of martial arts movies to a tee! The music always seems to fit whatever is going on in the game, and really adds a sense of majesty to its various events.
Despite its somewhat dated visuals, its somewhat unbalanced combat, and its over-simplified inventory system, this game is still a lot of fun! This is definitely one of the best martial arts games ever made, I just wish they made more of them like this. The game expertly weaves the combat of beat-em-ups with that of an RPG, creating a truly mystical mixture.
Keep in mind though that this game has a weak ending, coupled with a disappointing second half. I still feel that this is a game that you can behind, despite how old it is. Just be warned that the game is still prone to crashing or not functioning well on modern PCs. If you track down the X-Box or X-Box 360 versions, I recommend playing those instead. With that, I can easily say that this game as sweet as syrup. It’s a game that manages to be both a good RPG, and a fun martial arts story. I haven’t played a game in the last 2 years that has made me smile as much as this has. That’s a feat that I can truly appreciate.