TODAY: Knights and Bikes pedals its way onto Nintendo Switch, and we've delivered our verdict on the port - Discover ancient Chinese mythology with Bioware's excellent RPG, Jade Empire, in this week's Blast from the Past
Blast from the Past
Jade Empire told us a tale of water dragons, open palms, closed fists and scheming Emperors
BioWare really did surprise everyone when they announced Jade Empire, a deep RPG set in a world bursting with ancient Chinese mythology. We play as a young Spirit Monk -- the last of our kind in fact -- who goes on a journey to try and save the land and its people from the folly of an emperor.
If you played BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic then there’ll be some similarities with Jade Empire, namely the adoption of a similar light/dark morality system, except here it’s called the Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. One major change though is Jade Empire’s combat is entirely real-time, and not the round-based ‘real-time’ action of KOTOR.
We inhabit a world that’s essentially a hyper mythical version of China, where all manner of beasts, gods and other supernatural occurrences lurk. This also means we get some really powerful combat moves, as well as some magical abilities. As this now takes place in real-time, the fights can be much tenser during boss battles because now success is largely down to your reactions.
”You are meant to learn, but not too much. To see, but not too clearly. To succeed, but not completely.”
Jade Empire is quite long and full of twists and turns, and because this is a BioWare RPG we get plenty of opportunity to make decisions along the way. We also get a buffet of potential party companions who all have their own backstory and something generally to resolve. We are the star of the show as the Spirit Monk, which is Jade Empire’s equivalent of a ‘chosen one’, although it’s more about just being the last of our kind and therefore the only one left who can really deal with things.
The dead aren’t staying quite as dead as they’re supposed to because the Water Dragon, who is a shepherd of the dead, has had her power usurped by an ambitious Emperor. The knock-on effect is that using her water-based power to overcome a disastrous drought across the Jade Empire has meant people aren’t able to move on properly when they die. They’re left as ghosts who slowly go mad and turn dangerous.
We start out as a student under Master Li at Two Rivers, but sure enough destiny comes smashing through and forces us quickly to be on our way to saving the world. How does saving the world work out, though? That’s up to us. Just because we’re meant to solve the crisis of the dead doesn’t mean we’ll be doing it how others want us to necessarily. We can play the great hero, or the ruthless tyrant. I’d even go far enough to say Jade Empire lets you play a total bastard more than any other BioWare RPG.
”Pity those spirits that have grown twisted. You will come to know their pain when life leaves you.”
It’s not even about light or dark exactly, as the Open Palm and Closed Fist are just differing philosophies on how best to act in the world. You can tell BioWare didn’t want to repeat quite so binary a choice as with the light and dark side of the Force from Star Wars. They even explore a little of these two philosophies that help us shape our Spirit Monk. Our party will certainly have something to say about how we approach problems along the way.
Jade Empire is one of BioWare’s greatest ever RPGs despite being just a one-off foray into real-time action combat, which you wouldn’t get close to again until Mass Effect released after the equally excellent fantasy RPG Dragon Age - Origins, which returned to a more rounds-based approach to combat. It spun a unique story set in a rich world teeming with Chinese myth and legend, while managing to capture that feeling of triumph whether as a great saviour, or an unstoppable tyrant.
Where to get Jade Empire today?
You won’t have to go on a grand pilgrimage to some far off monastery in the snowy, windswept mountains in the Far East to grab a copy of Jade Empire: Special Edition. Simply check out the RPG on Steam, through GOG.com or the EA Origin store. If you have an Origin Access subscription then you can play it as part of the package.
Switch Review - Knights and Bikes
We dive into this treasure hunting, bike riding port for the Switch
Double Fine Presents – Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 8th February, 2020
Published by Double Fine Presents and developed by Foam Sword, the game was originally released for the PS4 and PC last year after a successful Kickstarter. Now, the co-op adventure comes to the Switch. Is it a better introduction than its initial release? Let’s unlock our kickstands and pedal on to find out.
Knights and Bikes is about two girls named Nessa and Demelza (with a pet goose named Honkers) trying to find fabled treasure on a small island in the UK. It might be cutesy and wacky from its premise, but it’s also pretty sad. Demelza’s loneliness is a focal point of the story, especially as she processes her mother’s death. Even with this tragedy, the game portrays being a kid very well.
They go on tangents, let imagination get ahold of them, and be annoying the way only kids can. It’s never shown maliciously and it really works throughout the story. The main twist for this game might be obvious, but it’s still told with confidence. This is helped by the game’s art direction, which is really warm and cute. Even if this type of story doesn’t appeal to you, the style in which it tells its story is sound.
Playing Knights and Bikes has you fighting monsters, solving puzzles, and customizing your bike. Since both Nessa and Demelza unlock different weapons, you will need to use both of them to beat certain enemies and go through the game. If you’re playing alone, you can quickly swap between them. It is not the most complex brawling action, with each character unlocking three different weapons with alternate firing modes. But it feels appropriate for this game, introducing you to these new weapons slowly. The fights themselves can get a little overwhelming at times, the arena-esque battles noticeably slowing down the framerate, but it’s not a dealbreaker.
When you’re not whalloping monsters, you’re riding to the next story beat on your bike and following your pet goose. At the start of the game, it becomes a bit meditative. It lets you breath between the fights, even if they can drag on a bit. If you’re fond of the lack of action in games like Dear Esther or Firewatch, this will fit right in. But if the act of bike riding alone isn’t meaningful to you, it will make you impatient. This is doubled in regards to how you style your bike.
Bike customizing is interesting. Not because it’s something you do to get a “stronger” bike (with some minor upgrades added over time), but more for the sake of it looking nice. Any random junk you find from monsters or breakable items is used to barter for new parts for your bike. These parts are for appearance, and finding junk to trade is incredibly easy. It’s very good at getting you in a child’s mindset. You’re just making it look cool to you, and there’s freedom in this being purely for player expression. This means that if you’re not someone who finds joy in customization, this game will not be for you.
It’s something you have to play with a mate. One thing the game does exceptionally well is pull you into random competitions with your friend. These can be races, collections, or fighting with action figures. It perfectly encapsulates that impulsive desire for defeating a friend in an impromptu race when you were a kid.
Knights and Bikes might have some framerate concerns on the Switch and a gameplay loop less interesting than its narrative, but it’s not a genre you often see. Games with children aren’t the same as games about childhood, and Foam Sword understands the absurdity of that time well. It’s a game that’s able to be sweet, silly, and melancholy all at once. If you can embrace mechanics made for the sake of themselves rather than for gameplay synergy, Knights and Bikes will be perfect for you and a friend.
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