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.