Review – Jade Empire

The best part about going through a divorce is you get to play a lot of videogames. You’d think it would be the indiscriminate banging, but nope, it’s unlocking a series of meaningless achievements for things like collecting all the hidden dolls in Stacking, driving for two minutes without getting into an accident in Sleeping Dogs, or finally beating Civ V on the easy difficulty setting.

This isn’t exactly what I pictured my transition into single life would look like. Even my future ex-wife, upon learning that all my guy friends were not trying to hook me up and get me laid, was disappointed. (Her exact words were “Movies have lied to me.”)

So in addition to reading and podcasting, I’ve had a lot of time to work through the backlog of games I picked up on Steam sales over the years. I’d download something I purchased six months ago, play it for about 3 hours, and decide it wasn’t worth the frustration. Since I generally bought these games for ten dollars or less, the obligation I felt to complete them faded fast. I’d rather wallow in my shattered dreams of marital bliss than play any more Fable 3. But there were a few titles I felt compelled to complete out of brand loyalty, which is how I ended up watching every goddamn cutscene in Jade Empire.

Outside of its setting– a fantasy version of Chinese mythology with steamwork airships– Jade Empire is unremarkable. The combat is a chore (you choose a stance that works against a specific enemy type, then hit a button until it dies) and it’s often impossible to gauge striking distances accurately. There’s virtually no character customization in terms of skills or equipment. You can charm, intimidate, or use intuition to get what you want in conversation, but it has no affect on the way the story plays out. And the story itself is Star Wars.

In the wake of Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, Bioware has been heavily criticized for simplifying their gameplay systems and limiting player agency in their stories. I’d argue these have been consistent traits in their games since Jade Empire was released. After abandoning the Dungeons and Dragons rules set they used in Knights of the Old Republic, their system mechanics have felt like placeholders. Inventory has always been a disappointment and skills feel half-baked. Their stories rarely have satisfying conclusions. You can do the good thing or do the bad thing, and neither is all that cathartic.

(In Jade Empire, I chose the bad ending out of spite, because I resented the supposition that I found any of the NPCs interesting. Instead of getting a vicarious thrill from being a villain, I was told I mismanaged the kingdom and everyone thought I was a jerk.)

The upside is that the best Bioware games also give the player a cinematic representation of combat and fun characters to interact with. Players looking for systems to master and environments to explore– two things I think are core to the role-playing game experience– are likely to be disappointed. Because Jade Empire is the DNA of a modern Bioware game and Mass Effect and Dragon Age are clear iterations on the same mold. It’s just that Jade Empire lacks the embellishments that made those series successful and the world-building that made them interesting places to visit.

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