Playing Time: 19 hours
Jade Empire was the first major game BioWare developed that wasn't based on some licensed IP. I enjoyed what they did with Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2, and Dragon Age: Origins was fair enough, even if it wasn't exactly the sort of game I liked best, so I had tried playing Jade Empire a couple of times in the past. I always ended up losing interest from how generic the early parts of the game feel, but I made a friend recently who had a high opinion of this game and talked me into giving it another real try. That ended up being a good thing.
The game is set in a fantasy version of China under the Han dynasty, more or less, with the current Emperor having high public approval from somehow ending a drought about twenty years earlier. The main character is a warrior-monk learning kung fu (of the mystical/wuxia sort) at a remote school near an idyllic village, with an Old Master who keeps saying there's some greater destiny waiting for you. As you're finding out what flavor of Chosen One you are, however, the village becomes a Doomed Hometown, your master is kidnapped, and just about everyone else you know is killed aside from your Childhood Friend Dawn Star and Rival Gao the Lesser. So, you set off on an adventure to save your master (and to do a bunch of random tasks for people who're too helpless to actually talk to anyone else in their village, because this is an RPG, after all).
If this all sounds quite bland, that's because it is, or at least it seems that way at first. Towards the end of the game, there is a major revelation that recontextualizes much of the early game with additional meaning, but the game disguises that so well that I was honestly more interested in the hints about Dawn Star's past and the details of the relationship Sagacious Zu (another NPC companion) had with her than in anything to do with the main story for most of my playing time.
The gameplay is mostly what's to be expected from an Aurora Engine-based BioWare game: clunky combat that tries to blend together being real-time with hidden turn-based mechanics, lots of dialogue that presents as trees while tending towards alternate approaches to the same result more so than genuine splits, and a half-assed morality system. This probably all sounds rather negative, and that's because it is. I don't like the Aurora Engine in general (I was very happy CD Projekt Red ditched it for The Witcher 2), and BioWare isn't nearly as effective with their social mechanics as developers like Black Isle/Troika/Obsidian or ZA/UM, from a combination of being much more conservative about "wasting" content and oversimplifying morality to a split of reasonable human behaviors and cartoonish villainy. Sure, the start of Jade Empire tries to act like Open Palm and Closed Fist are more like "collective-focus versus individual-focus" rather than "good versus evil", but when you end up with choices like "given this person the lost carving of their dead wife, or laugh at them about how you're keeping it for yourself?", you're not dealing with much philosophical nuance.
Going back to the combat gameplay for a moment, you don't have equipment in the typical sense for RPGs, but you can switch between different styles of kung fu to alter how your character plays. Broadly speaking, these are broken up into martial (direct hand-to-hand damage), support (little-to-no damage in return for inflicting status effects), magic (ranged attacks), weapon (fighting with sword, staff, dual sabers, or dual axes), and transformation (shapechanging) styles, each of which has multiple specific styles that play differently. While this is pretty cool and adds a lot of variety in theory, there are a few points that hold this back. First, the magic, transformation, and weapon styles all drain some resource that can alternatively be used to buff yourself temporarily, and using those styles is generally not worth that opportunity cost. Second, you gain a limited number of upgrade points per level that are assigned to specific styles and can't be reassigned later, so it's more sensible for the most part to just invest heavily in a few early styles and ignore the rest. Third, certain styles are just categorically outclassed; the shocked status from Storm Dragon is better than either Heavenly Wave's slowed or Paralyzing Palm's paralysis because it both disables the target completely and deals some damage over time, and Storm Dragon is also just better for setting up harmonic combos (a mechanic where hitting a normal enemy with certain attacks from two different styles in a short window can kill them instantly and produce a health/chi/focus-recovery orb) because it uses its area attack instead of its strong attack for that, so there's no mechanical reason to use any other support styles once you get that partway through the first non-tutorial village; resulting in a significant amount of fake variety.
Granted, it was still fun to mess around with weaker styles from time to time, but that was me explicitly handicapping myself rather than something good about the game.
As a general note, I also think the typical Aurora Engine camera is terrible for a melee-focused game. Managing spacing is very awkward, and if you aren't using a style that has significant forward movement in its attacks, you'll end up flailing around at the space your target used to occupy if you do more than one or two attacks. It's just not a good fit.
Despite all of those complaints, though, this did end up being a fun game to play because of the story. I can't say much about the main plot without spoiling the big twist (and while I'm loose with spoilers in some other reviews and think spoilers aren't really such a bad thing in general, I'll hold back here because the player would need the full details of the spoiler to appreciate what was done in the earlier parts of the game, and I can't think of a way to summarize it effectively), but I can talk more openly about the NPC companions. You end up with about nine (depending on how you count some of them), and despite being an older game than Dragon Age: Origins, I think most of them were written better than the ones in that game. They may not have major personal sidequests or individual approval meters (though some of the dialogue options suggest that they can be swayed towards Open Palm or Closed Fist in a way similar to hardening), but they feel more like characters than like caricatures, and the lack of major mechanical customization for them makes it more tolerable to have them become unusable at times. Like I said before, I was more interested in the background between Dawn Star and Sagacious Zu than I was in the main story for most of the game, and most of the others also have some good spotlight moments.
The exception to this is Hou. He's supposed to be a bit of a joke character, but his abusive relationship with his wife fell into Dude Not Funny territory for me.
Attempting to spice up the gameplay were some Unexpected Shmup Level segments. Fortunately, these are mostly optional and not too hard (though I did get stuck on one for about an hour because I insisted on playing at the highest difficulty despite being rather terrible at shmups), so aside from a couple that do lead to important rewards, it's not a major distraction.
Speaking of difficulty, I would not suggest playing this on anything higher than normal (or master, as the game calls it). While combat is mostly pretty easy, especially once you get broken styles like Storm Dragon or Spirit Thief and/or sufficient upgrades to your main martial/weapon style, there are a couple of spots where the game throws multiple high-tier enemies at you that negate your tools for actually handling multiple enemies and are just an absolute slog to deal with in hit-and-run style (especially since enemies also get a lot more health at higher difficulty, too). Much like the Baldur's Gate games, Jade Empire's difficulty settings are clearly an afterthought tacked on to appease people who complain about not having them without actually providing a meaningful challenge.
While it's held back somewhat by dated 3D modeling/texturing, the graphics are alright overall. No major "wow"-factor, but they're good enough to show what they're meant to.
The music is quite nice if unremarkable. I'd have a hard time recognizing any of the tracks in isolation aside from the main menu theme, but hearing them while playing did a fair job of setting the mood and never came off as distracting or otherwise unwelcome. It's not Baldur's Gate 2, but again, it does what it's supposed to do.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good game, if on the short side for an RPG (in terms of comparing to a similar game, I'd say it's about half the size of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines). I liked it more than Dragon Age: Origins, which makes me a little disappointed that BioWare ended up going hard into that IP while leaving Jade Empire to gather dust. All in all, I would recommend Jade Empire for people who like a good story with a big twist, but you'll need to look elsewhere if you want a game that provides satisfying difficulty and rewards mechanical expertise.
Playing Time: 19 hours