Monday, September 9, 2013

Remember Jade Empire?

Last night a really good friend of mine and I went to see Wong Kar-wai's new film, The Grandmaster. It's a wonderful film and I really enjoyed it. The fight scenes are absolutely beautifully choreographed, they're intense and really gripping.

However, all that got me thinking, when was the last time we had a really good martial arts video game? The answer, for me at least, is BioWare's 2005 triumph Jade Empire.
I know there have been successful and well reviewed fighting games since 2005. Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and others have been released in that time. Ninja Gaiden is somewhere in the mix as well, and might be my favorite of all those.

Pictured: a not scantily clad video game character
But most of those games are strictly fighters. They involve martial arts but almost as if it was a consequence of a making a fighting game as opposed to a central pillar of the game. Jade Empire takes martial arts, and Chinese mythological elements, and builds the game around it.

One can imagine the jam that BioWare was in back then, how to follow up Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic? The answer, for BioWare was not to do a direct sequel. Instead, by choosing to build a new universe BioWare made something of a spiritual successor. The comparisons to KOTOR are easy, both games run on the same engine and use a lot of the same mechanics. From a strictly functional point of view, the games play fairly similarly if you strip away the Star Wars and wuxia trappings. They both control fairly similarly, they both feature moral alignment systems, among other things.

Despite the similarities, Jade Empire is not KOTOR. Taking a deeper look at the moral alignment system sheds light on the brilliant nuances of the lore. In Star Wars there's the light and the dark side of the force and the exist in binary opposition. Jade Empire has the Way of the Open Palm vs the Way of the Closed Fist. In terms of game play the two come off as light side/dark side parallels but philosophically they're much more interesting. Open Palm is about harmony and the reduction of chaos, but it's also about living within one's means and station. Closed Fist is about the introduction of chaos, but also about striving to become self reliant and the seeking of challenges.

The multiple styles of fighting also created plenty of differing styles of play. I remember KOTOR mainly being about assembling a team of lightsaber wielding allies and just sort of hacking it out. Not necessarily the best strategy but it was Star Wars so why not. Jade Empire offered four unarmed fighting styles (six on PC), four magic styles, another four support styles, four transformations (five on PC), and nine weapon styles (11 on PC). Tons of options meant for a good amount of replayability and tailoring to what the player wanted to do.

Impractical but classy
I'm having a little trouble convincing myself that the game looked gorgeous because of the (now) dated visuals. This has everything to do with my and nothing to do with the game itself. However, it still holds up pretty well when you consider that the game came out eight years ago. The art direction is great though, the look and feel of the game is wonderful. Perhaps, at worst, it patronizes its subject matter a bit but in my opinion it's all part of creating a whole and total game world of the player. One they can really believe in and one that's based on a particular mythology.

Last, let's not forget the Jack Wall soundtrack that really pulls together everything. I'm a big fan of Wall and though I think he does his best work is Mass Effect, the Jade Empire soundtrack is one to be reckoned with. I took some time to listen to it almost in its entirety and its pretty great. Compared to anything from Dynasty Warriors its a classical symphony. Again, it's not about pandering, its about totalizing.

So what happened with Jade Empire 2? Nothing. BioWare went on to do Mass Effect and Dragon Age and Jade Empire hasn't been picked up since. In a way, that's nice. Unlike the other two aformentioned games, Jade Empire never made the transition to series. Obsidian Entertainment did an alright job with KOTOR 2 but it was mainly spectacular for the way it didn't live up to the standard of the original. I'd love to see Jade Empire 2 but in all honesty I'm not really holding out for it.

Jade Empire is currently available for the Xbox 360 as an Xbox Original and for PC via Steam.

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