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3/06/2013

Jade Empire in a Nutshell

Awesome, a new Bioware game, I thought as this was announced.  But not long thereafter came the disappointment.  The first bit of letdown was that this new game would be designed for consoles, and as a result likely to be much more linear in design and far less intricate ("dumbing it down for a wider audience", if you will).  The second is that it's an Xbox exclusive, a system I had less than zero interest in because its "quality exclusives" consist of decidedly average fare like Halo and absolute trash like Fable (which both later got PC ports anyway).

Well, the premise of the game is interesting, at least.  A martial arts themed action RPG.  That could be really cool if it was done right.  Blocking, dodging and countering attacks from multiple foes, chaining intricate combinations of attacks together to maximize damage, buying upgrades in the form of new attacks and defensive maneuvers, throw in a puzzle here and there, maybe even include some super moves to really lay down the hurt on your foes... it sounds great, right?  This could be just what console RPGs need to move out of the dark era of being nothing but retreaded Final Fantasy VII clones.

...Mmmyeah, that didn't happen either.  But let's see why that's the case.

We begin in a mystical land, which is heavily steeped in Chinese imagery but they let it go nameless so they didn't have to worry about being historically accurate.  Fair enough.  So we encounter our hero fighting Wimp Lo, purposely trained wrong as a joke.  Like every console game ever, this is just window dressing for an overlong unskippable tutorial, which you probably just want to skip past if you're one of the five people in the world who bothers to read the game's manual before playing it.  Or one of the millions of people who has played a video game before ever.

Not much to note here, save for two more big disappointments with the game: The voice acting (which, as in every Bioware game to follow this one, consists of empty line reads by apathetic actors who are only here for a paycheck) and the one-dimensional "alignment" system.  You follow "the way of the open palm" which means you help the helpless and are generally a good guy.  Or you follow "the way of the closed fist", which means you leave the helpless to fend for themselves and generally act like a selfish jerk.  Gee, could this be a thinly-veiled allegory for a certain two political parties, only they don't outright say it for fear of alienating a wider audience who can't read between the lines?

Spoony: Say, do you remember when morality in video games wasn't just pure black and white like this?  I don't blame you if you don't, since nearly every console RPG I've ever played just has you as the designated righteous hero and some other guy as the designated irredeemable villain, with no opportunity to trade places or even reach any kind of middle ground.  But what amazes me is that Bioware apparently doesn't remember a time when gaming broke away from this.  Especially considering that this is the company that brought us Baldur's Gate II, a game which featured some complex moral choices, didn't always reward you for taking the "good" path and didn't always punish you for taking the "evil" path.  One particular instance that comes to mind is the character Viconia, a dark elf about to be murdered by villagers merely for being a dark elf (which, to be fair, is a race well known for being bloodthirsty, sadistic and generally sociopathic).  Saving her is the "good" thing to do, sure, but you can bet your ass that a lot of people won't readily trust someone who pals around with a dark elf.  Or for a later example, the Sahuagin.  You could depose their bloodthirsty and insane king, put the prince back on the throne and save their way of life, or you could do the king's bidding and slay the prince instead, which will ultimately lead to the degredation and possibly ultimate extinction of the sahuagin.  Guess which has the bigger payoff for the player?  That's right, option B!  You get a few items you wouldn't normally get from playing the hero, including one of the best items in the game for the monk class (which you cannot get anywhere else!).

My point is that they had a good thing going there - much like real life, choices in Baldur's Gate 2 weren't always black and white.  What you thought to be the right thing to do could very well lead to harm for someone else later on, and vice versa.  So to go from complex and thought provoking writing back to childishly simple choices like this is... almost insulting.  Even moreso considering that none of your choices in Jade Empire have any significant impact on how the game's storyline unfolds, save for maybe changing one or two scenes in the ending.  What's worse, they never moved beyond this in their later games either.  Remember the Mass Effect 3 "every ending is perfectly identical save for the screen being tinted a different color" debacle?  Of course you do.

Anyway, after what feels like half an hour of rereading things you've already been told, the town comes under attack by a group of bandits apparently backed by ghosts.  Our hero isn't quite strong enough to cut it against so the old master has to come to the rescue and defeat it for us.  Fair enough, it is the beginning of the game and we're still relatively inexperienced, so I'll take a plot-related loss here and there.  The master then tells us that we must visit the Spirit Cave to learn the truth of what's happening, but some other student who I don't think we've even spoken to yet takes exception to this and challenges us to a duel.

Spoony: Gee, I wonder if this is going to be the stock character from every martial arts film ever made who gets impatient with the master's esoteric training methods and abandons him in search of power, but who always loses to the hero in the end because he stood by his master's side and saw the wisdom in his strange ways?  Durrr...

Sure enough, Generic Rival gets defeated by us and kicked out because he cheated by using some forbidden magic.  It's also right about here that you begin to realize one of the big faults with the game - namely that every fight feels pretty much identical.  Worse, there's virtually no strategy to it - you pretty much just mash buttons and defeat everything in your path with little trouble.  Occasionally you have to dodge a spell or draw MP from your reserve to heal injuries or cast something that lets you damage ghosts, but this is pretty much the only break from tapping the "punch" button repeatedly for minutes at a time.

Spoony: I'd hate to say Baldur's Gate did melee combat better, considering that in that game it consisted of just clicking on the enemy and watching both sides automatically attack one another until one died, but... Baldur's Gate did melee combat better.

After his defeat and subsequent expulsion (no doubt leading to dozens of predictable rematches in the future), we get sent off to the Spirit Monk's temple to meet the exposition fairy, who sums up the whole 3x5 card worth of plot in about five minutes.  Short version, the Generic Evil Emperor slew the Water Dragon to end a decades-long drought but in doing so unbalanced the forces of the universe, causing the dead to roam the earth and set the planet on a downward spiral that will ultimately destroy it if the balance isn't restored.

Spoony: ...This really is just another forgettable JRPG.  We've got all the familiar characters: Wimp Lo, the generic rival, the old master, the evil emperor, a slew of generic party members (one of whom our character will inevitably fall for later).  We've got the flat and mostly thought-deprived combat, and we've even got the strictly linear plot progression.  The only thing we're lacking at this point is dumb minigames.  But don't worry, those are coming right up!

Shock of all shocks, as we return to the village we find it burned to the ground and the old master kidnapped, which leads to more dull and repetitive fighting with generic soldiers!  Then we jack one of their airships and encounter the requisite minigame which, sadly, is the most enjoyable part of this game so far - a rather silly overhead shooter segment more than a little reminiscent of the Sega Genesis game "Steel Empire", since you're battling in a blimp.

Spoony: I'm not even kidding when I say that the generic shoot-em-up segment was the most enjoyable part of this game that I played.  Maybe they should have done more with that idea and had more minigames throughout; it would certainly help Jade Empire to be more than a tedious monster-punching simulator.

Because of plot reasons (coughcoughPADDING), we quickly get shot down and are forced to search for another usable airship and a map to the imperial city.  We encounter yet another battle with more nameless pirate enemies and ghosts and blah blah blah I'm bored of this already.

Spoony: There are few things worse than seeing a company you like crash and burn.  Even moreso when they're just starting out and carve out a promising future with their first couple titles.  I still consider Baldur's Gate to be an amazing, groundbreaking trilogy, especially for its time.  It had great, challenging gameplay and a surprisingly intricate story with some really memorable characters on both ends of the conflict.  The villains in particular were fantastic - up to that point, villains were generally cartoonishly evil, motivated by little other than their own greed and bloodlust, so it was a very welcome change-up to see that change with Sarevok - a talented manipulator motivated by his perceived birthright of power, and particularly Irenicus - a tragic villain whose motive ultimately has little to do with the player and more to do with a plot for revenge against a lover who spurned him.  It certainly didn't hurt that the actors playing them seemed to legitimately give a damn about the characters and made an effort to make them sound genuine instead of Bioware's usual "talent" who just dryly read lines off a script so they can collect their paycheck that week.  It probably was just another job for them, but A-list actors like Rob Paulsen and Jim Cummings and David Warner know to give their all no matter what role they're playing, and that really does make a big difference in getting the player invested in the story.

But this game didn't crash and burn, did it.  No sir.  It was a massive critical success and one of the top selling games on the Xbox, lauded as a groundbreaker in the genre for its "multiple-choice narrative" and "strategic and hard-hitting combat" simply because nobody who played it had known or cared that the PC had been doing this stuff bigger and better for years.  Fuck, even Ultima 6 - a game which came out a full eleven years before the Xbox was even a thing - is the Marianna Trench in comparison to the few droplets in a water glass that Jade Empire offers.  The game contains literally hundreds of NPCs with their own daily schedules, paragraphs of unique dialog and environmental detail and interaction that remains unmatched even to this day.  What does Jade Empire have?  Sterile, linear corridors filled with forgettable stock characters who espouse maybe five lines of dialog apiece and endless dull, repetitive fights with virtually no payoff.  Yeah, that's a true game-changer.

But that's fanboyism for you.  They'll enslave themselves to anything that some hack publication like Game Informer tells them to, never giving anything else a chance because they're too busy dreaming up paper-thin excuses to hold on to their blind devotion.  Which usually just amounts to "PC games suck" (even though the only one they've ever confirmably played was "Myst" in 1993) or "It's too expensive" (notwithstanding that they ran out and bought a Playstation 3, a spare controller, and four or five games for a grand total of nearly $1000 at launch) or the old chestnut of "PCs are too high-maintenance" as they buy at least three $60 games and $30+ worth of DLC per month and barely even get to play them as their Xbox 360s red-ring every three weeks.  Nope, they continue to cling to Metal Gear even as it circles the drain, they continue to jerk off to Mass Effect's nudity-less sex scenes and they continue writing terrible slash fics about their favorite belt, chain and leather-studded mannequins in Final Fantasy.  And when those franchises finally become too unbearably shitty to bother with anymore, will they finally look back and say "hey, maybe that guy who told me about Ultima and Shadowrun and Fallout and Planescape Torment was right"?  Nope.  Game Informer's advertisers will just tell them to shill for some new piece of mediocre trash on the horizon with doe-eyed mannequins, halfassed sex scenes and braindead gameplay that they can fanboy over for the next five or ten years!  And all it will cost them is $1200 for a new system, a copy of the game, an overpriced subscription to Xbox Live Gold (whose price has gone up yet again because Halo Reacharound and Kinect Shitpile #830 didn't sell enough copies) and a mountain of nickel-and-dime downloadable content that lets them have offscreen sex with some cardboard cutout of a character, because they're MANLY MEN and have to flaunt their MANLY SEXUALITY through their Mary Sue avatar so they can show off their achievement points and upload a video of it to Youtube to prove how MATURE and ADULT they are!

You can lead a horse to water, I guess...