I’ve been keeping my eye on Secret Ponchos since I first saw it at last year’s PAX: East and since that time the spaghetti-western-shooter has grown up and matured quite a bit… like a delicious cheese if you will. Initially designed for the PS3, Secret Ponchos has been rebuilt to run at 60FPS on the PS4 and looks prettier than ever with enhanced character models, lighting, and a ton of polish.
I’m sure people are wondering why I am even bothering to write about a game which is almost 8 years old. In the interests of full disclosure, I hadn’t even played Jade Empire till last week at the insistence of @arch4ngel. Now that I have played, and loved the game, I want to talk about it. So, getting back to my original statement, I’m curious. Jade Empire received positive reviews from several gaming sites, but it never, to paraphrase a Twitter buddy, generated a lot of fan buzz. Why is Jade Empire so often left out of conversations when it comes to Bioware games?
Two, I think, regardless of the age of Jade Empire, it’s a damn good game and worth the time to check out.
A Quick Game Overview
For those not familiar, Jade Empire is a martial arts adventure role playing game set in a world inspired by ancient China. Players can choose one of six protagonists, three male, three female, for their adventures in the empire which, broadly speaking, break down in the traditional warrior, rogue, and mage classes.
After selecting a character and a brief tutorial on how to fight it’s time to meet Master Li, the man who took your orphaned self in and trained you, and the adventure begins. You pick up your first follower, Dawn Star, a childhood friend who has the ability to see ghosts, and meet Gao the Lesser (voiced by Nathan Fillion, of all people), as you head off to protect the village from a bandit raid. From there events escalate pretty quickly, culminating with the protagonists departure from their long-time home to save the Jade Empire.
Throughout your adventures you pick up more followers, reveal more of the past and the impact it will play on your future, all while kicking the crap out of ghosts and mortals foolish enough to get in your way. There is a “light side/dark side,” for lack of a better term, alignment system at play, here termed the Way of the Open Palm versus the Way of the Closed Fist. And what would a Bioware game without some sweet loving? While one gathers quite the party, only three are available to for the player to win the heart of: Dawn Star, Silk Fox, and Sky. Silk Fox and Sky are also same-sex romance options for either gender, which I’ll revisit in bit here.
Why You Should Care
So, why should you bother going back for Jade Empire when you can have all the shiny graphics, and more sophisticated gameplay, of the later Bioware titles? For one, Jade Empire is pretty. Its age shows with some of the cinematics and environments, but there are places which I promise you will take a moment to enjoy. It is a lovely game, bright and colorful at times, but it can also take on a darker, creepier tone when required. The combat can be a pain at times, but, in my humble opinion, is infinitely more bearable than Dragon Age: Origins– if you can get through Origins, Jade Empire will be a breeze. Plus, it is quite fun to watch the different styles in motion as you button mash to victory.
More importantly, the story is fantastic. The Jade Empire is a well-constructed world, the developers even created an entire language for the game, with rich lore to engross the player in and plenty of well-realized NPCs to interact with. Do not skip the Aishi the Mournful Blade side quest– it is a treat, promise! The protagonist has a number of followers and they all have side quests too, which I learned after the fact and need to go back to check out, but they all have unique voices and make your travels more colorful. I was really surprised to find the same-sex romances options for both men and women were available before Mass Effect and Dragon Age, further highlighting progressive leanings by Bioware in this department. I don’t think the romances are as strong as later titles, but they’re good fun nonetheless. I wooed Silk Fox and was quite entertained.
So, why is Jade Empire not often gushed about by fans? I still don’t have a definitive answer. Bioware had, and continues to have, an established fan base which is usually all over any of the products which come out. By the time Jade Empire was released Bioware had already established itself with Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic, all of which were well received. It doesn’t seem there would be an issue of concern over a lack of quality product being delivered. Were people turned off by a new IP? A fantasy story set outside of medieval Europe?
The reviews I read focused criticism on the combat, some found it too easy, and the length of the game, clocking in at about 20 hours or so. These are fair points, but given the overall positive impressions the game left for the reviewers? Clearly it was not a deal breaker in terms of recommending the game.
Maybe players just didn’t connect with the game? It happens. For example, I think Fallout 3 is a good game, but I couldn’t finish it–it just never struck a chord of “must see and do all the things.” This is a fair point after all– a person isn’t going sink hours into a game if they cannot get into it.
A lot of factors determine what causes a person enjoy a game. There is no one variable, nor are there right or wrong ones. But, that said, I think there are a lot of elements fans of Bioware games will enjoy in Jade Empire. It’s a beautiful game, an original setting, wonderful characters, and it deserves more love in my opinion. It’s 600 Microsoft points, and about $15 on Steam. If you’re looking to escape the winter blues, go check out Jade Empire. I’d love to hear reactions on this, whether folks have played before or are checking it out for the first time. Maybe there will be some theories as to why this is the “forgotten” Bioware game.
Natalie currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area where she tries to balance full-time work and various nerdy hobbies. While being a huge Bioware fangirl, she also enjoys other video games (i.e. Arkam City, the Fable series) as well as comic books set in the DC universe