Like Pan-Asian Cuisine, But Good
Jade Empire is not set in ancient China. Its story is not an adaptation of any ancient myths, its characters are not inspired by any ancient heroes, and no ancient Chinese secrets are revealed. It is instead infused with a vague sense of Asianness, a look and a feel that constantly alludes to China without actually being Chinese. It might be more accurate to say that it alludes to an image of China that has been created through kung-fu films and historical romances, rather than to any actual places or people or even myths. It’s a literary adaptation of a literary adaptation, a simulacrum that effaces the need for any real referent.
This is not actually a novel development in role-playing games. The granddaddy of them all, Dungeons & Dragons, plundered the stories of Tolkien and other fantasy writers for its ideas, not particularly caring that the entire swords-and-sorcery fantasy genre was itself a hodgepodge of motifs drawn from European mythology. Jade Empire does a similar thing, but instead of elves and dwarves it features mad emperors and fighting monks—and just about everyone you meet in the game has strong kung-fu.
Whatever the inspirations for the game’s world, developers BioWare clearly put a lot of effort into building it. All of the game’s environments are richly drawn: from forest trails paved with blossoms to city streets lined with paper lanterns, Jade Empire‘s world is packed with visual detail. In addition, historical detail is provided by books and scrolls scattered throughout the game, further enhancing your sense of there being a “there” there. The developers even hired a linguist to create a fictional language for the game; unfortunately, this particular effort is largely wasted: voice actors speaking this language sound far too much like they’re trying to sound out random syllables instead of actually saying anything.
The English voice acting is considerably better, and is helped by some particularly good animation. Most video game characters have a set of three or four stock facial expressions that they cycle through, and you’ll certainly spend a lot of time in Jade Empire staring at your main character’s tranquil, pensive, and enraged faces. In some key scenes, though, it becomes clear that the animators put extra effort into conveying emotion through the eyes and mouth, and it pays off when characters actually manage to communicate their thoughts and feelings without speaking. Showing emotions rather than having to always speak them out loud is something that games have by and large done a terrible job of in the past, and it’s heartening to see someone actually put some effort into it.
It’s a good thing the acting in the game is of such a high quality, because the story really needs all the help it can get in order to remain compelling. Role-playing games tend to rely on quantity rather than quality when it comes to plotting, and Jade Empire is no exception. It begins in a traditional kung-fu setting: a martial arts school, where your idyllic life of study and meditation is interrupted by attacking bandits. From there, though, it grows into a sprawling, convoluted epic that’s more reminiscent of Final Fantasy than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It can be hard at times to remember which of the many major baddies currently poses the greatest threat, especially when you’re wrapped up in a side quest involving an ally’s personal history, and a sizable amount of dialogue is dedicated to reminding you of where you’re going and why it’s important that you get there.
This being a video game, of course, getting there is most of the fun. Combat in the game offers a variety of made-up martial arts styles, allowing you to pummel enemies with fists, weapons, and magic. It lacks the complexity and subtlety of fighting games like Virtua Fighter or Tekken (or of real martial arts, for that matter), but compared to the turn-based, menu-driven battles of most console role-playing games, Jade Empire‘s action is downright pulse-pounding. Many of the game’s other aspects make it feel like a streamlined version of BioWare’s previous outing, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: parties and quests are managed in almost exactly the same way as that game; conversations can be affected by certain player abilities; and, most importantly, your choices affect your moral standing, which in turn affects various plot developments.
These similarities in story and mechanics to other role-playing games at times threaten to undermine Jade Empire‘s goals: it’s not supposed to be yet another generic fantasy role-playing game; it’s supposed to be a mock-Asian-martial-arts-fantasy role-playing game, and it’s at its best when it remembers this. In an particularly great sequence, you get into a debate with a hilariously caricatured faux-European dandy (voiced by the inimitable John Cleese); he attempts to “civilize” your savage land, while all around him, local scholars puzzle over his bad manners and ridiculous clothing until you step in, besting both his rhetoric and his blunderbuss. The scene is a tidy reversal of the old Orientalist perspective of the Asian as unknowably foreign; it’s also a reminder that the game as a whole is, like the kung-fu movies it’s based on, merely an affectionate cartoon rather than an attempt at a faithful reproduction of reality.