By Alex Alusheff
Fifteen years ago, we were treated to BioWare’s first original title, Jade Empire.
While many gameplay elements were borrowed from BioWare’s 2003 hit, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, what set Jade Empire apart was its focus on martial arts combat and magic as well as a colorful setting and story derived from Chinese mythology.
Despite receiving an overall Metacritic score of 89 and selling roughly 700,000 copies, the Xbox-exclusive failed to launch a franchise like KOTOR, Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
But why not? Maybe it’s about damn time. Here’s five reasons why it’s time Jade Empire makes a comeback:
1. Martial arts works better on modern consoles
The combat in Jade Empire was epic, featuring 24 different martial arts, magic, and ranged styles.
This included: Drunken Master, a style based on drunken boxing where you consume alcohol and have to time some deadly attacks; Paralyzing Palm, where you could render opponents immoble for short time so you could wallop on them; Thousand Cuts, allowing you to deliver lightning-quick blows; and Toad Demon, where you literally transform into a huge toad demon and fuck shit up.
All these different styles compensated for the fact that you pressed B to block, A to attack, X to deliver a power attack, and Y to use Focus and slow time around you. It helped that you could map four styles to the D-pad and swap them at any time to vary up the combat.
But with how games and technology have evolved over the years, these fighting styles are ripe to be expanded upon to where each set can have their own button combos to make combat even more fleshed out. God of War (2018) has shown how well combos can be implemented in action games.
And in what other game can you turn into a jade golem to tear through enemies only to immediately switch to drunken boxing before whipping out a blunderbuss and blasting your enemies to death in the span of 30 seconds?
These combat styles would be a welcome break from the Assassin’s Creed-style combat that dominates games today.
2. Eastern culture and lore is more popular
What made Jade Empire so special was that not many developers were making games inspired by Chinese history and mythology at the time aside from Dynasty Warriors.
Today, Eastern Culture is more prevalent in gaming and it’s the perfect time to capitalize on the trend.
Look at the hype over Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, a game where you play the part of a samurai in Japan fighting against the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in the 13th century.
Total War: Three Kingdoms sold over 1 million copies in less than a week when it was released in May 2019. The strategy game on PC centers around the collapse of the Han dynasty in China in 22 AD.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has sold roughly 4 million copies since releasing in March 2019. The game follows a ninja in Japan as he takes revenge on a samurai clan who kidnapped his lord.
That’s not to mention the dose of eastern culture sprinkled into Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the tons of other JRPGs released over the years.
3. BioWare needs a win
It’s time for a return to form for BioWare. The last few years have been tough on the studio.
2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda put a stain on a beloved trilogy with an already divisive ending. Critics chewed the game out for its cringey animations, cumbersome inventory system and overall bugginess at the time.
2019’s Anthem was a disappointment and BioWare acknowledged that in a blog, promising to overhaul the game. We can blame this on EA for making a studio known for RPGs try to compete with Fortnite.
The studio also lost one of its claims to fame, the Baldur’s Gate franchise. Baldur’s Gate 3 is being developed by Larian Studios, which made the hugely successful Divinity: Original Sin.
BioWare recognizes this and is now leaning on Dragon Age, having announced the fourth installment to be released in 2021.
So why not make Jade Empire the third pillar in what could be an epic comeback?
Original video games are needed now more than ever as developers keep spitting out remakes and remasters. Why not lean on the untapped potential that is Jade Empire 2?
And while everyone is excited for Dragon Age 4, does the market really need ANOTHER medieval fantasy RPG?
4. It wouldn't be an Xbox exclusive
Bioware had a close relationship with Microsoft back in the day. So close that Microsoft almost acquired the studio in 2004. That didn’t happen and EA acquired it in 2007.
But it makes sense why Bioware was only publishing games on the Xbox and PC back then.
Jade Empire released on PC in 2007 and has reached 700,000 in sales mainly between those two platforms. (It’s available for mobile now).
If a new game was released in the franchise, it could be available on all platforms and lead to higher sales based on wider availability.
Look what happened to Valkyria Chronicles. It launched for the PS3 in 2008 and sold roughly 140,000 copies. Valkyria Chronicles 4 (2018) is available on the PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch and has sold roughly 500,000 copies since ditching exclusivity, according to VG Charts.
5. The story can be unrelated to the first
Jade Empire had a rich story and a satisfying plot twist, even if the final cutscene was short and underwhelming. It followed the rule many debut authors abide by: write a story that has a definite ending with the possibility of a sequel.
SPOILER ALERT: In Jade Empire, you play as a Spirit Monk whose people were wiped out when Emperor Sun Hai attacked the Temple of the Water Dragon to steal her power and become immortal. You were saved by the emperor’s brother, Sun Li, who trained you in martial arts in a backwater village, hidden away for twenty years.
The village gets destroyed, Sun Li gets kidnapped, and the spirit of the Water Dragon tells you you are the only hope to save the empire as her power is drained by the emperor, leading to the undead returning to ravage the land. Thus, you leave your village and start your epic quest to save Master Li and the empire while picking up some cool sidekicks along the way.
When you finally get to the palace, confront the all-powerful emperor with the help of the Water Dragon’s amulet, and whoop his ass, you’re expecting at least a “thank you” from Sun Li.
No. He kills you!
Plot twist: you find out Sun Li was the bad guy the entire time and orchestrated the attack on the temple, but Sun Hai had taken all the power. Sun Li barely escaped, killing your nameless rescuer along the way and raising you. He used you to beat the powerful Sun Hai, bring the Water Dragon’s amulet to him so he could steal her power, and finally become emperor.
The Water Dragon resurrects you at her temple in her ancestral homelands where you fend off the new emperor’s forces that are trying to ensure your return to the grave. You fight your way back to the palace for a final showdown with Sun Li, where there are three potential endings: you defeat him and save the empire; you defeat him and become the new despot; or you can sacrifice yourself, let him rule, and be known as the hero who knew his or her place.
It’s a definite end that doesn’t really need to pick up where it left off. A new Jade Empire can take place with a completely different cast and in a different timeline. The game already lays a great foundation that’s ripe for creating a new story – a fleshed out world with deep lore, deities, creatures, and politics.
The closed fist and open palm morality scale also lends itself to improvement. Developers have the ability to provide more options than just pure evil or good. Your choices in the game impacted what skills you could learn or what path you could take, but imagine how this can be better implemented after fifteen years. Look at how actions and consequences are handled in games like The Walking Dead or Until Dawn.
Bioware has always left a glimmer of hope for Jade Empire fans that the franchise could be revived whenever asked by different news outlets. But it feels more like when your parents keep telling you they’ll play a game with you when they’re done with XYZ in the hopes that you’ll get eventually distracted enough and stop bringing it up.
But I won’t be distracted, because I’ll still be turning myself into a toad demon and fucking shit up, thinking of how bad ass a new entry in this series could be.