The lights are on
When BioWare was purchased by Electronic Arts in 2007, many wondered what would happen to the popular Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series. I’ve been a huge fan of the developer since playing KOTOR, and I was confident that BioWare’s juggernaut franchises would be handled well. I was more worried about what would happen to its less popular game, Jade Empire. Six years after the purchase of BioWare, there has still been no word of a sequel to one of my all-time favorite games.
What it is:
Jade Empire is a game set in a land inspired by the fantastical depictions of ancient China, where magic, spirits, demons, and powerful marital artists are commonplace. Before the game starts, players are able to choose the character that they want to control. Characters can specialize in focus, which allows them to use weapons and slow down time for a longer period, or chi, which allows them to use more magic attacks and heal themselves. In my first playthrough, I chose Wu the Lotus Blossom, a middle-of-the-road choice. She also happened to be the woman on the box art.
The character that players choose is the last Spirit Monk, whose order is tasked with protecting the Water Dragon and leading the dead to the spirit world. The Spirit Monk sets out on an epic journey to rescue his or her master and the Water Dragon, both of whom have been taken captive by the Emperor of the Jade Empire. In standard BioWare fashion, the Spirit Monk gains many new companions during the epic journey. The Spirit Monk builds a relationship with each character through dialogue, and even romances some of them. The game even allows same-sex romances, which at the time was something I hadn’t seen before. My favorite companion was Silk Fox, the privileged-but-tough daughter of the Emperor.
As in other BioWare games, there are shocking plot twists as well as good and evil choices that affect the story. Players can choose to follow the righteous Way of the Open Palm or the evil Way of the Closed Fist. Choices lead to three vastly different endings. Those who wish to pursue the evil path have to make a very tough decision at the conclusion, one that I couldn’t bring myself to do in my evil playthrough. In addition, there are numerous martial arts, weapons, magic, and support styles to focus on and improve. Players can even learn styles that turn them into hulking demons. The game encourages players to switch between styles mid-fight to address enemy weaknesses.
When it stopped:
Jade Empire was released on April 12, 2005 for the Xbox and brought to the PC on February 26, 2007. And that was it. In 2011, BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka said that he was still interested in making a sequel to the game. "It's an IP, it's a setting that we're really passionate about, and we still are. Both Greg [Zeschuck] and I were big believers in the IP. We're just looking for the right way to deploy it," Muzyka said. But then both Muzyka and Zeschuck left BioWare in 2012, possibly removing Jade Empire’s biggest supporters. Today, the developer has its hands full with Dragon Age: Inquisition, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and a new Mass Effect entry. There’s a good chance the world will never see another Jade Empire game.
What comes next:
It can be argued that Jade Empire doesn’t need a sequel because it had a proper ending that tied up all the story threads. However, another entry would allow the developer to build on the rich mythology that it has established. A sequel would have to address the vastly different endings in the first game. Perhaps BioWare can provide an application to allow players to select their decisions from the first game, similar to the system Dragon Age: Inquisition will implement. I’m curious to see what happens to the empire as a result of my choices. Does Tien’s Landing thrive again because I closed the dam? Is the Black Leopard School better off without Master Smiling Hawk?
The next Jade Empire could also be a prequel. BioWare can go all the way back to the founding of the empire by Sagacious Tien to find a story that it likes. Both choices are fine as long as the game allows for multiple and truly diverse endings. I just want to revisit the mythical, ancient China-inspired setting, which is too uncommon in gaming. I would like to see more locations in the empire and maybe visit the Spirit World again.
With the technology of next-generation consoles, Jade Empire can become a true action game while keeping its heavy RPG and decision-making features. The first game’s combat is not turn-based like KOTOR, but it is not a full action system either. Players are limited to dodging and triggering attack animations. A new entry could have a light version of an action combat system similar to that of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. This would make fighting more skill-based and I don’t think it would be impossible to implement. After all, BioWare successfully applied its story-telling formula to a third-person shooter in Mass Effect. I’m sure they can do it again here.
In a perfect world, BioWare would revisit Jade Empire, giving fans another chance to experience that world. Of course, that’s not likely to happen, so I will just have to replay the game on Xbox Originals and imagine better graphics.
Email the author Mike Trinh, or follow on Game Informer.