In 2003, BioWare completed Knights of the Old Republic, the hugely successful award-winning Star Wars RPG. And the world, the entire galaxy far, far away went crazy about it. Today, you can easily say that KotORis one of the best Western RPGs ever made.
But back then, BioWare was already moving on and planning their next project. They had some options.
BioWare could stick to their game of the year and make an even better sequel, or they could turn the RPG genre on its head again and create a brand new IP.
In 2005, they decided to bring all the good things from Knights of the Old Republic to a brand new IP: Jade Empire, a martial arts adventure, which Greg Zeschuck and Ray Muzyka, the co-founders of BioWare, had brainstormed almost ten years before the game’s creation.
Jade Empire takes place in an alternate ancient China, one in which all of the magic and monsters from legends are real. The game was created to be reminiscent of the wuxia genre, Chinese stories about martial arts heroes.
The player character is a student at an out-of-the-way martial arts school when their master is captured by the Lotus Assassins, dark servants of the emperor. To rescue him, they must team up with a former assassin, a possessed girl, a princess, and more. The storyline deepens these characters while moving between beautifully rendered locations toward a surprising ending.
Like Knights of the Old Republic, it featured a player character with limited customization, skill points and talent trees, and the choice to follow good or evil paths, which BioWare used to build much of the game’s lore, just like the Force dictated much of their Star Wars game.
It could have been the beginning of a new franchise, but ended up a one-hit wonder, praised by many but fading into the background by the time BioWare’s new RPG, Mass Effect, was released in 2007. As recently as 2011, Zeschuck and Muzyka stated in an interview that they are still looking for “the right way to deploy” the IP. However, there’s no sign of the franchise moving forward. Big franchise players, such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect have overshadowed Jade Empire. Not to mention BioWare’s continued involvement with Star Wars.
There are many things about Jade Empire that make it a rich and unique world from which more games could be drawn.
For one, the game has as much lore as any other BioWare RPG, with an entire history of the empire and its technology. One of Jade Empire‘s strong suits is how well the RPG gameplay mechanics influenced the lore.
There are two major philosophies in the world of Jade Empire: the Way of the Open Palm (light side) and the Way of the Closed Fist (dark side). According to the Way of the Open Palm, the purpose of life is to become one with nature and be at piece with one’s place in the universe. The Way of the Closed Fist, on the other hand, is about serving oneself. These concepts enabled the developer to weave a rich story full of conflict, quests, and moral dilemma.
The Open Palm and Closed Fist philosophies are discussed in-depth in the game, and characters often give proofs or illustrations to back up their moral decisions. While it’s not far from the light/dark decisions made in other BioWare games or the Force philosophy in “Knights of the Old Republic,” it brings the game its own flavor.
I might be getting a little ahead of myself, but this framework could easily support tie-in novels, comics, and movies.
Gameplay, setting, and character design also made Jade Empire a welcomed entry in the Western RPG world.
The scenery and landscape of the game is almost a character unto itself. Pink and orange skies hand over the smoky, ghost-infested Necropolis. The imperial palace is sculpted with slightly fungal, unnatural beauty. There are also supernatural realms within the Empire – the beautiful Heavens, and the Spirit Plain where the dead reside. Whether good or evil, these realms are part of Jade Empire‘s unique philosophy. The player gets the sense of living in a mythological world.
BioWare has always been good at creating many varied characters, and Jade Empire brought us princesses, swamp-dwelling sages, mad scientists, rogues, and demons. The princess Lian dresses in a ninja-like outfit and mask to move among the common people without being spotted, and does not believe that her father the emperor could be a villain.
Other characters are interesting because they’re intractable: the former assassin Sagacious Zu follows the player loyally no matter their choices, but often expresses his own pragmatic, sometimes vicious views. His backstory is revealed as the player discovers the nature of the Lotus Assassins.
This is a signature trait of many BioWare games – writing that is paced in such a way so that the characters seem to grow and learn along with the player.
The game’s fluid, adaptable combat system, which does away with the turn-based model of past BioWare games, allows a character to switch between four styles, including ranged weapons, magic, and martial arts, with the press of a button. In fact, sometimes it feels like an Avatar: The Last Airbender game, as characters throw fire and ice or create dragons out of ash.
Skill points can be spent to improve the three important statistics, health, focus, and chi. Using weapons drains focus, while using magic styles draws from chi, which can also be used to heal. Charm, intuition, and intimidation stats also come into play and effect dialogue options. When the player gains a level, they can modulate these stats as well as upgrade his/her fighting styles accordingly. Some styles also tie into the player’s Open Palm or Closed Fist alignment.
There are a lot of reasons why Jade Empire should be allowed a sequel and ways the series could even expand into a cross-media franchise.
Like Dragon Age‘s Orlais, which shares a lot of cultural traits with France, the Jade Empire is based on China in similarly stylized fashion. Another game in the series could tells us more about the parts of the empire we haven’t yet seen, or other countries around it. There is approximately one white Westerner in the entire game, and that character is a jokey buffoon. We know that an analog of the West exists – therefore maybe equivalents of Japan, the Koreas, or other countries also exist. Another game could teach us more about those veiled lands.
Jade Empire is, in a way, a zombie game – the goal is to get the unquiet dead to rest, and after the end of the game, the problem of the rising dead has been solved. But a sequel would undoubtedly contain some of the same dark magic.
There is also potential for setting a sequel in a different period of time, many years after the first game. Like The Elder Scrolls series, a jump in time could show how the Jade Empire has developed, and whether that Empire’s borders have expanded. How would technology interfere with or enable connection to the mystical realm?
Like China, the empire measures its years in terms of the imperial dynasty in power at the time. A new cast of characters incorporating a new royal family would fit the tone of the series well. How about something like Obsidian’s KotOR: The Sith Lords, where the new order of the Jade Empire is hunting down the old royal family?
Whatever the plot, it could bring Jade Empire to a new generation of fans. When I played, I felt like I could step into the shoes of the protagonist. That’s not an unusual accomplishment for a BioWare game, but with Jade Empire that came with an entirely different culture, history, and philosophy. Thinking about Open Palm and Closed Fist made me consider different priorities and patterns than thinking about the light side and the dark side of the Force.
Jade Empire could have a thriving fan base again, full of people looking for a unique experience. For whatever reason, though, it has not remained in the consciousness of either gamers or developers as much as BioWare’s other series. A sequel would give it the chance to live again instead of ghosting through the shadows.