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It's time for another retro-inspired piece - this time, we'll be looking at an iconic RPG, Jade Empire. Fresh from their victory with Star Wars - Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware took the series in a radically different direction (akin to what they're doing now with Dragon Age coming fresh off of Mass Effect).
Jade Empire places you in control of a student under the tutelage of Master Li, a revered champion of the magical arts and an icon to the good people of Two Rivers (the local village). Of course, like all good RPGs, the main hero needs some sort of trauma in order to perpetuate the rest of the story. The quasi-MacGuffin in this story involves a traumatic attack on Two Rivers, wherein Master Li gets taken and Death's Hand (the big bad guy of the story) ravages the whole city, leaving only - you guessed it - you and two other party members.
From there, the story evolves into a tale of revenge and several twists, including the fact that Master Li turns out to not be exactly who you thought he was from the get-go. The story itself is well crafted and feels like a real addition to the game, and not like it is dragging the gameplay along with it.
Speaking of gameplay, Bioware did something quite interesting for Jade Empire. Rather than sticking to their traditional, "pause first, shoot later" gameplay philosophy, Jade Empire is quite like a third-person brawler, where the player must combine combos, magic, and some ingenuity to defeat the enemy - all in real time. While the combo stringing cannot compare to a game like God of War, it's undoubtedly the closest anyone has ever gotten in an action-RPG.
The game itself feels so different from anything else that was released at the time namely due to its environment. Set in an a traditional, Asian environment, the game features colors and palates that resemble Chinese art and style. For this reason, playing through the game, you get a sensation that a western developer couldn't possibly have made such an Eastern-influenced title.
At the end of the day, what really works for Bioware are its moral decisions, and Jade Empire is no stranger to this fact. Just like in previous Bioware titles (KOTOR), the main character can actually decide whether or not to go the "righteous path" (Open Palm), or to go down the "evil path" (Closed Fist). Unfortunately, at this point, Bioware hadn't perfected their moral gameplay yet, so the choices that are available to you in the game are all very black-or-white, and don't show a true range of morality, unlike in Mass Effect.
The graphics may be a little dated by now, but if you haven't picked up this game and you're an RPG fan who's grown weary of JRPGs where you need to scroll through a billion menus to cast a spell, I highly recommend you check out Jade Empire.