For years now, BioWare has been a leading developer of role-playing games. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are the company’s claims to fame, and they’ve helped to galvanize a style of gaming that emphasizes open-ended storytelling and character development, as well as plenty of entertaining tactical combat. Yet despite having worked on definitive games like these for such a long time, only now has BioWare finally delivered an RPG that takes place in an original setting. But even though Jade Empire is set in a beautiful and exotic land inspired by the mythology of ancient China–seemingly a far cry from the medieval stylings of Dungeons & Dragons or the science fiction of Star Wars–the game is unmistakably similar to its predecessors. So fans of BioWare’s past work will be in for a familiar experience, which, considering the company’s very high standards, is great news. Sure enough, Jade Empire features a complex and interesting storyline, a number of great characters, an impressive presentation, and plenty of replay value.
With that said, the game also lacks the ambitious scope of, say, Knights of the Old Republic. It has the simplest design of any BioWare RPG yet, from the bare-bones character building elements to the action-based combat system. It’s also surprisingly easy and fairly short by the genre’s standards, offering up an adventure that shouldn’t last you more than 20 hours on your first play-through. Presumably, all this is intended to be attractive to those who normally think role-playing games are too difficult or complicated to get into. Yet it’s hard to imagine such players delving into Jade Empire’s unusual world anyway, especially since it’s filled with at least as much dialogue as action. In fact, one area in which BioWare definitely didn’t skimp is the lengthy discussion sequences that feature the game’s colorful characters. At any rate, fans of the company’s previous efforts may be disappointed to find that Jade Empire is in some ways a step backward. While playing, it’s hard not to wonder about exactly what the developer was intending to accomplish, since this overly streamlined design ends up leaving out a number of elements that made earlier BioWare RPGs deeper and more engaging by comparison. Fortunately, when you consider it on its own merits, Jade Empire is still a great game that offers a refreshing and memorable experience in spite of these shortcomings.