Off Topic: How Bioware’s Jade Empire made Mass Effect possible
There’s an easy to follow path in terms of Bioware RPG’s, and it goes like this: Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins.
This doesn’t include every game Bioware ever made, partially because not all of those games were RPG’s and partially because after DAO came out a rhythm was established that persisted right up until Dragon Age Inquisition came out. After that point, Bioware would alternate between a Mass Effect game and a Dragon Age game. In many ways, Mass Effect was Bioware taking the ideas and concepts they’d worked on for Knights of the Old Republic and seeing what they could do with an IP that wasn’t someone else’s. And Dragon Age had been on the boards for years — there were ads in Neverwinter Nights touting that Bioware was working on this new franchise, a fantasy RPG that wasn’t beholden to the Forgotten Realms or any other D&D property as were Baldur’s Gate and NWN.
But really, Jade Empire was what started the modern era of Bioware games.
An Empire born
But between Lucasfilm property Knights of the Old Republic and their own Mass Effect IP, Bioware pivoted to an ambitious self-created IP that aimed to capture the feeling of Chinese history, mythology, and martial arts films. That game was Jade Empire, and it was a game near and dear to Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, two of Bioware’s founders. In fact, it’s often described as a dream project of theirs dating back to the formation of the company itself.
The game’s development process took from 2001 to 2005, the year of its release. It wasn’t designed tp mimic a specific era of Chinese history: instead, Jade Empire inhabited a mythical fantasy world that drew from various sources ranging from literature such as Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms to action films such as Fist of Legend or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as folk tales and legends. In a way, it’s very similar to how Dragon Age draws its inspiration from a host of western historical and fantasy sources from Tolkien and Leiber to their own earlier games. They even constructed a language, Thou Fan, rather than use any particular Asian language for the game.
The vast expanse of the heavens
All of that’s great, but what really sold me on Jade Empire when it came out was how bloody crazy it is. The dialogue contains gems like You can make him fall down a flight of punches, and NPC companions like Kang the Made and Sagacious Zu were worth the price of admission all on their own.
In a very real way, Jade Empire took the lessons Bioware learned from Knights of the Old Republic. Jade Empire feels more fleshed out, with an innovative combat system that made you feel like a real master of hand to hand combat with a wide variety of styles at your command. It lacks the customization of other Bioware games — you are one of six (seven in the special edition) character archetypes, and there’s no option to pick what you look like aside from choosing between those variations. The gender balance was amazing for the time, with three ladies and three gentlemen to pick from (the special edition added a fourth gent, but that’s still a really good balance for 2005). The storyline even managed to have one of those classic Bioware surprises in it that I will endeavor not to spoil for you.
In a very real way, Jade Empire is Bioware at their Biowareiest — a fast, fun RPG epic that spanned a wide swath of playable zones and let you really dig into the meat of a weird new story, play with strange characters and discover the secrets behind your own life and those around you.
It’s a game that very much feels like it set the stage for what Bioware would do with its big two franchises, and frankly, if they’d waited a year or so and put Jade Empire out for the Xbox 360 I think Bioware would have three big franchises instead of two right now. Sadly, while the game sold fairly well, it wasn’t the monster hit either of its successors became. While there have been noises about making a sequel, they quieted down significantly when both Muzyka and Zeschuk left Bioware in 2013. Six years later, and there’s been no sign of a sequel to Jade Empire. And that’s a real shame, because the Empire was a fascinating setting, the characters were fun, the story was excellent (with Mike Laidlaw and Luke Kristjanson as leads, you’d expect nothing less) and it filled an action RPG niche in ways few games have since.
Do it as soon as you can. It’s fantastic.
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