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Full Steam Ahead – Jade Empire Part 1

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 33 Hours

Jade Empire and I go way, way back. In 2005, I read an article in the Edmonton Journal about a game inspired by Kung Fu and Chinese mythology. The article talked about the fact that it was made by a game studio in Edmonton, Bioware. The article talked about the basics of the story. Most importantly, for me at least, it talked about how the mechanics of the game made the player feel. I remember this article vividly, because it was the first time I had ever seen a traditional newspaper write an article about video games as anything other than a product to be reviewed or a piece of of dangerous escapism. I remember thinking that not only did the game itself sound cool, the way the Journal wrote about it made me think about games in a way I had never thought about them before. I still think about that article when writing my own pieces on video games to this day.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually played Jade Empire. By this point, I had played some of Bioware’s more widely known games (Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), and I wanted to see what else they had available on Steam. I was so excited when I found out Jade Empire was on Steam. I downloaded it, and it didn’t work. However, unlike some of the games I’ve already talked about in this series, Jade Empire never made it to the “Doesn’t Work” folder; I wanted to play this game so badly that I spent the next several hours downloading patches and altering file pathways so I could play this game. Finally, I got it to work, and it was every bit as good as I expected. Sure, the control scheme was a product of the mid 2000’s. Of course, the graphics were dated. Sure, the voice acting isn’t especially great (despite a fantastic minor villain played by Edmonton’s own Nathan Fillion). I didn’t care. I absolutely adore this game. It represents everything I love about Kung Fu, about Bioware, and about games in general.

So why haven’t I ever finished it?

I’m serious. This is a game that I love, dearly. I’ve started no less than 4 new games. I’ve made significant progress in these games, but I’ve never finished the main story. Hell, one of those games I started less than a year ago, with the express purpose of finally completing the game; no dice. Something always gets in the way, usually my stupidly busy schedule.

I love this game. I want to play this game. I want to finally finish at least one playthrough of this game.

So, I’m going to play this game. I’m going to do my best not to get distracted. After every session of play, I’ll write a paragraph. I’m going to tackle this Kung Fu fantasy epic the same way one eats an elephant: one bite at a time.

Log in 1: 1 Hour

Character Level: 1

I played through the tutorial fights and basic missions in the first town. I met some of the side characters and supporting cast, including Gao the Lesser, voiced by Nathan Fillion. I’m playing a balanced character who specializes in the Legendary Strike style. The game throws me right into the action. I’m a student in a martial arts school, who knows little to nothing of her past. All is well, until bandits attack the town! Basic RPG stuff, but it feels great to be playing again.

A sparring match with Gao the Lesser. My wife may, someday, forgive me for beating up Nathan Fillion.

Log in 2: 1 Hour

Character Level: 1 – 3

After driving away the bandits, (and getting into a fight with Gao the Lesser) my master reveals that he is the long lost brother of the Emperor, and he saved me as a infant from a massacre of my people, the spirit monks.

Our duty was to help maintain balance with the spiritual world, a duty that has been neglected since the Emperor wiped us out. I, the last of this nation, must uncover the reasons for this genocide, avenge my people, and restore the bridge between humanity and the afterlife. I often say that a story hook or game mechanic is nothing revolutionary. While those words are appropriate here, I want to make it clear that those words do not imply that it isn’t fun, or that the game is somehow unimpressive.

By this point, my character has gained access to the Golden Star staff-fighting style and the magical Ice Shard style. Time to freeze and beat some bandits!

“This child may be the last hope for the Jade Empire. I’m gonna boop its nose.” – Master Li’s internal monologue

Log in 3: 1 hour

Character Level: 3 – 4

Gao the Lesser has kidnapped my childhood friend from the martial arts school, and dragged her into a swamp full of demons and ogres and thieves (oh my). I’m not really worried though, because it means we’re about to meet Sagacious Zu, or as you’ll come to know him, the best support character ever.

Zu was once a member of the brutal secret police of the Jade Empire, the Lotus Assassins. Years ago, he turned his back on that life, choosing instead to live as a hermit in a remote swamp, far from the reach of the Emperor. Although this character is formerly an assassin, he remains extraordinarily lethal. He struggles with a justifiable distrust of strangers, and he often uses violence as a simple solution to his problems. In fact, he often advises me to kill people rather than leave loose ends.

However, he is very clearly a conflicted person. He despises those who kill without reason, and he makes no excuses for his violent past. Sagacious Zu wants to be a better person than he was, but he is forced to rely on the person he’s become; violent, paranoid, and disenchanted. I like it when my supporting cast forces me to think, as opposed to just enabling my own decisions.

Also, its at this point that the game introduces flyers: Firework powered gliders based on insects. They’re rickety, dangerous, and used by Gao’s father to burn down your village. Time to leave the starting area!

Thanks for the update, Sagacious Zu!

Log in 4: 3 hours

Character Level: 4 – 8

So, the town is gone, as is everybody I knew growing up. My group flees in a commandeered flyer, only to crash in the swamps surrounding Tien’s Landing, a town full of problems. Lotus Assassins have dammed up the river in search of an artifact of the Spirit Monks. A low river has stranded wealthy but violent sailors in the town. The ineffective imperial minister can do nothing to assist the townspeople or the nearby forest county, which is overrun by spirits and demons. A baker and his fiancee are troubled by a gangster from the baker’s past, the gangster is looking for love, a con artists swindled the lovely old tea seller out of her inn… the list goes on and on.

True to Bioware fashion, each one of these side quests is interesting, fun to play, and feels true to the world in which it is set. I’m now starting to remember why this game takes so long to get anywhere. I’m sure that I could only do the main story quests and still have a reasonably enjoyable time with this game, but the world of Jade Empire is altogether too interesting to be left alone.

Sagacious Zu meets an old friend and ally in the village. Although she refuses to travel with me, she tells me more about my master and teaches me a valuable new martial art, Spirit Thief. In the once flooded ruins of old Tien’s Landing, I find a pair of ghosts, children, who were killed when the town flooded. I help them find peace by bringing their elderly orphanage keeper to pay his respects. I can choose to close the dam, flooding the ruins and raising the river level once more, or I can break the locking mechanism, keeping the river low forever. I choose to close the dam gates, although a shady wine merchant offered me 20% of his earnings if I left it open. The town needs its connection to the rest of the Jade Empire more than this merchant needs wealth.


Log in 5: 1 Hour

Character Level: 8

Oh man, remember when I said that Sagacious Zu was the best support character ever? That’s because I forgot that Chai Ka existed. Chai Ka is an immensely powerful, seven foot tall guardian demon with goat horns and a lion’s face and a feathery mane. Chai Ka is tasked with protecting and assisting the last Spirit Monk. Chai Ka is nigh unstoppable in combat, and heals me to boot.

However, when Chai Ka isn’t in combat, his presence is tethered to a mortal: a seven year-old girl named Wild Flower. She knows that Chai Ka’s duties are vital to the future of the world, even if she doesn’t fully understand how. In a world where most characters are experienced warriors with wits as sharp as their blades, it can be refreshing to have a child’s perspective on things.

Chai Ka’s support ability of healing me during combat encounters is vital, because damn is this game hard. Every time I play Jade Empire, I forget just how quickly you can get beaten down. This isn’t a game where you can easily take hundreds of hits; spirit monk or not, a few well placed punches can be, and frequently are the difference between life and death. I spend most of this login reloading my latest save, because the forest of ghosts is unforgiving.


Log in 6: 1 Hour

Character Level: 8 – 10

So, to the south of Tien’s Landing, there is a forest infested with restless, violent spirits. Furthermore, the trees are dying, and travellers frequently go missing. The lord of these lands is prepared to give me a map for my flyer if I can figure out why this is happening and put a stop to it.

There’s plenty of ways one can go about finding the truth, so I’ll summarize: The guardian spirit of the forest is locked in a ages old conflict with a malignant demonic force, trapped within the mountain. Remember how the balance with the spiritual world was disrupted by the Emperor? This forest is the first major example of the consequences. The Forest Shadow asks me to destroy the demonic presence trapped within these lands once and for all.

I’ve been told to save the world in games before, but never by a fox backed up by an elephant.

Cards on the table. I’ve now spent more time on Jade Empire than most other games in Full Steam Ahead. I’m way over my goal for the word count for these posts already. Worst of all, I know from experience that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. So far I’ve written a woefully simplified synopsis of the game’s major plot points and a little about some of the characters, but I’ve yet to really explain what the game makes me feel, or what it really means to me. I know there’s more to this game than my words are getting across, and as someone who loves effective communication, that disappoints me.

… I’m not ending it like this.

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