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Full Steam Ahead – Jade Empire: Part 2

In the last blog post, I talked about how much I enjoyed the game, and then I launched into a play-by-play breakdown of my latest new game in Jade Empire. I covered what I had been doing in my various log ins, hoping to give you a sense of the depth and wonder of this game. If I fail to get that sense of awe across, it’s certainly not because the game is lacking in anyway. It’s just hard to capture what makes this game so great in short segments. I’m going to to keep playing, and I’m going to try to finish the game. However, this time, I want to write less about what I’m doing, and more about what I’m feeling.

Chai Ka is the feathered lion. Ya Zhen, the Toad, is his evil counterpart in the battle for Wild Flower’s life.

The supporting cast for this game is utterly fantastic. I know I briefly touched on Sagacious Zu and Wild Flower in the last post. That was briefly after we met Black Whirlwind, a gigantic, violent mercenary. What he lacks in the depth of character, he makes up for with ridiculously exaggerated stories about his own fighting prowess and drunken escapades. You also meet Mad Kang, an inventor of the wondrous flyers that trace the clouds above the Jade Empire. He soon replaces your broken mosquito fighter for a beautiful prototype called the Marvelous Dragonfly. You meet Sky, a roguish scoundrel whose jokes and unabashed flirting hide a traumatic past. You meet Henpecked Hou, a former champion of the arena turned bun-maker by an overbearing wife. You meet Silk Fox, a femme-fatale who is, in truth, the disguised Princess Lian, daughter of the Emperor. She is convinced that her father is unaware, or is being manipulated by his advisors, but she cannot imagine his guilt. You meet Zin Bu, the Magical Abacus, a member of the Celestial Bureaucracy (A fictionalized version of China’s traditional pantheon) who is charged with tabulating all the damage the player and their party caused during the game.

Bioware’s games, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age frequently use this play style. One main player character, supported by an ever growing group of followers, supporters, and compatriots. Jade Empire is no different in this respect, but it’s hard to remember the last time I was so engaged in the stories of the supporting NPCs. Even minor quest givers have interesting stories, breathing life and complexity into the Jade Empire. The game does an amazing job of, in one moment, making feel as though I am the most important person in the world, that the whim of destiny has left the fate of the Empire on my shoulders. In another moment, I am reminded that I am but one person in a massive world.

Sonder is a term which describes the moment of realization that everyone around you lives a life as complex and intricate as yours. I’m sure that some of this blog’s readers have experienced sonder, or had moments approaching sonder. It is a profound experience, at once connecting you to the world and people around you, and simultaneously defining the vast chasms of understanding and empathy between us.

Never, in years of gaming, has a game been the source of sonder for me, until Jade Empire.

After years of fighting his conditioning as a Lotus Assassin, Zu returns to their headquarters to stand by you.

The game controls very well. My father is a golf enthusiast, and when asked to identify what he likes about golf, he usually talks about the interplay between rules and technique. For example, everyone knows, theoretically, how to win golf: complete the course with the fewest possible shots. However, it requires immense skill to actually place the golf ball, a small, light, easily misplaced sphere, hundreds of yards away, using nothing but an over-glorified stick. The combat in this game feels the same way: You know you have to beat an enemy into submission, but can you use you the skills available to you to make it happen?

Jade Empire provides a variety of different fighting styles, from hard hitting martial styles, to the valuable supporting styles, to powerful magical projectile styles, to flashy but unbalanced weapon styles. There are also the impressive transformation styles, which allow a player to become a powerful demon, or a golem, or even a ghost. However these magical forms come at a cost. You cannot heal while you are transformed, the force of the transformation constantly drains magical power, and your ability to dodge is greatly limited. New styles are constantly unlocked and discovered throughout the game. Furthermore, these fighting styles are augmented by magical gems and passive techniques scattered throughout the game.

If done improperly, this massive amount of skills could be overwhelming. However, you collect these skills as the game progresses, meaning that while there’s always something new to try, you will usually have some reliable techniques to fall back on. There are some games that give you enough skills to do exactly what you want, whenever you want.; Graham wrote about this a few weeks back. There are some other games which give you a multitude of options, but only a few strict paths actually give you victory.

Jade Empire sits perfectly in the sweet spot for me. While I tended to fall back on a combination of Legendary Strike and Spirit Thief, I would occasionally supplement it with the petrifying effects of the Stone Immortal, leaving the Horse Demon transformation style for only the toughest enemies. This isn’t to say that the versatility of the game made combat easy; combat was brutal, punishing mistakes and frequently forcing me to fall back to my latest quicksave. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Liftoff from Dirge, ancestral home of the Spirit Monks

The story is also wonderful. I’m torn between wanting to give you the blow by blow of everything that happened, and preserving the story for those of you who wish to experience it yourselves. Suffice to say, there were many moments that made me laugh, a few that made me feel triumphant, and at least a few surprises that made me feel like an idiot for not seeing through them sooner.

As you play throughout the game, you become familiar with the game’s central moral philosophy. The way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. Morality systems are (say it with me now) nothing revolutionary. However, most games present rather obvious moral choices such as, “donate money to orphanage, but only after providing loving homes for every orphan” or “Burn the orphanage down, after donating money to the election campaign of an obvious villain.”

Open Palm and Closed fist are more nuanced than the standard good/evil morality systems. Open Palm is a way of charity and benevolence, of walking in accordance with one’s place in the grand scheme of things. However, it is easily exploited. Furthermore, it strictly forces people to accept their lot in life, however miserable it may be. Closed Fist, conversely, is a path of attaining one’s own power. Frequently it is greedy, violent, and chaotic. However, it occasionally does a better job of promoting one’s individual rights, a encourages its practitioners to help others realize their own strength. Using even these simplified definitions, it’s easy to see how not every Open Palm decision is morally good, and not every Closed Fist option is morally evil.

Without going to much into the plot, I will describe one scenario in the game. A vile and corrupt magistrate, Judge Fang, stands in your way. However, he also stands up to the Jade Empire’s vicious secret police, the Lotus Assassins. Removing him from power benefits you, but not necessarily the people of his jurisdiction. One can either kill him, or professionally embarrass him.  In addition to this, the player becomes acquainted with Gentle Breezes, Judge Fang’s courtesan. Judge Fang treats her violently, and frequently takes out his frustrations on her. Although my playthrough was almost exclusively Open Palm, Gentle Breezes and I lured Fang to a secluded spot where I killed him and his bodyguards. The game considered this a Closed Fist option, but I couldn’t allow myself to. I had a drama teacher who once said the best drama comes from multiple right decisions being in conflict with one another; the converse is also true.

I may have walked the path of the Open Palm, but I know I wasn’t always good.

I really don’t know what more there is to say. This game was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad I finally, after nearly 24 hours of play, got to finish it. I know I frequently use the screenshots to showcase something funny about the game, or insert some levity into these posts, but this time I just wanted to capture some of the beauty of the game. These screens might lose some of their significance being removed from the context of the story, but I hope you’ve found them visually appealing.

I feel good finishing this one, the same way I feel after reading an especially good book or walking out of the cinema after great movie, However, as Chai Ka says, “Without endings, there cannot be beginnings.” Chai Ka was right in the game, and his words hold true outside the game as well. Thanks Jade Empire. It’s been spectacular.

The last screenshot before the epilogue. I’ll let you find out for yourself how it ends.

Next Episode: Wargame – European Escalation

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