As one of the most well-known RPG developers in recent times, Bioware is primarily known for two things: Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy, and space operas. Back in 2005, as the original Xbox was fading out and the Xbox 360 was on the horizon, Bioware was able to slide a little something different down the line. Jade Empire ($9.99) was a martial arts fantasy action RPG inspired by wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. It was the developer’s first real foray into incorporating real-time action into the RPG framework that had become known for, a blend that woulds be revisited with greater success in the Mass Effect series. While it was well-received critically, the game failed to sell anywhere near as well as Bioware’s other titles, so the developer went back to the more reliable fantasy/sci-fi salt mines. That’s a shame, because Jade Empire is an excellent game with some flaws that could have been buffed out to marvelous effect in a sequel.
For now, we’ll have to make do with this stunning iOS port of the PC Jade Empire: Special Edition. Developed by Aspyr Media, it gives you all of the punch of the original 2005 Xbox release with a handful of extras, all nicely adapted to make the best possible use of the unique properties of the platform. If you’ve played Jade Empire before and are just reading this review to figure out how well it ported, I can confirm the game is fully intact and as playable as can be expected given the limitations of touch controls. If you have an MFi controller, this is basically Jade Empire in its shiniest form. Some of the pre-baked assets like videos and loading stills don’t look great since they’re still in their original resolutions, but everything else is top-shelf. This isn’t surprising given the high-quality work Aspyr turned in on the iOS version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic ($4.99), mind you.
Jade Empire has you taking the role of the prized student of Master Li, a wise and powerful man who runs a training school just outside of a small countryside town. You’re limited to selecting one of several starter characters and cannot alter their appearance, since they appear in the game’s pre-rendered movie sequences. Not long after the game begins, trouble comes looking, kicking off your journey across the land. Along the way, you’ll meet new companions, learn new fighting styles, and even engage in a little vertical shoot-em-up mini-game. You’ll also learn your true destiny, learn the backstories of the interesting people you travel with, and if you play your cards right, you might even find love while you’re at it. As with most other Bioware RPGs, there’s a morality mechanic in play here that will determine how characters react to you and which ending you’ll receive. Theoretically, these two paths should be equally correct from a moral sense, but Bioware’s never been great at subtlety in this regard. So, you’ve got the light side in the form of the Way of the Open Palm, and the dark side in the form of the Way of the Closed Fist. Your actions, particularly in dialogue sequences, will determine which of the two your character follows, and certain techniques are exclusive to each path.
Distinct from the other Bioware RPGs available on iOS, Jade Empire‘s battle system opts for full real-time action. This was the developer’s first crack at such a system, and in many ways, it shows. You can have up to four different martial arts styles equipped at a time, allowing you to switch between them at the tap of a virtual button. Basic strikes, blocks, and block-breaking specials serve as sort of the rock-paper-scissors of combat, but there’s a lot of variety from style to style, so it’s not always this straightforward. Most forms also have an area attack you can access, and you’re always able to restore your health by tapping yet another on-screen button. The most important things you’ll need to manage are your chi and focus meters. Various attacks and techniques will consume some of these meters, and if you run out, you’ll not only be left with only the most basic of combat techniques, you also won’t be able to heal. Certain arts consume these energies heavily, while others can restore them if used well.
Moving around in battle is controlled mostly by swiping in various directions. Your character is quite nimble, but at times they can feel a little too swift on their feet. Trying to close the distance just as often results in you leaping over the enemy’s head only to end up just as far away on the other side. Enemies love to gang up on you, as well, so you’ll need to be extra careful if your companion character falls in combat. One can imagine how this was all meant to go. Your character would fly from enemy to enemy, switching effortlessly between different martial arts styles in a deadly dance of balancing energy consumption with recovery. In practice, it’s a little clunky, and it rarely feels like you’re as awesome at fighting as everyone seems to think you are. That’s not because the enemies are tough, either. Indeed, they’re pretty easy to dominate with the right selection of styles. But something about the battles lacks the impact that the developers were likely going for. Nevertheless, it’s still fun to collect and try out all of the different fighting techniques, and I love that you have so much choice from battle-to-battle as to which ones you’re going to use.
Things fare better outside of battle, where an invisible virtual stick guides you around the environments and a single button is used to perform contextual actions. The game doesn’t feel terrible different from most other Bioware games when you’re wandering around exploring. There are lots of characters to talk to, though only a small percentage of them will offer any meaningful exchange, and plenty of sub-quests to seek out and accomplish. Jade Empire is a bit more linear than many other games from this developer, however, so you’ll want to make sure you don’t leave quests hanging too long. The game is broken up into chapters, and it’s not unusual for the areas you were previously in to be closed off to you temporarily or even permanently when you move on to the next chapter. You’ll be traveling through a wide variety of locales, and although even the higher-res assets of the Special Edition are nearly a decade old, most of these places look lovely. Again, it helps that this setting is considerably less common in Western RPGs, as there’s a certain level of novelty here that you might not find in more generic fantasy settings.
That being said, the whole wuxia-inspired fantasy China setting is really only skin-deep. It certainly looks the part, but when characters start talking and the plot starts rolling, Jade Empire quickly settles into comfortable territory for Bioware. It’s less Hero and more Star Wars, with the requisite straight-laced good guys, irredeemable bad guys, and identity twists that Bioware stories are typically built on. It’s a fun story, and you’ll likely be surprised at certain revelations, but it’s probably best not to expect the complex philosophical themes that are often found in the wuxia genre. The character archetypes, their behaviors, and their mannerisms are nearly indistinguishable from Bioware’s other RPGs. Everyone you meet has their own secrets and quirks, though it’s up to you whether you want to invest the effort to fish out all but the most important of them. As usual, the developer really nailed the dialogue here, and the voice acting is on the whole quite excellent. There are some genuinely hilarious and heartfelt scenes in Jade Empire, and it’s perhaps in these flashes of brilliance that the truest joys of the game can be found.
The iOS platform certainly isn’t hurting for action RPGs, but there’s nothing else on the platform with exactly the same appeal as Jade Empire. That alone isn’t enough to give the game a solid recommendation, but in combination with an all-around strong effort from Bioware and the quality of this particular port, it’s hard to envision a scenario where an RPG fan wouldn’t want this game in their collection. Even one of the most frequently-heard criticisms of the game, its relatively short 15-hour main quest, seems increasingly like a plus when compared to more bloated, slow-paced games. There are slow points in Jade Empire‘s story, but far fewer compared to many RPGs in a similar vein. For the most part, this is a snappy, kung fu road trip adventure, and that’s fine by me.
In addition to the aforementioned support for MFi controllers, Jade Empire: Special Edition also supports iCloud saves and Game Center achievements. Fair warning: although the game auto-saves at certain intervals, you’ll want to make sure you’re making regular hard saves as well, since those intervals can be a bit infrequent during certain stretches. There are also a lot of options you can play around with, enabling you to tinker around with graphical settings, set the difficulty for combat and the mini-games independently, and toggle options like sub-titles and gore.
The UI is an impressive improvement over the one found in Knights of the Old Republic, and the game looks and runs great on the iPhone 6S Plus and iPad Air 2 I tested it on. If you’re rolling with weaker hardware, you might need to play around with the graphical settings a bit, but at least you have that option in this game. While there are occasional issues with the touch controls not present in the original game, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way Aspyr could have done them, so I’m not going to be too harsh on the results. The game generally plays fine, and the battle system certainly leaves plenty of margin for error, regardless of the source of said error.
Jade Empire might not be Bioware’s best RPG, but I’m fairly sure it’s the developer’s most under-appreciated. While the combat can be a little clunky at times and the story hews a little too closely to Bioware’s typical oeuvre, its unusual setting, strong character work, and excellent pace help it stand out from its stablemates. Even if it were merely an average Bioware RPG, however, that would still be enough to put it on any iOS RPG fan’s shopping list. Aspyr Media did a marvelous job with the port, too. It might be a Saturday morning cartoon version of a wuxia story, but it’s one heck of an enjoyable ride in any case.