Opinion: Jade Empire on mobile is no KOTOR

Not converted

Opinion: Jade Empire on mobile is no KOTOR
| Jade Empire

Jade Empire roundhouse kicked its way onto iOS this week, prompting a great deal of excitement. Here is a conversion of a forgotten gem from the developer of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - one of the greatest RPG games ever made.

Indeed, what makes Jade Empire's arrival on the App Store such a big deal is the fact that the mobile conversion of KOTOR turned out to be brilliant.

Jade Empire shares many of its core elements with KOTOR - it was built with the same engine and released just four years later. Surely it would be a similarly great fit for mobile, then. Right?

Well, no. I've spent only a little time with Jade Empire on iOS, but I can tell already that it's no KOTOR. It's not even a question of the quality of the game itself - that's for a review to reflect upon - but rather the fundamental nature of the conversion.

A long time ago... 2013 to be exact

A large part of the reason why KOTOR, in all its complicated glory, worked so well on mobile back in 2013 was because of the kind of RPG it originally was. While watching it in action might suggest a third person adventure with frenetic (if slightly stilted) combat, it's actually quite a laid-back, hands-off experience.

In particular, battles are semi-automated affairs that are more about your party set-up and strategic decisions than any sort of manual dexterity. If things aren't going your way, you simply pause the game, have a think, reshuffle your equipment or party approach, then resume and watch your new plan unfold.

Needless to say, this played out pretty well on an iPad screen, where the touch interface suits 'slow and deliberate' better than 'quick and reactive'.

Fighting style

Conversely, while Jade Empire shares its DNA with KOTOR, they're quite different beasts. KOTOR was a PC game first and foremost, but Jade Empire was a more streamlined action RPG for the console crowd.

You move your warrior around the battlefield and hit buttons to dodge, block, and initiate attacks in real time. You can switch to varying styles and pull out weapons - again, in real time.

This hasn't been mapped particularly elegantly to mobile. You're given a clunky set of virtual controls with which to engage in these (relatively) fast-moving battles. It's a bit of a mess, and flipping between attacks and modes feels clumsy.

There's an MFi controller option, but any time that's a solution to a mobile game's control issues, I'd argue that game has failed.

I (don't) like the way you move

Even basic movement is handled differently across both games. In KOTOR, you simply swipe up to start moving, then swipe left or right to steer your hero.

In Jade Empire you have to manipulate a virtual stick, and there's a creaky analogue system for differentiating between walking and running. There's an option in the menu to make your hero auto-run, but that gives you the turning circle of an oil tanker when wandering around villages.

It's all perfectly usable, but it's another area of frustrating disconnect between the game and the player. Over many hours, that might well lessen - but it's just as likely to force some to give up.

Bad karma

Little blame should be apportioned to the conversion specialists at Aspyr here. Bringing Jade Empire's mobile conversion in line with KOTOR's would have required a fundamental rewiring of its mechanisms, which I suspect was entirely impractical - and quite probably impossible.

Besides which, the game remains a sound one - if very much a product of its time. Also, I wouldn't deny that it's a good thing to see it on mobile. Jade Empire was always something of a black sheep in the BioWare family, and it's occasionally seen - somewhat unfairly - as a failure. That record deserves to be set straight.

It's just that I don't think playing the game on mobile does Jade Empire's legacy much good. This was originally supposed to be a more streamlined, accessible take on the KOTOR template, and on mobile that's not the case.

Jon Mundy
Jon Mundy
Jon is a consummate expert in adventure, action, and sports games. Which is just as well, as in real life he's timid, lazy, and unfit. It's amazing how these things even themselves out.