Jade Empire: Best. Plot Twist. Ever.

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Apr 3, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 53 comments

Massive spoilers follow. This game has a surprise twist in it, and you will ruin the game for yourself if you read on.

KOTOR had an excellent plot twist, although I did manage to figure it out shortly before it was revealed. I was not so clever with Jade Empire, and the big twist caught me totally be surprise. Once I beat the Emperor, I did sort of sense the game wasn’t over, but I had no idea what was coming next. When my master turned around and killed me, I was blindsided.

But then, going back to the start of the game I can see hints of this coming all over the place. The conversations with Master Li take on whole new meaning once you know his plans. All of his “mistakes” that led to the destruction of Two Rivers were clearly not just deliberate, but finely calculated. This plot twist wasn’t some nonsense they pulled out of a hat. It was a clear element of the plot, and in fact many early conversations with Li only truly make sense once you understand what he’s up to.

I want to go over Master Li’s plans, as much as I’ve been able to unravel them. Note that in my game my character was named Endo, so anytime I talk about Endo I’m referring to the main player character, who can be either male or female and have any name the player chooses. Okay? Great. Let’s do this:

The Emperor Sun Hai decides to steal the power of the Water Dragon, one of many gods in the large and diverse pantheon of Jade Empire. He has vast resources, a huge army, and his subjects already revere him as a god. However, he doesn’t have a head for this sort of thing, so he turns to his younger brother Sun Li, the Glorious Strategist. Sun Li comes up with a flawless plan. They storm the temple of the Water Dragon, slay the guardians (the Spirit Monks) and defile the temple in a very deliberate way so that her (the Water Dragon’s) power can be stolen by a mortal.

At some point Sun Li decided that the only part of his plan he doesn’t like is the bit where his brother gets the power of a god instead of him.

Master Li: The Glorious Strategist.

I can’t be sure why, but Sun Li lets his brother (the Emperor) grab the Water Dragon’s power before he makes his move. Maybe he wanted to see if Sun Hai would survive before trying it himself. Sun Hai grabs the Dragon’s Heart (true to videogame conventions, it’s a big ‘ol glowing crystal) and gains supernatural powers. Li tries to take it, but quickly finds himself outmatched by his brother’s new godlike powers. He is forced to flee.

Being the Glorious Strategist, Li comes up with a new plan. He knows, or learns, that the only person who can defeat Emperor Sun Hai is a Spirit Monk. The Spirit Monks get their power from the Water Dragon, and so (for whatever reason) they are immune to the supernatural powers Sun Hai stole. The problem is that they just got done killing all the spirit monks, down to the last man. On his way away from the battle, Li encounters a man with a baby and an amulet. It must be obvious that this kid is another Spirit Monk (er, future Spirit Monk, or however it works) and this guy is trying to make sure the kid gets away.

The powers of the amulet are never very precise, but it seems to help anyone trying to use the power of the Water Dragon. If Sun Hai got it he would become invincible. In the hands of a Spirit Monk it would give him a good shot at beating the Emperor. The man was probably planning to train the boy, give him the amulet, and send him on his quest to make things right.

The man had a pretty good plan, which Li quickly deduces and adopts as his own, but with a few key revisions. (Er, after he gets done killing him and taking the baby.) He takes the amulet apart and spreads the pieces around to be collected later. He moves to the small village of Two Rivers and opens a martial-arts school. Master Li trains Endo, at the same time filling his head with ideas about having a great destiny.

During this twenty-year process, Emperor Sun Hai is looking for his brother, who assumes that Sun Li would be out somewhere building an army. He and his men never guess that Li would just be living the life of a simple teacher. Master Li hides in plain sight like this for two decades.

At the start of the game Endo hears a lot of complaining from the other students about how Endo is the “favored student”. On the first run through the game, I thought this was just sour grapes on their part. Once I was in on the secret, it becomes obvious that this is the truth. Li focused on training Endo and humored the other students only to pay the bills and maintain appearances. For his plans, he actually needs Endo to believe he is one of the greatest fighters in the world, and he needs to make sure that none of the other students is too strong. His plans require that Two Rivers be wiped off the map, so he has to take care that his students will be weak enough to fall quickly when the time comes.

Master Li’s school for “special needs” kung-fu fighters.

One of the students in the school is Gao the Lesser. His is arrogant, rich, proud, violent, hard to control, and his father has connections to the Empire. At the start of the game I thought Gao was pretty much just a jerk character. A plot device. An early “boss” fight to ease the player into the game. The students remark how much Li puts up with Gao’s antics, and at first it really doesn’t make sense. Li is much firmer with just about everyone else, yet tolerates all sorts of insolence from Gao. But once you know the plan then Gao’s purpose becomes clear: Li is keeping him around so that when the time is ripe he can “accidentally” reveal his whereabouts to the Emperor. Li (subtly) agitates Gao, pitting him against Endo, and deliberately wounding Gao’s immense ego. When Li is ready, he gives his true name when he knows Gao is listening. Gao, burning for revenge, tells his father, who tells his connections in the Imperial City, and very quickly word reaches the Emperor that his traitorous brother has been found. Gao was another carefully placed pawn on Li’s chessboard.

Li sends Endo down into the caves beneath the school. Endo gets the first part of the amulet. I’m guessing, but I think Li plans to have Endo remain down there (note that he seals Endo in) until after the army has come. Li knows they will wipe out the town, and he needs Endo to survive. As far as I can tell, Li’s plan is for the army to show up, arrest him, torch the town, and leave. Then Endo would emerge from the caves to find his home destroyed, his friends all killed, and his master taken. Endo’s head would be fill of the ideas Li had fed him. He would have one piece of the amulet, and just enough knowledge to track down the other two.

But before the army arrives – while Endo is down in the caves – the Water Dragon (or what is left of her spirit) makes a slight change to Li’s plans. I’m not sure why. She’s not trying to stop Li’s plans (for reasons I won’t get into) but she does knock them off track here a bit. For whatever reason, once Endo has the first part of the amulet, she appears to him in a vision and then transports him back out of the caves to the school. This puts Master Li off his guard for a second.

At first I thought he was just upset at having Endo appear without finishing his “day or so” of meditation. No, he was upset because his twenty-year long plan was about to be undone! The army was on the way and Endo was at the school. If the army showed up he would be killed! Then Dawn Star goes missing. Li almost tips his hand when he seems happy about it. The first time through the game I didn’t know what to make of that, but the second time I understood that this was because Li was looking for another excuse to get Endo out of town. He sends Endo into the swamp after Dawn Star, and his plans are back on track.

Left: The player. Center: Gao the Lesser, voiced by Nathan Fillion. Right: Dawn Star.

As Li anticipated, the army comes looking for him. Li knows his brother and he knows the army will not have orders to kill him outright. He surrenders and they take him back to the Imperial City. They don’t know who in town knew Li’s true identity, if they were in on it, or if they might come looking for revenge later, so the army just wipes out the town on general principles. This also was anticipated (and counted on) by Li. With the townsfolk gone, Endo would have a burning need for revenge and no reason to stay.

You hardly need to be the Glorious Strategist to know what a skilled kung-fu warrior would do in that situation. He’s going to round up the parts of the amulet and then go rescue his master. The idea that his master engineered his own capture is beyond comprehension. The player assumes that destiny has placed them here, but really it is just the plans of Li, disguised as destiny.

Endo then spends most of the rest of the game doing exactly what Li anticipated. He gathers up the wayward parts of the amulet, and in the meantime he’s kicking butts and gaining strength. This explains why Li spread the bits of the amulet around. If he’d given the complete amulet to Endo right from the start, then Endo might have made a beeline for the palace without getting enough experience first. He needed Endo to be well-seasoned before he took a crack at the Emperor.

Endo has just vanquished the Emperor via some supernatural kung-fu. He’s feeling smug now, but Master Li is about to sucker-punch him into the afterlife.
Endo has just vanquished the Emperor via some supernatural kung-fu. He’s feeling smug now, but Master Li is about to sucker-punch him into the afterlife.

Throughout the game various characters make comments on Endo’s fighting style. They explain that his technique is unusual, and that it looks like he has an opening that they can’t explain. Enamored of my in-game alter ego, I just assumed this was done to illustrate how awesome Endo is at Kung-Fu, but this is just another part of Li’s grand plan. He’s taught Endo very carefully. He’s taught him to fight wrong. He’s given Endo a weakness in his style. If some other Master faced Endo repeatedly, he might come to understand and exploit this flaw, but since almost everyone that fights him dies, nobody ever has the chance to exploit his weakness.

Endo gets the amulet, fights his way into the palace, and faces the Emperor. He’s immune to Sun Hai’s magic, so the Emperor is obliged to resort to fisticuffs. Sun Hai is defeated. Now, I could tell this probably wasn’t the end of the game, but I never saw it coming when Li walked over, smiled, and killed Endo easily. He took advantage of the flaw in Endo’s style (which he designed) and dealt a few key blows.

It took twenty years, but at the end of it he had the Dragon’s Heart, the complete amulet, and the last Spirit Monk was truly dead. He had accomplished all of this with minimal risk, without ever having to face his brother himself, and without needing to get his hands dirty. Glorious Strategist indeed.

Master Li at last has the <del datetime="2007-04-03T13:42:56+00:00">soul crystal</del> Dragon Heart.
Master Li at last has the soul crystal Dragon Heart.

The only reason he is defeated is because he couldn’t foresee what the Water Dragon would do. The very short time between Sun Hai’s death and Li’s grasp of the Water Dragon’s power gives her a window of opportunity in which she can act. She returns Endo to life. She saw this outcome from the start, which is why she never told Endo. If Endo had found out about Li, there was a good chance Li might have just killed his student sooner, when the Water Dragon wasn’t in a position to save him. Li had no way to know about this or account for it in his plans, which is the only reason his plans failed.

What impresses me the most is the acting on the part of Master Li. (Voiced by Barry Dennen.) This was a tricky part and I think he nailed it. He needed to play a man who was capable of pretending to care about his students for twenty years. A man capable of raising a baby into adulthood to be his “prized” student, manipulating that adult into doing his work, and then killing him at his moment of triumph. He sacrificed his family, his students, and his brothers. He was a man who never loved anyone, yet who needed to be able to convincingly play a wise and nominally kind teacher for two decades.

Not a people person. Or a Water Dragon person, I suppose.

I can think of a lot of movies where they do this to you: Where a seemingly harmless character is revealed to be a profound threat. It’s happened often, and it has never been very believable to me. But Master Li didn’t turn into a different man when his true nature was revealed. He didn’t suddenly become some wild-eyed madman shouting, “You SHALL DIE!” He was the same guy, and the player suddenly understands that they have simply misunderstood him all this time. He doesn’t change, only your perception of him changes. This is subtly and masterfully done. This required talented acting and carefully crafted dialog to pull off.

Hats off to Bioware. Nicely done.


From The Archives:

53 thoughts on “Jade Empire: Best. Plot Twist. Ever.

  1. Corvus says:

    heh heh. I enjoyed that twist, but didn’t catch me by surprise for some reason. Something about the Master’s title ‘Glorious Strategist’ and a history of playing RPGs set in feudal Asia inspired realms perhaps? Anyway, all those little hints added up for me. Still, you’re absolutely correct – it was a well seeded twist and far subtler than most game plots.

  2. Spider says:

    I loved this game. In addition to all the cool plat you have above, the side characters are interesting and funny (even when not always useful). The conclusion with character updates is great. Then with the credits and you hear various character talking (Henpecked Hu), funny, just hilarious.

    My only problem with this game is trying to tell people what kind of game it is: Action, RPG, fighting game???

  3. Deoxy says:

    Bing familiar with Asian kung-fu movies, that’s a well done but fairly common twist. I’ve seen a few of them. That it was done in ENGLISH (and thus was able to have some subtlety) is a nice change, though.

  4. The Gneech says:

    Have you learned the truth behind Death’s Hand yet? There are some nice twists around -him-, too…

    -The Gneech

  5. Leigh says:

    Bioware is way good at plot twists. Like in Baldur’s Gate II. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly didn’t see the one about a certain bounty hunter coming (you receive little hints, but only if certain characters, which I did not have, are in your party). Pretty sweet. Glad to see they did it again with Jade Empire (read it even though I was going to play the game – it’s just like the twist in Fable, IMNSHO).

  6. RibbitRibbit says:

    Yes, this is one of the best parts of Jade Empire.

    How-e-ver, the truly remarkable thing in the game is the possible romance subplots. If you didn’t follow any you missed some cool stuff.

  7. Malkara says:

    Hehe. Yeah, I was wondering how you’d react when you hit this part of the game. It really is amazing, and took me by just as much surprise, followed by the… “IT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE NOW!”

  8. Ace says:

    Seriously, the moment I played this game I was stunned. I’ve finished it three times now and I must say, the replay factor is still high. That might be because I never get enough of my favoured fighting style though.

    “Way of the thousand cuts” I think it was. Loved that.

    Easiest way to finish this game was to get a lot of focus and to just jump over the enemy, do your ‘thousand cuts’, hit focus, then repeat. Gets them every time. And if they block, just jump around and start over. Eventually you’ll win.

    – Ace

  9. Janus says:

    That twist completely blindsided me. It was completely awesome and totally shocking – quite masterfully done, I felt.

  10. Fred's Friend Mike's Friend Gary's Friend Jim says:

    Dammit, I can’t get that game to run on my Mac Performa.

  11. Brother Gustadt says:

    Definitely a good game with a well-developed mythology. And did anyone notice that Gao the Lesser was voiced by Nathan Fillion?

  12. Corvus says:

    “And did anyone notice that Gao the Lesser was voiced by Nathan Fillion?”

    A fact which my wife pointed out when she’d heard about three words out of the character’s mouth.

    Wallace Shawn did a couple of voices as well. And, of course, Cleese. It actually broke immersion for me to hear such well known voices in the world.

  13. jbrandt says:

    Yeah! I played that this weekend and finished the game. It totally blindsided me too– it gets you right when you’re relaxing and thinking, “Ah, I’m done. Now everything will be right again!” Then BAM and off again.

    It seemed a little short (12-14 hours, maybe?), but VERY satisfying. I’ll probably run through it again later this summer.

  14. AJ says:


    The only game that’s caught me more off guard is Final Fantasy VII. When they kill off Aeris (or Aerith depending on version) I was totally blown away. I’d never truly hated a character in a game before Sephiroth and never have I hated one more since. Master Li was a close second though :-)

  15. Ryan says:

    Well, thanks a lot! With such a tempting title I was really looking forward to reading this post, but since after your last Jade Empire post I went and ordered the game, I now have to wait. :(
    It sounded like such a good post, too.

  16. Jessie says:

    And Armin Shimerman too, who is sneakily in the game. Plays the Cannibal Innkeeper, Abbot Song, and Emperor Sun Hai.

    And it cracks me up every time, being raised on a steady diet of Star Trek since I was out of diapers. I call all three of them MISTAR FERENGI with much glee.

    It was such an awesome twist. Had me shrieking first time I played, too. Luckily, I was not alone and had other people to scream excitedly. Bioware is GOOD at twists. KOTOR had me pretty excited halfway through, as well.

  17. Rick says:

    Thank you for this. I was eager to play through the game again to see how well Master Li’s plots held up during the first chapter, and now I don’t have to and can focus on the forty zillion other games I have that are screaming “play me!”

    My only complaint about JE is how short it is. On the other hand, maybe I should be grateful that BioWare set a limited vision that they could completely realize, unlike, say, Obsidian with KotOR2. And, at any rate, “I’d have liked to play the game for ten more hours” isn’t that bad a complaint.

  18. HC says:

    It really is an first-rate game.

    Now, all we have to wait for is Jade Empire 2 from Obsidian. Longer, larger, and with more party-influence options. Should be incredible.

  19. Bryan says:

    I rather came to expect that plot twist. Death’s Hand, on the other hand, certainly caught me by surprise, but it was nowhere near as sharp a twist.

  20. Eddy says:

    Oh good, I’m glad you got to that point. It was incredibly well done, and I have huge respect for BioWare.

  21. Otters34 says:

    …I assume there’s no way around it? you are killed by Li no matter what you do?

  22. Jessie says:

    Yeah, it’s a cut-scene death, so it’s completely out of your hands. Funny how those work.

  23. Otters34 says:

    …Drat.I was hoping that your fate was determined by YOUR actions, not Li’s plans outlined above, I wonder why he didn’t choose to favor, well, Gao, because then he would have a direct link to the Emporer(or was it Emperor?), thereby possibly through a manner I am quite unable to imagine(not being a Master Stratagist or anything), though doubtless featuring darkly clothed lads with pieces of flat, sharpend metal at hand, he could STEAL the, well, um…Dragon Heart(a curious manner of blood propulsion, and if that’s the Heart, I wonder what the Speen could do).Training a fellow, taking decades of time over their fighting style to introduce a fatal flaw, then sending them on a crystal hunt, leading them before the Emperor, then killing the fatted calf…why oh why didn’t he destroy the Heart? then NO ONE would be able to use it, he would keep it out of any enemies hands, and secure it from any wanderer with a bunch of misfit compatriots and an eye for unnatural amounts of loot.But he wasn’t called the Gloriously Sensible, after all…
    Oh, and what does he do with those BlUE CRYSTAL powers, anyway?

  24. Otters34 says:

    Whoops! sorry! I just re-read the last bit, ignore the last sentence.

  25. Nathan says:

    The observed powers stolen from the Water Dragon:
    1. Providing a limitless flow of water for the Jade Empire, protecting it from drought. Given that the Long Drought nearly collapsed the Jade Empire before Emperor Sun Hai stole the Water Dragon’s power, this is Far Bigger than one might imagine.
    2. Power to sustain life and existence. Sun Hai, it turns out, died shortly after he claimed the Water Dragon’s heart. He operated quite efficiently as a ghost, with nobody seeming to suspect his death, until you confronted him. Sun Li seems quite convinced he’ll live forever with this power.
    3. Large amounts of Personal Magical Power, which let the user thrash attempted assassinations with ease.
    4. This is speculative, but it seems likely that the holder of the Water Dragon’s heart could ensure that the spirits of the dead were ushered to the Underworld- which was a major portion of the Water Dragon’s role in the pantheon. Sun Hai didn’t bother, and the Jade Empire was beginning to suffer increasing problems with uneasy spirits and ghosts because of it. Sun Li makes it clear he intends to insure that the dead went to their place.
    5. The ability to bind and enslave spirits, living or dead. Again, speculative, but I can’t help but wonder if the power stolen from the Water Dragon led to Sun Hai’s golem army project, either by backing the power of the soul extraction device used to provide the animating force for golems, or by simply providing the insight as to how such an unwholesome feat might be accomplished.

  26. Otters34 says:

    Do you think these work on the Jade Empire’s dragons?Or are they immortal gods with nothing to fear from the likes of its inhabitants?

  27. Nathan says:

    Actually, I believe it’s safe to say that the dragons ARE gods- but ‘nothing to fear from the likes of the Jade Empire’s inhabitants’ is more or less disproven by what happened to the Water Dragon.

  28. Arctan says:

    Some clarifications based on what I saw from the game:

    1) Sun Li didn’t intend to let Sun Hai take the jewel first at all. This is one of his many mistakes. (The fact that the Glorious Strategist, despite his immense intelligence, is still human and stilll capable of making serious errors is a really major plot point of the game.) He and Sun Kun intended to betray Sun Hai some time before Sun Hai could actually claim the gem, but apparently neither of them got the opportunity. From what we see in the cut-scenes, the battle against the Spirit Monks was terribly chaotic and none of them were exactly sure where the Dragon’s Heart was. I get the impression that Li and Kun were waiting for their chance to kill Hai unobserved, but the fact that the two of them don’t exactly trust each other (with good reason, as it turns out) and that Hai is surrounded by bodyguards most of the time gets in the way.

    In the scene where we see the Sun brothers striding into the Temple, Sun Li narrates about how he missed his chance to stop his brother, and we see Sun Li (the armored figure) with his hand *on his sword* suddenly turning around in shock as Sun Hai grabs the gem. I think not killing his brother sooner has been the mistake that’s haunted Sun Li all these many years.

    Also, what’s interesting to note is that it’s implied that even the idea to steal the Water Dragon’s power in the first place was Sun Li’s. Sun Hai was only looking for a way to save the Empire — by the end of the game it becomes clear that the whole deicidal plan, from beginning to end, was Li’s, and that Li has always been a cruel and heartless bastard, while Hai started out as a decent man trying to do his best — which is why the power drives Hai insane, while it merely makes Li more like he already was. For all the bad that’s said about the Emperor, Li was the devil of this story from the beginning.

    2) Another nitpick — the amulet is only a “focus”. It’s a way to learn to use the Water Dragon’s powers faster, but it’s not actually necessary to draw on her power. Sun Hai was able to use her power for 20 years without the amulet; it’s just that not having the amulet made his progress toward godhood slow and difficult, while having the amulet let Li accomplish everything Hai had done in a matter of weeks.

    Similarly, you lose the amulet when you get killed but retain all your amulet-based powers because it was only necessary to “awaken” your natural powers as a Spirit Monk.

    3) Actually, Li wasn’t responsible for scattering the amulet. Abbot Song did that himself, remember? He says so, when you ask his ghost about it. The Spirit Monks, knowing of their own inevitable destruction, already laid all the groundwork for Master Li’s plan ahead of time — the Abbot of the Spirit Monks had already broken up the amulet and scattered it across the Empire, leaving just the amulet’s core with the baby so that when you grow up you can start looking for the other pieces.

    Of course, Li picked up on this plan and took it over as his own, such as stationing his own lieutenant at Tien’s Landing to guide you to the second amulet piece. (Her guilt and reluctance make a lot more sense when you realize Li’s true nature, and that she may have had to do terrible things to ensure the presence of the amulet at Tien’s Landing.)

    By the way, I like the creepy references to what happened to the Old Master of Two Rivers School. Once you beat the game it becomes clear that all the creepy stuff about what happened to the school’s former master is, indeed, supposed to imply that Li killed him and took his place.

    7) Assuming the Water Dragon’s spirit has some sort of precognitive awareness of where destiny leads, it seems pretty clear to me that the main advantage of getting the player out of the caves and into the swamps to look for Dawn Star is so he can hook up with Sagacious Zu.

    This is very important. Zu is the last person Li would want the player to meet. Zu is the one actor in the game who knows the whole story — he’s the only Lotus Assassin who ever went turncoat and survived, and he was *there* when Dirge was sacked, and he knows what parts of Li’s story are true and what parts are lies, once he pieces it all together from what the player tells him. It’s because of Zu’s spirit that the player eventually has the strength to resist Li’s compulsion in the endgame.

    11) And the cool thing about it is that Li actually does the gloating villain thing, and *describes the entire plan to his brother*. You catch the tail end of this conversation, with Li telling his brother “You’d have done the same in my place”. Which makes zero sense on the first playthrough and struck me as an awkward way of Li appealing to his brother’s conscience, and then makes perfect sense later on — especially Hai’s retort that he’s the firstborn and therefore Emperor by right.

  29. Help! says:

    guys please tell me.. I pressed smth and can’t see the life of enemies… :(

  30. MooseUpNorth says:

    Seamus, you pretty much nailed it. I wasn’t quite flat-footed, but pretty darn close. At the very moment you captured in the screen-shot, with the protagonist standing there serenely yet not understanding, I had a sense of imminent danger. My instincts lit off and my reaction was “back up back UP BACK UP!!!”

    Bioware are masters of the double and triple cross.

  31. Nick Pitino says:

    Crap, I haven’t played this game yet. Now if I go pick it up I’ll have to try to forget this some how…

    Foiled by a snapekillsdumbledore post!

  32. Guus says:

    I totally didn’t expect it, since I didn’t think that Jade Empire was a great game. It was fun but not really brainsmashingly great.
    Also, I found the Emperor more difficult than Sun Li himself. After you’ve taken his god-powers away from him, he is no threat at all. I kicked his ass in less than a minute. Which made for a rather silly ending.

    1. Zero T. Katama says:

      Heh. I actually found the 2 Elephant and 2 Rhino statue fight before the final boss much more difficult, if only because I couldn’t abuse Storm Dragon on them like you can most human enemies.

  33. Me says:

    Wow, a very nice article you have there! I completely agree with this. The plot twist is even better than KotOR’s, yet I still prefer KotOR as a game. But Jade Empire sure is a masterpiece without any doubt, well done Bioware! =)

  34. Paercebal says:

    I did buy this game after reading the first phrases of the article, so, unfortunately, I knew too much about the plot to enjoy the surprise.

    Still, this is among the best game I ever played.

    Apparently, with KotOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, Bioware did find a powerful recipe for memorable games…

    So, all in all, thanks for your post: After reading it, it spoiled the surprise, but then, if I did not read it, I would have never played this game.

  35. Sean Hagen says:

    I have to say, when I played through Jade Empire ( on the original XBox ), I thought this was an amazing plot twist.

    I won’t be so bold as to say I saw it coming, but I had a niggling feeling that “something big” was in the cards. Mostly because of all that “there’s just something odd about your style” stuff everyone kept feeding me.

    Still, this game is one of my all time favorites ( although Advent Rising is still my all time favorite XBox game — damn you Microsoft, let me play this game on my 360! )

  36. mixmastermind says:

    God I love this game so much.

    I just want to lay with it in bed like a Teddy Bear.

  37. JoshR says:

    I saw it coming because all the way people were like “are you sure we can trust your master?”
    This, I felt, was fairly pointless, due to the inability to avoid him killing you, all it did was highlight the chance we couldn’t trust him, and the second I saw him come up the stairs I knew he was going to attack me.
    Also, The Storm Dragon style is gamebreakingly powerful. AoE stun and DoT that costs no focus and no mana? works on death’s hand, Li, the emporer, the ravager and the serpent.

  38. Scott says:

    I was just dumbfounded by the twist. Just stared at the screen for 10 minutes, trying to digest what had just happened.

    The game is so amazing, I’m only on my 18th playthrough since 2004. Still as epic as ever.

  39. Astrolounge says:

    I actually saw the twist coming from the point you leave the spirit cave and Li tells you he doesn’t want you to be “…Mislead, by sources [he] cannot anticipate”. But really, my spotting it has more to do with the fact that I read TV Tropes, and as such whenever I see an elderly mentor my only thought is: “will this guy die, or will he turn out to be evil?” When Li spoke that line, I actually said aloud: “turn out to be evil it is then”.
    Mind you, I obviously didn’t know he would actually succeed in killing you before you took him down. That bit was still awesome.

  40. koriantor says:

    I just beat Jade Empire today. I understand this is way back in the archives and no conversation is going to come of this, but oh well, I’m saying this.

    I knew that something was coming. I, like most people, got the impression that the game wasn’t over when you killed the Emperor. The game had been building up the idea that the real power behind the throne wasn’t the Emperor, but Death’s Hand and that he might be controlling the Emperor somehow. I thought the next few chapters would be about fighting Death’s Hand, so when Master Li killed me, I was flabbergasted! I couldn’t believe it!

    Hats off to Bioware, that was a brilliantly constructed plot twist. I thought I had guessed the twist, but they caught me by surprise and the surprise makes sense. What’s great is before I played it, somehow had said something about Master Li’s school being designed to fight the Emperor, and that bothered me when I was first playing, but I never thought of why that was the case. I was stunned. Jade Empire’s a good game indeed.

  41. GreatWyrmGold says:

    Wow. That is, indeed, an impressive plot. Better than many movies I’ve seen.

  42. BespectacledGentleman says:

    KOTOR II spoilers below

    I definitely liked the game, but I preferred how KOTOR II did the manipulative mentor thing. Since Kreia was in your party the whole game I felt a whole lot more attached to her and was a whole lot more surprised when she turned on you. I kinda expected this one since, as Atrolounge said, most trusted old mentors are either evil or die, and when he voiced his mistrust of the water dragon it was clear to me that something was up. Meanwhile Kreia was ensuring that everyone in the party was devoted to your service, if in kind of a cruel way. This made sense, though, since you were trying to stop an eldritch abomonation that devoured entire planets. The twist was vey well executed in Jade Empire, but I was expecting it, wheras in KOTOR II it took me completely by surprise.

  43. Jonah Falcon says:

    “. I'm not sure why. She's not trying to stop Li's plans (for reasons I won't get into) but she does knock them off track here a bit.”

    The reason is that the Water Dragon knows that Li would detect a change in the plans and would adjust accordingly.

    Oh, and Li not only not cared about the town and his students, he also didn’t care when he found out Dawn Star was his daughter. His attitude is, “Well, that’s strange, but I have a plan, and the plan comes first.”

    Oh, and you never mentioned that Li didn’t tell him Spirit Monks DIDN’T NEED THE AMULET.

  44. Ceorl says:

    Great article, since Jade Empire is one of my favorite Bioware RPGs, I'd like to Sun Li's analysis.

    The game ending is: (1) open palm good (free Water Dragon), (2) open palm evil (let Sun-Li win), and (3) closed fist (take Water Dragon's power). However, the open palm evil ending always felt shoehorned in, never making much sense nor fitting into Bioware's traditional dichotomic ending. By committing to Sun Li as an Open Palm tyrant, Bioware could have improved the ending.

    Specially, its ambiguous whether Sun Li is Closed Fist or Open Palm. What we learn, buried within the plot like a footnote, is what created the Long Drought, which prompted the three brothers to attack the Water Dragon.

    The Celestial Bureaucracy (“CB”) created the Long Drought to destroy the Jade Empire. Why CB did this is never explained, although I assumed this was an indirect reference to the Mandate of Heaven. The Long Drought killed many, many people, impliedly to dethrone the Sun brothers. Since that axes a peaceful resolution, the brothers, to save their regime and you know keep the death count below the millions, attack the Water Monk's Temple and set off the sequence of events leading to the game proper.

    Their subsequent Klingon promotion betrayal of each other is nasty, and an indirect statement of why CB wanted them dethroned, but their actions leading up to that point were morally grey . The Jade Empire was presented as a thriving, benevolent institution before the Long Drought. Stopping it would save lives, and, hopefully, restore peace and tranquility; although that did not happen.

    Crucially, we're never given a causi belli by CB for the Long Drought. Perhaps we should morally dislike the Sun brothers. Yet, without a rational justification, the Water Monks participation in the CB homicide becomes morally repugnant. Your character is not the child of a peaceful commune slaughtered by power-mongering warlords. Your character is the child of a sect of religious fanatics who adherence to their god's commandments can be equalized to the Jade Empire's torture based golem creation. Conversely, the Sun brothers actions can be rationalized as an attempt to throw off the shackles of a uncaring Stalinist bureaucracy that will kill hundreds of thousands to enact a policy change.

    When I came to the betrayal, I Sun Li’s man. We had removed an kefka-esque character, and given power to someone with the foresight to use it. Sure, you learn later he's lacking in the compassion department but that's exactly how an open palm tyrant is supposed to behave. The alternatives are to assume power yourself, by embracing the Closed Fist doctrine, or returning control to the homicidal CB. I was reminded of the Dues Ex: Invisible War endings at the time. In a world of bad choices, Sun Li's tyranny was arguably the lesser of several evils.

    Which bring me back to your death. Arguably, Sun Li is removing his one remaining threat, but there is chance your character is loyal to him, and he'd always have the five finger death punch in his back pocket. Offing your character in a world where death is not the end of life is risky . Sun-Li damn well should know that your death won't end things. Perhaps you'll manifest as a ghost and seek vengeance. At a minimum, your soul is subject to CB and they very much want him removed from power.

    So why did Sun Li kill you? His act reflects Bioware's inability to commit to what exactly Open Palm and Closed Fist mean. Sun-Li should be a villainous Open Palm character. His ending indicates it. But his betrayal of his brothers, and his killing of you is pure Closed Fist aggression. By failing to definitely establish Sun Li as an Open Palm villain, the writer created an ambiguity in the ending that has bugged me for a decade now.

    Sun Li should have talked with you before his murder fu. You express happiness at rescuing your master and allowing him to assume the throne. Sun Li innocently asking what you plan to do next. Any answer other than abject obedience results in death. A pledge of fealty grants the open palm tyrant ending. Sun Li's betrayal would then fit within the narrative as the calculated act of an open palm tyrant intolerant of dissent, rather than closed fist aggression.

    1. Hermitcrab says:

      [to play it safe, this is meant as reply to Ceorl’s comment from March 2016]

      Those argument have two big flaws in their foundation:

      A) the spirit monks were never suggested to have anything to do with the Water Dragon’s water-providing duties. They were described as doing only two things. 1) guard her temple. 2) go on pilgrimages throughout the Empire to bring back ghosts stuck in the living world, metaphorically “leashing” them and then traveling back to their temple in the mountains where the ghost can be ushered on to the afterlife. Suggesting that they’re an army of religious fanatics using magic/god-powered weapons of mass destruction needs some evidence from the game. Is there any?

      B) The Celestial Bureaucracy might not have had any malevolence in mind when the great drought hit the Jade Empire. In real life, Rome viewed North Africa as “the breadbasket of the empire”. 1800-2000 years later, an enormous portion of those same lands have been buried by the Sahara desert. The world changes, so does the climate, so does the terrain. The in-game books made it sound like numerous dynasties have ruled over the Jade Empire since its founding. The drought that hit during the reign of the latest Emperor Sun need not have been anything but nature taking its course, much like the RL Gobi desert features sandstorms that are felt far away as Beijing.

      -the “follower” character Zin Bu (the always-available NPC merchant) pointed out how the Celestial Bureaucracy seems to be mainly concerned with keeping track of what happens on Earth, not interfering with it. When nature is allowed to follow its course, people or sparrows or herring or or forests may die by the boatload, but that’s still part of the world. What happened in the empire (the swelling ranks of ghosts attacking & killing more and more frequently, in more and more places, leading to more and more ghosts…) shows why humanity was WORSE off when humans succeeded in stopping nature from taking its course.

      -The game mentioned (can’t remember if it was the Water Dragon or some other source) that Emperor Sun’s defiance of the gods means that the water flowing into his land is TAKEN AWAY from another country. Somewhere, the drought that should’ve hit the jade empire is being inflicted on a country/continent that did nothing to deserve it. People are still dying en masse, except these people certifiably did not do anything to bring the fate on to them. It’s Emperor Sun and his brother who are guilty of being “uncaring Stalinistic bureaucrats”.

      -The nameless, vaguely defined horror in Dirge is stated to have gained entry ONLY because of the defilement of the Water Dragon and the ensuing unnatural situation. The brothers Sun may have opened the way to some threat that would never have got so much as a toehold in the world IF they hadn’t attacked, violated and started eating alive one of their own gods.

      – – –

      As an aside, I wish Bioware had done a sequel. Between that last-mentioned, vaguely Lovecraftian horror in Dirge, and the epilogue for a Death’s Hand bound to serve a Closed Fist player character*, I was left thinking “This has got to be the folks at Bioware laying the groundwork for the villain/threat of the next game.”

      (*= “Infused by the ever growing power of his master, his physical form was eventually corrupted beyond what his armor could contain, and he became something… other.”-DH epilogue, from Jade Empire wiki)

  45. Armaan Sandhu says:

    This was an amazing analysis, and made things so clear! This game really deserves a sequel, imagine the possibilities with today’s tech!

    I’d made a long 15 minute music tribute to this game, and after reading this piece I went back and watched my own work. :P The article helped reveal so much!

    Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ty63zwzJQY

  46. Groo says:


    *points above* Can’t believe a spammer actually got through ya there Shamus!

  47. JBC31187 says:

    But before the army arrives ““ while Endo is down in the caves ““ the Water Dragon (or what is left of her spirit) makes a slight change to Li's plans. I'm not sure why. She's not trying to stop Li's plans (for reasons I won't get into) but she does knock them off track here a bit. For whatever reason, once Endo has the first part of the amulet, she appears to him in a vision and then transports him back out of the caves to the school.

    Okay, so it’s 2017, but I’ll post anyway. I can think of two reasons the Water Dragon doesn’t spill the beans right there (besides spoiling the game):

    First, the Water Dragon and Sun Li have a shared goal: remove Sun Hai from power. So, she may have decided that Li’s plan will get the job done, and too much interference on her part would ruin everything. While trusting Li is certainly risky on her part, since Sun Hai is the prime mover and major threat (or so everyone thinks) it’s an understandable gamble. But as Artan mentioned above, her actions lead to the PC finding Sagacious Zu, who is the one person with the information to unravel Li’s plot.

    Second, the Water Dragon was never omniscient or omnipotent, even before Sun Hai jacked her power. None of the Celestial Bureaucracy is- even your celestial follower mentions that they have no idea what happened to the Water Dragon. And now, when you first meet her force ghost in the cave, she’s been chained and mutilated for at least a decade with her power constantly drained by the emperor. She can do some impressive stunts, but nothing a sufficiently powerful kung-fu wizard or random spirit can do. So it’s very probable that the only thing the Water Dragon knows is that the last Spirit Monk has found the amulet, and is trapped in a cave.

    Which brings me to my point. I found this article while re-reading your Mass Effect write-up, and one of your points was that fanwanking is no solution to plot holes and sloppy writing. But a decent writer can have both ambiguity and a solid plot, even if the players have to speculate to fill in the gaps.

    The Jade Empire writers never explain why the Water Dragon never contacted you before to clue you in to the situation. But there are enough details (the gods are NOT omnipotent, the Water Dragon is enslaved at the moment, etc.) that fans can extrapolate without fanwanking. The first Mass Effect throws in details about army building, sinister experiments, and how general lack of knowledge and PC interference keeps the bad guys from just pushing the “I Win” button.

    The second and third Mass Effect games give us Cerberus, the pro-human terrorist group that kills more humans than anyone, with enough resources to rival the actual superpowers in-universe who just sit by so Cerberus can hog the spotlight. Why does Cerberus have the latest stealth-tech? Because they’re awesome, shut up. Why do loyal human soldiers abandon their oaths to join these clowns? Because the Alliance is weak, shut up. Why do the real bad guys who have been pushed aside by Cerberus not use the “I Win” button set up in the first game? Because shut up. What a difference.

  48. Anne Rogers says:

    Isn’t this the same game where using Jade Golem form let you stomp the emperor and his brother with ease? Hardly epic when you don’t even break a sweat killing them.

  49. Jonah Falcon says:

    You forgot to mention when the Lotus Assassin accidentally comes upon the Spirit Monk early in the game. Master Li has to make sure no one survives, especially the Lotus Assassin, because the Assassin will report back to the Emperor there’s a Spirit Monk alive, bringing his forces to Two Rivers.

  50. Blackbird71 says:

    So, I’m a bit late to the party (only 14 years ;) ), but I just recently finished this game (thank you GOG.com), and these articles came up in my searches to dig up info on the game as I was playing. I remember when these articles were first posted, but at the time I hadn’t played the game and wasn’t interested in spoilers, so I avoided them. After seeing them in my searches, I resolved to go back and read them once I’d completed the game, so here I am.

    Reading this article and the comments, I am surprised that so many people were surprised by this twist. It was heavily telegraphed from the very beginning, and I saw it coming early on. This sort of twist is practically a trope itself, and a staple of the genre. If you’re paying attention at all, it shouldn’t catch you off guard.

    Some key points that hint at the coming twist:

    – In the cave when the Water Dragon tells the protagonist to look to the beginning of the path to understand how current events had been set in motion so long ago. This hints that there has been a plan in motion from the beginning, and the Glorious Strategist has already been revealed at this point, so who else could have been behind such a plan? The Water Dragon’s warning suggests the player is merely a pawn to “Master” Li.
    – The frequent references to how, if Master Li truly is the Glorious Strategist, his apparent “mistakes” could not possibly be mistakes, as he’s too smart for that. This implies that he does have ulterior motives for his actions, and a little logic will lead you to the likely reasons behind such “errors.”
    – The constant observations of the oddity in the protagonist’s fighting style, an apparent flaw that everyone assumes can’t really be a flaw because they can’t figure out what it is, and so it must really be a way to bait opponents to try to exploit a flaw that isn’t there. Really, with the number of times pieces of this puzzle are repeated, it should be instantly obvious that the protagonist was intentionally trained with a flaw so that it could be used against them by the one who trained them (Sun Li) at a critical moment.

    Add these together, and the “trusted mentor has really been the scheming villain all along who plans to kill the protagonist when he’s done with them and the protagonist could get in the way” is truly obvious. Bioware wrote a good story, but they relied on a classic trope for their twist, and they gave far to many hints if they wanted it to truly be a surprise. I have a hard time calling this the “best plot twist ever.” It was predictable, and that takes away a lot of the quality of a great twist. A successful twist should be surprising, but make sense once the full context is revealed. The story absolutely supported the twist, but the surprise factor was lacking. As such, I’ll call it a good twist, but definitely not the “best ever.”

  51. ShockMonkey says:

    Is Mr. Btongue dead?
    Notify me at [email protected]

    Last trace leads here, he was writing articles here.

    Peeps on his youtube channel are still waiting :)

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