As I came down from the mountain, lost in my own thoughts, the old man nodded in my direction, as if he was already certain as to what I was going to say. Apparently, the expression on my face failed to conceal my uncertainty.
"Your mind seems clouded, young man. What is troubling you? Perhaps it is your desire to stay inside and seek the vacuous diversions of a machine while others find satisfaction in love, livelihood and the company of others."
I cursed the old man under my breath. While providing an atmosphere of respect, he had a way of keeping my weaknesses out in plain sight.
"Master, I am conflicted. I want to voice my opinion on the recent release of Jade Empire: Special Edition for the PC, but I am unsure how to go about it. On one hand, I am always cynical, focusing on the frustrations and disappointments, while forgetting the satisfying, immersive times. On the other, I'm afraid my judgment may be restrained by my own personal biases, and I'll provide a sugarcoated view of a flawed product."
"I see. But surely you can see beyond the scope of your limited mind."
"I don't know if I can, Master. I am, as they say, a BioWare fanboy. I defend them, sometimes irrationally and with ad hominem attacks on forums, even the official ones. I quote lines from Baldur's Gate to myself, finding it endlessly hilarious. I completed Knights Of The Old Republic twice, even though I have no interest in the Star Wars universe. I almost purchased an Xbox, after already selling it once, just so I could play this title in its original incarnation."
"That is a little disconcerting, my child. Even a great carpenter makes a weak shelf once in a while. Surely you can see some flaws in a designer's creations. What do you say about the original campaign in Neverwinter Nights? Surely, that was a disappointment to you as it was with most others."
As I stammered, I turned my face away, too ashamed to look at him as tears streaked across my face. "I"…I loved it, Master. I played through it several times."
"You do not need to ask me for forgiveness of your own transgressions. Speak no more of them and instead focus on your most recent experience."
I regained my composure and spoke my piece. "Well, Jade Empire is a role playing game that takes place in an original universe, which is a change from the usual for BioWare. It's loosely based on the ideas of ancient Chinese mythology, although it contains some supernatural and steampunk elements. The story involves you controlling a martial arts student trying to discover both the dark secrets of the empire and your own past after your teacher is kidnapped by a strange masked being."
"Hmmm"…" he mumbled, stroking his beard. "Always walking a familiar road leads to no chance of enlightenment, don't you agree?"
"Oh certainly, but there are some nice twists to the story, well developed characters that you meet on your journey, some excellent roleplaying choices and a satisfying conclusion. It really makes you feel like part of the world as well, as the decisions you make during some missions makes significant changes to what you can do in later quests. Basically, Jade Empire presents the superior storytelling you've come to expect from BioWare."
He furrowed his brow in discontent. "You sound like a press release. What about the way it looks? We are talking about a two-year-old port of an Xbox game, are we not?"
"True, and if you are used to your RPG titles looking like Oblivion, then you won't be blown away by this game. But it certainly isn't sore on the eyes. The artistic design is top-notch, and both the scenery and characters are quite beautiful, if a little on the blocky side. Plus, it's nice to play a game featuring fantastic visuals with the highest settings on a modest computer setup.
While we're on the subject of atmosphere, I do want to mention that as usual the voice acting is a cut above the norm, and the music is a perfect fit."
The Master seemed to be aggravated over our exchange. "You are like a blind mouse who longs for the attention of a hungry cat. What about the controls? Surely they weren't designed with a keyboard in mind?"
"I was surprised how well the keyboard worked, actually. This clearly wasn't a quick and dirty port. I used both it and a controller and both felt intuitive. Sure the bulky menu system reminds you that this was originally a console title, but it's not that bad. Please, Master, you have to help me. I can go on like this forever."
The old man sighed and reflected for a moment, then replied "You have two paths to take, dear student. One leads to BioWare fanboyism, one leads to cold-hearted rationality. You can only choose one, so choose carefully."
"But Master, why must there only be two paths? Surely I can"…" My eyes widened as I finally understood what he wanted me to notice. "Yes, that is something that bothered me. It claims that the decisions I make follow one of two philosophical doctrines, the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist. However, like all their previous games it almost always amounts to either being a Mr. Goody Two-Shoes or a Sir Hates-a-lot."
"I am unaware of these men you speak of."
"I mean, there's no moral ambiguity. You're either a outrageously nice guy or a complete jerk. I wish there were more in-between choices, and I'm not talking about being a true neutral either."
"Ah, so typical of them to do so. A man who always juggles diamonds instead of glass will still get his hands cut. What about the combat? That dice rolling masquerading as real skill must be getting a little old by now."
"See, that's another good point. The combat is actually action-based this time around, and features many impressive martial styles you can learn. In some ways, it's a nice change from the usual reliance on fooling around with a hundred statistics, unless you're really into that. But despite the variety of magic and combat techniques, the battles usually devolve into a paper-scissors-rock affair. And since your opponents seem unaware of this secret, you'll eventually learn to beat them without much effort. Basically, it boils down to a slightly more complex version of a button-mashing contest."
"Well, that doesn't sound thrilling. Did it ruin the whole experience for you?"
"I think it's obvious that it didn't. Besides, I have faith in them. Maybe their new alliance with Pandemic will help flesh out the action sequences in future titles."
"But the important question is: Will it ruin it for others?"
"It depends. In some ways it reminded me of Dreamfall in the style of game you're looking for. Some will find it as a boring series of fetch quests interrupted by stale fighting sequences. But a lot of people will get turned on by a story with an amount of polish rarely achieved in a video game, inhabited by characters you might actually care about, and will love the opportunity to play it more than once just to see where different decisions lead them."
His eyes twinkled as he saw me entrenched in deep reflection. "Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Take a deep breath, find a place in the forest, and meditate for the rest of the afternoon. Your training for today has ended. I'm very proud of you."
The man began to shift away. I paused for a moment, then immediately called after him. "Master! Is it okay if I write my perspective in the form of our conversation together?"
He turned his face back to me, his right eyebrow arched up. "That, my child, would be ridiculous" he said, slowly disappearing into the fog.