Genre: Action RPG
Developed by: BioWare
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: XBOX, PC
Feeling Like: Watching Fawlty Towers
BioWare’s Jade Empire is wholly unique in many ways; the setting is Ancient China, the combat of preference is martial arts, and magical creatures are frequently found throughout the land. You’ll run into undead warriors, spirits giving friendly advice and navigate through a series of twist and turns, including the traditional shocking BioWare storytelling twist.
I appreciated the setting very much. I don’t often see Eastern Mythology represented properly in games, or at least not in 2005. Using claws and kicks, as opposed to guns or swords, was a welcomed change of pace. I found the plot easy to follow. The voice acting was on point (I’ll get to that in a minute…) and there were secrets aplenty to discover. Right up my alley.
It’s so easy to get lost in a world where it’s equal parts tranquility and fascination. Villages are detailed appropriately, encouraging exploration. The music is so calm that it made me want to soak in every inch of gardens, pathways, alleys and temples. A martial arts school is always a great place to start, and Jade Empire gives you plenty of opportunity to customize your fighting style and avatar to your liking at the outset of the adventure. Brilliant.
The atmosphere is nearly perfect, but the combat and engine don’t fare as well. The entire game feels sluggish and dated. The camera swoops around like a drunken eagle (is THAT a martial arts style?) and targeting a specific enemy in a large fight is a fool’s errand. I found bugs aplenty in the PC version that would often require me to re-load an old save, losing progress in the campaign. Bummer. That being said, transforming into a giant Golem or Demon Toad made up for most shortcomings. I would say the game feels bloated, but that’s judging it mostly on 2019 standards, hardly fair to a 2005 game.
But there’s one very specific reason why Jade Empire is higher than 138 other games on the 500.
Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard is as silly and stuck up as his name would suggest. He is among the most entertaining NPCs in video game history. He’s not a person you can recruit into your party, he’s not a major antagonist. He’s a ridiculous, loudmouthed, racist, xenophobic blowhard who you challenge to a duel of wits and strength.
He’s one of the few enemies that has a genuinely lethal ranged attack, a blunderbuss that can cause death within seconds, fondly named “Mirabelle.” Challenging as that is, you’re also required to challenge him in a duel of wits, defending the ideals of the Jade Empire against the concept of his “superior” homeland. Industrialization, commerce, culture and religion are at the forefront of the mental contest and I relished every moment of it. It was unique, it was ridiculous and, ironically enough, fit right into Jade Empire’s lore.
Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom is also voiced by John Cleese.
That’s right, comedy god John Cleese. The inimitable, hysterical, unmistakable voice of John Cleese graces your ears and it was my favorite part of the game, easily. This is going to be the only opportunity I get to talk about John Cleese on the 500, so I’m going to take an opportunity to do so.
How many legendary performances has he turned in? How many projects has he been a major part of, that were major successes? Monty Python’s television show, Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, the list goes on and on and on. His magnificent anger, that scathing rage is always a treat to see, and to hear, and to have him present in a classic BioWare RPG that takes place in the Far East is about as unlikely a match as you can come up with. But it works.
The whole scenario doesn’t really impact the game’s story all that much, though “Mirabelle” is a terrific counter to the end boss’ shenanigans. Sir Roderick Ponce Von Fontlebottom TRULY believes everything he says, which gives weight to the confrontation. John Cleese’s perfect English range of mock curiosity, pompous correcting and selfish bravado levitates it to an unforgettable performance.
I know he’s voiced many other roles in games, but this is the video game role I’ll remember him most for. It’s the proverbial cherry on an already sweet sundae. I can’t necessarily recommend Jade Empire since it’s aged poorly, but if you haven’t had the pleasure of watching every episode of Fawlty Towers…