Games to Play Before You Die: Beyond Good & Evil

a retrospective review by CrazyPNut

This series is designed to highlight games of any medium that are a testament to their kin.  Through amazing narrative or gameplay mechanics (or both) we hope to channel our love of why these particular titles advance the medium and art of gaming – and therefore take their place in the overall gaming lexicon.

Release Year(s): 2003/2011
Platform(s): Playstation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PC, XBLA (Xbox 360 - Remaster), PSN (PS3 - Remaster)
Developer/Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Single-Player Action-Adventure
Rating: T – for Comic Mischief and Violence

 

“Cult Classics” are often defined in entertainment as something that suffered from bad commercial success in spite of its contribution to the medium, gathering a following well past its initial debut.  Beyond Good & Evil is perhaps one of the best games to represent the true epicenter of this phenomenon.  In short – it’s a fantastic game that a lot of you probably didn’t play until it dropped into a deep-discount bin at your local game retailer – or was re-released in an HD Remaster several years later.

This is a game that I truly draw a line in the sand for.  I consider a playthrough of Beyond Good & Evil to be an absolute necessity in any respectable gamer’s history.  While it’s a more recent title to review, I feel Ubisoft managed to get a lot right in such a small package.  It’s a game that manages to draw from good mechanics we’ve seen in previous titles, yet provides just enough new spin to feel fresh.  Add a conspiracy narrative that pulls you in, and you’ve got quite the cocktail.  This is just a fun game to play through again and again every couple of years.

On the planet Hillys, recent attacks by an alien race known as the DomZ have led to damages and the disappearances of numerous citizens of Hillys, while the military government in place known as the Alpha Sections have been ineffective at defending the threat.  As Jade, a photojournalist who resides at a local orphanage with her guardian “uncle” Pey’j, you set out to protect your home and get to the bottom of these attacks by linking up with the local underground resistance movement, who suspect the government may actually be involved with the alien attacks and kidnappings.  Armed with a staff and your trusty camera, you set out on your quest to save Hillys and its people from an unknown enemy.

The story is a pretty simple one to paraphrase, but it doesn’t take away from being a good story to play through, and the artistic direction behind the game reflects an approachable experience for all gamers alike.  The characters in the game consist of humans, anthropomorphic-humanoid animal races, and aliens, and the dialog stays informative without getting too cheesy or cartoonish (with very appropriate voice-acting accompaniment).  It’s not a terribly large game in terms of the world it presents or the number of hours required to complete it, but you won’t notice time being much of an issue here due to just how drawn in you get from the unfolding events.  Beyond seamlessly draws you in to the story enough to pull you into each sequence in a way that feels cinematic, organic, and above all, fun.

Here’s a few highlights of what they get right:

For a game from 2003, it still looks great.

For a game from 2003, it still looks great.

1 – The World of Hillys

The environments in this game are great.  There is an overworld you can navigate to reach different landmarks and dungeons represented by various islands and buildings in the game.  Hillys looks beautiful, with sprawling natural environments that are well entrenched with modern architectural elements with a good twist of science fiction that make them coexist without question.  The inhabitants of Hillys feel fresh as well, as you encounter different races and creatures during your journey.  Part of your job as a photojournalist is to document the species you find on the planet as you traverse Hillys – a task that will keep you busy right up to the final stages of the game.  The enemies are well balanced and require some strategy to dispatch, while the boss battles are fittingly challenging and fun.  And the music, my god, the soundtrack goes everywhere from classical and operatic to tropical reggae.  There are songs that will be stuck in your head long after you’re done putting the controller down.  The world of Hillys feels unique and fresh – this is a world worth saving.

There's never a dull moment in Beyond Good & Evil.

There's never a dull moment in Beyond Good & Evil.

2 – Many Mechanics Mashed Into One Title

The game has elements of platforming and environmental puzzle elements that can easily stand toe to toe with Ocarina of Time – it doesn’t get in the way of the adventure but has enough challenges to keep you aware of your surroundings.  The combat mechanics introduced were one of the first to play with crowd-control along the lines of the Batman: Arkham games – attacks were based on enemy placement and direction that you could actively change in the midst of your combos.  Stealth navigation and combat becomes a necessity at times to get through some areas, and it’s done in a way that makes you feel accomplished for getting through it while incorporating it into the story – after all, you’re a photojournalist investigating the government, so sneaking around to gather evidence is almost a must.  Yet to contrast, at times cinematic chases will occur that have you feeling like Crash Bandicoot outracing the rolling rock as you quickly react to the rapidly revealing environment you run through.

Beyond even has a decent racing simulator – as your main mode of transport is a hovercraft.  At certain plot points of the game, you’re required to win races to gain access to resources or environments to proceed – and surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a half-tacked-on gaming element that gets in the way.  The races are interesting and fun, and you’re even able to combat some of the world’s enemies as your hovercraft gets armed with a cannon.  You look forward to these unique sequences not just because it’s a different platforming element, but because they got the mechanic right.  The hovercraft is a liberating transport for you as you explore Hillys’ many nooks and crannies to complete the game.

The game even introduces a non-intrusive inventory menu – one of the first well made “radial” style menus in gaming.  As you acquire items your “Synthetic-Atomic-Compressor” (SAC), which is managed by an AI character named Secundo, scans the item and digitizes it into the SAC.  You can then draw upon these items, ranging from consumables to clues, via your on-screen inventory or within the menu itself.  While the game resembles many “collectable” and “fetch-quest” genres, it doesn’t become an over-encumbering element that keeps you from enjoying the game.  

Much of the game’s collectibles are obtained by simply playing the game’s story and keeping aware of your surroundings, and the game keeps this fun by interweaving a photography element into the main game mechanic.  As mentioned earlier, a game-long quest involves Jade’s documentation of every species she runs across in Hillys – including friends, enemies, NPCs, and a few of the world’s natural animals and insects that you just happen to run across.  Collecting these photographs adds to your photo-journal and rewards you when you finish a roll of film with currency, upgrades, and collectables.  It’s also used as part of the game’s unraveling of information – as your photos inspect elements in the game and reveal to the public your findings along the way.  It’s a unique element that adds to an existing plot without seeming like “yet another thing you have to do” to get through the game.  You find yourself wanting to accomplish the side quests just to see what you find next.

Beyond manages to mash a lot of different elements from many games you’ve played already into an immersive experience that feels unique.  You’ll come out of this wishing more games could implement elements so seamlessly together without feeling like an overwhelmed mess of add-ons.

3 – This Game Works For All Audiences

While rated T for Teen, don’t assume it’s just for kids.  If anything, I feel this adds to its strength as a game that appeals to all gamers of any age or maturity level.  I’d feel happy introducing this game to kids as well as adults – and that speaks a lot to the tone this game was shooting for.  Like a good episode of ANIMANIACS or ADVENTURE TIME, this game has something everyone can enjoy.  The characters and dialog fit their environment without having to talk down or oversimplify what it’s going for.  Your main character, Jade, throws any argument against female protagonists in games out the window – she’s strong, independent, and able to hold her own, all while avoiding the trope of being overly sexualized or stereotyped.  Her emotions and character development are completely justified as we, the player, unfold everything she gets exposed to.

The game’s difficulty scales as the game progresses, and requires the gamer to learn and adapt to the rise in difficulty as the game evolves on concepts it introduces you to.  Maybe the first race you ran was easier, but the final races need you to pay attention and minimize mistakes.  But while the experienced gamer may get through many of these exercises with relative ease, it doesn’t make the game any less fun or a cakewalk task – the difficulty level just feels right at every juncture when the game finally opens up new challenges to you.  By the final battle, you really feel tempered by the experiences that led you here and it leaves you feeling satisfied just before the credits start to roll.

Which leads me to the one thing that bothers me about this game: Don’t stay after the credits.

*AHOY!  THAR BE SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD, MATEY.*

Much like the world of film, I believe a good game should stand as its own title.  It shouldn’t be a lead-in, introduction, or a cliffhanger that forces you to anticipate the next game to feel satisfied in finishing.  And Beyond came so very close to accomplishing this.  Unfortunately, the ending to the game more or less cuts off after the climax of the final battle – there isn’t much resolution other than the brief draw that “well, you did it”, as the credits roll to try and bring us back to what got you here in a medley of the game’s soundtrack, while perusing through photos posted on the orphanage walls.

But then, after the credits, the game just leaves us with a cruel, quick, and suddenly ugly aftermath out of almost nowhere, nearly negating all of your accomplishments and begging us to more or less “stay tuned for Part II”.

*YARR, END OF SPOILERS, BACK TO THE DECK YE SCURVY SCALAWAGS! *

Please, please, please make this a real thing.

Please, please, please make this a real thing.

And this leads us to ask: “Where’s Beyond Good & Evil 2?”

Ubisoft strongly hinted at a sequel in the ending of Beyond, but more specifically they gave gamers an confirmation in 2008 when they formally announced they would be working on a sequel.  And while there have been two separate video teasers released so far that look more like fan-made homages than an actual product, none confirm anything more than a simple far-off wave from the developers, signaling that they know we’re waiting.  Most news on Beyond 2 has been non-existent, suggesting it may never see the light of day, and therefore remains only in the backs of minds of gamers who wait, ever so patiently, for Jade’s triumphant return.

FINAL THOUGHTS –

Beyond Good & Evil holds a very special place in the hearts of gamers who have played it, and with good reason.  If you’re the type of person who thinks The Legend of Zelda is fun, you owe it to yourself to give this game a shot.  It’s still available on a multitude of modern platforms and still feels like it holds its own against games being released today.  This game stands the test of time in terms of story and game mechanic – and few games since have gotten it this right.

You can still find Beyond Good & Evil at retailers or online for the above platforms - either in its original format or an HD Remaster.  It's well worth $15, give or take, if you can find it around that price.

 

CrazyPNut probably owned at least 4 different iterations of Beyond Good & Evil at some point in time in his life.  You can strike up a conversation with him about it on Twitter or Instagram @crazypnut.

 

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