Beyond Good & Evil was a last-gen gem that was critically acclaimed yet criminally undersold. Released in 2003, the game quickly dropped in price because of underwhelming sales but still popped up on many best of the year lists and even on many best of the decade lists. While fans have been crying for a sequel (which was announced in 2008), Ubisoft is giving the original a second chance to garner some commercial success and much needed attention by upgrading its graphics to HD and giving it a very appealing $10 price tag as an XBLA title. So how does the classic game fare after eight years? Let’s take a look.
You play as Jade, a photojournalist who also runs an orphanage on the planet Hillys. The planet, protected by the military organization known as the Alpha Section, is at war with an alien race called the DomZ. The IRIS Network, an underground rebel group, claim that there is a conspiracy and have a suspicion that Alpha Section is willingly working with the DomZ and kidnapping people. They recruit Jade to photograph proof of this, which she agrees to because she can’t afford to run the shield needed to protect the orphanage from the DomZ’ bombardments and needs the cash. And so starts the adventure.
Some of the most enjoyable things about the game are the characters and the setting. Jade is not your archetypal female video game character. She’s down to earth, witty, intelligent and easy to relate to. Besides her green lipstick, she’s also wearing normal clothes that a real woman might wear rather than some skimpy outfit that relegates her to virtual eye-candy for male players. It’s a shame that there aren’t more realistic female characters like this in other games.
As for the setting, Hillys is a gorgeous waterworld with lots of bright colors. Its buildings and structures are fairly basic from the outside but are contrasted with futuristic lights, lasers and rocket cars. Even more charming is that its populace consists of anthropomorphic animals such as your pig-man uncle Pey’j. It’s all very nonsensical and surreal but it’s unique and stands out amongst its peers.
In terms of gameplay, Beyond Good & Evil is a clever mash-up of genres although it’s best described as an action-adventure game with stealth, puzzle, racing and Pokemon Snap-like elements. Let me explain. The core gameplay consists of Jade and her partners (Pey’j and secret agent Double H) traversing dungeons and solving environmental puzzles such as pulling levers and finding keys.
Each dungeon ends with a huge Zelda-esque bossfight but along the way, you’ll encounter several types of enemies that you must defeat by using a single button for melee combat plus a dodge button. It works but the combat is dull and the dodge system feels awkward now. The combat was one of the only complaints in the original game and nothing has changed in that department.
You need to be sneaky when coming up against the stronger Alpha Section guards and there is quite a lot of these stealth sections. The AI feels really dated here and is not satisfying at all to outsmart. If they’re alerted by your presence but can’t find you anymore (usually just by turning a corner and breaking line of sight), they’ll revert back to their posts and continue their route as if nothing happened at all. This wasn’t as noticeable when I first played it but stealth mechanics have advanced quite a bit since then and this is one aspect of the game that noticeably felt like it was made eight years ago.
As a photojournalist, you’re also tasked to take pictures of not only evidence of a conspiracy, but also the various animals of Hillys (hence the earlier Pokemon Snap reference – Gotta Catch Em All!) as an inventory in case they get wiped out by the DomZ. Frank West, eat your heart out!
Hillys is a waterworld and so in between dungeons, you can travel freely in the open-world by the use of a hovercraft. It’s actually really fun to whip around in it but the real fun comes in the form of actual races. These optional side-quests break up the core game mechanics and add some more variety to the already eclectic game, which can never really decide what genre it wants to be (and that’s a good thing).
The game uses pearls like stars in modern Mario games. You’ll need a certain amount before you can buy whatever upgrades you need for your hovercraft to open up the next area of the map and advance the story. You can gain pearls by taking pictures of animals, winning races and doing the many sidequests and activities that are available to you. There are even some hidden pearls that reward you for exploration, which is also a large part of the game.
Along with the stealth and AI, the presentation is also starting to show its age. The user interface in the menus and map is not very good by modern standards. This was one of the first games that utilized a radial menu so being a pioneer that had not yet worked out the kinks, it’s forgivable but a shame that the UI feels clunky. Modern third person games have also ironed out camera issues that many games suffered from and this was one of them. You’ll constantly be fighting with the over-sensitive camera for a better angle. You’ll also often find small areas broken up by loading screens. The loading times are not long but this is an annoying trait of games back then that made its way into this updated version. These are not huge issues when looking at the bigger picture and may have been unavoidable in the porting process but should still be pointed out for people who aren’t used to these older games.
The new HD graphics are also bittersweet. They were considered top-notch when it released but they’re definitely starting to look a bit dated. Especially in close-ups during cutscenes and such, you’ll really notice the lack of detail and flat textures on the characters and environments. That said, the cartoony art-style of the game make this slightly less important and the vibrant colors of the game really pop off the screen in HD. In addition, the lighting was and still is absolutely fantastic and even rivals some modern budget titles. This causes the game to look bad at some times while great at other times but considering this is a $10 download rather than a $60 game, it actually looks very good and fits right at home with some of the better looking titles in the XBLA.
One of the best things about this game when it released was the memorable soundtrack. There are eerie moments in the dungeons, suspense-filled strings in stealth sections, some beat-boxed music in the city, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack in particularly epic moments and headbanging metal or Latin music during the hovercraft races. The sheer variety and quality of the music in this game is really something that needs to be pointed out. And this is in addition to the great voice acting by every one of the characters despite some shoddy lip-synching. Fantastic stuff here in the sound department.
All in all, Beyond Good & Evil was a classic game that got a nice HD treatment for this re-release. I may have pointed out a lot of things that seem a bit dated but this is an eight year old game, what did you expect? This is a game where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The action, exploration, stealth and vehicle sections are not the best in any of their respective departments but BG&E brings them all together into great game that will be loved for nostalgic reasons by people who played it and will also be enjoyed by modern gamers, though they probably won’t understand what all the fuss is about. If you haven’t played this game yet, you now have no reason not to. 800MSP ($10) is a steal for this classic game and it’s never looked better.
Beyond Good & Evil HD was released on March 2nd, 2011.