It’s a tale as old as gaming itself. A creative, stylish, and original game comes out that makes critics sing its praises, yet poor marketing or bad timing works against it. These games end up being cult classics that tend to make an appearance whenever conversations occur about great hidden gems. Beyond Good & Evil was one of those games. This delightful title came out in 2003, and released close to Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, SSX 3, and Jax II. No wonder a new IP with a puzzling name got quickly buried, even if Michel Ancel, the brilliant creator of the Rayman franchise, was the creative force behind it. Heck, it was supposed to be a trilogy. Thankfully, the fan voices yelled long enough to be heard and not only is a sequel in development, but a re-mastered HD re-release has made its way onto the Xbox Live Arcade (coming later to the Playstation Network).
The heart and soul of what makes Beyond Good & Evil is the unique protagonist (who is still unique even today over seven years later). When you get past “spunky young lady in green lipstick”, Jade is a complex protagonist to explain. She can perform martial arts moves, backflip like a boss, be witty without being a smart ass, solve puzzles, platform jump, sneak like Sly Cooper, attack from range, and take pictures of everything. She’s like if Batman and Alex Vance had a baby. And that baby had Frank West for an uncle that taught her to shoot a mean camera. And later she went to an adventuring school taught by Lara Croft.
To put a label on it, the game is an action-adventure game with elements of puzzle-solving and stealth-based gameplay. The story is that you live on a planet (Hillys) in the year 2435 and the planet is under attack from evil aliens called the DomZ. Thankfully, you have the Alpha Sections, a group of protectors who… protect the land from the aliens. However, not everyone believes the Alpha Sections are as good as all that and a small group of resistance fighters (called IRIS Network), begin to suspect that the so-called protectors are working both sides of this war. This is when they bring our heroine with the green lips into their circle to help uncover the conspiracy and get beyond good and evil (get the title now?)
The game ends up feeling much like a Legend of Zelda game set in a sci-fi world instead of fantasy. Your companions through your journey are your “Uncle” Pey’j (said like page), a humanoid pig and a Hispanic artificial intelligence on your belt that acts as your digital inventory. Which, by the way, is the most elegant way I’ve ever seen a game explain how one character can carry so much stuff at once. The world is set on an oceanic planet, so you get around on a very fun-to-drive hovercraft.
Combat is simple without being boring. When an enemy is near, Jade will automatically shift into attack mode. She will also often have an AI partner with her that she can call on to perform a special move. This is that rare “good” AI partner of legend, like you find in Half Life 2 or Uncharted. It also makes traveling through a “dungeon” enjoyable as the character banter is quite masterfully crafted. While these partners do have their own health bar, I never had to protect or save them. Why can’t more developers do what an almost eight year old game did?
There are platform sections of the game where Rayman creator, Michel Ancel, shows his talent. The levels have a flow to them that makes you aware of where to go next, without stealing the reward of exploring. Jumping and climbing take the 3D Zeldaroute by being automatic if the character is pushed that way. You will shimmy along narrow ledges, crawl through tunnels, and (yes) push some crates to reach your goal. There are small puzzles here and there, but they are designed well and you can usually ask your in-game companion for a vague hint if you get stuck. As with any game with a controllable camera, some angles can be a problem. This happens a little more in combat but is very minor. Thankfully, this game doesn’t bother with lives or continues and instead has rather fair checkpoints should you happen to be defeated. It does have one of my pet peeves in that these checkpoints start before an unskippable cutscene. Just let us get back to the boss alien creature, designers.
Of course, the only reason I ever had to go back to a checkpoint is the camera system. But that’s a good thing… just wait, I’ll explain. Just like Dead Rising and Bioshock after it, this game rewards you for snapping pictures of the same critters you are fighting. Whenever a new baddie jumps out of the shadows, I pull out my camera. It might sound silly, but it is quite a thrill to be staring in the face of an enormous boss creature and get the camera focused on him before he shoots a lazer beam of death at you from one of his mouths.
The photojournalism jobs will by their very nature contain some undercover work, which translates to sneaky sneaky stealth. Some areas of the game can be completed without fighting and while you aren’t forced into it, it is very rewarding to pull it off. Sneaking past guards and targeting their weak point when their back is turned is a nice change of pace. It can be frustrating to be caught when you are trying to be a spy, but you can usually pull a Batman and duck into the shadows and wait for their short term memory disorder to kick in before trying again.
As with most re-releases, it is important to take into account when the title first came out. For this game it was 2003, and developed primarily for the Gamecube and PlayStation 2 (the Xbox and PC ports came later). This HD version does add a nice bit of polish and smoothes out the rough edges, but at the end of the day this is not a graphical overhaul with new higher polygon count models. Thankfully the game had a unique aesthetic that ignored realism and focused more on presenting a stylized world. The architecture seems inspired by a European Renaissance. The population uses email, digitizers, and spaceships, but the world is inhabited by humanoid rhinos, humanoid walruses, humanoid humans, and, of course, humanoid catgirls. In fact, the only thing to make me very aware this is a game from the last generation of consoles is how the character lip-synching is always a little off. That said, a majority of the animations are fluid and deceptively simple.
The backgrounds and vistas are most impressive, with wide expanses of water and puffy clouds in the sky. Maybe the visuals won’t blow most people away, but it is like a gritty mature cartoon brought to life. It is especially nice that the HD version fixed the pop in issues of the original.
But talking about the visuals distracts from the main reason this game stays with you: the sound design. The voice acting is top notch. Well-written dialogue can only go as far as the actors reading it and they knock it out of the park. They succeed in making the protagonists all the more likable, as opposed to other games where facepalm worthy voices detract from the experience. You will actually care about these characters because the actors sound like they cared. The sound effects only add to the immersion of this world, with many authentic sounding animal noises and the realistic sounds of machines to accompany your explorations.
While on the sound, the best of all is the phenomenal soundtrack. It was always great, but now that it doesn’t have to be compressed anymore it is all the more awesome. Christophe Héral (he’s big in France) was hired to compose the original score, and the range of music covers a wide variety of influences. You have Soviet themes in towns to mirror the oppression and paranoia of the civilians, whereas African and Oriental music is used to emphasize the cultural influences of some of the characters you meet. The best track is the Jamaican beats that play in the black market, populated by Jamaican rhino-humanoid mechanics. Yeah, that just happened. The soundtrack is good enough to own, which is actually easy to do as Ubisoft released the soundtrack for free download when the game first came out.
So is this game worth 10 dollars? Nothing new (in terms of content) has been added to the game, unless you count the achievements. However, everything was originally crafted with care so the game feels a lot more like something that could easily have been created today. Sure, there are a few loading screens between areas, but it's hardly a dealbreaker. The core experience will give you about eight hours of play. But that’s just the main story missions; there are quite a few side quests to embark on too. Hovercraft races, claiming bounties, and tracking down looters can earn you more currency to spend. There are also some fun mini-games to be found in the world. Completing all these, along with getting those achievements, can run you closer to 15 hours. Plus, $10 is what you would expect to pay for a copy of the original game. This is definitely worth the money.
Beyond Good & Evil HD is not a perfect game, but it has more heart and creativity than most modern games. Deep characters you root for, a wide assortment of gameplay, a gorgeous soundtrack, and a mature storyline full of sinister government regimes and good ol’ fashioned oppression. Unfortunately, they just don’t make them like this anymore. Hopefully, this re-release will sell well enough to get fans the sequel they’ve been waiting for.