My Christmas present to Jordan was Ubisoft’s 2003 game Beyond Good and Evil. It remains one of my favorite video games and one of the few that can hold my interest well enough to make me want to play all the way through and even replay. Warning: this review contains major spoilers.
This third-person adventure takes place on the archipelago planet Hillys, under attack from aliens called the Domz. The Alpha Sections, an elite branch of the army, are supposedly protecting the Hillyans. But when the hero, Jade, gets contacted by the rebel Iris Network to help them investigate a series of kidnappings that are going on amid the chaos of the Domz attack, it falls to her to find out what the Alpha Sections are really up to.
Like a predecessor to Portal, Beyond Good and Evil explores gameplay oriented towards women without being oriented towards casual gamers. Jade has a little midriff showing, but no cleavage, and her body is proportioned like a normal human being. She, along with her porcine uncle Pey’j, lives in a lighthouse where they take care of orphans–thereby extinguishing the moral relativity of the title. Her main role throughout the game is as a reporter, taking pictures for the Iris Network to publish in order to prove to the Hillyans that they’re being deceived by the Alpha Sections. Jade does fight things with a staff, but her most powerful weapon is her camera.
Speaking of her camera, the most fun and unique element of the game is how Jade makes money. Killing things? Not usually. Breaking open inexplicably money-filled crates? You can, but it’s not very lucrative. Petty larceny? Only a few times against the Alpha Sections. No, the main way you make money is by taking pictures of all the animals on the planet in order to help the science center compile a database. You start with humans and the various anthropomorphic species on the planet, but work your way up to trickier animals that are puzzles in themselves to find. There’s whimsy in the design of the mostly-invertebrate species. For instance, in one room there is a box with a stream of bubbles coming out from behind it. You can’t see behind the box, but when you shoot it with your disc shooter, the stream of bubbles moves to another box in a different corner. You have to shoot the box and then quickly take a picture of the animal as it hops to the other box. The creature’s name? Timorea Saponifera: timid soapy thing. Jordan and I were also laughing at Blabera Gregaria, a “very greedy insect” that you catch by putting a piece of food in a cabinet and then taking a picture as the insects come out and carry it off. Picture taking is a great solution to a frustration I’ve faced in other games: wanting to interact with the world and the animals without just killing everything.
The gameplay is interesting and varied, managing to exploit a simple system of controls to place you in a wide range of situations: combat, stealth, puzzle-solving, racing, and so on. Jade’s combat is wonderful to watch. All you ever do is point and click, and she goes through a series of kicks, spins, backflips, and jumps that make you feel like a brilliant martial arts master. The puzzle segments are long, but they’re varied enough (sneaking past Alpha Sections, riding conveyor belts, and the inevitable Crate Expectations) that they don’t get boring. Nor are all the puzzles as simple as “find a way to get to the other door.”
For example, the third hovercraft race seems impossible. It’s easy to come in second, but Rufus, the champion, will always be ridiculously far ahead. Outside of the race, you can find Rufus (a humanoid shark) in the bar. He won’t talk to you, but he will move his hand to cover up a slip of paper with a code on it. The code unlocks his room in the bar, which contains some hovercraft speed boosts. You don’t need the speed boosts yourself–you can find or buy them in many other areas–but once you take them, Rufus gets slower and it’s possible to beat him.
One of the most clever parts of the game design is the combination of linear and sandbox elements. Any game with a plot, like this one, must find a way to make you go through the story in the proper order, but this can get frustrating for players, as with the endless series of quests you’re made to undertake to get into the Blacklake District that made me lose interest in Neverwinter Nights 2. Beyond Good and Evil controls where you can go two ways. First, you need passes to get into certain parts of the city; you collect these passes on your quests. Second, you buy upgrades for your hovercraft that allow you to get to different places, and completing each quest gets you the money you need to buy the upgrade to get to the next quest site. In between, there are plenty of places you can explore in any order you want. The illusion of being a true sandbox game, combined with the short game time (it took us 15 hours at a leisurely pace), kept me from having any frustrated moments of “Why can’t I go through this door yet?”
Hillys itself is beautiful and immersive. The seascapes are drool-worthy. You’re free to explore by foot or hovercraft, and you’ll definitely want to. You can even use your camera to take personal pictures. Music is another highlight, capturing the emotional highs and lows, the fast-paced fights and slow-paced stealth. Some of the songs, like Propaganda, and the races, are downright catchy, too.
The AI is better than many games, so the people wandering around seem like actual people going actual places for a reason. Your cute-as-a-button orphans, for example, will lie down on their beds, watch TV, and go outside to play. Combined with well-written dialogue, the game makes you actually want to talk to people instead of just clicking through their speech bubbles until they give you the next quest already, and it builds emotional content so that you feel like the people of Hillys deserve to be protected. The moment when your lighthouse gets destroyed and the children kidnapped is genuinely sad.
The AI also shines with your allies, Pey’j and, later, soldier-spy Double H. They make themselves useful and, more importantly, aren’t constantly getting themselves into trouble by walking off cliffs and getting attacked by monsters (Jordan did manage to make Double H miss one jump that you aren’t supposed to be able to miss, requiring a game restart, but it was only once). This allows you to actually start caring about your allies. I’m also glad that the expected romantic tension between Jade and Double H is completely absent: he’s likeable, but a little too stupid and goofy for that. His special power is ramming through steel grates with his helmet, for instance.
Finally, the cutscenes merge seamlessly with gameplay, as you’ll discover immediately when the intro ends segues abruptly into a fight. Since the game beckons you to emotionally invest, the cutscenes feel welcome instead of dreaded (“I’ve stumbled into another wild cutscene!” was a frequent complaint when I was playing Neverwinter Nights 2, where you’ll sometimes have to wait through multiple cutscenes in a row). They’re also short and not too frequent.
Beyond Good and Evil was a commercial failure upon release and remains little-known to this day, but it was well reviewed and has developed a loyal fan base that currently waits in eager anticipation for Beyond Good and Evil 2, currently in preproduction with an uncertain future. If the sequel is better marketed, perhaps this excellent title will finally receive the recognition it deserves.