Genre: Action Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 12/10/2003
- Game Cube
- Playstation 2
- X Box
Beyond Good and Evil is four years old now, and it shows in some places. However, the combination of solid Zelda-style exploration, judiciously applied music, and a compelling plot with a legitimately empathetic heroine make this game worth hunting down.
Jazz Riffs on Action Adventure
Beyond Good and Evil debuted during the halcyon days of the PS2, and splashed down in the same holiday season as successful action adventure sequels Jak II and Ratchet and Clank 2. However, despite the superficial similarities to these games that helped secure Beyond Good and Evil’s obscurity, it has more in common in objectives and pacing with the earlier Zelda: Wind Waker.
In Beyond Good and Evil, you guide Jade, freelance reporter, through the futuristic world of Hillys. Much of the gameplay consists of environment exploration with puzzle and resource collection chokepoints, and some light combat to keep the pacing more brisk. That is, on your way to the bottom of whatever cave you’re in, you’ll be interrupted by spatial puzzles, knickknack collection, and occasional rabid fauna. You’ll usually have a party member along; an extra pair of hands for hitting switches (and fauna) with a special ability that reveals enemy weak points.
As the game progresses, Jade evolves from freelance reporter into guerilla journalist. This inevitably results in the oft-lamented action-adventure-stealth segments. For the most part, these amount to skulking from haven to haven and keeping a close eye on the line of sight from patrolling guards. It boils down to stick-and-move gameplay and it gives the game a deliberate (read: slow) pace. This is often a flaw in an action adventure game, but it’s actually advantageous here–slow pacing places a focus on the environment, and that gives the game a chance to do some effective visual storytelling. Alternatively, if you’d rather cut to the chase, Jade can violently disable all of the patrols she encounters, making for a breath of action in the otherwise claustrophobic stealth segments.
What seemed to make Beyond Good and Evil unique for the time was its photography system. Jade earns the necessary currency to buy health expansions and health restoration items by photographing all the fauna on Hillys. Photography ends up a mixed bag. On the one hand, it encourages exploration into parts of the game you wouldn’t otherwise see, and part of the game’s fun comes from getting to know the local fauna and discovering what it takes to get them to pose for a picture. On the other hand, most of the big payoff photos come from hostile critters, which amounts to pulling out your camera when you’d rather be pulling out your stick. Photography makes for an interesting departure from the otherwise unremarkable combat system, but the concept was realized earlier and more fully in other games (like Fatal Frame).
What really made Beyond Good and Evil unique for its time was the integration of a cogent narrative into a remarkably nonlinear gameplay experience. While it’s true that Jade is forced through some gameplay segments for the sake of the story, these segments can only be reached by exploring the greater world map of Hillys. However, access to Hillys unfolds as you accumulate pearls, a collectable trinket that’s always nestled just behind some challenge or another. At any given moment, you’ll be able to obtain pearls through stealth, racing, minigames, savvy exploration, photography, combat, and brute economic buying power. What this amounts to is that you have some power to pick the kind of gameplay you want to use to meet your goals. There’s a limited number of pearls to be reaped from each type of gameplay, but the game offers a lot more flexibility than Ratchet and Clank 2 while giving more of a sense of direction and urgency than Jak II. It’s a nice design decision that keeps the game consistently fun throughout its length.
Hillys: A Tourist Guide
The game’s visual production values don’t hold up as well today as they did four years ago. While the game’s alien world helps obscure the graphical flaws for the most part, Beyond Good and Evil suffers from blocky character models, blurry textures, and even occasionally visible seams between the tiles that form the walls of the world. The game’s cartoony aesthetic helps ameliorate some of that graphical jarring, but it lacks the bold stylishness and coherent artistic vision necessary to really excuse those issues. This isn’t a serious problem for the most part, but the game looks as old as it is. On the upside, the environments are varied and the game’s art direction captures the strange meeting of the wild and civilization that exists on Hillys.
The game’s music and sound are generally a pleasure. Music cues in a largely cinematic fashion, with more ambient sounds in the bridging segments between the action scenes. In a particularly nice section at the beginning of the game, the music actually dynamically bridges from phrase to phrase as you complete objectives, creating what amounts to cinematic music cues contingent on your actions. What’s cool about it is that, when it works just right, you don’t even notice it and the action’s tone just shifts as you act. It’s a trick unique to the medium of video games and it’d be nice to see it more often.
Most of the narrative is delivered through spoken dialog in cutscenes and during the flow of gameplay, and the voice acting is unusually high caliber for gamimg standards. While most of the characters are archetypes, their voices are sincere and lines are delivered confidently and charismatically. Jade, in particular, comes off as a strong, but ultimately flawed, empathetic character. Half-Life 2 fans can think of her as beta version of Alyx Vance. The narrative itself follows Jade as she exposes the secrets of the military presence on Hillys, a nice change from the typical “save princess” and “defeat evil” stories endemic to this genre (though it leans toward the latter late in the story).
Only Child Syndrome
It is a pity that the quality assurance for the sound is flawed. At least on the Gamecube port, the sound can occasionally decouple with the onscreen action and there are intermittent audible artifacts. There were also a few questionable decisions by the sound designers. While character chatter that occurs during gameplay adds considerably to the game’s immersion, accessing the menu or crossing a loading threshold will interrupt the sound byte and it’s lost forever. Getting to know the characters mostly happens in these charming little exchanges, it’s a shame to see them so easily lost.
There’s also at least one showstopping bug in the Slaughterhouse section of the game. It’s possible for Jade’s teammate to disappear in the Slaughterhouse, and saving the game after this happens will make further progress impossible. It’s not a serious problem when forewarned, but alternating between two save slots in the Slaughterhouse is recommended.
It’s easy to see that Beyond Good and Evil was published by its developer. The game’s sound assets and narrative are well above the typical video game benchmark, but bugs mar their presentation. It’s like somebody had a great idea, nurtured it until it was complete, but overlooked some of the simple flaws that keep the game from really shining. The perspective of an external publisher might have provided the motivation to polish the rough spots.
But Not Beyond Evaluation
Beyond Good and Evil is an excellent game wrapped in a few poor design choices and topped with a few killer (if infrequent) bugs. While the flaws make the game difficult to recommend to the casual gamer, hardcore players should be able to overlook the aging graphics and navigate the bugs to enjoy a compelling story and consistently fun gameplay. Genre fans should be aware of the stealth and racing sections, but the game otherwise delivers a fine action adventure experience.
What It Costs: $17.99
What It’s Worth:
- To The Hardcore: $25
- To The Genre Fan: $20
- To The Casual: $5
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