Beyond Good & Evil HD
Eight years ago, Beyond Good & Evil arrived to near universal critical acclaim, across all three major platforms of the previous generation. Despite critics’ initial praise, the game was largely ignored by the gaming populace; nearly a year later, I finally did my part and picked the game up for myself – deeply discounted. Playing it between a handful of PlayStation 2 titles I remember fondly, Beyond Good & Evil was a good game, but it failed to leave much of a lasting impression on me; eight years later, the game resonates much more clearly.
Returning to the now uprezzed world of Hyllis, Beyond Good & Evil HD struck me as one of the more beautiful games of the current generation. Although there have been huge leaps in graphics since 2003, very few contemporary games have crafted worlds this vibrant – save for Ubisoft’s own Prince of Persia reboot and Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which ironically were both commercial disappointments as well. Though small, Hyllis is a fully realized, believable eco-system where wild animals can be documented and biped sharks can challenge you to a game resembling air hockey. Each and every aspect of Hyllis is considered, which makes the world and experience feel very personal; there’s a level of character that feels largely lost in most contemporary retail games.
Speaking of character, Hyllis is populated with real people and factions, which all have their own unique motives and agendas. As an outsider, Jade is indirectly pulled into the ongoing conflict between the DomZ, the Alpha Section and the mysterious IRIS Network, when the orphanage she helps oversee is assaulted during a DomZ invasion. Unlike the stereotypically titillating female leads that gamers have come to expect, Jade is a fully-rounded individual. She’s a confident young woman with a penchant for discovery and adventure, which has led her into the field of freelance photojournalism. Raised by her ‘Uncle’ Pey’j, Jade remains quite vulnerable; without knowing her parents, she still struggles to find her place and purpose.
One of Beyond Good & Evil’s defining gameplay characteristics is its partner mechanic. Throughout most of the journey Jade is accompanied by either Pey’j or Double H, an accomplice she makes relatively early on in the story. What’s different about these AI partners is they don’t serve much purpose from a strictly functional gameplay perspective. They can occasionally stand on pressure plates, help push boxes or lend assistance in combat, but for the most part, they’re simply a buddy, someone to tackle the current, daunting report with. Short, infrequent cutscenes help develop the camaraderie that develops between the trio, which pulls you into the relationships and struggles. This emotional attachment that develops between the player and Jade, and then from player to partner, is what makes Beyond Good & Evil so special, and still very relevant today.
Thinking back, I recall it was the gameplay primarily that led me to the ‘good but overrated’ stance, in regards to the original. While primarily an adventure game, Beyond Good & Evil draws inspiration from many different genres, incorporating light elements of combat, stealth, environmental puzzles, racing and exploration. Of those mentioned, combat and stealth remain the most problematic, with the latter ripe for frustrating any impatient player.
Beyond Good & Evil champions the illusion of freedom, but once you’re engaged in combat that illusion is quickly broken. When an enemy shows up exploration is immediately halted, the camera moves in and attempts to auto-focus on whom it thinks you want to attack. Fighting is relegated to essentially two actions, attack and dodge, but also supplemented by a partner action. The game’s focus obviously isn’t combat and it doesn’t need to be deep to be effective, however, there’s almost no strategy beyond mashing the attack button. Hit detection and feedback are insubstantial, which makes proper use of the dodge button mostly ineffective, especially confined to the finicky combat camera. It feels like something the designers felt necessary, rather than complimentary.
On the other hand, stealth feels appropriate in terms of context but it seems to work in direct conflict with the core design. Predominantly, Beyond Good & Evil is an easy game that no one should have much difficulty completing in a few sittings. For some reason, many of the stealth sections employ an instant fail-state upon detection, which can be an absolute nightmare. Level design is good, clearly showing the intended sneaking direction without babying the player, but at some point you’re going to goof and be seen by a guard, triggering the hovering laser sentry turret to blast you directly back to the last checkpoint. Fortunately checkpoints are frequent enough, but the sentiment created works in contrast to the laid back atmosphere and tone established.
Eight years after its initial release it’s very difficult to approach Beyond Good & Evil HD without some sort of preconceived notion, whichever side you might fall on. Michel Ancel, the original game’s director and the creator of Rayman, crafted one of the finest fictions I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. Thanks to the handiwork of Ubisoft Shanghai, the small but passionate cult following and the burning sting of its original commercial failure, we all have a second chance to reconcile our differences with this flawed masterpiece – I’m glad I did.