There are games that get lousy reviews because they are simply lousy games. Then there are games like Beyond Good & Evil... games that get lousy reviews because they should have been so much more. BG&E aspires to greatness. It steps up to the plate overflowing with confidence and promise. Then it swings and misses.
Technically, it's tight. The game does a great job at creating atmosphere, has some great art direction, an interesting backstory, looks and sounds wonderful. The controls may seem a trifle inexact, but they're mostly fine. A perfectly workable game in all respects... that just trips over its own good intentions.
There's going to be some big spoilers discussed later on, so if you don't want the game wrecked for you, I'll send you off with this. Go get it, it's 20 frickin' dollars brand new. Yes, brand new. BG&E sold so poorly during the holiday season of '03 that Ubisoft dumped the price from $50 to $20. (Of course, if you're reading this review from the future, it's probably already in the $10 bargain bin. Or maybe you're emulating it on your Sony Game Boy 2010 EX.) It's short (about 10 hours), but it's worth a play. Especially at $20. That's a crazy price for a supposed upper-tier game that's only a couple months old... perhaps this is a window into just how much video games are marked up.
In Beyond Good and Evil, you are freelance photographer Jade. Actually, the game insists on calling her a freelance reporter, which is just stupid, considering that she runs an orphanage. That strikes me as two professions that would be extremely hard to dovetail. BG&E comes from the French designer of the Ray Man series, so maybe it's a translation error. Or perhaps the whole "action reporter" thing is just a marketing ploy. The upshot is, she's pretty much a photographer, not a reporter.
Jade's orphanage (which is pretty swanky; it's a lighthouse) is on the planet Hillys, which is currently under regular attacks by the alien DomZ. (Pronounced like multiple Mr. DeLouises.) The DomZ are constantly invading, shooting up the place, and kidnapping natives. For protection, the Hillyans have giant shields erected over their cities - which may or may not work - and an aggressive military force called the Alpha Sections. Jade's partner at the orphanage is her "uncle" Pey'j, a pig.
Sidenote: Hillys has several different anthropomorphic animal species, including goats, sharks, walruses, pigs and cats. I like to think of it as a war-torn futuristic Animal Crossing. Pey'j being an alien-pig-man isn't just some one-off gag; he's part of Hillys's cultural tableux.
The game begins with yet another DomZ attack, this one on the lighthouse. The protective shield is down (they mention that somebody forgot to pay the power bill, which I find so pathetic that I'm going to ignore it) so Jade has to fight the invaders herself. This is the tutorial section. After Jade has dispatched the DomZ, then the Alpha Sections show up... and Pey'j is obviously suspicious that they were too late to help. Jade then gets roped into taking pictures of local animals to make money for the orphanage... and that quest leads her into investigating the Alpha Sections and stopping the DomZ menace.
I'm going to stop right here and point something out. It is apparant from scene one that the Alpha Sections are not there to defend Hillys and are, in fact, a front for the DomZ. The Alphas have dark, monster-like armor. Their leader (seen on looping television broadcasts) is bald and has piggy eyes and bad teeth. If there is any doubt left in your little head that the Alpha Sections may be evil, take a look at their logo:
You don't need four years of design school to know that's an evil logo. That is not an organization that's out to ensure a peaceful and benevolent society. That is the goddamn Third Reich.
This is a great example of where BG&E fails. For all the sumptuous plot presentation, there's just nothing surprising there. The Alpha Sections are evil. No fucking shit. That logo was so blatant that I spent the entire game hoping it was a fake-out, and they'd turn out to be good in the end. No such luck. Maybe they were planning a sequel where the plot truly thickens, but with crappy sales I doubt that would ever happen now. But it would explain why the game is so short.
The gameplay is varied, but there's simply not enough it. There's combat, there's exploration, there's room puzzles, there's photography, there's hovercraft racing, there's spaceship shooting... which is all great, except that it's so short. Ratchet & Clank 2 has most of that stuff and quadruples it, plus has replay value. BG&E suffers from a lack of substance.
Take the main city area, for instance. Once you drive in on your hovercraft you see a busy main street. Looks very nice. Lots of details, lots of boats and ships zipping around. But it's only one street long. If you make a right, you leave the hovercraft and enter a new walking area. If you keep straight you enter a new outside hub area. That's it. All that life and splash... with barely anywhere to go.
Then there's the pause screen, which gets you into your inventory and maps and such. First of all, the layout is overly complicated... it's arranged in a circle and navigated by rotating the analog stick. And, aside from checking the level map, it's almost completely unused. You can buy health-ups, but you can eat them from the main screen. You can trade life upgrades between Jade and the supporting characters, but you don't really need to. Once again, it's design over purpose.
Let's look at the bullet points on the back of the box.
"Battle ruthless enemies with punishing martial-arts"
Okay, I liked the fighting. When Jade runs into baddies, she pulls out her staff and goes into combat mode. This means she locks on to the nearest enemy, so her movement restricts to circling around it. The auto-lock-on works well enough, although it is possible to confuse yourself if there's a lot of enemies around. But, there's no martial arts here. You whack the A button and Jade does the rest herself. She looks great, and has some great backflips and dodging animations, but you have very little control over that. Holding down the A button charges up a big energy attack, which usually resolves in a cool slow-motion sequence.
That's another thing I liked. The game isn't afraid to create drama by letting you trigger slo-mo combat animations. This first occurs in the tutorial bit, and I have to say I was really taken with how a simple slo-mo effect altered the redundant button-mashing. Another use of slow motion actually has a gameplay purpose. If you're battling baddies who can be sent flying like a baseball into the scenery, combat will slow down to give you time to aim. Nice touch.
So, combat is pretty cool. Especially once you get the hang of dodging enemy attacks and responding with a big smack while they're eating the dirt where you used to be standing.
"Infiltrate and investigate to expose your government's lies"
Okay, you have a camera, right? Most of the levels require you to take a picture of something bad deep inside the level. Your pictures (and it's only one to three per level, which is lame) get sent to the resistance and published in an anti-government newsletter. But remember, it's so sadly obvious that the Alpha Sections are evil that Jade's missions seem like busy work. Right, I took a picture of the Alphas transporting kidnapped humans to the DomZ... and this is a surprise? They're goose-stepping all over town and broadcasting Mussolini speeches. Your average Hillyan walrus-man might not pick up on the subtleties there, but any player will. And it's the players that need to be convinced in order for the game to be believable... not the NPCs.
I was expecting more... maybe a system where the quality and content of your photos would increase/decrease public opinion levels. Or maybe kidnapping an Alpha bigwig and eliciting a confession. Or stealing physical evidence. But no, all you do is take a couple snaps. The entire underground movement hinges on about six photographs.
The only other photos you take are for completing your Pokedex. Er, I mean, completing a visual record of Hillyan fauna. It's a nice spin on the tired old "collect 50 blue jewels" kind of crap. I like photography stuff in games, especially when it adds a first-person dimension to a third-person game. So I'm giving BG&E a pass on the patently silly notion that an undercover reporter would find time to take pictures of local animals.
As for infilitration, there is a fair amount of stealth required. So that means using the crouch button and planning your attacks so as to take out the Alphas with minimum noise and time. Prepare for lots of rooms with patrolling Alpha soldiers, and you have to figure out how to cross through them. This can be fun - especially once you start shooting batarangs into their life support tanks - but many of them have this nasty Instant Death Laser that kills you if you get spotted. It's an ugly way to force you into being stealthy (and perfect), rather than letting you choose how you want to get through it.
"Explore the unknown to unveil a grand conspiracy"
This is where Beyond Good & Evil oversells itself. The "grand conspiracy" is obvious from reading the damn box.
Here's what should have happened. BG&E needs about ten hours of gameplay before the existing game starts. The game should go to every effort to convince you to trust the Alpha Sections, and let reveal them as traitors midway through. The Alphas should be led by a smooth and handsome general, not Solomon Freakin' Grundy. Hillys's governor should initially work against you (thus casting suspicion on her) instead of just handing out secret passwords as soon as you talk to her.
As it stands, the "conspiracy" is painfully simplistic. The resistance looks like idiots because they have to get an orphanage mistress/freelance photog to help them. And there's just too much Deus Ex Machina... oh, Pey'j just happens to have been hiding a starship, revealed just in time for you to fly to the DomZ base on the moon! Come on. There are a couple plot points that work, but they're unfortunately balanced on the lame house-of-cards setup.
"Fight alongside courageous sidekicks"
You guessed it, one of them is Pey'j. The only other one is Double H, one of the resistance fighters. Several good points here: they will offer hints to keep you on track, and they're helpful in combat. Both of them have special abilities that you can call for in battle... Pey'j does a bouncing trick that bumps baddies into the air so you can whack 'em proper, for example. The sidekicks will follow you wherever they can, stay behind when the game wants you to be alone, and get used in puzzles that require two people.
After my initial misgivings, I began to like Pey'j. Fart-boots notwithstanding. But Double H is an absolute character design embarrassment. He's supposed to be the underground's best operative, but he looks like a retarded linebacker. And he talks in an annoying hero-cliche voice. Why did they do such a great job making Jade sound realistic, with superb voice work and reasonably smart dialogue, and then chain her to a Dragnet stereotype with a mob goon's body?
Again, for a while I hoped that Double H's loutish appearance meant that the underground was actually the bad guys, or at least Double H was a stand-in or a spy or a mistake... but nope, he's the real deal. I was so suckered by the early glowing reviews and the press release hype that I was desperate for the game to live up to the multi-layered, complicated plot I envisioned.
That's what pisses me off the most about Beyond Good & Evil. It should have been so much more. There's a ton of potential here - a solid control system, good integration of mini-games, an intriguing gameworld - but it is blown apart by a dopey plot and too-short play time. I'm glad it was only $20, because in an aisle with Wind Waker and Metroid Prime and Eternal Darkness, this one only barely competes.
A game called "Beyond Good & Evil" should be about the relative nature of good and evil. It should be demonstrating that those terms are derived from one's own perspective. It should be sending us on a confusing and conflicting plot, where everyone is pointing fingers and you don't know who is telling the truth. It should require active thought as you talk to the characters, looking for slip-ups and clues. Instead the game is a paint-by-numbers adventure with a decidedly boring "Don't Trust The Media" theme.
I warned you at the beginning that this would be harsh.
Beyond Good & Evil: not a bad game - in fact, it's completely worth your time. Just don't expect anything near the hype.
Five Things That Don't Suck About BG&E
Just so I don't sound schizophrenic for recommending a game and then tearing it apart, here's five things that I really liked about Beyond Good & Evil.
1. You're going to hear people talk about the platforming elements to this game. I would not call it a platformer at all, although one levels does consist of floating conveyor belts. The mitigating factor is that there's no jump button. Jade jumps by herself whenever she needs to, removing the stressful will-I-make-it tension of any true platformer.
2. Good use of slow motion. I guess this could be construed as a Matrix nod, but it's really just plain old slow-motion, sometimes viewed from a different camera angle. There's no silly contorting and posing (as least, not any more than usual for an action-adventure video game.) When it happens, it adds gravity and drama to your fight sequence.
3. Details. Even though the game is short, the developers spent time throwing in little details. Like the regularly updated radio and tv broadcasts, or the growing throng of townspeople protesting the Alpha Sections.
4. Chase scenes. At a couple key points, Jade will hit a forced-scrolling section where she's being chased by something. One really memorable sequence has her jumping over rooftops with Alphas in hot pursuit. That whole part looked so cool, with guns blazing and things exploding and Jade leaping, that my wife thought it was a cutscene. These are a great antidote to all the drawn-out sneaky bits.
5. The BG&E website. Not only does it have faked mini-sites run by the Alpha Sections and the lapdog media Hillyan News, but you can play a web-based secret mission that results in a password for a unique item back in the game. It's a cool way to extend the game's reach into our reality.
Sometime during development, Jade got a character makeover. Initial screenshots showed a younger, perhaps a less serious, character. The new version made her a little older, with less anime styling. Judge for yourself which is hotter.