Beyond Good & Evil: The Solid Game with Aging Quirks
I realize that in doing this review in 2009, I'm around six years late to the Beyond Good & Evil review party. Originally released halfway through the last console cycle, the game has most certainly aged. Others have since come along and refined both the action-adventure genre itself and the storytelling methods employed by the video game industry in general. The aging process itself, however, proves to be unconventional, much like the game itself in its obscure heyday. It's still a solid game and worth a purchase if you can look past its faults, but how much enjoyment you ultimately derive from it is akin to opening a time capsule. Beyond Good & Evil is very much so a game which belongs in a different time period and a different atmosphere in general, for better or worse. If it happens to be your first time, be prepared to dive in cautiously and skeptically.
You play the game as Jade, a photo journalist on a planet with war and Big Brother-esque supervision a plenty. Early on in the game, you're clued in to a government conspiracy about who is really allied and against whom and soon afterwards, you join an underground political organization known as the Iris Network, tasked with taking pictures which prove the conspiracy. This is the real crux of the game, as the majority of your time is spent travelling to different locales on various assignments with the intention of having your findings published. Like all good conspiracies, this one penetrates the government deeply, so the further along the plot you are, the more you come across sensitive information that the enemy would rather not have revealed. It makes for an interesting setup and does a good job at providing some immersion into the story.
With that said, the photography portion of the gameplay is extremely simplistic and straightforward. You use a map which conveniently points out the damning locations you need to photograph and then within a few button presses, you take a picture and upload it back to the Iris Network. It's essentially a matter of rinsing, lathering, and repeating after you learn it. Thankfully, you also get to use your camera for some other tasks, too. Sometimes there's an electronic lock whose picture needs to be sent in order to get a code, a procedure which doesn't differentiate from that which has been outlined already, save for what you're needing to depict. You can also take pictures of the planet's wildlife and sentient inhabitants for an archive willing to pay you for the tangential efforts; this turns out to be one of your most major sources of income in the game. Nonetheless, your main concern is the political photographs and while you do take plenty of them, the intervals between each one are thankfully spaced out enough where it doesn't become tedious.
More often than not, though, when you're trespassing government facilities, you're playing the other main half of the game: stealth and combat. Like the photography portion, these aspects are also hardly complex, although this is more to a fault than anything else. The game throws a lot of guards and other enemies for you to get past, but the unfortunate thing is that none of the gameplay here is sufficiently fleshed out enough to make any one way consistently viable. Sneaking around can at times be an exercise in sheer frustration since you're basically limited to crouching and nothing else, making the emphasis on timing borderline excessive. Furthermore, if you get caught and end up in a combat situation, there's almost nothing to the fighting itself. You more or less hit the same button for the entire time, with an occasional dodge thrown in to boot. That works fine for conventional enemies since it's fairly hard to die because of them, but guards are an arduous lot to deal with. There's a specific strategy you need to employ in such instances, but the game leaves it entirely up to you to figure out, as you're only trained on how to incapicitate them before they catch you. This is assuming that you can also fight them in the first place; sometimes the game throws turrets at you which will kill Jade in one hit if she's detected. Until you manage to figure it all out by almost sheer accident, chances are that you may be very eager to have Jade perish just so you can reload back to a safe point and try sneaking again. While the game never presents the fighting as one of its fortes, the fact that it appears so often makes it readily apparent that it could have used more development in order to at least avoid being an annoyance.
Naturally, as with most games of its genre, Beyond Good & Evil has some puzzles for you to tinker with for the duration of the game. While never being particularly hard, the settings and abilities of the characters you partner with at least show that Ubisoft went to some effort to not make the puzzles completely derivative. Nonetheless, when considering how Jade's real life counterparts often have to go through elaborate hoops to do their job properly, it's still disappointing that there isn't at least some challenge present during those times as well.
What Beyond Good & Evil does do well, however, is a set a specific tone that complements the time in which it was released. While the plot and characterization portions of the game leave something to be desired, the game still succeeds at creating a living, breathing world trying to not break from the oppression within it. When you walk the streets of the city, for example, you'll hear references to your own escapades in news flashes and also witness gradually enlarging protests as the citzens become more and more informed. There is also something to be said for the way in which the game depicts Jade's role as a photojournalist, forced to take objectionable pictures without interfering, a moral quandary which is occasionally commented upon after specific moments. It sets a mood that, while not perfectly implemented, does manage to lead you to be contemplative at times. Unfortunately, the game world itself is really small, leaving any desires to do some serious exploration outside of the few frequented locales to go unfulfilled.
From a technical standpoint, Beyond Good & Evil is definitely a game from 2003. The visuals, while still competent-looking and stylish, aren't particularly mind-blowing either. Likewise, the soundtrack is well-composed with pieces that often set the mood appropriately, but they never especially go out of their way to really move you. The sound design also falls into that same classification. If there is one quirk which should be pointed out, however, it's that the controls in the PC version aren't the most intuitive. While it's easy enough to adapt to them, the sometimes wonky camera control assigned to the mouse, coupled with a bizarre keyboard and mouse button-only menu navigation system, make the game feel as though it wasn't especially designed with the platform in mind. Nothing is broken, but there are certainly some precedents from the game's own genre off which it might have greatly benefitted from cribbing.
In the end, it all comes to down to context. If you can go into Beyond Good & Evil with an understanding that both the gameplay and thematic commentary belong to an era which passed six years ago, then you'll be able to appreciate the game for what it is: a thoughtful, if nowadays underwhelming work. However, if you can't see yourself getting past the dated mechanics and Bush administration-derived political undertones, then you can safely pass it. Beyond Good & Evil doesn't have its pedigree without reason, but the reality is that seeing it for yourself as a first-timer today has the potential to be a difficult task. It's certainly possible, but the world, both in reality and in games, has changed a lot since then and Beyond Good & Evil is hardly reflective of the times.
Ok, let me qualify my comments by saying that Beyond Good & Evil is the first third-person action / platform game I have played in a LONG while. Furthermore, I am a complete first-person adventure / shooter addict. That being said I REALLY liked this game! The story and characterisation are spot on and the game world it just superb. The fact is that I spent most of my time wishing that more first-person games had this sort of imagination! I know, I know, they are completely different ...
It takes a great deal to stand out in today’s video game market, but Beyond Good and Evil from Ubisoft achieves this status through a combination of charming characters, strong storyline, and highly engaging environments which make it the best action-adventure since Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The protagonist for the story is Jade, a young aspiring photojournalist who along with her inventive man-pig uncle Pey’j live in an island lighthouse serving as caretaker for a group of orphans...
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