Created by Michel Ancel, the man responsible for the Rayman franchise, and in development for over three years, Beyond Good & Evil is a sci-fi action game starring a female operative named Jade. Jade agrees to work for a covert group known as IRIS after her home planet of Hillys falls under attack from an aggressive race of aliens. Players must use Jade's skills in reconnaissance to discover the truth behind the alien invasion and the apparent conspiracy by the government to cover it up.
Designed using a custom game engine appropriately entitled "JADE," players can explore their environments however they wish, discovering new mountains, lakes, cities, towns, and even planets while delving deeper into the mysteries of the storyline. The engine was created to bring flexibility to the exploration aspects of the title, allowing the game to dynamically change in response to whatever vehicle or craft players may be using to journey from one locale to the next.
As part of her job, Jade carries with her a camera to take photographs of potential evidence. She must be careful, however, as there are forces that will try to stop her at every turn. Players must learn to wield an aikido staff to protect Jade against enemies, as well as perfect a number of acrobatic maneuvers needed to fully explore their surroundings. Combining elements of stealth, combat, and puzzle solving, Beyond Good & Evil offers an epic story designed to have players questioning the motives and actions of everyone involved in the insidious plot to bury the truth.
I'd like to think that Beyond Good & Evil is what the classic LucasArts-style adventure games could have evolved into. The game tosses together aspects of racing games, platformers, beat-em-ups, and even a Pokémon -esque beast chase into a witch's brew that defies easy categorization. In the end, though, all of these elements combine together smoothly to help players overcome a series of puzzles and obstacles while they work to move forward a cinematic storyline. Whatever you call it, it's beyond dispute that Beyond Good & Evil is one of the best games released in 2003.
Beyond Good & Evil tells the story of a photojournalist named Jade who lives in a lighthouse on a planet named Hillys with her uncle, a humanoid pig named Pey'j, and a group of war orphans. Hillys endures regular attacks by alien creatures called DomZ, and the planet's only protection is the elite military unit called the Alpha Section. Unfortunately, events are not going well for the Hillyans. For all the Alpha Section's bluster, the DomZ's attacks are getting more frequent and people have begun to disappear. After Jade fights off a DomZ attack in the game's opening segment only to have the Alpha Section come in and take credit for the victory, she begins to suspect that there's more going on here than the media, the military, or the government wants the Hillyans to know.
That initial segment launches Jade into a storyline that has her hooking up with an underground rebellion called the IRIS Network. IRIS needs Jade to uncover the conspiracy between the DomZ, the disappearances, and the Alpha Section. If it sounds complicated, it's really not -- certainly not in the way that Michel Ancel, (the developer of the first two Rayman games) presents the world and the storyline. In fact, it's the game's presentation that stands out as its strongest characteristic.
I've always been a strong supporter of the need for better storytelling in games and Beyond Good & Evil is exhibit A for why it's so important. Jade's story isn't terribly complicated, but it is entertaining, filled with enjoyable plot twists and touches on themes of government conspiracy, media manipulation, military corruption, and the importance of family that are both timely and timeless. More importantly, Ancel's script and cut-scenes actually let his characters' -- well, character, shine through. Jade is a remarkably sympathetic and endearing character and her relationship with her uncle/sidekick Pey'j is well constructed. When Jade and Pey'j celebrate after a battle or tease each other during the course of the game, you get a genuine sense of the affection that exists between them -- no mean feat for a digital girl and a humanoid pig.
That sense of atmospheric immersion is only enhanced by Beyond Good & Evil's sound and graphics. The voice over work is stellar. Every actor seems perfectly cast for their particular role. The music is very enjoyable and runs the gamut from gentle New Age ambient tunes to alien rock 'n roll. While the game's graphics certainly won't win any technology competitions and the 3D character models are a bit blockish, that's more than made up for by the sheer sense of style that drips from every scene.
Jade's world is a strange one where sentient walruses, sharks and pigs co-exist with humans. The currency is mystic pearls and bits of life energy, and fantasy and science fiction intermingle. Still, there's no attempt to present Hillys as a realistic alternate world. Rather, like Wonderland or Grim Fandango's Mexican Underworld, Ancel's vision is an enjoyably consistent one that works on its own terms.
Unfortunately, Ancel's delightful stew is not without a few flies. The biggest one is the game's control and camera system. Unlike many games designed primarily for a console gamepad, the PC version of Beyond Good & Evil does an admirable job of remapping the controls for a keyboard/mouse system. However, changing directions while moving Jade on foot or controlling the hovercraft she and Pey'j travel around in feels a bit awkward and sluggish, and the camera can be slow to respond. That's not much of an impediment, though -- the game's pace (even while fighting) is deliberately unhurried. In certain instances, particularly during the hovercraft races, the keyboard/mouse control is actually better than its console counterpart.
The biggest problem comes during the game's numerous stealth sequences. The stealth areas are well designed, not too difficult, and should be enjoyable even for people who normally hate this sort of thing. The problem is that the way Jade sneaks through the Alpha Section will require the player to quickly switch back and forth between a first-person view to shoot her disc weapon and third-person to move. While this is no problem with a gamepad, the keyboard and mouse setup necessitates an awkward combination of keypresses. This, combined with a sluggish camera, means that players may find themselves moving in the wrong direction, unable to take advantage of distractions they've created. It's important to note, though, that this is hardly a fatal flaw. It only stands out because the rest of the game is so well designed.
The other problem is the game's difficulty -- or rather the lack of it. While many games artificially lengthen gameplay time by ramping up the toughness of their enemies to insane levels or including all sorts of optional quests and exploration, Beyond Good & Evil leans a little too far in the other direction. The game's fights, even the bosses, are pretty easy for any moderately experienced gamer. The hunt to photograph every species of creature on Hillys isn't all that tough to complete, and the entire game clocks in at a length of 12-15 hours, assuming you don't rush. Now, I'll always take a short, well-designed game like this over one stretched out with pointless busywork and filler levels. Still, given how much I enjoyed my trip through Hillys, I'd have liked the opportunity to extend my stay a bit.
In the end, though, both the game's control problems and difficulty issues fade in comparison to what the title has going for it. Beyond Good & Evil's great story, endearing characters and exceptional multi-genre gameplay have all combined to give me one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had with any recent game. Traveling with Jade, Pey'j and the charmingly goofy Agent H is a joy, a well constructed adventure that can easily hold its head up with the best that the old LucasArts or Sierra ever produced.
People who downloaded Beyond Good & Evil have also downloaded:
Bermuda Syndrome, Batman: Justice Unbalanced, Grand Theft Auto 2, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Bugdom, Drakan: Order of the Flame, Alone in the Dark 4: The New Nightmare
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