Beyond Good & Evil is a perfect example of a cult classic. It’s undoubtedly one of the most enduring titles in gaming, one that many people seem to love but no-one actually bought. It’s also a game with an intriguing and slightly tragic legacy; these days it’s perhaps just as well known for having a sequel that seems to be permanently stuck in development hell. Although the sequel (probably) won’t ever arrive, the original remains available to us and is generally considered to be a fantastic title. 20 years on, does it hold up?
Beyond Good & Evil (GameCube, PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Nov 2003 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 11 hours
Our heroic protagonist is Jade, a jobbing photographer who ekes out a living, flitting from freelance job to job on the idyllic planet of Hillys. She, along with her uncle, the mechanically minded pig-man Pey’j, together run a lighthouse out in the waters beyond the city, where they look after a gaggle of children orphaned by the war which ravages the planet. Hillys, y’see, is under attack by a sinister alien race called the DomZ, bone-like beings that descend upon the world to abduct civilians and harvest their life force. In order to protect themselves, the Hillyans allowed a violent military dictatorship called the Alpha Section to take control of their planet, and so live out a existence caught between the tightening grip of the Alpha Section and the increasing attacks from the DomZ.
In response to this, a small cell of Hillyans form a ragtag resistance called the IRIS Network. I love the touch that this resistance isn’t violent, but investigative in nature; the IRIS Network isn’t really staffed by soldiers, but by reporters and journalists, each desperate to expose what they consider a conspiracy that exists between the Alpha Sections and the DomZ. Jade finds herself embroiled in IRIS’ work almost by accident as she is scouted by them; what starts as an innocent mission delving into a local mine left sealed due to recent reports of DomZ soon spirals into a full-blown conspiratorial investigation as Jade strives to uncover the truth that surrounds the Alpha Sections.
One of the great strengths of Beyond Good & Evil, and one of the reasons that it remains a beloved game is its character writing. Beyond Good & Evil keeps a fairly minimal cast; Jade spends a lot of the game alongside only either Pey’j or her IRIS network ally Double H, and as a result most of the dialogue is either introspective or built around bouncing remarks between two characters. Blessedly, the writing avoids the tired tropes and cliches that you might expect from action or buddy scenarios; there’s no snarky quips or wisecracks to be found here. Instead, Jade and her friends react with genuine horror to the crimes they uncover, and often it coalesces into a grim resolve that drives the plot along.
Jade herself is a fantastically written lead, all the more notable for being a sensitively and intelligently written female protagonist from the early aughts. She’s obviously kind, as evidenced by her role as a guardian to war orphans, and this extends into a fierce compassion for those close to her, but the writing staff resisted the urge to reduce her to an overly mawkish or motherly cardboard cutout. She’s elevated by her companions. Pey’j is gruff and rough around the edges, but he complements Jade’s kindness with his own sense of care and duty; Double H, on the other hand, supplements her duty and determination with his own selfless dedication to the cause.
It’s also a game with an astounding aesthetic. In Hillys Ubisoft have crafted a genuinely beautiful world, and I think that shines through despite the limitations of the early aughts hardware. The gameworld is dominated by a wide sea from which rises several island settlements, chief among which is the local city, which is bisected by a double canal, with pedestrian districts off to the side for you to dock at. It’s all very central and southern European in style, with low brick and paving buildings that build up and over one another and tower over you in twisty alleyways and narrow paths. As you wander the streets, a modest crowd of weird and varied humanoids jostle around you, from regal and serene walrus people to the bouncing, unfocused rhino-like mechanics that fix your hovercraft. Posted by entrances, the sinister armoured soldiers of the Alpha Sections keep vigil, offering a curt warning whenever you stray nearby; periodically the ambience is punctured by booming declarations and propaganda by the leader of the Alpha Sections designed to keep the population cowed and submissive. The end result is a rich, Venetian-esque architecture, but one supplemented by bright and reasonable sci-fi elements. I’m a great lover of science-fantasy, and Beyond Good & Evil stands as one of the finest examples of the genre, a creative spark amidst an era of increasingly bland and corporately-designed worlds.
Of course a pretty world is one thing but it’s no good if there’s nothing to do in it. Beyond Good & Evil had a famously stripped-back development, with lots of features planned but ultimately cut by director Michel Ancel in a bid to move it away from what he saw as unwieldy amounts of exploration; instead he attempted to have the game embrace a more commercially-friendly sense of design, which is unsurprising for anyone who have followed Ubisoft’s trajectory into the modern era. The idea that Beyond Good & Evil was reworked to be more mainstream is wild to me given that the game we got totally avoids fitting that mold – instead while it does use some mechanics that are certainly recognisable and easy to get to grips with, it’s both framed by a weird, conspiratorial sci-fi narrative that in no way screams commercially-friendly, and its core gameplay prefers stealth and taking pictures to perhaps more easily accessible things like high-stakes action or gunplay.
The main missions are decidedly stealth-based. Jade is dispatched by the IRIS Network to sites across Hillys in order to investigate the shady goings-on of the Alpha Section, and to bring back photographic evidence of what they’re doing in order to help combat their propaganda and expose their crimes. She’s hardly a match for the entire army though, so most of the time when she’s deep in enemy territory you’re required to approach it quietly, sneaking around below eye level and ducking down into grates or up into vents to avoid the watching gaze of the Alpha Section. Stealth is kept simple, with enemies tending to stick rigidly to patrol routes and with a fairly basic rule of “if they’re facing you and you’re not in cover, they can spot you” – thankfully it’s easy to tell when you need to be hidden thanks to their massive glowy visors. If Jade can sneak up behind them, she can disable guards with a swift bop to the air tank on their back, while a second kick takes them out entirely, so large parts of the game can be attempted totally stealthily, if you’re good enough. I’m not though, so I’m very grateful for the game’s leniency; it’s quite rare that stealth is completely enforced, and in the majority of situations throughout Beyond Good & Evil’s campaign, failing stealth just means you have to throw down.
Combat is pretty basic as well. Jade is equipped with a staff which can be swung about with the attack button; her attack combos start a bit choppy but if you can get off a string of hits Jade starts flipping and bounding about between enemies, which is helpful given that you’re often swarmed. She has a charge attack that has a powerful AoE spread and is designed to push away the hordes of enemies that crowd around you, but it’s a bit too slow and clunky to reliable use; more useful is that you can command your partner to do a ground slam and send all the enemies around you flying into the air where they’re vulnerable to a special driving strike that fires them across the area. A short way into the game you unlock a ranged attack but it’s rarely useful as an attack; for a start it’s too fiddly to use regularly as you need to slip into the camera mode first before pressing a separate input to fire (the amount of times muscle memory kicked in and I took a picture of an encroaching enemy was ridiculously high), but it’s also less useful as an attack and more as a distraction device or for hitting faraway switches.
In what feels fairly typical for this brand of action-adventure, there’s a ton of other gameplay elements stuffed in around the core. Jade pilots a dinky hovercraft around the waterworld of Hillys and it feels inevitable that there are races to be done dotted about the world, as well as the occasional marauding thief that needs to be chased down dangerous obstacle courses. All of these are marred by the floaty controls that you’ll have to wrestle with to prevent the hovercraft from spinning away around corners. The controls also rear their ugly head during the combat sections although once you get the unlockable homing missiles fighting in the hovercraft becomes a little less of a chore. Those don’t make the occasional sequence where you have to lead chasing bombs any better though, or the grind for completing races any less laborious.
There’s also a glorious running sidequest involving Jade’s skills as a photographer. Early on in the game she is contacted by a client who wants her to photograph every animal species on Hillys. This winds up functioning as a lovely distraction alongside the main story as different species are sequestered all over the place; some are easy to find but many require you to trek off the beaten path or solve some minor puzzles to get a shot at spying them. While it seems like an innocuous quest, it’s actually remarkably compelling – not just because it’s worth cash to fuel your rabid scarfing down of health items (well, if you play the game anything like the way I do anyway) but also because it’s one of the clearest avenues for the game to show off its lovely sci-fantasy aesthetic as weird and wonderful creatures poke their heads up and around.
No chat about Beyond Good & Evil would be complete without mentioning the near-legendary soundtrack. In deference to the myriad influences clear in the game itself, the music is in turn an eclectic mix that speaks to the sheer skill of composer Christophe Heral. Take Dancing with the DomZ, for example. It features an ominous chorus performed entirely in the DomZ’s speech, a language constructed just for the game. Fluttering strings underneath the vocals keep the tension high while dark brass pushes the mids, underpinned by a rapid and chaotic drumbeat centred around an electro pulse. The synths are used as a general signifier that our evil alien race is involved in some way. The boss theme Sins of the Father is also built around a thumping synth line and a house beat, and when the growled alien vocals come in it’s hard not to feel like you’re on a trip in a dingy house rave in the slums of birmingham in the 90s (so in that respect job well done really).
In contrast, those same fluttering strings are used to create a bright and peaceful atmosphere to reflect the Hillys that was, before the invasion, and the sense of calm around our hero. There’s also a mild East Asian influence here, heard in the inclusion of the erhu in Shauni, which echoes the visual elements lifted from Chinese culture that can be found peppered around the Hillys town centre. Some is more traditional for western music, such as when the opening notes of the piano melody ring out in Home Sweet Home. You want to just let yourself drift serenely in the Hillys waters, letting the current take you away. It beautifully builds both the atmosphere and the sense of safety in the overworld, which is mostly devoid of threat, although it means when things do breach that feeling of safety it hits all the harder. Naturally, of course we should pay lip service as well to one of the game’s most famous pieces, Propaganda, the inexplicably hype song that only plays in the tiny Akuda bar, which has got a lilting, spinning organ riff that spikes up and around the low vocals.
Despite all this, one fact remains about Beyond Good & Evil and that is simply this: it will never escape its cult classic status. It remains destined to live in a kind of videogame limbo, simultaneously beloved by many for its quirkiness while also both so old now as to be a curiosity that might not be entirely palatable for a modern audience and also lumbered with the legacy of failure attached to its impossible sequel. For my money I still think it’s eminently playable and fun but it is from my era of videogames;
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.