A spunky war photographer with green lipstick and sensible clothes, and her anthropomorphic pig uncle were the unlikely heroes of one of 2003’s best games — Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil from French game designer Michel Ancel.
Despite critical adulation, this gem of game sank without a trace during a busy Christmas retail season and never grew beyond a cult audience. But the market that passed over Beyond Good & Evil first time around has been given a chance to redeem itself, thanks to a new high-definition makeover for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 online services.
Most games age badly, but Beyond Good & Evil retains its charm seven years after its original release. In a gaming market stormed and captured by gruff, humourless space marines, its quirky world and eccentric characters are perhaps even more appealing than they were in 2003.
By today’s standards, Ancel’s design for this action-adventure title still feels visionary. Though the game has some obvious reference points — notably, Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games — its idiosyncratic visual design, storytelling and characters set Beyond Good & Evil apart from most other third-person action games.
Beyond Good & Evil draws together elements such as third-person melee combat, hovercraft races, gambling mini-games, stealth, puzzle-solving and exploration. But summing up the game’s base mechanics does it no justice. Taken on their own, they may seem slight and underdeveloped, though they all play smoothly.
The magic lies in the way that the disparate elements mesh together to create a memorable experience in a detailed game world crammed full of subtleties and secrets. And what a wacky and rich game world it is – like an absurd blend of William Gibson, Hayao Miyazaki and Nintendoland.
It’s a place where post-9/11 paranoia jostles for room with talking bipedal sharks, rhinos and cows; where the mundanity of e-mail, newspapers and credit cards nestles alongside space monsters and sentient artificial intelligence.
The game’s heroine, Jade, is an every person, a strangely human character to live in such a bizarre fictional universe. Brave and resourceful, yet vulnerable, she is one of the most relatable videogame characters ever created. And not for her the chest-crushing tank tops, outsized guns and even bigger mammaries that most female game protagonists take into their fights against hordes of zombies and monsters.
The story of government conspiracy and propaganda that unfolds around Jade is engaging throughout the 10-15 hours it takes to complete the game, with poignancy and humour shining through in the writing and visual design. Though the plot unravels towards the end, the game manages to unify gameplay, game world and story in a more seamless way than have many recent games that tried so hard to be cinematic.
Beyond Good & Evil’s stylised visuals have aged gracefully even if the game doesn’t feature the graphical flourishes found on newer titles on the high-definition consoles. Ubisoft has spruced up some of the texture work and cleaned out some of the technical problems that dogged the original game, including the ugly texture pop-in and occasional frame-rate issues.
Equal care has been taken with the remastering of the sound. The voice acting is pretty good by today’s standards and the original soundtrack is one of the best ever put together for a videogame. Ranging from menacing hip-hop growled in Bulgarian and ominous instrumentals to toe-tapping Latino rhythms and mellow Rasta sounds, the music brings plenty of atmosphere to Beyond Good & Evil.
All we have seen of a sequel all these years later is a brief, tantalising teaser released two years ago. But Ubisoft has hinted that strong sales of the high-definition remaster could convince it to move more aggressively into production mode on Beyond Good & Evil 2. Buy Beyond Good & Evil HD and help make the gaming world a better place. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Available now for Xbox 360 on the Xbox Live Arcade service; coming to PlayStation 3 via the PlayStation Store later this year