Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Beyond Good & Evil Is NOT the Best Game Ever Made

That’s right. I went there.

Maybe no one has ever actually made that particular claim, but it sometimes feels that way. For the past eight years, the gaming press has been wringing their hands about the criminal under appreciation of this game and then raising them to the heavens, imploring God or Michel Ancel (whichever) for a sequel.*

Not overly sexualized
And now that Beyond Good & Evil HD has been released for Xbox Live Arcade, the chorus has started up again:
Michel Ancel’s seminal action adventure remains one of the wittiest, most charming and intelligent games on the market...
Jade [the protagonist] is a brilliant piece of character design; smart, attractive and feminine - but never overly-sexualised...
Console Monster
Beyond Good & Evil is an expert blend of Ocarina of Time and The Fifth Element
AV Club

Your delicious, delicious mentor
There’s an element of truth to that last one, I suppose. The game is too cute by half, which undermines the serious, often dark themes it raises. For example, it opens on a scene of the main character, photojournalist/orphan wrangler/green-lipstick-wearer Jade, doing Tai Chi with a twee goat boy. May lightning strike me down if I’m lying. Also, your mentor is a talking pig. I could go on...

The Zelda series has walked that cute/dark line for a quarter century to great effect, which takes some of the starch out of my criticism. But Zelda was always about fairy-tale problems—an evil wizard repeatedly kidnapping the princess being chief among them.  

Beyond Good & Evil presents a totalitarian government that is using an alien invasion as a pretext to tighten its grip on its own people. That’s an unsettling real-world problem (the government part, not the alien invasion) that I expect to see played out among the blasted cityscapes of Half-Life 2 and not the Tokyo Disneyland world this game occupies.

On the plus side, the game offers a refreshing variety of gameplay within its main story. Jade spends nearly as much time photographing the action as beating enemies over the head. I have to admit that the wildlife photography side quests were a pleasant diversion, if a little confusing in the context of the larger story.

I enjoyed the fact that Jade is primarily a photojournalist and not a steroidal space marine—she fights with a nifty staff instead of a rifle, and some of the most critical missions involve avoiding a fight at all costs. And her involvement with the orphans gives her an immediate stake in the story, so she requires no complicated backstory to nudge her into action.

When she does leap into action, the controls are pretty simple: Hit X repeatedly. In a way, that makes the game almost relaxing, even during combat. It’s a refreshing change from the frantic button-mashing of more recent games, but you lose some of the finer control you normally have. It just takes some getting used to.

Summary

The Good
  • Simple, varied gameplay
  • Engaging side quests
  • Explores darker themes

The Bad
  • Too damn cute
  • Silly high expectations

Recommendation: Play it, either for nostalgia’s sake or to experience something simple and fun (while you’re waiting for Duke Nukem Forever to come out). Just don’t believe the hype and keep your expectations down-to-earth. This is not Ocarina of Time, but it’s a decent game.

Most of my complaints about the game are personal and based on my own evolution as a gamer. I have a harder time accepting a precious veneer over serious topics than I did in years past. At some point, you move past Animal Farm and on to 1984.

I also think this game came out during a drought of good console games, especially for the GameCube, which was my drug of choice at the time. And it’s true that Ubisoft did not put a lot of marketing muscle behind it. All of which has contributed to the legend of Beyond Good & Evil.

When I think of that era, Beyond Good & Evil will always be the game that was released just ten days before Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and was simply lost in that giant's shadow.

* * *
*Good news, fanboys: A sequel is on the way!

Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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