Every now and then Xbox Live’s Games with Gold brings back gems from previous generations. This month, it’s brought us Beyond Good and Evil – Published by Ubisoft for the Playstation 2 in 2003.
Overtime, Beyond Good and Evil has curated quite a following that only seems to grow in numbers. For myself, I discovered the game back in it’s initial release when I was 10 years old. I had gone to a friends house, only to find them engrossed in their TV. They were fighting an armoured beast with a sinister face, who seemed intent on throwing bug-like aliens with glowing guts and claw like hands at you. The girl on screen was kicking and flinging her staff at them, missing almost every hit. It took our pre-teen selves ages to figure out what to do.
I would later learn that this was the final boss, who manipulates the player into turning their controller upside down to fight effectively in a very metal-gear inspired move. I sat and watched my friend play, longing to buy Beyond Good and Evil for myself, to beat up aliens, and to head to the nearest make up aisle and buy myself some sweet green lipstick.
You play Jade, a leather jacket wearing, camera flashing reporter for the IRIS Network; a resistance movement dedicated to shedding light on what they believe is a planet wide alien conspiracy. A 20 year war has been raging across your home planet of Hillys after a parasitic alien race known as the “DomZ” appeared to mercilessly attack every fourteen hours. As such, the peoples of Hillys have developed energy shields to protect them from harm, and a mercenary group known as the “Alpha Section” assume the position of government to fight back against this intergalactic terror.
Though they prove ineffective and, before long, peaceful and unsuspecting citizens have been disappearing and Alpha Section seem powerless to stop it. Cue Illuminati symbol.
The story is, looking back, quite dark for a 10 year old to fall in love with. Government corruption, alien abduction, and betrayal run rampant in the narrative as you dig deeper. Jade learns, not too long into the game, that the Alpha Section are but an arm of the DomZ, corrupted and controlled by them to spread fear, propaganda, and false security to the people of Hillys. Though, you find, the corruption runs much deeper than this, and the atrocities only mount with each hour of game-play.
Despite the heavy narrative, Beyond Good and Evil presents the player with moments of relief and lightheartedness that couple wonderfully with the darkness they break from. Jade makes money from capturing the creatures of Hillys with her camera, and the game provides a picture book for you to catalogue each new discovery. Besides humans, Hillys is home to several anthropomorphic species and alien-like wildlife that you can photograph and collect. In Hillys City, you can enter hover-craft races and play air-hockey. I found myself lost in these small mini games for hours as I wandered the rustically-European streets and gazed up at spaceships. In this, Beyond Good and Evil manages to create a world that feels alive – you pass protesters in the streets who are drowned out by propaganda broadcasts, you meet characters who ignore the war and ones who are consumed by it. It breathes.
Jade in herself, was a big part of the game for me as well. She was the first solo female protagonist I played. It was the first experience I had of kicking butt in lipstick, the first time a woman saved the day. She was created with an everyday, real life person in mind; with her gender never being commented on or questioned, as the game focuses more on her role in the world and her actions than anything else. It’s the same feeling you get playing Lara Croft, one of: “that’s one bad-ass chick right there.”
Going into Beyond Good and Evil now, you can sense the games age almost instantly. It’s almost blocky graphics – which were praised at release – do not hold up well with time. Though the HD release is smoother than the original, you can still see the tell-tale signs of a Playstation 2 game in it’s hard edges and flatter textures. The controls, too, are distinctly ‘old’. The camera sometimes moves itself into strange positions, leaving the room you’re sneaking through hard to navigate. Similarly, the controls are slow to respond sometimes with a few aspects of the game – the hovercraft in particular – becoming frustrating if you don’t have the rose coloured glasses of nostalgia equipped.
With that being said, the game-play is not bad. Combat is generally smooth once you have the lay of the control scheme and there is no delay to health packs being applied or attacks hitting target; as long as the camera co-operates.
Your interface is easy to understand and does not require much explanation, though the games opening does provide a story cloaked tutorial section to help you acquire the basics. Health is displayed by neon light up hearts with top-ups coming in the form of snacks. It’s a simple mash x to attack mechanic most of the time, with not a lot of thought or planning needed in most of the battles Jade finds herself in.
You will, however, need some kind of forethought in the stealthier sections of the game. Early on, the player finds themselves in an Alpha Section facility overrun with heavily armoured guards that will take you down in seconds if you’re spotted. This leaves you with little option but to sneak around, hiding in vents and behind boxes, moving only when the coast is clear. Small puzzle sections crop up every now and then, with story and dialogue woven throughout. It’s simple game-play, nothing overly complicated and no real learning curve to hold you back. Of course, enemies get tougher and new allies join the fight as you progress, but Jade has the same weapon from start to finish. This makes it evident that story and character development drive Beyond Good and Evil more than anything else, with these being the main things that stick with you once the credits roll.
With that being said Beyond Good and Evil was, by no stretch of the imagination, a commercial success.
Published by Ubisoft and developed by Michel Ancel (who brought us Rayman), the game was originally much different to the final product. A poor showcase at E3 2002 lead to several huge changes in he game’s design, story, and characters, leaving it looking like, in Ancel’s own words, “more of a sequel than a reworking” of their intended vision. These changes, along with the general odd concept of the game, left Ubisoft not really knowing how to market it or even how to find it’s intended audience.
Hitting shelves in Christmas 2003 on the same day as Silent Hill 3, Max Payne 2, and several other heavy hitters, caused it’s price to drop by more than 80% not too long after release. Ubisoft’s North America CEO Laurent Detoc said that the release and poor marketing of the game was “one of his worst business decisions” to date. Originally intended to be the first chapter in a trilogy, the poor sales numbers left this idea behind, and Beyond Good and Evil faded into obscurity.
Though with obscurity comes a unique kind of following, with fans passionate and feverish, longing to have more of the world, to find others to discuss the game with. A cult following, if you will. And this following, along with Ancel’s desire to tell his intended story, lead to a sequel being announced in 2008 – which is still yet to be released – and a HD port of the game to both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2011. It is currently available via backwards compatibility and is free on Xbox One until September 1st, 2016.
All of this casts a long shadow over a game that is both beloved and fantastical, an adventure that stands unique to this day, and an experience you do not want to miss out on.