Monday, April 15, 2013

Beyond Good & Evil (Ubisoft, 2003)

After playing through Ico, I was curious about other games that might have slipped under my radar. I remember a year or so ago when I was eagerly awaiting the release of Darksiders II, I went online looking for games that were also heavily influenced by The Legend of Zelda. Most of them were games I already knew about: Okami, Landstalker, Darksiders, Neutopia, StarTropics, great original games often brushed aside as "Zelda Clones". But then there was Beyond Good & Evil. Somehow I had never heard of this one. I added it to my wishlists on both Steam and GoG, and patiently waited for it to go on sale. At some point it finally did, and I happily purchased it, yet it sat in my ever growing list of games to play for a while. After finishing Ico, it was finally time to give it a spin.

I should start out by clarifying that even though Beyond Good & Evil is clearly influenced by Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, it is far from a standard Zelda clone. For the most part it plays more like a traditional RPG than any of the Zelda games, with a strong focus on speaking to various NPCs and following clues rather than the standard "go to X dungeons and collect all of the magic foo!" quests. On the other hand, the game is much more linear than most RPGs, and the gameplay is more action oriented, so it exists in its own space somewhere in the middle. This somewhere in the middle style might have been what led to disappointing sales when Beyond Good & Evil first launched. It never really found its audience until years later when people started to regard it as a classic. Recently it has been re-released in an enhanced HD version. I didn't have that one, so instead I played through the original 2003 version.

The gameplay overall incorporates many different elements from a variety of genres. You get stealth missions, vehicle races, puzzle solving, aerial combat, and even some platforming. The game is a jack of all trades, and while it doesn't quite master any of them, it manages to pull most of them off surprisingly well. The mechanics do feel a little awkward at times, and there are several signs of lack of polish. The camera sometimes clips through objects. Transitions between regions often show your hovercraft crashing into walls. NPC companions tend to get in your way more than they should. Saving your progress involves sitting through slightly excessive animation sequences. This game came out a decade ago, and really tried to reach beyond what games were doing at the time. Somebody at Ubisoft must have been feeling extremely ambitious when this game was designed. Luckily, what the game got right more than makes up for what the game got wrong.

Similar to Zelda/Metroid style games, Beyond Good & Evil is set in a somewhat open world, with most sections blocked off until certain keys, items, or vehicle upgrades are acquired. The game is set on a mostly water based sci-fi world, and an upgradable hovercraft is used to travel between the various islands. These upgrades are all purchased at the same shop using pearls that you collect throughout the game. This makes it feel a bit more arbitrary and less like a natural progression than what you get in most of these types of games where you find the objects along the way, but it serves its purpose well enough, and actually makes a lot more sense from a story perspective.

The game is broken down into a handful of large dungeon-like areas, with side quests and RPG style gameplay in between. It's not uncommon to have an action or combat sequence in the middle of an otherwise peaceful and safe area. Sometimes, progression on the main quest is only possible by purposely failing a side quest in interesting ways. An element that I found refreshingly original about the game is that even though there is plenty of combat and item collecting throughout the game, the main point of each mission isn't to collect ancient relics or destroy the bad guys. You're main mission is to photograph important evidence. You play as a photo journalist turned resistance fighter trying to expose a conspiracy. This doesn't mean that there aren't boss fights however, but your mission is completed when you get the right photos, and the boss fights are simply story elements that stand between you and your destinations.

The side quests in the game are varied and plentiful. There are heavily fortified bases to sneak through to collect better equipment or other items, hovercraft races to earn extra pearls, caves to explore, even an air hockey style game you can play in the bar. One of the more interesting side quests, and your primary source of income early in the game, is photographing the planet's wildlife. At the beginning of the game you are tasked with photographing every species of creature in the game, NPCs, enemies, bosses, or even just random aesthetic flavor animals. Each one you get a picture of rewards you with cash, and finishing an entire roll rewards you with a pearl or an equipment upgrade.

I've mentioned taking pictures as part of missions, but the in game camera has other uses too. Equipping it puts you into a first person view allowing you to get a better view of your surroundings. It can also identify certain objects which helps you make sense of some of the futuristic areas you'll venture into throughout your journey. In combat it's used as a way to aim projectile weapons. On top of all that, you have a number of slots for personal photos, so you can take a picture at any time of anything in the game and it will save it to one of these personal photo slots that you can look at later.

The combat in the game is fun and straight forward, and reminded me of a simplified version of the Ocarina of Time combat system. For the most part, there's a single attack button to swing a baton-like weapon at enemies. Later in the game you gain the ability to fire projectiles, and you're generously given unlimited ammunition. As simple as the combat controls are, some of the enemies require special strategies. Some of them must be hit in the back, others can only be defeated by knocking them into environmental hazards. You also are always accompanied by at least one NPC companion who will assist you in battle. Some special attacks require teamwork between the two of you.

Because I've so recently raved about the great automatic camera in God of War and ranted about my annoyances with the automatic camera in Ico, I should mention my thoughts on the Beyond Good & Evil camera system. Back in 2003, the industry norm was still transitioning from the automatic camera to the manual camera control. As Beyond Good & Evil strives to be all things, it attempts to combine both methods. And, as with the rest of the game, it works great most of the time, but at times it falls short. As with most modern games, you can directly control the camera to orbit around you and let you see in the direction you choose. This lets you examine your surroundings and figure out the best path toward your goal. If you run along through the world, the camera will find its way behind you to give an over the shoulder view. While sneaking through tight corridors, the camera will snap to interesting angles giving you an appropriate view of important elements. The problem arises at points when you are controlling the camera manually, yet it still snaps to a new angle on its own. There were times during some of the stealth missions where I would sneak quickly into a room trying to get past a guard before he turned around. As soon as I would enter the room, the camera would snap to a new angle, also orienting my controls to the new angle. This could cause me to accidentally run back the way I entered, run into a corner, or run directly into the guard. It doesn't happen often enough to ruin the experience, but it does happen often enough to be noticeable.

The tone of the story is much deeper and darker than the cartoony art style would suggest. Everything has a very Pixar style look to it, and the majority of the cast consists of anthropomorphized animal people. It's a story of government conspiracies, child abductions, competing propaganda, alien invasion, and hidden agendas. The story holds together well despite being told through rastafarian rhinoceroses and a grizzled old pig man. There are funny moments, there are sad moments, there are exciting moments. It attempts to pull you through a roller coaster of emotions, and while it generally fails at that, it does at least maintain a consistent level of charm. By the end of the story you really care about the characters, and although it wraps up with a satisfying conclusion, you are still left wishing to know what happens next in the story.

If you're planning on playing Beyond Good & Evil, I need to give a warning. If you've read my Space Quest review, you'll remember how I mentioned older adventure games sometimes containing dead ends. These were situations you could get into where you can't progress further in the game because you didn't do something earlier that you're no longer able to go back and do. Beyond Good & Evil has one of these situations, and it's a bad one because several hours of gameplay separate the point when you need to do something and the point when you get stuck if you didn't. I don't want to give any plot spoilers, but there is an item that you have to pick up in one of the dungeons. It's an item that is introduced earlier in the game, and it's personal to one of the NPCs that is close with your character. Be on the lookout for items throughout this game.

My overall impression is that even though this is a game with many faults, it's much greater than the sum of its parts. There have been rumors for years about a possible sequel, and even a few leaked images. I really hope this gets made at some point because this is a game that while obviously influenced by others, is bubbling over with originality of its own, and with a modern release it could really push gaming in refreshing new directions.

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