Expose an ancient conspiracy and save your world from its clutches.
PC Release: November 19, 2003
By Ian Coppock
Again with the old games? Absolutely! As longtime readers have probably noticed by now, I don’t really care when a video game came out, as long as it has some novel elements that catch my eye. I have a haphazard list of games to play, and I don’t get paid to do this, so I figure I get to write about whatever I want. I’ll take suggestions if you have them, but for now, I’m powering through a catalog of classic games that are still fun and relevant even 13, 14, 15 years later. Tonight’s game, Beyond Good & Evil, is no exception.
Beyond Good & Evil comes to us from the manic, genius mind of Michel Ancel, the creator of the Rayman series. Ancel is an eccentric psycho-artist who, as anyone who’s played a Rayman game will attest, fills his worlds with huge environments and ambitious, memorable characters. He’s one of the greatest designers of our age and perhaps the greatest platformer designer of all time.
But, Beyond Good & Evil is not a 2D platformer, nor a Rayman game. It’s actually a surreal open-world adventure that meshes many styles of art into a single, novel canvas. Jade, a photojournalist and our leading lady, lives on a planet where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals (think Animal Crossing, but with fewer pitfalls). For centuries, her homeworld has been besieged by an alien race called the DomZ, who drain their victims’ life-force for energy. Jade and her adopted uncle, a pig named Pey’j, run an orphanage for abductees’ children.
After running a few jobs around town, Jade begins to suspect that the military forces purportedly fighting the aliens are actually in league with them, and sets off on the most dangerous journalistic assignment since the Iraq War. Along the way Jade is assisted by the IRIS Network, an underground organization committed to her same suspicion, and Pey’j, who’s as handy with a well-swung wrench as he is any orphanage chores.
Beyond Good & Evil is a third-person adventure game, with elements of platforming, melee combat, racing and stealth. Jade is most at home sneaking around the big facilities she’ll infiltrate, but she can knock out enemy soldiers and hostile wildlife with her magic staff. Like many platformers of its time, BG&E incorporates puzzles into its levels as well. Say what you will about old-school games, this one has a lot of diverse level design.
In a style similar to Sunday’s Sonic the Hedgehog, BG&E‘s open world is an overarching hub with links to smaller, more linear areas. Because the planet Hillys is mostly ocean, Jade gets to and from levels aboard her trusty hovercraft. In addition to the mainline third-person dungeoneering, you can also photograph rare animals and take part in water races around Hillys. Both activities will contribute to character progression and give you currency for upgrades. Magical pearls can be found around the world and traded in for new duds.
Jade also has to make more subtle investigations around the world, giving players an opportunity to explore this truly bizarre landscape. Hillys is a mishmash of things and faces; humans interact with intelligent animals, and rustic European architecture is clad in futuristic technology. You can seamlessly transition between the IRIS Network’s headquarters, the orphanage, and points within the sprawling capital city. The game’s artwork is brightly colored and gorgeous to look at. The graphics haven’t exactly aged well, but they haven’t lost their visual novelty.
Despite a big bold world and an interesting premise, Beyond Good & Evil‘s gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. The game was obviously designed with consoles in mind, which is fine, but the Steam version has no controller support. Joystick movement doesn’t always translate well into WASD, making movements clunky. Combat’s pretty okay though.
But, no matter what platform you’re playing this on, the game’s menus are awful. All of the game’s functions and inventories are tied up into the most bewildering menu system that I’ve ever seen. Ever. It doesn’t help that all of the pages are arranged into a spiral. Different items are sorted into different areas for arbitrary reasons that I can’t begin to guess at, and navigating it is just a nightmare. Not sure what went on here.
BG&E‘s level design has its problems as well. It’s easy to get turned around in this game, with lots of samey-looking corridors that twist and turn all over the place. But, as with the overworld linking all of these levels together, the design is varied and interesting. There’s a good mix of puzzles, combat and platforming going on here. You’ll also find a few fixed-camera stealth areas reminiscent of Resident Evil.
BG&E‘s overworld design is much simpler than the linear areas, which is ironic when you think about it. Locales of interest are spread out across wide areas, and you can take plenty of detours to interact with the humans and animals around you. As with the Rayman games, this world is also loaded with hidden nooks requiring some dedicated sleuthing to uncover. Finding them all can make the mainline game experience a lot easier.
At this point some of you might be wondering why Beyond Good & Evil remains such a legend of the early 2000s, when the market was swarmed with dozens of games just like this at the time. A lot of the features I’ve spent the last few paragraphs rattling off are perfectly at home in lots of other games. What makes this one so special? Why do so many people call this the greatest platformer of all time, or even the greatest game?
I think it’s because that, while Beyond Good & Evil is not the best game ever made, or the return of Christ in green pants, it strikes some unusual chords for a big bubbly platformer. Jade is a curious chimera, having been sexualized by the gaming industry yet retaining likeable, human qualities. Her character has a believable evolution throughout the course of the story, going from cautiously complacent to very courageous. That bravery in the face of grave danger is one of her most likeable qualities. She’s just a very human character, if that makes sense. Throughout her story, the character exudes a tremendous amount of empathy to the world around her. To complement her good feelings, she’s a total badass to the enemies she faces. In short, she’s certainly one of gaming’s most heroic characters. She’s well-written, well-acted, and feeling like someone you’d want to befriend.
Plus, how often do we get to play as a journalist in video games?
Another factor contributing to Beyond Good & Evil’s lasting legacy is the themes its story hits upon. While the other characters of the story are reasonably well-developed (even the ones with only a line or two of dialogue) Beyond Good & Evil surprises yet again with its dark tone. Though you may not think so to look at its big bright world, BG&E hits upon some deep themes, including human trafficking, human rights, authoritarianism and freedom of the press.
A lot of these themes are presented indirectly, in a show-don’t-tell fashion. You’ll infiltrate a human trafficking facility where the horrors of the trade echo from cages instead of being delivered in explicit dialogue. The IRIS Network’s challenges as an underground news organization are directly inspired by the woes of the grassroots press in authoritarian countries. In short, it paints a very dark background to counterbalance the jokes and light-heared humor present in the actual dialogue, a balancing act that’s pulled off brilliantly. It also serves as a way to make Jade’s character shine even more in the face of adversity.
Now the golden question must be asked; does such an old game work on modern machines? The reports on the game’s Steam page are hit-and-miss, but tragically, I was unable to get Beyond Good & Evil to work properly on my PC. The lack of controller support was disappointing, and I spent too much time trying to configure a good resolution. The game does not seem to support widescreen resolutions; ergo, it’s a clunky port. I hope that Ubisoft considers re-optimizing it, especially since Beyond Good & Evil 2 is in development (for real this time, guys!)
I would say that you should at least buy the game, see if you can get it to work, and make up your mind before Steam’s two-hour refund limit expires. It won’t protect you from bugs you’ll find later in the game, though. I don’t know, between a few unresponsive controls and a nightmare of alternating video screens and alt-tabs, I couldn’t make it work. Maybe you’ll have better luck, because with older games it seems to be a system-by-system basis. I wish you luck in getting this to work, because Beyond Good & Evil is a treasure that all gamers should get the chance to experience.
You can buy Beyond Good & Evil here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.