Beyond Good & Evil (PlayStation 2)

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Written by  :  Cor 13 (174162)
Written on  :  Apr 15, 2004
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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It's superficial. But it's fun, damn it!

The Good

Say "French platformers", and memories of great games of the past - such as Another World or Heart of Darkness - will start flooding your mind. Beyond Good and Evil reminded me in many ways of that good old French platforming design, but it has picked up quite a few other tricks as well. It is an attempt to merge several genres (platform action, puzzle-solving, melee fighting, driving, and sneaking), adding a Zelda-like propensity to collecting and unlocking.

Beyond Good and Evil is a smart game - it is good at creating illusions, good at holding hands in such a way that we don't feel offended. It knows when to change gears, and it has a great sense of tact and tempo. There is a lot of attention to the player here - as little frustration and as much fun as possible is obviously the goal. Like Anachronox, the game smiles to the player, it tries to entertain him as much as it can. All this is done in a very discreet manner, with minimal pomp, and in a fairly natural way. That's why the gameplay rarely gets boring - like a snake, it drops its skin and wears another; it is like an entertainer with several masks, a musician who plays different instruments and improvises on different tunes.

Much of the time here is spent in dungeon-like areas full of diverse obstacles. Almost all the puzzles in the game fit into environmental, physical category. Those pop out very frequently and are mostly logical and intuitive. Press a button to deactivate lasers; push a crate to jump on it and access a higher level; fetch a fuse to repair a broken elevator. That said, the puzzles are not always blatantly easy, and some require precise timing and quick action. First-person gyrodisc-throwing is used liberally, rewarding attentive players.

The most interesting aspect of the puzzles (and also of the fights) is that often they can be solved only with the help of your teammates. Those are the all-around mechanic Pey'j, Jade's "uncle" and a representative of the species sus sapiens, and a super-cool military-trained agent Double H. Both can open heavy grates (Pey'j by using pliers, Double H by wearing a helmet and breaking them down with his head), press buttons that Jade can't access, and perform other useful actions. Both guys are also quite helpful and even indispensable in fights. Particularly dynamic are boss battles, which are a combination of simple melee fighting, gyrodisc throwing, Super Actions, and special strategies unique to each boss. Both your companions also have their own health meters, inventory, and AI in combat. You can issue commands to them by pressing the triangle button, and manage their inventory by giving them healing items.

With the recent success of stealth-based games such as Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, it is not surprising that the creators of Beyond Good and Evil wanted to incorporate this element into their game. On her espionage missions, Jade should infiltrate enemy territories silently and with discretion. The stealth portions of the game are generally well-made and present a few interesting options such as throwing the gyrodisc to distract guards.

Photographing animals is the largest "sub-quest" of the game, to which you can resort at any time (except the final dungeon). Every time you encounter a new species, you can take a picture of it, and then send it to Science Center. In return, you receive a payment (which depends on the animal: rare species bring you more money than such usual ones as homo sapiens), and - after you finish a roll of eight animal photos - a special reward (mostly a pearl). It is not always simple to photograph animals: some of them are very quick and require good reflexes and precise timing to take a picture. Particularly interesting is taking pictures of enemy creatures, where you should avoid enemy attacks and try taking their pictures at the same time. Such pictures often bring a lot of money.

Money management plays an important role in the game, and also belongs to its few RPG-like elements. By taking pictures or breaking some crates you can get money, which you can use to acquire healing items, increase your health, outfit your vehicle, and get useful things like pearl detector or attack-enhancer. Beside money, you'll also have to think of pearls, the game's illegal currency you'll need for some crucial items. These very Zelda-like elements belong to the game's most enjoyable aspects: there is always something to do, which guarantees a sustained interest.

The various locations of the game are accessed by vehicles: hovercraft and space ship (late in the game). You glide over water and dock in order to access the city or another location. At a certain point you receive a jump upgrade, which allows your hovercraft to jump over obstacles. Sometimes you must navigate your hovercraft on a road with gaps and avoid enemy fire at the same time. There are a few "hovercraft dungeon" areas where you interact with objects by shooting or pushing them. There is also hovercraft fighting in the game - at your disposal are rapid fire and a cannon that causes massive damage. Your space ship can obviously fly, but it is equipped the same way as the hovercraft, and also participates in battles. As if all this weren't enough, the game is full of various minigames, the most noticeable of which is hovercraft racing.

It is hard to describe the setting of Beyond Good and Evil properly. It has some sci-fi elements, but they don't play an important role; the only city in the game is reminiscent of small, cozy European towns with narrow streets and brick houses. The bright, slightly cartoony visuals perfectly fit a certain fairy tale-like atmosphere of the game: its world is populated by humanoid animals, giving the game a sweet, endearing vibe equally remote from ultra-realism and Japanese gratuitous "cuteness".

The Bad

Have you ever heard French music? If you are familiar with Debussy's or Ravel's compositions, you'll understand what I mean by comparing this game to them. It is beautiful, charming, brilliant and elegant - but it is not deep.

If you look closely at the gameplay, you'll see that much of it consists of minigame-like challenges that trick you into mistaking them for full-fledged concepts. Every puzzle needs to be solved in a specific way rather than require you to think outside of the box. At first I thought that the game will eventually present more complex situations, but this didn't happen: after you familiarize yourself with your basic arsenal you'll have no trouble at all figuring out what to do in every situation. This approach is evident in combat as well: the battles are confined to small areas and are scripted, leaving next to no room for any kind of creative tactics. The game is also too easy in every respect.

Beyond Good and Evil likes creating illusions. One of them is the illusion of non-linearity. When you get out to the surface for the first time, you see a large world that looks totally open-ended. You want to take your hovercraft and simply drive around, like in GTA. But very soon you discover that most of the areas are blocked, and you can go only where you are supposed to go. Later in the game, optional areas do appear, but it is still a far cry from a truly open-ended world, which this game would certainly greatly benefit from. Also, the game eventually forces you to collect so many pearls that you'll probably have to explore those areas no matter what.

The story is weak and treated with irritating negligence. What could have been a suspenseful tale full of moral ambiguity turned out to be a disappointing, simplistic affair. After the very first mission we find out that Alpha Section are the bad guys. From this moment on we work for the "good" fellows from Iris Network and sabotage Alpha's activities as much as possible. That's the whole story, and the blatantly "to be continued"-style ending doesn't compensate for its lack of quality in any way. The characters are also anything but deep: even though Jade starts strong, she doesn't develop at all during the course of the game and treats everything with a startling clam bordering on lack of emotions.

The Bottom Line

Beyond Good and Evil may seem shallow; it's not that there is no substance here, but that substance comes in small portions, making you crave for a bigger and more generous game. But the keyword here is fun, and this fun is delivered with style. So go snap some pictures of sentient rhinoceroses and don't forget to buy that funky gadget from a Chinese walrus!