Review: Beyond Good & Evil HD

Beyond Good & Evil HD screenshot 1

Pey'j and Jade. An improbable pairing, especially when she starts cracking jokes about bacon. "Hey Pey'j! Think I just ate your cousin, lol."

All the way back in the Early Cetaceous era, otherwise known as 2003, a game known as Beyond Good & Evil was released for the primitive consoles of the time. Based upon the crude wattle-and-daub technology that characterised the consoles of that era, it featured a cast of endearing and often anthropomorphic characters occupying a brightly-coloured world under siege by a strange alien menace. On first glance it wouldn’t have appeared particularly unusual, although its provenance as a game by Michael Ancel – lead designer on the mid-90s platformer favourites Rayman and Rayman 2 – had the critics sitting up and paying attention.

It seems like a long time ago, 2003. Back then I was listening to the first bands ever to plug the newly designed ‘electrical guitar’ into the terrifying ‘amplification box’, bands like The Blood Brothers and Against Me!, whilst finishing my studies at university (a form of apprenticeship or indentured servitude available to the sons and daughters of minor noble houses) and generally having no money. I had not a single groat to spare on something so frivolous as a gaming consoler.

So it was that I missed out on the early years of the original Xbox and the awkward, gangly phase of the PlayStation 2, and so it was that I didn’t hear of Beyond Good & Evil until it began appearing on lists titled ’10 Classics You Never Played’ or ‘Excellent Games Ignored by Stupid Gamers’ or simply ‘Try These Games Now and Vindicate Those Opinions We Published Like Five Years Ago’. I played it, I liked it a great deal, I got two thirds of the way through and then allowed myself to be distracted by something else and never returned to it.

Fast forward four or five years and Ubisoft re-releases Beyond Good & Evil on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, having dolled the game up with some HD goodness. Visually it’s a bit nicer; everything’s that little bit sharper and the cartoonish style saves the game from looking too aged. The question, though, is not how it looks but how it plays eight years on from its original release.

Beyond Good & Evil HD screenshot 2

Little critters, I will fuck you up. I will hit you, hit you, hit you with my rhythm stick. And there's Pey'j, delivering the bacon sarnie I ordered.

When discussing platformer or action-adventures titles it’s traditional to talk about the camera at some point, and I can’t deny that BG&E’s omniscient floating eye-orb can be a total dick at points. When you’re in an open area or embroiled in a bout of anti-boss fisticuffs from a locked perspective it’s all fine; it’s in cramped quarters with the free camera, either on foot or in a vehicle, that it can go nuts. The camera tries to remain behind your character at all times as well as keep them centred which sometimes results in ‘hilarious’ screen-shaking when it finds itself trapped. I generally find I have to jam movement buttons to escape this, which in an action platformer is not ideal. But what the hey. I’ve endured far worse, and if you fancy a few cheap lulz you can manoeuvre the camera inside Jade’s head for a peculiar and unflattering take on her bold features.

At times the world may feel a little small by the standards of what we’ve seen open game worlds accomplish since 2003, but the gameplay variation BG&E offers could shame quite a few more modern releases. Over the course of the game you’ll find yourself: travelling around by foot, sea/land hovercraft and later cruising about in a spaceship; completing simple puzzles to progress through the game’s various levels; participating in chases (as the pursuer in a vehicle and on foot as the pursued; the latter are particularly sparing and memorable, albeit overly easy) and races; working through areas which demand a stealth approach – this is rarely frustrating – as well as combat against the game’s various nasties and entertaining bosses; participating in a long-running photography subquest in which you must snap photos of various critters scattered around the game; and, of course, the obligatory minigames which can go fuck themselves.

I speak here of Francis the dorky shark-man, whose variant on air hockey contains approximately seven cubic millilitres of fun to ninety-nine point nine nine three litres piss-offery. By which I mean it is frustrating and I did not enjoy it, and in fact the second pearl you can win from him by playing it is the only outstanding in-game collectible in my playthrough. Fuck off, Francis.

Beyond Good & Evil HD screenshot 3

The hovercraft is a lot more fun than the spaceship, but happily you can deploy the hovercraft from the ship at just about any point in the main game world.

That aside, though, the game is packed with variation and paced in such a way that you’re constantly moving between different playstyles. The downside to this Jack-of-all-Trades approach is that the game rarely becomes genuinely challenging. In many ways BG&E is a collection of simple pleasures; you encounter a situation, you figure out the solution, and you execute it. At a few points you’ll fail and have to try again but the game does not punish you overly for failure. General ease of play aside it’s a pleasure to progress through the varied forms of play put before you and experience a lovingly crafted story and setting. The photography is a case in point; it’s mostly a game of hide-and-seek, and only a few creatures require a bit of thought or trickery to find, but it’s still a delight to snap a photo of the more elusive or odd critters (the enormous flying manta ray was my favourite).

There is one moment in which I found the difficulty to spike considerably, and alas this was during the final boss fight. As I’ve no wish to spoil the moment I’ll just say that it involves unusual controls and memorising a pattern of commands. Unfortunately the pattern alters if your responses alter which makes it an arsehole to memorise, and if you try to avoid altering the pattern you will find that one step doesn’t allow you enough time to execute the necessary command. It took me 45 minutes to beat this stage of the boss, having memorised the pattern long ago, and in the end I beat it through simple luck and twitch responses, which rather spoiled the sense of accomplishment. Others I’ve spoken to didn’t find it as bad as I did, though, so I might put it down to either playing the game late at night or Francis the dorky shark-man screwing with my controller. Fuck off, Francis.

In terms of the game’s enduring legacy – and it does have something of a cult following today – it’s essential to acknowledge that the story and characters remain a lot of fun, the latter being voiced and animated with a great deal of charm. There are also minor characters who you can ignore or engage with as you wish, and their simple lines tell you about the changes your actions are making in the game world, which is always a pleasure to see.

Thematically, though, it has to be said that the game doesn’t live up to its title. Initially there is a touch of ambiguity to its storyline but the essentials of what’s really taking place don’t take long to emerge, and from that point on there’s a clear good/evil divide. There’s also a revelation towards the end of the game that, I feel, spoils one of the main characters a little – reducing them from charmingly human by making them more than that, if you’ll forgive the spoiler-free vagueness – although the nature of that revelation may be what the game’s title actually refers to. Regardless, for a game that’s designed to be enjoyed by children as well as adults BG&E tells a reasonably sophisticated story and articulates its vision clearly and confidently, which is more than can be said for many videogames – even eight years on.

So there you go: Beyond Good & Evil is still great, so roll on the sequel. Right, Ubisoft?

Beyond Good & Evil HD screenshot 4

Look out! Ubisoft's board of investors is behind you!