Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Beyond Good & Evil

Platform: Playstation 2
Developer: Ubisoft
Released: 2003
Genre: Action Adventure

The Game
Things are looking down for the mining planet of Hillys. Its population is under attack by an alien menace known as the DomZ, which is snatching folks up into space for undoubtedly nefarious purposes. The citizenry is nominally protected by the Alpha Sections, an elite army task force that holds Hillys under the grip of martial law. When freelance photographer Jade takes on a job in order to pay the shield energy bill for her lighthouse home, she ends up involved with an underground resistance intent on exposing both sides for what they really are and taking them down once and for all.

Beyond Good & Evil is the creation of Michel Ancret, the mind behind the popular Rayman games as well as a number of more obscure titles. For a time, it seemed that BG&E would also languish in obscurity as its initial sales run was very poor despite receiving many high reviews from critics. It has since gained something of a cult following, however, and it has been announced that a sequel is in the works. Whether this will further develop into the full trilogy that Mr. Ancret originally envisioned or not is yet to be seen.

The Characters
Jade is our main character, an intrepid freelance journalist who lives in a huge lighthouse with her "Uncle" Pey'j and a whole bunch of li'l rugrats, orphans of DomZ attacks that she and Pey'j have taken in. She - as with many of the human characters in the game - has a very interesting look about her in that she doesn't have a specific ethnicity. I originally pegged her as Asian, but she seems to be a futuristic mix of all sortsa folk-types. Lineage aside, her gender is definite . . . she's a fine, foxy lady!

Past her appearances, however, beats the heart of a strong, caring person. She watches over the children that live with her as if they were her very own kids, and her bond with Pey'j is as strong as any familial tie. She's also quite the butt-kicker as well, being a tough martial artist that specializes in staff fighting. Her reporting skills are top notch as well, from all indications. She's kind of like Superman, only a hot lady in the future.

Pey'j is one of a number of humanoid animals running around the game, in his case an anthropomorphic pig. He's a short but boisterous old fellah who is nominally Jade's uncle but acts more like a father to her much of the time. He acts as a general handyman, mechanic, and tinker around the lighthouse, but proof gets dropped every once in a while that he's actually way more brilliant than he lets on.

Double H is Jade's partner in the resistance for the latter half of the game. She rescues him as he's undergoing brainwashing in a DomZ controlled facility, and as a result he's kind of loopy for a while. And for the rest of the game, for that matter, but it's eventually revealed that his regular personality is that of the big tough guy with a heart of gold and a strict code of honor (the Carlson and Peeters Handbook, to be precise). And he definitely is a big tough guy, the premiere agent of the resistance before Jade comes along and forever clad in Hillys militia armor.

The DomZ (pronounced "doms", as in multiple dominatrixes) are the primary antagonists in the game, and it is them or their agents that Jade has to face off against throughout. Very little is explained about them, even at the very end, but that's really to be expected considering this is supposed to be part one of three parts overall. There isn't any cohesive appearance to the DomZ other than a certain Giger-esque aesthetic, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. About the only thing most if not all of them share is an orb-shaped part of their body which often turns into a pearl after they are defeated, signifying some sort of connection between them and the pearls you collect to buy certain items with.

The Alpha Sections are a military faction that have basically taken over the government and declared martial law on Hillys in response to the DomZ attacks. Right from the beginning, however, it becomes apparent that not all is as it seems with them, and Jade is hired by the resistance to seek out what their true motives are. The Alphas are the stock enemies of the game, particularly in the first half.

Secundo is . . . eugh. I'm just gonna go ahead and say it. I don't really like this guy. He's the artificial intelligence in Jade's SAC (a mini-computer that doubles as a "bag" that holds items by digitalizing them and then later reconstructing them), and he's . . . well, I don't want to say "useless", but he's close to it. He gets a short scene near the beginning of the game where he jabbers on in his bizarre almost-French almost-Spanish almost-Italian accent, then doesn't show up again until almost the very end of the game to pull off a big deus ex machina maneuver. He does pop in on occasion with various "Way to go!" voice overs when Jade picks up a new item, but he has no actual presence in the main game whatsoever. He doesn't even act as a tutorial for the game (mostly because one isn't needed), and if he were cut out completely, I doubt anyone would have really noticed. I almost hope that his existence is justified by having a larger part in the upcoming sequel(s), but then I remember how difficult it is to even understand what they guy is saying most of the time and all hope is lost.

The Writing
Not bad! Well, if you don't mind the open-ended nature of it. Not a lot is explained, and even when revelation seems to be coming fast and furious at the end, we're left hanging with several unanswered questions. What are the DomZ, really? What's the full nature of the connection they seem to have with Jade and Pey'j? Why does Peeters of Carlson and Peeters spell his name with an extra E?

An unfortunate side-effect of this and the shortness of the game is that it only scratches the surface of the true plot. There are definitely hints of hidden depth, but for the most part we are only allowed to see the shallows up until the very end. For the most part, it's a pretty basic and predictable story of conspiracies and revolution.

But for all of that (not that any of that is actually bad of course), it's still well constructed and presented. Predictability be damned, each and every plot twist was still brilliant and intensely moving, especially the very ending. The dialogue and characterization is quite vibrant and clever, making me feel very comfortable with these people in this world. Pey'j and Double H are especially good in this aspect, between the one making various pork product jokes at his own expense ("Thanks, Jade! I'd've ended up on a silver platter with an apple in my mouth if it wasn't for you!") and the other constantly quoting cheesy lines from his special agent handbook ("D.B.U.T.T.! Don't Break Up The Team!").

The Gameplay
As is usual with action adventure games, there's a lot of running around, smacking things around, and moving stuff around. It's all very simple, and everything you really need to know about controlling Jade takes about two minutes total to learn in the game itself, so I won't bother getting into it here.

These controls, however, are deceptively simple, I think. Unlike some action games that will give their characters a million and one abilities, 90% of which players never actually use under any circumstances (including the circumstances they were put in specifically to deal with), BG&E actually gets a great deal of use out of its limited repertoire. The solutions for all the puzzles in the game may only utilize the same four or five abilities over and over again, but they'll each use those same abilities in unique ways or combinations. It makes for tight yet varied gameplay that I rather enjoyed.

And even though you change modes of transportation every once in a while (by foot, by hovercraft, and by spaceship, to be specific), most of the basic controls remain the same for each. R2 makes you run/fly faster, X makes you attack with your staff/blaster, square makes you jump, circle activates an item, and so on. Hoping into a vehicle, therefore, doesn't make it feel like you suddenly hopped into an entirely different game as well, allowing for a smooth transition without having to learn a whole new control scheme.

Along with the action and the adventure elements are the stealth sections. These . . . are interesting.

Normally, I despise stealth games and anything to do with them. I'm not going to say they were my favorite thing here, either, but I will say that I despised these stealth elements the least of any game I've played so far. Just like the rest of the gameplay, the sneaking around here is very simple. Instead of having it take over huge swaths of the game, each section that requires stealth is usually contained to just a single room. Even if there's a series of several such rooms one after the other, once you get through one of those rooms, you don't have to worry about it again just because you fail in the next room. Failure is not rewarded by snatching away your previous successes. Which is nice. You usually only have to deal with one to three guards as well, and escaping is as easy as running into another room. The Alphas and the DomZ are apparently of the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality and don't spend more than a couple of seconds searching for you before resetting to their regular guard behavior.

And in the end, there are only a few sections where stealth is absolutely mandatory. Most of the time, if you either run out of patience or have an overabundance of bravery, you can run right on out and try to have a go with the guards face to face. It some ways it much more difficult than sneaking past (them guards is tough dudes), but in others it's pretty satisfying almost to the point of being cathartic. So the game typically doesn't punish you for wanting to play it as a straight action adventure game. Which is also nice.

The Challenge

There were only a very few parts that felt more than a little challenging, and most of those were only tough until I figured out whatever simple trick there was to it. Most of the enemies pose little problem, falling quickly under Jade's whirling staff. The stealth sections never reach anything even close to thinking about possibly approaching Metal Gear level. The races - racing being something I hate even more than sneaking games, by the way - are laughably easy to beat. Even the extra special bonus stuff is no big thing. I collected all of the animals and pearls in the game as well as all of the Mdisks save one without even really trying hard. Well, for the most part, anyway. The last couple of animals gave me a short-lived fit, but it only took a few minutes to figure it out in the end.

BG&E definitely strikes me as something for the casual gamer, difficulty-wise. In fact, with all the other good things going for it, it would make an excellent introduction to the video gaming scene for people who had never picked up a controller before.

The Sights
Based on the name and the way people seem to salivate ever so slightly over this game, I've long held this image in my head of this massive, epic game with impressively stark settings and tough looking characters showing how gritty they are by having grimacing contests in seedy bars.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I plop the game into my PS2 and find that it's basically a action adventure Saturday morning cartoon. Main character Jade herself is at least somewhat realistically portrayed, but almost everyone else in the game has the exaggerated proportions of a cartoon character and/or is an anthropomorphic animal. Much of the setting is beautiful European-style architecture, and even the grimmest and grittiest parts of the game are pretty brightly lit.

Not that this is bad! No no no, perish the thought. The story itself was also lighter than I expected, and the imagery suits it quite well. BG&E is very visually appealing, and its aesthetic of bright and vibrant with just an undercurrent of darkness fits perfectly. The characters are all well designed and memorable. Even if their personalities hadn't been as well defined as they were, I would have been able to easily tell them apart and tell who was who based on their looks alone.

This is a very pretty game packed with a great amount of detail, and it's great that the main character carries a camera around, 'cause you'll be wanting to take pictures of every damn thing in the game. Heck, even the in-game password system has a delightful design, both functionally and graphically.

The Sounds
I started grooving the second the music started and continued to groove all the way to the end of the credits. The music in this game is, in one word, phenomenal. The rest of BG&E be damned, if there's any one reason to go out and buy your own copy, it's the soundtrack. I guarantee I will have "Propaganda" at the very least stuck in my head for the next week solid.

The voice acting is top notch as well. Half of what makes Pey'j and Double H such great sidekicks is not just their dialogue, but the way in which that dialogue is delivered with such absolute gusto. Secundo's weirdness aside, everyone did an exemplary job.

The Bottom Line
As I mentioned before, BG&E has something of a cult following, and the latest announcement of BG&E2 being on its way has sent quite a few folks into a frantic fervor. While I am not exactly frothing at the mouth or anything, I do find myself greatly looking forward to the sequel. If it's even half as good as this game, it will be well worth picking up.

And ladies and gentlemen, Beyond Good & Evil is indeed beyond good. It has a few black marks (too easy, Secundo needs to go away-o), but those are more than made up for by tight gameplay, beautiful graphics, wonderful characters, the beginnings of what looks to be a stellar story, and an absolutely rocking soundtrack. This is a great game, and I highly recommend it.