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Beyond Good and Evil – Slightly less than amazing

posted on December 29th, 2006 by christian

Beyond Good and Evil is the poster child for several “Most Underrated Games of All Time” lists. It has a small army of dedicated fans who will just about yell and scream at the unwashed masses who haven’t played it yet. To even consider it as a bad game is an act of treason to every website and hardcore gamer on the ‘net.

See if you can follow this: She wears green lipstick, a green headband, green jacket, off green pants, and her name is Jade.

Folks, get the noose ready, because I’m about to go for broke. While I have to blame some of it on the hype that was slathered on it for months on end, Beyond Good and Evil is nevertheless one of the most underwhelming gaming experiences I have ever had. I’ve heard all the arguments for it, and even the best have been unable to convince me of this game’s quality. I just can’t see it, though lord knows I’ve tried.

The problems are numerous, but if I were to boil them down I would pin the blame on Michel Ancel’s strange ability to hide shoddy construction behind masks of fake quality. BGnE is very good at distracting the player from all its problems by distracting them just enough with something else. It’s quite brilliant in a way, but it leads to something that is far from the upper echelons of gaming.

Like how about that gameplay? You know, the kind that plays so much like Zelda. Better than Zelda even, if you ask the right people. I would have to agree that BGnE is very much like Zelda, if you factor out the overworld that’s only marginally bigger than Hyrule Field and with infinitely fewer secrets to find. Also the quest that’s only 10 or so hours long. And don’t forget all the stealth missions in repetitive, industrial military strongholds. But other than that, yeah, its Zelda alright. Who am I kidding? A couple of clever puzzles and one rooftop chase sequence does not pull this whole game into Nintendo-caliber levels of craftsmanship. You’ve played this game before, and you’ve played it much better.

One common article of praise is that the planet Hyllis is populated by a huge, diverse cast of alien races. Its a refreshing change of pace, and really has a kind of idealistic, world peace vibe to it. All these people from so many different backgrounds coming together to unite as one planet. I can only hope that Gene Roddenbery is spinning in his space grave, because BGnE is a disgrace to such a concept. Its nothing more than a pile of cliches and stereotypes. I wonder, is it coincidence that the Jamaican aliens have horrible accents and deal with illegal, black market goods? Or that your partner has a southern accent, messy personal, and just so happens to be the pig? Oh, and he’s real good fixin’ shit too. You have some Asian Walrus selling Ancient Chinese Secrets. What better way to hide your incredibly lazy, almost insulting character designs than by using anthropomorphic animals to put them in?

When not to perform a front handspring – You are in battle. – You are holding a weapon in both hands. – You are in battle against someone with a giant hammer.

It also distracts you from the fact that these characters have little actual character to speak of. If Jade is one of the strongest female characters in gaming, then I suppose Samus and Celes and all the others must be goddesses or something. Jade is one of the most unemotional, static heroines of this generation or any other. She never reacts strongly to any situation for very long. She rarely talks for a main character. The most we ever see out of her is near the end when the lighthouse is destroyed and all hope is lost. That is, until she just gets up and carries on after a few small words of encouragement, never dwelling on it for the rest of the game. I don’t see how someone can be strong when she never shows us any signs of strength or weakness. It’s as if gamers have become so shallow that anyone who isn’t over-sexualized is somehow “strong.” If that’s the case, then we have a long way to go in this industry.

The rest of the cast isn’t any better. Double H is schizophrenic, going from stupid bumbling soldier to calm, almost intelligent support character at the blink of an eye. The Mayor of Hillys, your photography contact, and the leader of the resistance all sound bored to the point where you wonder if they are comatose. Seriously, those newsreels ousting the Domz? If I watched something with such unemotional, uninterested narration, I would throw it away. I guess the characters in the game thought the same, since none of your resistance actions seem to have any major impact on the game world, aside from a few NPCs standing around with picket signs. Huzzah to lazy story development.

Oh yes, the story. I guess this is supposed to be one of the best around. Don’t be hypnotized by it. The game changes just enough of the minor pieces of the story to throw us off from its true nature. This is nothing more than your typical “Evil Empire against the plucky rebels” tale. I know what you’re thinking – “that’s not true.” This game has the Domz and the Alphas and the spunky resistance. But those first two groups are really the same thing, aren’t they? We expect two factions, but find three. And don’t forget to toss in some themes about the dishonesty of the media and military in order to please a widely skeptical and paranoid gaming audience. If you want conspiracies and a good look at the discrepancies between news and real world events, play Deus Ex or a Tom Clancy game. At least there they put some care into it.

Worst of all is how BGnE makes reference to so many things in the game universe that we get utterly no explanation about. The excuse is always the same; it is only one game in a larger saga. It isn’t supposed to explain everything right away, and without the rest of the tale, we’ll never get the answers. Apparently this rescues the story from its pit of plot holes and general crumminess. This explanation is also supplemented with a comparison to Star Wars, and the association is made that if you trash the game, then you’re also trashing the greatest sci-fi trilogy of all time.

Jade destroying this sunflower skeleton’s giant jade eye is probably richly symbolic of something or another.

It is absolutely asinine to compare Beyond Good and Evil to Star Wars. For one, despite what middle aged fans have done to add layers of depth to the mythos, Star Wars was always meant to be good Hollywood fun, even at its most dramatic. It’s a classic tale told with classic archetypes, which is why it is so enjoyable. The original trilogy isn’t teaching us lessons, it isn’t trying to be terribly philosophical. It’s a crazy space opera for us to enjoy. That means that all those missing pieces in the Star Wars universe aren’t necessary for its enjoyment. At most we’ll scratch our heads a bit, and then wait for the next blaster to fire.

Furthermore, as much as it is criticized, the story and writing in Star Wars is still Hollywood caliber. That means that it does a very good job at filling in the gaps as much as necessary without spending inordinate amounts of time. By the end of A New Hope, you have a pretty clear idea about the Empire and the Rebellion and what this galaxy is like. We may not know what a nerf herder is, but Leia’s delivery makes it clear that its quite a nasty insult. The script and the acting work with us to flesh out the films.

On the other hand, I don’t believe BGnE is meant to be silly science fiction schlock. It couldn’t have, not with such a weighty title. It’s a big, pretentious game that fails to realize that even the best of game industry stories and acting are still worse than the dregs of Hollywood. It doesn’t understand that it takes more than copying a successful gameplay formula in order to create a success. And it can’t see that if you’re going to break up a big epic tale over multiple installments, you need to tread carefully. A good story should stand on its own, regardless of whether it is one of many installments or how many other tales relate to it. No matter what it tries, this game can’t make me give a shit about Carlson and Peters. Pointing out other star systems out in space is a waste of time. Showing a scene of Jade meditating in the intro cutscene is not going to make me cry “ooh that’s like, deep or something man!!”

Beyond Good and Evil is lying to you, folks, and it does a damn good job at it. Don’t pardon it, don’t praise it just because it tried to shoot higher than most. It still came crashing down, and it tries to play us for fools so that we don’t notice. If we really want emotion, drama and storytelling to advance in this hobby, the last thing we need to do is promote this as one of our finest examples.

Thank you.

8 Comments

  1. Matt said on December 29, 2006:

    Well, I can’t say I hated it as much as you did, but I did feel underwhelmed from the game. It was a good game, but not as good as everyone was portraying it to be. When I went into it, I was driven by hype and it did not get backed up. But, we may not be able to blame the game on that. That is based on reviewers mostly. What the game did do good was create a game that was at least pretty close to zelda in terms of playability. Some try to copy, but turn into horrible games. BG&E actually made a pretty competent game, and that’s where some of its praise probably came from. It was merely an interesting game that had very little faults with, in terms of playability. The whole "trilogy" thing you’re pretty accurate about, though. No one should ever plan to make a trilogy because then you set yourself up for failure. And now because it didn’t sell well, our questions will never be answered. So I definitely agree with you on that. But, I actually liked Peyj. His dialogue and acting was pretty good, I thought. I definitely thought BG&E only deserved, at the MOST, a 9. Everything was cohesive and playable, had great art, and had an interesting photography mechanic. It was short, but shorter games is something I want more of now, so I don’t really say that’s bad now. It’s just an average game that tried something different. Some of the story had darker tones, and that’s probably where some of its praise came from too. It wasn’t some happy-go-lucky kind of game we usually get. But I do understand the fact that it’s getting a little too much cult status, when merely being an average game.

  2. chris said on December 29, 2006:

    You both pretty much said everything I’ve got to say… I tried it and it was probably worth the $15 I paid, but no more.  I actually had decent fun – despite the weird bugs and sort of clunky system – right up until the stealth part of the game.  I’ve never really understood why game developers put those sequences into all action/adventure games, because I know very few people who enjoy them outside of MGS games.  I also liked Peyj, I thought he was a cooler character than Jade. 

  3. Christian said on December 30, 2006:

    Matt – That’s a great perspective that’s pretty damn fair. I wouldn’t say I hate this game; mostly I was dissappointed but still felt compelled to finish it. Most of my anger, if that’s what I have, came from being set up for a grand experience, then being let down, then being told I was crazy when I told people I didn’t like it that much. I got tired of being “shame on you” by games editors for not letting this title become something of a great martyr of gaming, destroyed by the big, dumb franchises that sell millions, being told that this is what we should aspire to. All the while plenty of other, even better games are also overlooked, and maybe, just maybe, it didn’t deserve all the praise. If this game, and Michael Ancel as well, weren’t so heavily idolized, and the reaction both for and against it weren’t so profound, I’d be singing a different tune.

  4. max said on January 2, 2007:

    Ok, I think it’s only fair that a true BG&E fan boy step in here to defend the title.  I loved this game – loved it because I bumped into it completely randomly, before any hype, played the right version of it (the PS2 one), and played it for what it was – a rare sci-fi adventure game that wasn’t puke-worthy.  Sci-fi is the operative word here – think about how many good sci-fi adventure games you’ve ever played, and you’ll understand why such a fan club exists for BG&E.  Sure, if you don’t particularly care for sci-fi, it may not have any significance for you.  But to do a fair review of this game, you have to take into consideration the fact that pretty much the only other decent sci-fi adventure game in existence is Anachronox.Overall, while your comments are not particularly inaccurate, there is one problem with them – you are taking this game waaaay too seriously – probably because it’s been built up for you so much and you are following a natural urge to dispel the myth.  The truth of the matter is – the game is quite self-aware of the stereotypes that you find so upsetting – it makes use of them very intentionally.  It’s a parody, you see :)  Of Star Wars, of The Matrix, of politics, and of many other things.  So yes, if you don’t give them credit for making these references intentionally and refuse to see the humor in it, it all just adds up to a big cliche.  But credit really is due here.Oh yes, and the soundtrack kicks some serious freaking ass.  You can’t deny that.  

  5. Christian said on January 2, 2007:

    Hey Max, thanks for your perspective, it is much appreciated.  You know, I’ve never really considered it to a parody work.  From that perspective, a whole lot of the story and setting takes on a much different light, a much more enjoyable light.  Still, most fans I’ve met never take it from a parody angle, but instead from the super serious, dramatic space opera perspective. Thus I certainly was built up and let down.  I might replay a few bits and pieces to see what you’re getting at, but I’m not sure if the whole game as parody is going to click with me.  Still, one of best responses I’ve seen.

  6. max said on January 2, 2007:

    Check out the scenes when Jade first meets the whole resistance movement gang.  If you look closely, you can easily discern a Matrix parody in there.  The soft-spoken bold-headed leader is very Morpheus, and the whole scene when she first meets them is set up much like the scene where Neo first finds himself on that crazily-named ship (the Nebuchadnezzar or something?)  You are probably right in saying that not everybody sees the parody angle, though.  For those guys its probably the combination of the pretty graphics, the music, the decent gameplay and the overall sci-fi theme that does the job.  Like I said before, there are pitifully few decent sci-fi adventure games out there.  But if you can see the parody in it, it certainly takes it up a notch or two.

  7. Christian said on January 3, 2007:

    Hmm, thanks for the subtle hints there.  I’ll definitely take a looksee.  

  8. pat said on January 9, 2007:

    i think calling it an outright parody may be a bit much, but there are definitely some good tongue-in-cheek moments in there.

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