RET­RO­SPEC­TIVE BE­YOND AND EVIL

Be­yond Good And Evil was a sci-fi clas­sic 14 years ago, and it’s still a gem to­day Dom Re­seigh-Lin­coln Pub­lisher Ubisoft / De­vel­oper Ubisoft Mont­pel­lier / for­mat Xbox/Xbox 360

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - REVIEW -

Like al­most any game that’s tran­scended from great­ness to cultish rev­er­ence, BeyondGood AndEvil was a com­mer­cial flop. Crit­ics loved it—lav­ish­ing it with a glut of scores that set its mul­ti­ple for­mats in the very re­spectable mid-to-high 80s on Me­ta­critic—but gamers, sadly, just weren’t buy­ing it. To the me­dia, di­rec­tor Michel An­cel had shed his sta­tus as the ‘man that gave us Ray­man’ in glo­ri­ous fash­ion. To ev­ery­one else—in­clud­ing Ubisoft— the French game de­signer had just made a mad game about op­pres­sive regimes, hov­er­craft races, and alien wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy.

But what a game it is. A good 14 years on, and one HD re-re­lease later, BGAE is still as great as the day it went gold from a small team at Ubisoft Mont­pel­lier. The years aren’t of­ten kind to the games we once loved and idol­ized, but An­cel’s great­est work to date (which is high praise in­deed con­sid­er­ing he’s also given us the first two Ray­man games and Ray­manO­ri­gins) laughs in the face of time and its end­less butch­ery of nos­tal­gia. Ubisoft was right— BGAE re­ally is mad, but its genre-meld­ing ideas are so full of heart you’ll scarcely no­tice how hare­brained it re­ally is.

Set on the dis­tant planet of Hillys in the year 2435, you’d think An­cel would have drawn on his ex­pe­ri­ence with plat­form­ers to cre­ate some­thing akin to In­som­niac’s Ratchet&Clank over on PlayS­ta­tion 2. And BGAEis a great plat­former, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a rich and vi­brant tapestry of gen­res, blended to­gether with a dash of quin­tes­sen­tial French creativ­ity. It’s part melee brawler; part rac­ing game; part pho­tog­ra­phy mas­ter­class; part stealth ac­tioner, and all sci­encefic­tion melo­drama.

Jade’s em­pire

Right from its open­ing scene, BGAE pulls you in and holds you in rap­ture. In the boots of a ballsy yet en­dear­ing pho­to­jour­nal­ist named Jade—and her un­for­get­table pig­man com­pan­ion, Pey’j—you’re not forced into a life­less trudge through ubiq­ui­tous sci-fi tropes, but a hu­man drama where a group of mul­ti­cul­tural be­ings are fight­ing for their liveli­hoods. There’s cer­tainly a grander saga there to be un­cov­ered—it was, af­ter all, con­ceived as the first part of an ex­pan­sive tril­ogy—but here we’re treated to a con­spir­acy thriller set on the other side of the uni­verse. A place where the me­dia is op­pressed, and in­no­cent peo­ple are ab­ducted and forced into slav­ery.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, for a game that takes its name from a book by ex­is­ten­tial philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, BGAE jug­gles plenty of deep and pow­er­ful themes be­hind those an­thro­po­mor­phic cast mem­bers and ne­far­i­ous space mon­sters. We delve into a story in­volv­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing on a global scale, where gov­ern­ments col­lude with un­scrupu­lous zealots while the com­mon man is forced to sur­vive in the wake of it all. Far re­moved from the cutesy safety of Ray­man, BGAE of­fers an in­sight into the times in which it was con­ceived—a post 9/11 land­scape where fear ran ram­pant through the Western world. Sure, the end­ing and ‘hid­den power’ that Jade is re­vealed to pos­sess (no spoil­ers) does take a tiny bit of shine off what

could be a stel­lar story, but the world you get to ex­plore on the way holds

BGAE’s in­tegrity solidly in­tact. Its world and in­hab­i­tants still feel real and mem­o­rably fleshed out, de­spite mostly be­ing a rag­tag bunch of talk­ing an­i­mals and Latino holo­grams—and none more so than trend­set­ting hero­ine, Jade. Con­fi­dent, in­quis­i­tive, and com­pas­sion­ate, Jade’s rather handy martial arts skills (and that afore­men­tioned mys­te­ri­ous an­ces­try) cer­tainly help when forced into a scrap, but it’s her everywo­man qual­i­ties that have se­cured her place among gam­ing’s great pro­tag­o­nists. She’s not over­sex­u­al­ized, or pre­sented as some fan­tas­ti­cal ap­prox­i­ma­tion of her gen­der. In­stead, she’s a work­ing class girl who runs to­wards dan­ger, pro­tect­ing the chil­dren at the or­phan­age she calls home, as her grumpy yet pro­tec­tive ‘un­cle’ Pey’j grows frus­trated at her in­her­ent sense of civic duty.

And yes, she’s a dab hand with her staff, and is more than happy to throw a few jabs and round­house kicks when faced with a bunch of an­gry DomZ, but it’s the way in which the game uses one of her pas­sive skills that re­ally proves there’s more to her than sat­is­fy­ing the urge to beat up alien mon­sters. Through the lens of her trusty cam­era, we be­come in­ti­mately ac­quainted with Hillys’ di­verse ecosys­tem and in­ter­species com­mu­nity. We get ex­po­si­tion—the true cur­rency of any lore-heavy videogame—but ev­ery suc­cess­ful an­i­mal snapped can also be traded for cred­its. For a char­ac­ter liv­ing in a com­mu­nity that’s strug­gling to make ends meet un­der the weight of a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment, Jade can power gen­er­a­tors for her fam­ily and buy up­grades for her­self off the back of a cre­ative tal­ent rather than sim­ply loot­ing corpses.

Turn the Pey’j

Even the mu­sic that ac­com­pa­nies Jade’s cru­sade for truth pulses with orig­i­nal­ity. To help bring his unique vi­sion to life, An­cel turned to eclec­tic French com­poser Christophe Héral, who had pre­vi­ously made his name work­ing on French films and an­i­mated fea­tures. BGAE is a mul­ti­cul­tural af­fair af­ter all, filled with wildly dif­fer­ent peo­ple and places, so Héral took that mantra to heart, in­fus­ing ev­ery facet of the game’s sound­track with mu­si­cal style and voices from world mu­sic. From the Caribbean warmth of Mam­mago Garage to the bril­liantly eclec­tic sound­track and the hov­er­craft races (funk metal, any­one?), BGAE has creativ­ity on tap.

Take the mu­sic that plays in the background of the Akuda Bar—the Mos Eis­ley-es­que drink­ing hole filled with chat­ter­ing aliens and mini-games ga­lore. The main song you hear within its walls, ‘Pro­pa­ganda’, was writ­ten to lyrics in Bul­gar­ian rather than French or English, in­vok­ing a pal­pa­ble Cold War feel that tapped per­fectly into the op­pres­sive shadow of a shad­owy en­emy. With haunt­ing Ara­bic strings and warm In­dian per­cus­sion, it seam­lessly en­cap­su­lates the cul­tural melt­ing pot bub­bling away in BGAE.

Even the di­a­logue for the game had the vet­eran com­poser pulling out all the stops for his first foray into videogames. For the men­ac­ing DomZ, Héral fash­ioned an en­tirely new lan­guage of gut­tural, rolling ‘r’s, and took the time to record all the voices of Hillys’ background in­hab­i­tants him­self. There’s a won­der­ful DIY qual­ity to ev­ery sound and snippet of au­dio you come across as you ex­plore the Vene­tian wa­ter­ways of Hillys, a sense of un­bri­dled creativ­ity that no doubt made BGAE so hard to mar­ket.

Even now, it’s re­ally dif­fi­cult to ac­cu­rately pi­geon­hole Pey’j and Jade’s ad­ven­ture with­out recit­ing a long list of hy­phen­ated gen­res and sub­gen­res. The plat­form­ing me­chan­ics that An­cel worked so hard to per­fect in the wake of the greats of gen­er­a­tions past of­fered a solid base, but the hand-to-hand fo­cused com­bat smacks of your clas­sic melee brawler. Stealth sec­tions (with in­sta-fail rules, nat­u­rally) nod­ded fu­ri­ously in the di­rec­tion of Metal Gear, while those hov­er­craft rac­ing and chase sec­tions were part ve­hic­u­lar plat­former and part kart­ing may­hem.

De­spite hav­ing so many mov­ing parts, BGAE flits be­tween each one like a foodie in the world’s big­gest all-you-can-eat buf­fet. One mo­ment you’re solv­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles,

“Its world and in­hab­i­tants still feel real and mem­o­rably fleshed out”

the next you’re us­ing line of sight to sneak around DomZ and other foes. Each me­chanic used just enough to bring some­thing dif­fer­ent to the mix be­fore be­ing dropped for an­other round of cross-genre pol­li­na­tion. It’s a game of many parts, to say the least, but one that’s still com­fort­able in its own vir­tual skin.

Hillys have eyes

And that’s al­most cer­tainly while BGAE had such a rocky road to re­lease. Its orig­i­nal de­sign brief went down so poorly with crit­ics when it was un­veiled at E3 2002, An­cel and his team were forced to head back to the draw­ing board. Seem­ingly chan­nelling the patented ag­gran­dis­e­ment of one Peter Molyneux (a whole year be­fore the Bri­tish vet­eran dev went full Molyneux with the orig­i­nal Fa­ble and its in­fa­mously un­fea­si­ble prom­ises), An­cel wanted to ship BGAE with an en­tire uni­verse to ex­plore on one disc.

The fi­nal prod­uct was cer­tainly reined in from the over­reach­ing con­cept, but there’s still a won­der­ful sense of free­dom that per­vades your time with BGAE. There’s no es­cap­ing the in­vis­i­ble hand of lin­ear­ity that pokes you in the di­rec­tion of the main story, but you’re still given the power to ex­plore Hillys at your leisure. An­cel and his team spent so long build­ing a rich ecosys­tem and cast of char­ac­ters, why wouldn’t they want to let you wan­der its many land­scapes snap­ping pic­tures and strik­ing up con­ver­sa­tions with heav­ily ac­cented, bipedal an­i­mals?

BGAE be­came a touch­stone for An­cel, and paved the way for the projects that fol­lowed. Sadly,

Be­yond Good And Evil 2 slipped into de­vel­op­ment hell as An­cel was forced to di­vide his at­ten­tion else­where, but that rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the plat­former gave the French game di­rec­tor the time to reimag­ine Ray­man in 2D with

Ori­gins and Leg­ends. That emo­tional res­o­nance that made Pey’j and Jade’s re­la­tion­ship so poignant no doubt paved the way for other projects that fol­lowed in An­cel’s wake, such as the heart­break­ing and won­der­ful Valiant Hearts: The Great War. With Be­yond Good And Evil 2 fi­nally hap­pen­ing (al­though now as a pre­quel, seem­ingly with­out Jade or any other recog­nis­able char­ac­ters), at least we know we’ll fi­nally get to see the vast uni­verse that was only hinted at in the first game. Could the mys­te­ri­ous client re­vealed at the end of its E3 2017 trailer ac­tu­ally be Jade’s mother? Will we fi­nally learn more about her ori­gins, and those of DomZ? Re­gard­less of whether BGAE2 does in­deed an­swer our ques­tions, you know An­cel’s sec­ond in­stal­ment will be just as cul­tur­ally di­verse and re­ward­ingly ex­otic as the first one was back in 2003. It’s time for BGAE to shed its cult sta­tus la­bel and fi­nally be­come the bona fide land­mark in gam­ing it’s al­ways been. n

above

Jade is one of the great­est gam­ing char­ac­ters ever.

Wel­come to Pey’j’s Work­shop (com­plete with its own hov­er­craft dock), where pig-sapi­ens fix clunky old sea ves­sels.

The Akuda Bar—less a wretched hive of scum and vil­lainy, more an eclec­tic wa­ter­ing hole full of talk­ing sharks and bar­tend­ing cows.

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