Retrospective: beyond good and evil
Beyond Good And Evil was a sci-fi classic 14 years ago, and it’s still a gem today
Like almost any game that’s transcended from greatness to cultish reverence, Beyond Good And Evil 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 idolised, but Ancel’s greatest work to date (which is high praise indeed considering he’s also given us the first two Rayman games and Rayman Origins) 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 BGAE is 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
“Its world and inhabitants still feel real and memorably fleshed out”
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 oversexualised, 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, 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 the brilliant Origins and Legends. That emotional resonance that made Pey’j and Jade’s relationship so poignant no doubt paved the way for other potential unmarketable 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.
above Jade is one of the greatest gaming characters ever.
top Welcome to Pey’j’s Workshop (complete with its own hovercraft dock), where pig-sapiens fix clunky old sea vessels.
above The Akuda Bar – less a wretched hive of scum and villainy, more an eclectic watering hole full of talking sharks and bartending cows.