Beyond Good & Evil is a remarkable game. Visually, it has this cartoony Don Bluth-esque character animation, portrayed through a populace in which humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals, and articulates a steampunk-ish setting with its vibrantly eclectic art direction, composed of rustic European architecture and tropical island landscapes wrapped in futuristic sci-fi elements — it’s an amazing world to just luxuriate in.
Even the gameplay is a hodgepodge of inspiration. It’s a strange marriage between the Zelda series (as an action/adventure game with a Wind Waker-esque aquatic overworld, dungeon-like levels, puzzle solving, automated jumping / assisted platforming, and a health gauge displayed as heart-shaped icons), Metal Gear Solid (with its emphasis on stealth and enemy NPCs with a limited cone of vision and stiff necks incapable of looking down), Pokemon Snap (because of a persistent side-quest which requires you to photograph the game’s fauna for a zoological catalogue), and StarFox / the Rogue Squadron games (with its aerial/space combat - although you can’t do a barrel roll, which is frustrating). Photographing wild animals is oddly compelling, as is stealthily traversing levels on foot and chasing down looters on your hovercraft, while the staff-based martial arts combat system is surprisingly the weakest aspect of the game — it’s certainly not as graceful or fluid as Ubisoft’s other, and more beloved (in terms of marketing muscle and mainstream popularity), action/adventure title in 2003, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
But behind this gameplay is a powerful narrative thrust and an endearing cast of characters. The protagonist, Jade, is arguably the coolest and least objectified heroine in gaming (surprising and admirable in a game with ass-centric camera angles when crouch-walking), second only to pre-Other M Samus Aran. Jade’s primary mission is to unravel and expose a conspiracy between the Alpha Sections, the military dictatorship that governs and claims to defend the world of Hillys, and a hostile alien race known as the DomZ, using incriminating photographic evidence that is to be broadcasted as an anti-government rallying cry to the masses of Hillys by a resistance organization called the IRIS Network. It’s a dark post-9/11 story that is artfully told with emotional depth, although without the moral ambiguity suggested by the game’s title.
After finishing the game today, I now understand how the anticipation for a sequel might have been agonizing for those who played through it back in 2003, only to watch a cheap cliffhanger-ending plot device that abruptly cuts to black. Indeed, this game was a commercial failure for Ubisoft (but a critical darling with a cult following), so the prospect of a BG&E 2 hanged in the balance for several years… until lead designer Michel Ansel (also the creator of Rayman) officially confirmed in 2008 that the sequel was, in fact, in development, but fans would have to continue being patient. Last year, footage of parkour-tastic “gameplay” was leaked on the InternetZ (I’m skeptical because of the lack of HUD, although the first game was very cinematic with its widescreen display, and conceivably it can be toggled on/off). Regardless: Most. Exciting. Teaser. EVER.