I have played many video games in my twenty-something years of life, but this is the first to be titled after a philosophical work by Friedrich Nietzsche.
When I was a child in Ecuador, my life was brightened by a magazine known as Nintendo Power. (May this noble publication rest in peace!) A friend lent me new issues, which gave me glimpses into the mysterious worlds of modern video games. (This was, incidentally, the very same friend who recommended the last game I reviewed on this blog.) Years before I blundered onto the Internet, Nintendo Power gave me the latest and greatest video game news.
There are a number of games Nintendo Power recommended very highly. Video games are scarce and expensive in Ecuador, so I was never able to buy them. Now, a decade later, I’m making a point of tracking down and playing some of the classics I missed as a child.
Of all the games Nintendo Power praised, few made a stronger impression than an odd game called Beyond Good & Evil. It stars not a tough-as-nails soldier or noble knight, but a photojournalist. An ordinary photojournalist! Madness! Next they’ll be making games starring boring professionals like surgeons, lawyers or customs officials. Ha! What an idea!
Jade, the photojournalist star of BG&E, isn’t exactly a boring professional. Most photojournalists don’t carry weapons, work for resistance groups or live on alien planets populated by anthropomorphic animals. Jade does. Armed with bō staff and camera, this plucky photographer-turned-rebel is out to expose the treachery of her planet’s military and rally her people to fight for freedom.
Did I mention that her uncle is a pig? Yeah, her uncle is a pig.
Beyond Good & Evil is as quirky as they come, but is it worth playing? Never mind its questions of good and evil. The real question is this: Is this game is great or lousy?
The best way I can describe this game is to suppose its developers sneaked into Nintendo’s kitchen late at night and tried making a game with all Nintendo’s ingredients. There are several cups of fighting and puzzle-solving from the Legend of Zelda games, and a few tablespoons of futuristic racing from F-Zero, and just a dash of space combat from Star Fox, and a spoonful of Metal Gear Solid-style stealth borrowed from Konami’s kitchen next door.
BG&E has a bit of everything, and it does everything adequately—but few things really well.
The world of BG&E is beautiful and feels vast… until the player realizes it’s not as big as it seems. The combat works… but it’s not very deep. The racing is fun… for about ten minutes. The space combat is exhilarating… the one time it happens. Nothing about the game is bad, but few aspects are engaging enough to hold the player’s interest for long.
This includes the story. Jade is recruited early on into a resistance group determined to expose the military’s corruption. This setup is fantastic, but a couple of lame twists make for an underwhelming experience. The moral ambiguity suggested by the title is nowhere to be seen. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, and that’s all.
The setting and characters, however, are wonderful. The world of Hillys is lovely, with green mountains and tranquil oceans, and I had a blast exploring caves on foot and zipping across the seas in a hovercraft. I wish there had been more to see. The game’s one city is equal parts Star Wars and Arabian Nights, with futuristic technology and fanciful architecture.
Most of the game’s characters are unexceptional, but the three who matter most—Jade, her pig-uncle (puncle?) Pey’j and Jade’s fellow resistance member Double H—are brilliantly developed and eminently lovable. Double H, for example, constantly quotes from a military manual titled Carlson & Peeters, citing page numbers with enthusiasm. When he charges into a fight, “Carlson and Peeters!” is his war cry. It’s positively adorkable.
I especially appreciate Jade. Women aren’t often treated respectfully in video games, but Jade is. She’s no damsel in distress or impossibly curvy babe. Jade is a person. She wears sensible pants, rocks green lipstick, cares for kids and tears apart robots with her bō staff. There is no pointless romance. Jade is never just a foil to male characters. It was really refreshing to play as a heroine who is—I say this in absolutely the best possible way—ordinary.
Jade’s camera was one of the best things about BG&E. Besides snapping incriminating photos for her resistance group, she is tasked by a research institute with taking pictures of local animals. More fauna photos mean more money, giving the player plenty of incentive to search high and low for exotic creatures. It was almost magical to zoom in on a distant seagull or wait for a whale to leap out of the water… and a delightful shock to realize Pey’j and other characters qualified as “local animals” whose pictures are worth cash.
BG&E is a bit short, and I’ve already mentioned its lack of depth. Besides minor camera issues and some obtuse level design, I have only one other complaint. Its stealth sections suck.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Metal Gear Solid games, which perfected the fine art of sneaking, but stealth sections in BG&E are just frustrating. Stealth in the MGS games works because of its flexibility: the player has endless choices in how to avoid or confront enemies. BG&E gives players one or two strict choices, and it’s a matter of infuriating trial and error to figure them out. Worst of all is how players are punished for failing some stealth sections by instant death lasers. Instadeaths (that is, one-hit kills) in video games are frustrating. In this game, with its awkward camera controls and badly-designed stealth sections, instadeaths are intolerable. If I gave numerical scores to games in my reviews, I’d take off a full point out of ten just for those freaking lasers.
Despite its flaws, Beyond Good & Evil is a fine game. I now understand why Nintendo Power sang its praises all those years ago. The game is a colorful, offbeat adventure with a bit of everything.
I just wish it did everything a bit better.