Beyond Good & Evil stars Jade, a photojournalist with cat-killing curiosity, nimble martial arts moves and a Mona Lisa smile. It's a new game with new characters, but what's stunning about Rayman creator Michel Ancel's latest work is how much his characters seem to like one another.
After huge battles, other videogame characters like Mario or Final Fantasy heroes routinely pierce the air with fists and victory signs. But after their first big battle, Jade and her pig man uncle Pey'j embrace. Jade's arms slump over Pey'j's portly figure. It's a hug anyone might've experienced before, one of exhaustive, but joyous relief.
In a medium still groping for unique narrative techniques, I can only celebrate the arrival of a game like Beyond Good & Evil, from the heedless mind of Ancel. Ancel has taken many chances with this game. Not only is it a non-franchise (for the time being anyway), but it marries a myriad of gameplay styles that miraculously fit with each other and the storytelling.
The best example is the game's introductory sequence. The Domz is an alien race attacking Jade's planet of Hillys, a multicultural world like the utopias found in films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, where one ethnicity and culture is just as smart and independent as the next. The planet is defended by the local law enforcement called the Alpha Sections. Before Jade sets off to join a rebel faction that seeks to find the roots of the war, the orphanage she watches over is attacked. Who would've thought a Frenchman in this day and age would be selling a videogame to Americans about not trusting your government's reasons to go to war?
The entire game plays in letterbox mode, and the switch from an alien attack to Jade's defending of the children is seamless and dramatic. The first five minutes will introduce players to the combat system. With the touch of a single button, Jade can pull slick stick fighting moves that would make even the Prince of Persia blush.
Piloting vehicles is easy as maneuvering Jade, a convenience with an eccentric reason as outlined in the manual—because Jade is in the vehicle, it's logical that the vehicle would control like her. It's a videogame-only physics lesson that other games have followed with resounding success, like Grand Theft Auto III and Halo.
The stealth engine melds seamlessly with the standard navigation and combat system, mostly because each method of play takes up no more than two buttons on the controller. While not nearly as sophisticated as Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the stealth engine deftly adds the right amount of ingenuity and simplicity to keep things entertaining. The same can be said of the vehicle control and combat.
As the adventure progresses, you enlist the help of two close friends. With the companion-based puzzle gameplay here, I'm increasingly becoming aware of Fumito Ueda's ICO as being among the most influential games of the current generation. But as the story progresses, the player's endearment to these characters grows. Pey'j works because of the implied history he shares with Jade. With double agent Double H, he develops camaraderie with Jade as they quote lines straight out of an adventurer's training manual.
As if Ancel read a manual on making adventure games, Beyond Good & Evil progresses like a standard adventure game, with one story event leading to areas filled with stealthy, ICO-like gameplay. There's also the "gotta catch'em all" aspect as players can take photos of wildlife around Hillys, and collect pearls for equipment to progress the story along.
Fetching around for pearls is less of a chore here than it would be in other games. Sidequests are mercifully short-lived, unfortunately making each morsel of gameplay packaged within even juicier. Consider a later action sequence, a breathtaking chase across rooftops. There is no pause between the cutscene, when the player regains control of Jade, quick camera cuts for dramatic flair, slow motion action and chorus chants. The sequence even finds time to add character bonding.
The only drawback I find in Ancel's visionary work mirrors comments made from other reviews. It's just too short for my taste. Given the richness of characters like Pey'j, or the limitless possibilities of a simple-minded stoic like Double H, there is just too little time to really let these characters shine through. Hillys is not quite a fully realized world, if only because there's little else to the world besides the plot of the game it's in, which is about government propaganda. And if the game were longer, we'd get more scenes like Jade's and Pey'j's moments of spontaneous affection.
Beyond Good & Evil is a fully realized game, utilizing the JADE engine which Prince of Persia borrows. But more importantly, it has partially realized characters that have more feeling than human characters in other games. Ancel has run a gamut of play styles with this game, but he's left his world and its players wide open for a sequel. Maybe for the next outing, Ancel can name it after yet another Friedrich Nietzsche book. This critic suggests Human, All Too Human.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.