Beyond Good and Evil is the poster child for several “Most Underrated Games of All Time” lists. It has a small army of dedicated fans who will just about yell and scream at the unwashed masses who haven’t played it yet. To even consider it as a bad game is an act of treason to every website and hardcore gamer on the ‘net.
Folks, get the noose ready, because I’m about to go for broke. While I have to blame some of it on the hype that was slathered on it for months on end, Beyond Good and Evil is nevertheless one of the most underwhelming gaming experiences I have ever had. I’ve heard all the arguments for it, and even the best have been unable to convince me of this game’s quality. I just can’t see it, though lord knows I’ve tried.
The problems are numerous, but if I were to boil them down I would pin the blame on Michel Ancel’s strange ability to hide shoddy construction behind masks of fake quality. BGnE is very good at distracting the player from all its problems by distracting them just enough with something else. It’s quite brilliant in a way, but it leads to something that is far from the upper echelons of gaming.
Like how about that gameplay? You know, the kind that plays so much like Zelda. Better than Zelda even, if you ask the right people. I would have to agree that BGnE is very much like Zelda, if you factor out the overworld that’s only marginally bigger than Hyrule Field and with infinitely fewer secrets to find. Also the quest that’s only 10 or so hours long. And don’t forget all the stealth missions in repetitive, industrial military strongholds. But other than that, yeah, its Zelda alright. Who am I kidding? A couple of clever puzzles and one rooftop chase sequence does not pull this whole game into Nintendo-caliber levels of craftsmanship. You’ve played this game before, and you’ve played it much better.
One common article of praise is that the planet Hyllis is populated by a huge, diverse cast of alien races. Its a refreshing change of pace, and really has a kind of idealistic, world peace vibe to it. All these people from so many different backgrounds coming together to unite as one planet. I can only hope that Gene Roddenbery is spinning in his space grave, because BGnE is a disgrace to such a concept. Its nothing more than a pile of cliches and stereotypes. I wonder, is it coincidence that the Jamaican aliens have horrible accents and deal with illegal, black market goods? Or that your partner has a southern accent, messy personal, and just so happens to be the pig? Oh, and he’s real good fixin’ shit too. You have some Asian Walrus selling Ancient Chinese Secrets. What better way to hide your incredibly lazy, almost insulting character designs than by using anthropomorphic animals to put them in?
It also distracts you from the fact that these characters have little actual character to speak of. If Jade is one of the strongest female characters in gaming, then I suppose Samus and Celes and all the others must be goddesses or something. Jade is one of the most unemotional, static heroines of this generation or any other. She never reacts strongly to any situation for very long. She rarely talks for a main character. The most we ever see out of her is near the end when the lighthouse is destroyed and all hope is lost. That is, until she just gets up and carries on after a few small words of encouragement, never dwelling on it for the rest of the game. I don’t see how someone can be strong when she never shows us any signs of strength or weakness. It’s as if gamers have become so shallow that anyone who isn’t over-sexualized is somehow “strong.” If that’s the case, then we have a long way to go in this industry.
The rest of the cast isn’t any better. Double H is schizophrenic, going from stupid bumbling soldier to calm, almost intelligent support character at the blink of an eye. The Mayor of Hillys, your photography contact, and the leader of the resistance all sound bored to the point where you wonder if they are comatose. Seriously, those newsreels ousting the Domz? If I watched something with such unemotional, uninterested narration, I would throw it away. I guess the characters in the game thought the same, since none of your resistance actions seem to have any major impact on the game world, aside from a few NPCs standing around with picket signs. Huzzah to lazy story development.
Oh yes, the story. I guess this is supposed to be one of the best around. Don’t be hypnotized by it. The game changes just enough of the minor pieces of the story to throw us off from its true nature. This is nothing more than your typical “Evil Empire against the plucky rebels” tale. I know what you’re thinking – “that’s not true.” This game has the Domz and the Alphas and the spunky resistance. But those first two groups are really the same thing, aren’t they? We expect two factions, but find three. And don’t forget to toss in some themes about the dishonesty of the media and military in order to please a widely skeptical and paranoid gaming audience. If you want conspiracies and a good look at the discrepancies between news and real world events, play Deus Ex or a Tom Clancy game. At least there they put some care into it.
Worst of all is how BGnE makes reference to so many things in the game universe that we get utterly no explanation about. The excuse is always the same; it is only one game in a larger saga. It isn’t supposed to explain everything right away, and without the rest of the tale, we’ll never get the answers. Apparently this rescues the story from its pit of plot holes and general crumminess. This explanation is also supplemented with a comparison to Star Wars, and the association is made that if you trash the game, then you’re also trashing the greatest sci-fi trilogy of all time.
It is absolutely asinine to compare Beyond Good and Evil to Star Wars. For one, despite what middle aged fans have done to add layers of depth to the mythos, Star Wars was always meant to be good Hollywood fun, even at its most dramatic. It’s a classic tale told with classic archetypes, which is why it is so enjoyable. The original trilogy isn’t teaching us lessons, it isn’t trying to be terribly philosophical. It’s a crazy space opera for us to enjoy. That means that all those missing pieces in the Star Wars universe aren’t necessary for its enjoyment. At most we’ll scratch our heads a bit, and then wait for the next blaster to fire.
Furthermore, as much as it is criticized, the story and writing in Star Wars is still Hollywood caliber. That means that it does a very good job at filling in the gaps as much as necessary without spending inordinate amounts of time. By the end of A New Hope, you have a pretty clear idea about the Empire and the Rebellion and what this galaxy is like. We may not know what a nerf herder is, but Leia’s delivery makes it clear that its quite a nasty insult. The script and the acting work with us to flesh out the films.
On the other hand, I don’t believe BGnE is meant to be silly science fiction schlock. It couldn’t have, not with such a weighty title. It’s a big, pretentious game that fails to realize that even the best of game industry stories and acting are still worse than the dregs of Hollywood. It doesn’t understand that it takes more than copying a successful gameplay formula in order to create a success. And it can’t see that if you’re going to break up a big epic tale over multiple installments, you need to tread carefully. A good story should stand on its own, regardless of whether it is one of many installments or how many other tales relate to it. No matter what it tries, this game can’t make me give a shit about Carlson and Peters. Pointing out other star systems out in space is a waste of time. Showing a scene of Jade meditating in the intro cutscene is not going to make me cry “ooh that’s like, deep or something man!!”
Beyond Good and Evil is lying to you, folks, and it does a damn good job at it. Don’t pardon it, don’t praise it just because it tried to shoot higher than most. It still came crashing down, and it tries to play us for fools so that we don’t notice. If we really want emotion, drama and storytelling to advance in this hobby, the last thing we need to do is promote this as one of our finest examples.