Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Beyond Good & Evil

Year: 2003
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: GameCube, PC, PS2 and Xbox (originally); now available on Playstation Network and Xbox Live
Metacritic score: 86 (cross platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 510,000

It was only a matter of time before this cult-classic grabbed a featured spot.  For those who played Beyond Good & Evil, you're probably wondering why it took this long.  As for everyone else, well you missed out on a unique, joyous adventure whose bright colors and characters hide a surprising depth and maturity.   Designed and written by Michel Ancel, best known for the Rayman series, BG&E is another Ubisoft effort that shows what's possible when you inject your characters with heart and soul (they are a French studio, afterall).  A far cry from Nietzche's 1886 treatise by the same name, though by the time the credits role you'll be left questioning whether moral choices can be so neatly categorized in black and white terms like good or evil in a world filled with so many different shades of color.   

You play as Jade, a young photographer on the war-torn planet of Hillys that was brought up in a home for war orphans.  The planet is under constant assault by the DomZ, a species focused on abducting people to convert them into energy or infect them with spores to turn them into mindless slaves.  In this atmosphere of fear, the fascist Alpha Sections came to power on a platform of security and defense but the abductions have continued unabated.  Jade is happy helping her anthropomorphic pig "uncle" Pey'j take care of the orphans, but when they need money to keep up the shield protecting their little haven it's up to her to take on a job photographing and cataloging the planet's wildlife.  This job will eventually lead her to the secretive ISIS network, a resistance movement that hires Jade to investigate their suspicions about the Alpha Sections.  Over the course of the game, Jade's camera will bring more then just the local fauna into focus and her revelations will change everything she thinks she knows about the government, her trusted guardian and even herself.  

Photos taken of sensitive areas are immediately uploaded to the IRIS network, but be warned that your enemies will go to great length to conceal the truth.
Jade's path puts her at odds with both the DomZ and Alpha Sections and she'll need to rely on a mix of stealth and combat to survive.  Jade relies on her combat staff for melee attacks, but her real weapon is her camera.  You'll need to solve puzzles and use your platforming skills to sneak into highly restricted areas and unravel the conspiracy by snapping incriminating shots to expose the truth.  You'll also be able to upgrade your camera over the course of the game enabling new abilities such ranged attacks.  Other useful tools Jade acquires include a hovercraft and spaceship used to navigate between the main hub city and the various assignments, both vehicles can also be upgrades using Pearls that are rewarded for completing missions, playing various minigames, cataloging the animals of Hillys, exploration or cold hard credits if you'd rather do things the easy way.  Further help is provided by a variety of player-controlled NPC companions possessing unique special abilities, but they're just as susceptible to damage as you are so keep an eye on them and share your food or PA-1's to help them regain or boost health.

Stealth can often help you avoid dangerous situations, but there are times when being discovered means instant death.

The gameplay provides a nice mix of puzzle-solving, platforming and straight up action while the planet of Hillys is an excellent backdrop for your adventures.  The game world has a distinctly European countryside feel to it which makes for a nice contrast with the more sci-fi and modernist elements of the setting.  It's also refreshing to play a game that has a strong female protagonist without beating you over the head with it.  A better way of thinking about it is that you play as a brave, loyal and adventurous hero that just so happens to be a woman.  Playing as an investigative journalist and using your camera to defeat the antagonists is also a nice break from the standard "save the world by killing everything" formula found in so many games.  But it's really the story that shines brightest, it's impossible to not care about these characters and feel the same compassion that drives Jade's journey.  I don't want to risk spoiling anything, to do so would be a crime against humanity, but I will say that while some of the twists can feel out of left field they add a layer of depth that's largely left up to the player to consider on their own after they put down the controller.

Our old foil marketing once again plays a large role in why BG&E never got the love it deserved, and a number of top executives at Ubisoft have been pretty public about how the game's release was mishandled.  The studio was hellbent on releasing the game in time for the holiday season, only Ubisoft Montreal had another game ready to launch at the same time.  That other game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, was a highly successful reboot of the classic 1989 original and received widespread praise for its graphics, puzzles, time-rewind mechanic, combat, sound design...in short pretty much everything about the game.  Both games are based on a mix of action, platforming and puzzle solving and where released at the exact same time.  Further stacking the deck against BG&E, Ubisoft devoted almost all of its marketing effort toward Prince of Persia, a move that Ubisoft North America CEO Laurent Detoc would go on to describe as the worst business decision he's ever made.  

I know Jade, I don't get it either.
It's hard to understand how nobody predicted how badly Prince of Persia would cannibalize sales away from BG&E, but perhaps they felt the game was so unique, so different, that it would stand out enough to get noticed.  While BG&E is certainly special, however, at least some of its individuality was sucked out by the focus-group effect that took place after its troubled unveiling at the 2002 E3.  Sandwiched in a sizzle reel that included footage from Rayman 3, Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon, the crowd reaction to "Project BG&E" was deafening silence.  Although everyone who played the floor demo's walked away with a positive impression, the studio came to the conclusion that the original vision was too out there.  

The original design for Jade was younger, more stylized then and less sexy than what we see in the finished game.

As a result, the visual design was greatly tweaked to be less "artistically ambitious".  Further changes were made that greatly reduced the original focus on open-world exploration after the 2003 release of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was criticized for it's long sailing sections.  Ancel reported that these changes were demoralizing to the development team after having spent so much effort making the game stand out, and that the finished game felt more like a sequel then a reworking.  When reading the reviews, the effect of this changes becomes more evident.  Impressions were predominantly positive, but critics frequently cited the game's brief playtime and its inability to fully commit to any of its many gameplay aspects.  Perhaps GamePro summarizes it best when they say BG&E is "a jack-of-all-trades, master of none."  With non-existent marketing and good but not great reviews, BG&E's fate was sealed before it even hit shelves.

Thanks to the magic of re-releases, BG&E got the full HD treatment and was added to PSN and XLA in 2011 and it looks even better then you remember.  At around $10 the price is better too, taking much of the sting out of the short play time.  Actually, given the prevalence of shorter indie and episodic games available for download BG&E HD feels like a natural fit in today's market.  While sales data isn't available yet (downloadable sales are notoriously hard to track) it's safe to say they have likely outperformed original retail reception.  In the years since its release gamers have been more receptive of its original story premise and the game's reputation has steadily grown, creating the odd effect that its rank in 'best of' lists actually improves as time goes by.   

The sun hasn't set yet on this stunningly gorgeous remake, it continues to draw new fans into the promising land of Hillys.
If you needed further reason to check this game out, there's this tantalizing reveal from a 2008 Ubisoft conference hinting that a BG&E 2 is in the works.  While the story was originally intended as the first in a trilogy, poor sales scuttled that idea.  But thanks to a continued interest in the game by a passionate community and warming general reception Michel Ancel and a small team have begun development.  It's expected the new game would be destined for Wii U and the next Playstation and Xbox consoles, but little is known about the still much in development project.  But don't start salivating just yet, it was recently reported that development on this game had taken a backseat to Ancel's work on the Rayman titles.  With Rayman Legends due out in early 2013, hopefully development on the next Beyond Good & Evil will start in earnest soon.    

Pey'j is looking handsome as ever in his tastefully stained undershirt.  And is that a meditative Jade i see in the background?

 Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else seems to have heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter to receive updates and teasers for new posts! 

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