Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Beyond Good & Evil
Before Assassin's Creed came in to save Ubisoft from being taken over; before Rayman turned into a party series (until Origins came out); before Crytek gave Ubisoft access to the Far Cry license and made the most immersing but dullest first person shooter known to mankind, there was Beyond Good And Evil, a game that wowed the five or six people who bought it, myself included. Playing through this game is like eating a high class dessert – there isn't a lot to it in terms of its size, but in terms of what's in there, how it's made and why everything was put together the way it is, is why you eat it in the first place, eating it slowly or at a reasonable pace to appreciate what you're eating and feel a sense of satisfaction for having eaten such a tasty dessert. You want more, but you had what you had and it was truly delicious.

Or you could be a pig and shovel it all down!

At first, you'd think that it'd be about the Alpha Sections, the government, stopping DomZ, an evil alien race, from kidnapping the inhabitants of Hillys, but when Jade, the protagonist of the game, is hired by the IRIS Network, they uncover a conspiracy about the Alpha Sections and the DomZ being in cahoots with one another. I can't tell you for sure if it's true or if it's just some wacky conspiracy theories because usually, conspiracy theorists tend to be a bit... looney, so to speak. What I will tell you, however, is that this game isn't above plot twists. Very well written and very well placed plot twists, with just enough foreshadowing to make you question what just happened without it ever feeling like it was there for the sake of being there. Same thing for plot development in general – you're given enough to go by while wanting more until the end, and what you get is a story that you really don't want to finish (especially since the ending is sequel bait... this game performed like shit financially so until the sequel finally comes out, the best you can do is look up fanfiction or something).

Another recipe for success is the characterization. Jade is my kind of character – serious and street smart with a strong sense of justice and a sense of humor every now and again. The way she goes about everything makes it easy for you to want to be rooting for her all the way. Her adoptive uncle, Pey'j, plays out like a typical sidekick in that he's more humorous, but he's also liable for some kidnapping. Double H, somebody you rescue a little into the game, provides more of the slapstick humor – the point I want to make is that these three play off of each other so well that any scene involving them together instantly becomes interesting to watch, and they have enough to them to make them interesting even when they're on their own, especially Jade. Then again, good writing would do that to you. Every bit of dialogue sounds just right for the situation – and as I'll get into much later, it's for that reason that you'll find yourself getting sucked into the game, wishing it would either never come to an end, or at least have a satisfying end... which it doesn't exactly, but it was great while it lasted.

The world of Hillys may not be as big as Liberty City and certainly not as big as Skyrim, but it has all the essentials – points where you'll find the main story missions, a fair amount of side missions, a city with a few shops and an upgrade shop. Side missions range from destroying enemies in caves to racing people and then to taking pictures of the wildlife, and you're rewarded either with credits or pearls for liberating caves, for beating people in races and for taking photos of unique animals (among other things). Pearls allow you to upgrade your hovercraft, which is a mighty fine idea to do because at first, it is a tad unwieldy. It's not that fast, stopping can take a while after you start braking and handling is slippery, and eventually, you'll need certain upgrades in order to progress. Credits are currency, which can be used to buy some items... including some pearls! But beyond that, the sandbox does work as it should, which is as a neat little side distraction between story parts.

But let's step into the main meat of the game. As Jade is a journalistic photographer, her job is to take pictures of anything that'll prove what the IRIS Network's saying is true. To do so, she has to sneak through certain parts of dungeons, meaning that a good amount of this game revolves around being stealthy. It really just revolves around observing basic movement patterns and knowing when to either get going or attack, but it's executed in a way that still works out really well and can even get a bit tricky as you get further in the game because of enemy placement and room designs. Taking down a guard requires you to take out their oxygen tank, but to be successful, you have to make sure nobody else is around or looking at you. At first, the penalty just has them running after you and you have to find a strategically placed hidey hole, but eventually, instant death will replace it. When that happens, the stealth aspect really comes to life and it already started off well enough, if only for the satisfaction of getting to an area full of bad guys... with none of them knowing until it's too late.

You could think of the stealth sections as a type of puzzle you'll have to do, and there are other sorts that you'll need to do in order to progress through each of the dungeons. They tend to involve fetching a few items, pushing blocks (though thankfully it doesn't feel as slow as it does in the N64 Zelda games) and shooting certain targets in order to get to a previously inaccessible area. But oftentimes, you'll need the help of an ally, and they'll be more than willing to help by giving you a boost up in the air or hitting a switch you can't hit via the press of a button whilst exchanging banter every now and again. Ordinarily, I'd find this annoying, but each puzzle (for the most part) feels well thought out, executed and – best of all – paced brilliantly so that it never feels like you're doing busywork even though you actually are.

Sometimes though, you will need to get your hands dirty. The combat consists of three options – a combo and a strong attack with your Dai-Jo staff, and long ranged attacks using discs. It doesn't seem like much and the few enemy types that are out there don't do this many favors, but unlike something like Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, it's not really what you can call a detriment because while Enslaved felt like Uncharted if it was a beat em up, Beyond Good And Evil was a bit more like Metal Gear Solid if it was a beat em up and as such, combat is only used when its necessary to neutralize the guards around you or to fight off bosses. Not to mention, it's pretty cool that Jade can continue a combo on an enemy just behind her, which is very much unlike Dante or Link.

Although like Link (or at least his 3D incarnations), the bosses Jade has to fight are easy to dispose of once you get their basic patten down, which shouldn't take a long time. That's not to say it wasn't fun to fight them because it was fun to find out their gimmick and find a way to use it against them, but you do wind up wishing they were a tad more challenging... of course, I'm referring to a legitimate challenge, thank you very much mr final boss who felt more like a test of my patience than anything that would resemble a fun challenge! Actually, while I have the final boss on my mind, *bleep* the last level! I mean, it's a good level on its own terms, but everything before it was so well thought out and executed that doing constant mirror puzzles and topping it off with a crap final boss battle made the last level feel rushed in comparison (though the last boss is bad no matter what way you slice it).

This game definitely boasts strong production quality, even to this day. In fact, I'd say its a testament to how most stylish graphics tend to age a lot better than realistic ones. While there's a degree of realism in everything, it was clearly finished with a more cartoon-y varnish to give it a more bright and colorful look (which I assume was originally meant to contrast with The Sands of Time's more realistic look). As such, the textures are fairly detailed by 2003 standards, managing to make models and environments look as they should, but the colors are more vivid so that it doesn't fall into that IT'S ALL GRAY AND BROWN look that was starting to pick up at the time with the Medal Of Honor and – I'm not joking when I say this – Call Of Duty franchises (amongst other WW2 shooters at the time). Adding onto the look is the animation. Everything flows seamlessly, especially Jade during combat with all her flips and swings, which keeps it feeling just right even though in reality, you're just hammering the X button. A lot of games tend to rely on complicated combat systems to keep combat engrossing but not this game. Like a good martial arts fight, it's the choreography of the movements that keeps you watching. In short, the graphics are fantastic and some of the best you'll find on the PS2.

But this is the big one – the sound design. The soundtrack consists of sweeping epics that not only compliment the situation – like a fast paced track with hard hitting notes for fights, a more low key exploration/sneaking track or something more lively when you're in town – but is also quite eclectic in nature, making it even sweeter when it really draws you in. One moment, you're hearing some reggae tracks while running around a rather seedy town, and the next moment, you're hearing an epic symphony during a fight. It's that sort of them that can really draw you into a game's world, but that's nothing compared to the voice acting, which is done so well that in tandem with the writing, it really manages to further draw you into the game's world. Each voice suits the personality and look of the character, like it's exactly what you'd expect them to sound like based on just looking at them. Add in the execution, and it's like these are living, breathing beings, rather than models being voiced by people in a studio, and that's the cherry on top of the cake for any game – one whose production quality and story can really draw you in.

Really, Beyond Good And Evil's biggest accomplishment is its immersion factor. The story is very intruiging with some excellent writing and top notch voice work, complimented by an epic soundtrack and fantastic graphics! Bits and pieces are all paced very well so that it feels fresh or that it feels just right, and the execution of each individual element, while simplistic in nature, is excellent. Really, all this game has going against it is a less than stellar last level, a poor final boss and an ending that basically says “BUY THE SEQUEL” as it feels like it ends too quickly, despite being about 12 hours long. It's a crying shame because before all of that lies a game that excels and ascends in just about everything, making for quite an experience. Ah well. It's still a great game, and still well worth your time.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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