Over the past 15 years, I’ve played countless games. From Snake and Space Impact (even the name evokes a wave of nostalgia) to modern masterpieces like Nier and Nuclear Throne.
However, despite having primarily played games on PC (474 Steam games and counting) for years now, there is one console that will always hold a special place in my heart and cupboard – the PS2.
While that’s partly because of the large chunk of my childhood I spent on the console, it’s also because the PS2 has some of the greatest games ever made in its library.
Jak and Daxter (1 and 3), Ratchet and Clank (take your pick), Soulcalibur 3 (stick it 2), Devil May Cry, and the flawed masterpieces that are Drakengard and Shadow of Memories. All of these and more are utter classics which, as far as I’m concerned, should by played by any and all who want more than the latest bland AAA sandbox or shooter.
Beyond Good and Evil has now joined that list of “must play”s from the PS2 (although, yes, I know it was on other consoles too).
Considered a cult classic, I first received it as a birthday present from a family member who, although they didn’t know much about gaming, was happy to buy it when it caught my 10-year-old eye. Unfortunately, it was months before my birthday rolled around, and when it did I discovered that my copy threw a hissy fit and crashed after the intro mission.
In a way, however, I’m glad that it didn’t work, because after picking it up on the PS3’s online store recently and playing through, I have a feeling that it would’ve been entirely wasted on 10-year-old me.
An overview of Beyond Good and Evil
Beyond Good and Evil feels like many other PS2 classics, in that the idea and ambition behind it far surpass what the console could accomplish. The graphics are typical (if fairly mid-range) for the console, the map is big, but far from the size of other games released at the same time, and with a total play time of 10-12 hours to 100%, it’s hardly a lengthy adventure.
Yet, despite the limitations, Beyond Good and Evil accomplishes something which many games don’t even stop to think about – total immersion. Everything feels natural and believable for the world that Michel Ancel and team created (aside from one event, which itself is mitigated by some surrounding knowledge).
The world of Hillys feels massive and alive, NPCs have personality despite being given minimal dialogue, and at absolutely no point does it try to cram exposition down your throat. Instead, characters talk about events as most anyone in their situation would – there is a level of assumed knowledge between those chatting. In turn, this both bolsters the idea that they are people with their own shared experiences, and teaches the player about these events by letting them fill in the gaps.
In that way, Beyond Good and Evil (BGAE from now on) uses conversation in a similar way to Dark Souls’ item descriptions. You’re rarely given all of the details, but you’re given enough to piece together a backdrop to the world and feel good about the fact you’ve done so.
In other words, the execution is good enough to carry you on the game’s scope, rather than the reality of what you’re playing (even if you judge the game by modern standards).
Story-wise, you follow and play as Jade. Aside from a strange taste in lipstick, she’s a flat-broke reporter who owns a lighthouse with her adoptive uncle Pey’j. Their planet (Hillys) is being besieged by an alien race known as the DomZ, which capture or kill any in their path.
Incidentally, a very nice (if almost minor) touch is that the lighthouse Jade owns is also used as an orphanage for DomZ orphans (children whose parents were killed or taken by the spindly buggers). The orphans themselves play into the overarching plot, but the fact that (again through mostly veiled NPC conversations) they’re specified as DomZ orphans gives the race immediate weight as a threat, and encourages the feeling that the planet is truly in danger.
Speaking of which, a militaristic force called the Alpha Sections has taken power and fights to protect Hillys from the DomZ. However, theirs is a cruel martial law maintained with heavy propaganda and an iron fist. A terrorist organization called the IRIS network has sprung up to fight the Alpha Sections rule, and many are uneasy with the number of citizens which go missing despite Alpha’s occupation.
The game kicks off with a DomZ attack hitting Jade’s lighthouse and almost succeeding in abducting several orphans. After fighting off some rather sweetly designed enemies, you’re given a strange vision, shortly after which the Alpha Sections arrive to claim all the glory. Following that you’re given a job offer, and from there things turn into a glorious blend of action, stealth, vehicles, collect-a-thons, photography, philosophy, and even religion.
In short, the best way to summarize BGAE is that it’s “one hell of an experience”.
BGAE is a linear game, but the scope I mentioned earlier makes it feel like an open world. You have a chunk of Hillys to explore which, while far from GTA 3’s map size (which was released the year prior), feels distinct and compact enough to create memorable and familiar locations.
To try and list all locations, you’ve got your lighthouse, a garage, a city (the largest area, with explorable buildings, shops, a bar, military zones, basements, warehouses, race tracks, etc), a factory, an off-world base, a couple of caves and smaller areas, and a whole lotta water linking them all up.
Going back to the “cohesive world” thing, most of this feels pretty logical, as most other vehicles you see can either hover or fly, so your hovercraft being able to access everywhere isn’t such a strange thing. The Alpha Sections’ security measures to prevent access to restricted areas (such as the factory) is also convincing for once, instead of being a “well, literally anyone could walk in here” scenario.
Vehicle entrances are protected by either security robots or laser grids (which require black market upgrades to disable or bypass), and any entrances on foot are blocked by locked doors and iron fencing (which require very strictly guarded keys to unlock). Not only that, but sprinkled throughout the city are screens and loudspeaker all spouting the same heavy propaganda on repeat.
In other words, the Alpha Sections feel like a genuinely oppressive threat, much like the DomZ.
Take, for instance, Mammago Garage, which you visit to buy vehicle upgrades and other items. Their front is a regular garage, but since the Jamaican rhino people (just go with it) who run the place know Jade well, they let her access the back rooms. Here they have a black market set up for highly illegal vehicle upgrades, and in turn only accept pearls (again, dubbed illegal currency by the Alpha Sections) as payment.
In a single location you’re given a sense of the Alpha Sections’ rule, the normal citizens living under them, and an entire black market system for prohibited items which are still in demand, all while maintaining the feel of a consistent world. Well bloody done.
Things to do
As I’ve already mentioned, pearls are your typical “power cell” style collectible, in that they are your main reward for exploration, defeating bosses, and so on. In turn, these let you buy your vehicle upgrades (this is the only way you can spend them, so you don’t have to get them all to finish the game).
There are 88 pearls in total, and you’ll need 71 to get every upgrade – after that, it’s purely completionist bragging rights. They can be bought, taken off looters, found in hidden locations, guarded by creatures, awarded from racing, and even traded for photos.
Speaking of which, I can think of only three games which use photography as a core mechanic (and are actually good). Dark Chronicle (or Dark Cloud 2 for anyone in America) lets you take photos for invention ideas, Project Zero 2 scared the living shit out of me by forcing you to stare at the thing that was going to kill you, and now BGAE, which takes a more traditional turn on the mechanic.
Since she’s a reporter, Jade is encouraged to photograph key “evidence” for her job. The photos you take are then used in the reports which are sent out to the general population, which is a nice little touch. The citizens of Hillys are being shown the photos you (the player) have taken, which makes many of the later story developments feel like it was truly you who achieved it.
I can’t say too much more without going into spoilers, but having NPCs talk about your photos and reports in passing feels very rewarding, especially since they feel very natural (as I mentioned above).
To earn a little extra cash (used to purchase consumables and the odd pearl) and a fair few pearls you can also photograph and catalogue the planet’s wildlife. The first photo of each species will net you credits (the amount depending on how rare the animal is) while finishing a roll of film with new species will give you a pearl.
This, along with exploring, racing, the odd minigame, talking to NPCs and the fairly extensive story locations means that there’s plenty to keep you entertained for hours without feeling like a chore. At the same time, there’s never too much to forget what’s happening in the main story – as soon as you run the risk of getting bored or forgetting where you’re going, you’re getting stuck into the meat of the adventure once more.
As with many PS2 titles and older games in general, BGAE suffers from janky controls and camera at times. Nothing too off-putting, and the challenges you’re presented with are more than suited to the controls, but there are minor annoyances such as heavy movement and frustrating views during stealth segments.
Having said that, the only real challenge in BGAE comes from when the controls mess up, such as carrying on a combo longer than intended or moving Jade too far and getting spotted as a result. Puzzles are pretty simple (once you stop to think about them), none of the pearls or animal pictures are particularly hard to get, and whenever combat pops up it’s frustratingly basic.
You can evade (a quick dash), use a charge attack, or pull a basic combo. It does the job, but battles are never particularly interesting – just dodge a bit, bash away, and spam heals when you’re low on health.
The final problem I have before wrapping up this Beyond Good and Evil review is pretty much the entire final sequence. It feels fantastic to play, and it’s a wonderful climax to the game’s otherwise fairly slow, cautious pace, but after a few fairly large and unexplained reveals, you defeat the final boss and the game just sort of… ends.
There’s no significant cutscene or even a real epilogue to round the whole experience off, and as a result, you’re left a little lacking. This is probably because the game was originally planned to be the first in a trilogy, although Beyond Good and Evil 2 has been pushed back for years.
Thankfully, the sequel does appear to have been on Ancel’s mind while he worked on the various Rayman games – it’s stated to be in pre-production, although supposedly it’ll be exclusive to the Switch for 12 months before a wider release.
Despite these problems, however, BGAE is still well worth picking up and playing – it holds up even by today’s standards, if you’re not one to get hung up on cutting edge graphics and pitch-perfect controls.
Your one sentence Beyond Good and Evil review
A cult classic which holds up to this day – give it a try, and screw the second air hockey minigame.
Gaming nerd and movie over-analyzer. Has credits on Appcues, Usability Geek, and Process Street, but comes to Secret Cave to unwind and spit the shit.