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Jade and Pey'J return on XBLA and PSN in the most cult of Ubisoft's many classics...
Michel Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil couldn't possibly define the word 'cult' better if it tried. Despite some middling reviews and poor sales upon its release in 2003, the game has refused to go quietly into the night. It's made numerous top 100 games of all time lists (it made TVG's Games of the Decade feature just over a year ago) and at UbiDays 2008, when a sequel was teased through a short CGI trailer, there was a standing ovation from the crowd. It's the sort of game that critics love to talk about through pretentiously rose tinted spectacles, lauding how it was 'way ahead of its time' and so forth. The fact of the matter is that it was a very imaginative and brave game concept for its time (and that would remain the case today to be honest), which made it hard to market and resulted in a lack of commercial success when Ubisoft didn't quite manage to advertise a clear message about the game prior to its release.
So why was it such a difficult game to explain? Well, in many ways it could be described simply as an action/adventure title. There's some fairly basic one-button combat, nuanced with a dodge move and some pretty slick camera work around it all. This is then punctuated by the odd puzzle - nothing too taxing really; mostly based around the same ideas and mechanics but fleshed out in a slightly different way each time. But it's all of the gameplay around this core that made Beyond Good & Evil so memorable. Playing as Jade, a heroine who spends her days looking after orphaned alien children in a lighthouse of sorts, gamers are tasked with progressing her photography career by cataloguing species of rare animals on her home planet, Hillys, amid an invasion by the 'DomZ' (these are spindly beasts a bit like the face-huggers from Aliens, only a lot bigger).
A local scientific laboratory is concerned about the plight of these rare animals during the ongoing war and so wants to keep precise photographic records of their existence. For each photograph of an animal that Jade provides the lab, she's given credits in return (which vary according to the animal's rarity) that allow her to keep the energy shield to the orphanage running and protect the orphans from the DomZ. Some missions do require you to photograph a specified species but the gameplay dynamic is fairly open throughout. During general exploration or while going between A and B on a separate task, you'll often come across a new animal that can be photographed and this effectively adds a whole other layer of gameplay depth beyond mere combat and puzzles. We know, we know - 'Alien photo-journalism in a game?! Who thought that up?' - but stick with us because it's about to get a whole lot weirder.
So, accompanying Jade along the way is a talking pig called Pey'j. He's a bit of a whizz with a spanner and Jade often calls on him for help with some of the mechanical tasks in the puzzles (e.g. fixing their hovercraft). Pey'j also lends a hand during combat by, for example, forcing enemies out of their hiding holes so that Jade can give them a fair old whack with her staff. It's a kind of semi-automated relationship... Jade can prompt Pey'j to do certain tasks but he'll often take it upon himself, while she can also top-up his health by offering 'Starko' health packs. As far as AI partners on the previous-gen consoles go, Pey'j is pretty much as good as they come. He not only responds fairly well to your commands (albeit with some prodding required at times) but such is the appeal of his character that you also end up forming a bond with him along the way.
As you progress in the game by completing missions and photographing more species, upgrades are unlocked such as a camera zoom and new items for Jade's hovercraft (which you can get from a garage run by Rastafarian rhinos, no less). All the while, a central plotline rife with conspiracies leads Jade deep into the underworld of the IRIS Network; a secretive organisation which is convinced that Alpha Section, the planet's supposed protectors, are in league with the DomZ. To put all of that another way, Beyond Good & Evil is nothing if not imaginative, but has it lost any of that vividness in the shortfall of seven years-wroth of graphical advancements?
In short, not really. The sensation is similar to playing the XBLA revamp of Perfect Dark: despite the relative graphical simplicity of the game, the game world itself still manages to be immersive. It's a bit like why a good book can actually be more powerful than a film - somehow, the gaps you fill in with your imagination are more vivid than photorealistic graphics could ever be. This revamp polishes up the game's source code with the all-important HD resolution, more vibrant lighting, and textures that are smoother and crisper all-round. Particular attention to detail has been put into the finer points of the character models for Jade and Pey'j, which manage to hold their own against the lead characters in some current-gen games - Ubisoft Shanghai has even gone to the extent of adding a few freckles to Jade's cheeks.
But this HD revamp is more of a heavy-duty polishing job than a complete overhaul really, and it's a testament to how good the original game's visuals were for their time that Beyond Good & Evil HD still manages to look so enticing to this day. Going back to play the 2003 original, we also noticed a couple of very fine gameplay tweaks that seem to have been incorporated. The pace of the combat appears to have been slowed down a touch, making for a more fashionable rhythmic approach rather than the frenzied button-mashing synonymous with previous-gen titles.
With any luck, Beyond Good & Evil HD will receive the commercial success over XBLA and PSN that it so heartily deserved all the way back in 2003. If ever there was a game that's proved itself worthy of a second chance then it's Beyond Good & Evill, and this HD version is precisely that chance.
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