Saturday, March 5, 2011

What Lies Beyond...?

The year was 2003. A whirlwind romance led me down the aisle with little doubt or complaint. I was madly in love, this much I knew.  But, what I did not know was that a few scant months later I would meet another young lady who would capture much more than just my imagination…

Her name was Jade – a mysterious and exotic moniker to be sure.  She was quite the girl; the kind you don’t easily forget. She was a freedom fighter, a daring photojournalist and badass martial artist all rolled into one dynamic package. We shared a rollicking adventure together, she and I. We freed her home planet of Hillys from the clutches of the nefarious DomZ and all was right in the world.

And then, just like that, she was gone. One can only hold a tigress by her tail for so long, I suppose…

My cheeky, dime-store-novel introduction aside, Ubisoft's Beyond Good and Evil was a game that had a profound effect on me on various levels. In year that saw the release of the latest flavors in huge selling franchises like Pokemon, Zelda and Grand Theft Auto, BG&E wasn’t a mega-seller by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a critical darling, an “arthouse” game if you will, that had character, moxie even; something most franchise sequels sorely lack. The experience, as a whole, seemed to be screaming out, “Hey, look at me! This is how it’s done!”

The specialness of BG&E begins with its rock solid and diverse play mechanics. Whether you were piloting the hovercraft, sneaking past Alpha Section troopers, snapping pictures of the Hillys wildlife or laying the smack down Dai-jo combat staff style, all the elements came together seamlessly to form a most coherent whole. This is something BG&E shared with many favorites in my gaming past: Raid Over Moscow, Infiltrator and the Beach Head games on the C64 and Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 most notably. Why more games released today can’t/won’t do this is a mystery to me. And no, an insipid collection of mini-games with the word “PARTY” slapped on the box does not count.

Then there was Jade herself who was, and still is, something of an anomaly in regard to female video game characters. She’s “Zen chic,” to coin a phrase: she’s strong and empowered without just being a bitch, yet maintains a lithe femininity and beauty (green lipstick, FTW!) that’s all wrapped up in a distinctly proportional body. 

Don’t feed the people, but we feed the machines/Can’t really feel what international means...”

Every time I hear that line from a favorite, Rush song of mine thoughts of Beyond Good & Evil always pop into my head. For those who have played the game the reasons why the first part of that lyric carries weight should be evident. It’s the “international” in the second stanza that didn’t hit me until later on. To me, most RPG’s have patently Eastern feel and the majority of FPS’s have a Western flavor, BG&E has an international flair that I found entirely refreshing.  From the Rastafarian rhinos at the Mammago Garage to the Asian ambience of the Akuda Bar and the down home, Middle American “go get’em” attitude of Uncle Pey’j, this game had a global appeal that almost anyone could identify with and which, I think, is directly related to the myriad gameplay styles I mentioned earlier. And in keeping with the international theme, I thought it would be interesting to call on some “worldly” journalist friends to get their perspectives on Beyond Good & Evil.

Malaysian game journalist, Ian Miles Cheong , sees the politics of the game mirroring current events: “Beyond Good and Evil  was lighthearted, but it presented serious topics like freedom of information and human rights without being patronizing. It was a game that respected the player's intelligence. In many ways, the pro-democracy demonstrations that are currently happening in the Middle East remind me of Beyond Good & Evil. The game really managed to capture that revolutionary atmosphere from the perspective of a photo-journalist intent on revealing the truth of the society she lived in.” 

Pete Davison, British contributor to such sites as GamePro, Games Are Evil and The Big Pixels, was drawn in by the visuals and the uniqueness of Miss Jade: Two things specifically stand out when I think about Beyond Good and Evil:  the visual design, and the main character Jade. The distinctive visual style, where no two lines are parallel and everything is deliberately quite ‘angular’ mean that the game has aged very well and still looks good today -- good enough for an HD re-release without any significant upgrades needing to be made to the graphics, in fact. It's actually a very similar approach to what Blizzard did with World of Warcraft's visuals, and it worked well there too.

“Jade, meanwhile, is one of the best female protagonists we've seen in the medium. She's got a distinctive ‘look’ of her own -- from her clothes to the way she moves; she has a likeable personality that means the player is happy to play as her; but more than anything, it's refreshing to play as a female character who isn't overtly sexual and is in possession of a pair of breasts that don't defy all known laws of physics.”

Maria Montoro, Owner and Editorial Director of Game Dynamo (Spain/USA) was brought into the experience by the soundtrack but stayed for the diverse gameplay, much like myself: “The soundtrack of Beyond Good and Evil was an epic element that unconsciously transported you to the beautifully depicted world of Hillys, smoothly dragging you even further into the story. The variety of gameplay styles was a breakthrough. Fighting and platforming had been done before, but the addition of elements like clever puzzles, stealth, racing, and even a couple of arcade games into the formula made this game so unique. You never knew what waited around the corner, as you headed towards the slaughterhouse or visited the local bar. Plus, snapping pictures of odd creatures and collecting pearls was oh-so-rewarding that it kept pulling me forward.

“The remastering of the game for Xbox LIVE and PSN couldn’t make me happier; I can’t wait to relive this enthralling experience with HD visuals, which will make the presentation even more magical than it already was. Hopefully this release will have a grand welcoming, resulting in a truly official and unstoppable comeback of the franchise.”

Much like Maria echoed my sentiments regarding the gameplay, I wholeheartedly echo her anticipation for the upgraded, HD version of Beyond Good and Evil hitting XBLA and PSN this week.  And although there have been tantalizing hints at a sequel, a Ubisoft producer plainly stated  (via Gamespot and Eurogamer) last week that if the sequel to the game is ever to see the light of day, this “new” version of BG&E needs to sell. So, if you are a truly a fan of the game, now is your chance to show it. Return to the planet of Hillys and revisit your good friends (and hated enemies) there. For those of you who don’t know what all the fuss is about, well, now is your chance to explore this eclectic, pan-cultural hybrid of awesomness.

It was a true crime that original Beyond Good and Evil didn’t get into the hands of enough gamers when it originally came out. It would be even more of a crime if the gaming world as a whole was denied a sequel to this truly singular title.

Let’s not have that happen, shall we?