You ever sit down to play a game that’s been praised up and down the internet as a cult classic, only to find that you’re just not getting it? You know, like you’ll see article after article explaining why the game is interesting and progressive and great and how people like you are the reason it never sold well in the first place, but you can’t help but disagree because you had an awful time playing the thing? I recently had that experience with Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil; I put it down just now and can’t bring myself to go back despite only having about a quarter of it left to play. So rather than reviewing the game fully – I don’t feel conformable doing that not having completed it – I’d like to try to articulate the sort of things that turned me away, and maybe even have a constructive discussion about the feelings unique to abandoning an interactive experience partway through.
So, as someone with a massive back catalogue of games who wants the flesh out their perspective as much as possible in some sort of vain and deluded attempt to talk about things with a modicum of authority, I try to have a look at as many of the “classics” as I can. And even though gaming seems far away from having anything like, say, the well-respected literature canon, I feel having people well-versed in these things is important if we want to get there one day. But going through a game requires more effort and investment than most media, which means you’ve got to choose your targets wisely.
This meant that, what with all the clamour about a squeal to Beyond Good and Evil and talk of STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONISTS that happens these days, now seemed like a pretty good time to catch up on this particular cult classic. Plus, I’m pretty sure Anita Sarkeesian just made a video about the game, which means we get to see the usual hand-wavers take to the blogosphere with the brave and heroic intention of finally foiling the gaming feminists because, in the mind of these hierarchy-enhancers, nothing is wrong with female representation in videogames because of That One Girl in That One Game That Came Out in 2003. The social criticism well is thoroughly poisoned when it comes to Beyond Good and Evil, no doubt, so I figure some technical criticism is long overdue.
I will say that, despite how I feel about Beyond Good and Evil at the moment, I was rather impressed with the first hour I had spent with it. The game kick starts with a high-octane opener that impressively shows off its Arkham-like combat and admittedly excellent soundtrack, and paints an altogether promising picture of what to expect. From there, you’re smoothly introduced to the interesting character designs that stand up to this day, and an atmospheric open world with a day-night cycle and what looks like lots of interesting places to go and interesting things to see. Plus, there’s a cute mechanic wherein our STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST, Jade, gets rewarded for snapping photos of any wildlife she happens upon throughout her adventure; an idea well-integrated enough to sit in the sweet spot between relaxing and clever.
In fact, I even enjoyed the first dungeon, oddly, as these dungeons are the things that far and away cause the most problems for Beyond Good and Evil. Which is weird, because this style is one of my favourite game structures: it’s textbook 3D Zelda design. Do a dungeon, hop back to the overworld, get the thing(s) that’ll let you into the next dungeon, repeat ‘till you’re out of dungeons. But the game’s introductory level – the Black Isle – has the perfect mix of light combat and clear puzzle design as to really highlight the way your character moves around her environment and how she’s meant to interact with the world. Add on top of that some enthralling music cues and a layer of bioluminescence-fueled visual design, and the genuine vision of game shines through. I was really feeling it at this point.
Unfortunately, what followed from there was – from my perspective – five hours of frustrating and half-baked content that stretched the bounds of my patience nearly every time I turned a corner. The next two areas, where the majority of my playtime was spent, eschew the inspired natural environment feel for more generic and far less interesting factory settings. These dungeons lack the major sense of connectivity and direction that usually accompany this much puzzle solving and backtracking; this is a fact not helped by the many missteps the game takes in its attempt to be everything at once.
You see, even if the areas you traverse become bland and the story progression loses some steam, games are sort of special in that they can always fall back on gameplay because it’s always present in most cases. If the moment-to-moment progression remains satisfying, it’s possible to have a good time in spite of the other elements not pulling their weight. Again, this is a bit unique to gaming: it’s what keeps people playing military shooters despite the fact that they tend to tread water, and what keeps people repeating the misleading “gameplay is king” mantra.
Beyond Good and Evil isn’t able to get away with this, however, because it seems to have put way more ideas on its gameplay plate than it had the time or energy to finish. It has exploration, collecting, photography, combat, platforming, stealth, first person shooting, vehicles, racing, escorting, minigames, chase sequences, resource management, etcetera. But unlike Zelda where these mechanics are either well-integrated, used infrequently, or enjoyable in their own right, Beyond Good and Evil showers them around its environments like an agonizing, 10-hour game of 52 pickup. Want to platform in a vehicle that barely controls well when you’ve got adequate room? Feel like knocking enemies into some electric wire for the 15th time so you can progress? Have a hankerin’ for some stealth that’s constantly utilizing the cumbersome first person mode? Beyond Good and Evil has your back.
Still, when these disparate styles aren’t clashing with one another, they’re quite frankly annoying in their own right. While actually combatting enemies isn’t a huge focus, unclear enemy telegraphs and largely uncooperative camera control means it becomes irritating very quickly. Let it be said though, that Beyond Good and Evil’s stealth system is far and away its largest offender. Large stretches of dungeon often incorporate areas with hugely empowered enemies that patrol small plots of ground and attack on sight, or turrets that will mercilessly end our hapless heroine in a moment’s notice. It’s bog standard stealth gameplay, combined with the aforementioned rebelliousness of the camera and questionable level layout, that makes for rooms that I found utterly maddening. I would find myself walled by these sections consistently. And not because of their genuinely difficulty; it has more to do with outright poor design.
The stealth goes to show why it’s problematic to throw the system into any old action game, especially if it’s going to be the focus of over half of your level design. Like, if we take the Metal Gear series as the hypothetical and semi-arbitrary golden standard here, it becomes obvious. In Metal Gear you can usually see all of the guards on screen at once if you position yourself properly, have a number of abilities at your disposal to distract or incapacitate them, and at the very least get a clear understanding of how they’re going to react when you’ve been spotted. Beyond Good and Evil doesn’t do any of this, and even worse, it blocks the room’s exit once the guards catch wind of you, forcing you to run back and hide in one of the all-too-convenient gutters the game’s provided you with while you hope everyone’s gone back into position. It doesn’t feel like real stealth, or like there’s a living, breathing force on the lookout for you. It just feels contrived, and artificial.
As I’ve said, most of the game felt frustrating and irritating rather than interesting or exciting. And honestly, while gameplay can be a game’s biggest motivator, it can easily become a turn off. Videogames put up resistance — they actively bar you from making progress. Movies don’t, music doesn’t, and books can’t. These things can certainly be hard to get into, or “get” in general, but none of them can physically stop you from consuming them the way games can. You can just sort of, sit and let them happen, you know? But videogames can have walls, or require certain skills and knowledge or lateral thinking. Ideally the game teaches you these skills during its runtime, and when it doesn’t, or when you get stuck not because of a lack of aptitude, but because the game wasn’t able to convey what it’d like for you to do, going on can feel sort of hopeless.
In that way, I’ve found that playing something I don’t really enjoy is a lot harder to engage with than something with say, poor writing. I knew, deep down, that after I got past whatever ill-conceived stealth section I was stuck on, there was going to be a more “difficult” one right around the corner. Then more after that. And after I finally managed to topple the dungeon, I’d be rewarded with the ability to head to next one, where I knew I’d experience largely the same thing. It’s a sad reality, but videogames are generally just like that.
It’s like… if you’re watching a bad television series, you get to think about how each story beat doesn’t work, or why the character chemistry falls flat. Even though it may not be good, it’s bad in different ways, and as a critic I feel there’s a value in accessing that. I’d also like to make a distinction between the concept I’m talking about and something like, say, predictable plot lines. Even though it can agonizing when a serial slowly builds up a twist you saw coming the moment you began watching it, wondering how it’s going to get there lets you flex some mental muscle regardless of the quality. That’s not so with a lot of videogames. Videogames tend to define their rules early and almost never bend them. How you control your character and what that feels like probably isn’t going to change much, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. It’s a component that’s going to remain consistent for every second of play time, which means that if you aren’t feeling the base mechanics, it can come off as redundant. So when games are bad, they’re usually predictably bad in a consistent way, and ask the player to continually experience it firsthand.
In the end though, I’m not entirely sure I want to call Beyond Good and Evil “bad.” I certainly didn’t have much fun, and the idea of hopping back in to do some fetch quests for the currency needed to access each subsequent dungeon makes me shudder. Still, a good number of people remember this game fondly as one of the better early action adventure titles, and my intention isn’t to take that away from anyone. I disagree with the praise, and have a hard time recommending it, but if, like me, you share a fondness for considering how critiquing something changes across mediums, it might insight some feelings. And though those feeling were mostly aggravating and very much to my chagrin, we got to wrap it up in the pretence of what I think is an interesting discussion. And that’s good, right?