The Vintage Game Club chose Beyond Good & Evil as its fourth game. I played the game when it first came out; I enjoyed it, but it didn’t make a big impact on me, and I mentally pigeonholed it as a short Zelda clone.

Still, I was happy enough to have an excuse to replay the game. One reason is that it seems to have a loyal fan base that includes people that I respect; the other is that I almost never replay games, and I’d been wondering if I should reconsider that policy. So replaying the game in company seemed like a pleasant way to address both of those issues.

I enjoyed my second playthrough of the game, no question, and in retrospect my earlier labeling of it as a Zelda clone was unfair. Having said that, I’m still not a convert to the BGE fan club. For better or for worse, I don’t have any grand theories about the game, though, so I’ll fall back on my favorite standby: a sequence of bullet points!

  • One way in which it’s not a Zelda clone: there’s quite a variety of play forms in there. Sure, there’s Zelda-style dungeon exploring and combat; there’s also photography, racing, chasing, being chased, stealth, traditional vehicle shooting, a couple of minigames, and probably some other gameplay mechanics that I’m forgetting.
  • In fact, you could argue that its dominant gameplay mechanic is stealth rather than adventure gaming; I don’t think that’s quite correct, but it’s pretty close. Which made my heart sink when I first realized/remembered that, for reasons that Greg Tanahill has recently done a great job of explaining. Having said that, I didn’t mind the stealth sections too much, even though I both dislike stealth and am not particularly good at it, so I won’t fault the game on that score.
  • Another difference from Zelda games: the world is extremely compact. There are four dungeons, but there’s no overworld, they’re all immediately accessible from the single city in the game. (Incidentally, the city does a nice job of opening up more possibilities for exploration as you progress through it.) Like Dan Bruno, I found that compactness refreshing; having said that, it was also frustrating in that there were parts of the city (the east side, the areas you can fly over) that were charming to look at but where you couldn’t actually get out and explore! (I wonder, were there once plans to flesh out those areas more fully?) I wish the game had given you more places wander in without losing its compactness, its density of experience.
  • Several people have commented on Jade’s relationship with Pey’j, and in particular the power of the scene when Pey’j gets dragged away while Jade is running back, not arriving in time: see, for example, Michael Abbott on the topic. This is doubtless a sign of my heartless nature, but, while I found Pey’j a pleasant enough companion, I didn’t find either the relationship or that cut scene particularly moving. In fact, one of my surprises when replaying the game was how pleasant I found Double-H as a companion: I’d kind of forgotten about him, but I rather enjoyed having him around. The cut scene where Jade discovered that the kids had been taken away did have an impact on me, however: apparently threats to younger generations have a visceral impact on me in a way that threats to older generations don’t. (Having a dog involved didn’t hurt, either.)
  • Which isn’t to say that I think that latter cut scene is particularly well-done, or that the logic behind it makes sense: if they really wanted to stop Jade, they should have threatened to hurt the kids, perhaps actually captured/hurt some of them. That certainly could have raised an interestingly direct moral question; I even wonder if, done right, taking that route could potentially have stopped me from continuing to take down the DomZ? (It probably would in real life.)
  • At least, that’s what I thought right after the cut scene; then, of course, it turns out that they wanted to lure Jade in further, so I guess getting her to go to the moon was part of their clever plan. The big problem with this is that the whole “Jade is a saviour with superhuman powers” aspect of the end of the game was flat out awful: it’s extremely jarring when placed against the rest of the game, and was completely unnecessary. I really do think that having the main character save the world should be enough, even by video game standards, without having to turn her into a Christ figure.
  • In a medium full of works created by white guys, Jade is distinctive in being a non-sexpot female with a hue to her skin. Which was refreshing, and the game did a few things with those breaks from tradition. It presented an optimistic view of a world where our current ethnic differences have ceased to matter, where ethnic differences in general haven’t gone away, but where they’re enriching our lives rather than hurting us. And I liked how Jade had stereotypically female aspects to her behavior (looking after the kids), stereotypically male aspects (fighting), and less-gender-marked aspects (journalism). Having said that, the game could have done a lot more with its non-stereotypical aspects: for example, I’d recently finished Persona 3, and despite playing a male character in that latter game, it puts relationship building (which I think of as female-marked) much more in the front and center.

So: good game, quite well done, especially if you cover your eyes/ears during the cut scenes in the last dungeon. But there wasn’t anything that grabbed me and made me sit up and take notice, either. I’m happy for the VGC to have played through it as our fourth game, but I’m also happy for it to be in the rearview mirror.

(A few blog entries that I found in my trawl that I didn’t work into the above: Greg Tannahill’s thoughts on the game, and two more from Michael Abbott.)

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