‘Beyond Good & Evil HD’ Review: Second Chance for Best Game No One Played

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Beyond Good & Evil HD
Publisher: UbiSoft
Developer: UbiSoft Montpelier
Systems it’s available on: Xbox 360
ESRB rating: Teen
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

I already know what I think about Beyond Good & Evil HD, which hits Xbox Live today. I freakin’ love it.

That foreknowledge comes of course from having played the original, standard-def Beyond Good & Evil when it first came out almost ten years ago. I reviewed it back then for a few different places and loved how it mixed genres, yet still told a cohesive story. I played it several times and still have my cherished PS2 copy sitting on the shelf.

So, the point of this review isn’t to talk about whether the HD remastering of the Ubisoft game is purchase-worthy. (It is.) And it isn’t just me saying that. Eight years of internet buzz have lionized lead developer Michel Ancel’s vision, helping to make this re-release a reality. It’s gotten to the point where the fact that BG&E 1.0 didn’t rise beyond cult status became a kind of original sin for a certain generation of gamers. “We should have supported it!”

If you’re someone who doesn’t know anything about the game, here’s the rundown: Players control a photojournalist named Jade who lives on planet Hillys. War’s been raging for years on Hillys and Jade falls in with an underground media network that’s out to prove that the paramilitary Alpha Sections are actually working with the invading Domz aliens. But, stirring up a revolution isn’t going to keep money in her pocket so Jade also snaps pictures of Hillyan fauna to earn cash from a local science center.

Beyond Good & Evil HD oozes charm. Everything about the game feels lovingly crafted.  The way you play the game makes you care for the world and the characters in a manner that few games ever achieve. Jade’s one of the most memorable game heroines ever created. She’s maternal, ethnically ambiguous and not a tart. And the rest of the game shares the same kind of authorial clarity. The dialogue, design and animations: Taking pictures of the little critters is more than a fun gameplay mechanic, it creates a bond between you and the world you’re trying to save. I love the reaction of the woman at the science center whenever you send her a photo, where it’s just lavishing positive feedback on the player. It’s especially effective when you find something rare or dangerous. She’s like your disembodied mother figure who gives you money. The camera’s a way of touching the world.  In the same vein, one of the most satisfying mechanics in the game is watching the people of Hillys’ attitudes change with every report the underground paper publishes. You feel like, “Hey, I’m really affecting this planet. I’m changing people’s lives.”

The can-we-trust-authority theme of the game can be read as a commentary on the times in which it was made, but also works today. The adventure Jade goes on is suffused with an energy of paranoia and totalitarian belligerence, making it feel like really sharp cultural commentary. In 2003, it was a perfect post-9/11 game; now, it feels like it presaged WikiLeaks.

The main triumph of BG&E gameplay is that it’s relatively simple, at least in terms of combat. Yet it gives you a nice variety of tasks that layer on top of each other–racing, stealth, photography, minigames–making it so that you’re never bored and everything feels it’s talking to each other. The stellar world-building feels like it has room to breathe. And, even though it’s on the cuter side of cartoony, the fictional planet of Hillys feels like it holds history. The widescreen treatment of this new HD version makes all the great little details in the game stand out even more.

BG&E HD takes my memories of the original release and gives them a great spit-polish. It’s a game full of wonderful characterizations full of lively, ornery personality that’s inviting and brimming with real emotional heft. If you played it in its original version, this re-release is worth re-visting. And if you’ve never made the acquaintance of Jade, Pey’J or Agent Double H, then a treat like no other awaits you. Beyond Good & Evil HD shows that playing games can create emotional connections, a trick that too many other video game experiences have yet to master.

Official Techland Score: 9.5 out of 10