BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL / Eidos / Gamecube
Meant to be Ubisoft's "Zelda killer", a lot of resources were poured into the development of Beyond Good and Evil. Strangely, not much marketing was done. So the game bombed when it first hit retail shelves, most likely because most people hadn't heard of it and had no idea what to make of this weird combination of Nietzsche title with camera-holding green lipstick chick on the box. Once the game was moved to the bargain bin and the price dropped to $20 and below, however, it started to develop a following.
It turns out the game is kinda like Zelda in Luc Besson Futureworld, just taking place in a more rustic and idyllic sort of Mediterranean-ish island chain rather than the densely packed futuristic city seen in The Fifth Element. Green lipstick chick turns out to be our protagonist Jade, who uses the proceeds of her freelance photojournalism to care for a bunch of orphans at her abandoned lighthouse island home. Said orphans are orphaned because of the DomZ (amusingly pronounced "doms"), an alien race that periodically descends from the skies in Meteo style and kidnaps people for nefarious reasons unknown.
"Oh no, I'm in one of *these* animes!"
Desperate for work to keep the electricity on (literally), Jade takes a job from some mysterious goof who turns out to be recruiting her for the underground resistance network IRIS (one different letter and this name would NOT have aged well). Y'see, there's this heavily-armed paramilitary group called the Alpha Sections who look like a goofy cartoon version of the Space Marines from Warhammer, and they're supposed to be protecting the planet from the DomZ. But they always mysteriously show up late to the party when DomZ attacks happen, and their track record on kidnapping prevention is pretty abysmal, so scuttlebutt is that they aren't what they appear to be. So most of the rest of the game is looking into that whole affair and then doing something about it.
Lead designer Michel Ancel's vision for the game world was basically "Wind Waker but with way less sailing", and that's the framework you can expect. The game world of Hillys is a much smaller area than the land of Hyrule, but you toodle about it in your little hoverboat thing in the same mostly-free style. The main thrust of the game is to get through a few "dungeon" areas, which are the Alpha Section facilities that you need to do your muckraking in. But of course you can explore the game world to find little extras hidden in caves, do a few minor side quests and enter some boat races among other things.
This take place in the 2400s, and trigger warning for alt-righties: ethno-states don't seem to have worked out. Quite the opposite, the culture is a melting pot of pretty much everything on Earth combined with some aliens and furries (like Jamaican boat repair rhinos and bartending polar bears) for good measure. The soundtrack is one of the game's highlights, flitting effortlessly between all these different influences with some very catchy tunes.
When you get out on foot, Jade fights with the aid of some sort of magical techno-staff. She's an agile fighter, and eventually gets a little disc launcher thing, but she's awfully fragile (even rats take a full heart of health off her with each bite) and is badly outclassed by the armored Alpha Sections and the techno-alien monstrosities in the later reaches of the game. Much of the game actually sees Jade trying to simply sneak past the enemies and their various security systems. Like when Link had to sneak past the pig guards in the fortress in Wind Waker, except the stealth system is way better developed and more fleshed out here (thankfully since it's so often the center of the action in dungeons). Staff combat is actually more frequent early in the game, then largely dries up in the later stages with the exception of the occasional big set-piece boss battle.
The game cycles through these various gameplay modes, sometimes unpredictably (such as early on when you've just got your hovercraft functional and are suddenly thrown into a boss battle with it). This is a double-edged sword. It does keep the game feeling fresh and unique, but it also gives it a "jack of all trades" feel. While it does everything at least decently, nothing about it save the graphics ever really feels truly excellent. On-foot combat is decent, but it's very sporadic and Jade's fragility makes it frustrating at times. Combat in the hovercraft is clumsy, but it's also extremely rare. The races and chase sequences in the hovercraft are OK, but not as good as full-on racing games.
The closest thing to excellence is the hovercraft exploration of the lovely game world, as you simply enjoy the creative and unique design and detailed, ahead-of-the-time graphics. Even this is kind of a double-edged sword, however. One of the game's central conceits is a running major side-quest to photograph one example of every biological life form in the game world, for which you get a bunch of money. This is a great idea because it incentivizes simple exploration of the world for its own sake and makes it interesting ... but it also kinda highlights it being something of a Potemkin village, with a lot of great stuff to look at but not a whole lot to actually do. The city was the biggest disappointment in this regard; when you first enter it looks like this huge bustling place that will be amazing to explore, but then you find out it's confined to just one fairly small on-foot area and the hovercraft races.
Also, don't let the title fool you into thinking this is some sort of "mature" game with philosophical pretensions. While a few plot elements are introduced that are a bit darker than stock kiddie Nintendo fare, this is mostly at the lighthearted level of the typical Zelda game. It should really be called Clearly Good and Evil. The Alpha Sections are obvious fascists right from the beginning of the game, and the evil invading aliens are a very basic stock archetype. It's not bad, but it sure as hell ain't Nietzsche.
Though you're left feeling it should have been longer and more fleshed out, there is still more than enough meat on the bones here to make it worth a purchase. It's definitely one of the most unique and original game concepts to be treated with a AAA budget. The original Gamecube release was considered the best version at the time, but the more modern PC port seems to be just about on equal footing.
* Gameplay Video