When better isn't better
March 25, 2011
One of my favorite games, Beyond Good & Evil, has returned in a sparkly new HD edition. Curious about how the visual upgrade might impact my experience, I downloaded the game and played through most of it again. The verdict? Meh.
Without question, the HD edition is a graphical overhaul. The water effects look great, character models look sharper, and the new widescreen treatment makes Hillys look like a wonderful place to be hoodwinked by the Alpha Sections.
I don't object to the recent spate of HD makeovers. I'm thrilled to see Sly Cooper return for an encore; RE4 HD will undoubtedly lure me back to rural unnamed-Spain; and Ico/SotC in HD? Well, obviously, I'm there. If an HD upgrade entices a young player to try any of these games for the first time, that's justification enough for their existence.
But that's unlikely to happen with BG&E. Players uninterested in the game won't be swayed by visuals that land somewhere in the uncomfortable space between blocky last-gen and silky current-gen specs. The game looks better than the original, if enhanced textures and a 1080p resolution bump define what "better" means. But is it really better?
Part of the genius behind BG&E's design is a colorful art style that lived comfortably within the constraints of a 480p display. The original made no effort to render realistic characters or environments, nor did it adopt the cell-shaded look of Wind Waker or XIII, both released the same year.
BG&E's distinctive art direction put a premium on character design, and while I suppose Jade, Pey'j, and Double H look smoother in their HD reincarnations, I'm not at all certain they look better. In fact, since some NPC characters don't get the HD treatment (e.g. the reporter near the beginning of the game), the visual collision feels jarring in ways the original never did. What's more, the HD enhancements are by no means consistent. I found blurry textures and weird geometry throughout.
Beyond skin deep
We can quibble over textures and polygons, but ultimately these matter far less than the game design elements a graphics overhaul can't touch. It pains me to say it, but BG&E's innovative-for-its-time open world feels confining and geographically unimaginative eight years later, and its stealth and combat sections suffer in comparison to most modern games, especially when camera issues arise...and they do. Often.
Jade remains one of my favorite characters in the history of video games, and her playful relationship with Pey'j still warms my heart. But if I'm perfectly honest, I must confess that BG&E's story seemed deeper and more resonant in my memory than in my experience replaying the game.
BG&E's storytelling relies heavily on plot twists and reversals that are telegraphed from the earliest stages of the game. "Beyond Good & Evil" ultimately functions as an odd title for a game with little interest in moral complexity. We quickly learn who's good and who's pretending to be good. From there, it's mostly a dash to the finish, with a few 11th-hour plot bombs that began ticking hours earlier.
BG&E still has more charm than most games I've played, and its first hour is a virtual clinic on how to build genuine empathy for a video game protagonist. One of these days I need to write about that. But it's hard for me to see how this HD makeover enhances the original Beyond Good & Evil. Sharpening it up and encouraging us to take a closer look may just do the opposite.