Thank goodness, yes it is. There's a horrible tension when you return to a game that's entered legend. What if it was hype? What if things have moved on so far that it creaks and you feel silly trying to play it? Worst of all, what if you've been desperately hoping for an oft-suggested sequel, getting excited at the prospect of its existence, and then you discover the original wasn't what you remembered? Thank goodness, Beyond Good & Evil is still every bit as wonderful.
Hillys, a planet under siege by an alien enemy known as the DomZ, is the home of Jade, a photographic journalist and foster parent to the area's increasing population of orphans. It's an odd place, where various anthropomorphised species co-exist in a city made up of a collection of islands. Frequent attacks from the DomZ mean life is constantly interrupted with bombardments from horrendous beasts, while many citizens are kidnapped, and never heard of again.
Jade, on her private island, in her lighthouse home, is immediately one of gaming's most completely lovely people. Not only is she the most modestly attractive videogame character ever to have stolen our hearts, but she dedicates all her spare time to raising orphans. Living with her "uncle", Pey'j, a pig-like creature who helps Jade raise the kids as well as working on mechanical projects in his workshop, times are tough. The electricity is cut off due to late payment right as an attack arrives, leaving them without a shield. This leads to the kidnapping DomZ beasts trapping a number of Jade's adopted children. These alien foes get seven shades of crap pummelled out of them as you're introduced to Jade's dai-jo staff-based combat.
Needing money, Jade picks up work cataloguing Hillys' flora and fauna for a database. Which means as the game begins, your first post-fight task is to walk around your island, taking photographs.
It's a remarkably gentle introduction, letting you explore all the nooks and crannies of the lighthouse and surrounding area. You quickly get used to using the camera, snapping pictures of the various species of children living with you, your pet dog, and the wild creatures that live nearby. With enough on film, you receive your first payment, and get the electricity back on. It's so mundane, so calm, that it's hard to imagine any game daring to open this way. But it sets a mood that's essential to understanding everything that's going to follow. Jade is a calm, practical person, thrown into remarkable circumstances. She's not an action hero, and isn't going to become one.
What struck me most, returning to this after many years, was quite how unlike anything else the game was. There are comparisons to be drawn, certainly. The gorgeous chunky cartoon world (still adorable after over five years, thanks in part to smart design in the first place, and partly due to the PC version happily scaling to enormous resolutions) and third-person action are in some ways traditional, recalling Ratchet & Clank. That mixture of relaxed exploration punctuated by frantic action. However, this is a whole other kind of relaxed.
The story's broken up into four distinct chapters: the early exploration and discovery of the city, The Factory, the Slaughterhouse, and finally the Moon. However, between each you're left to your own devices in a remarkably unhurried fashion. I'm so sick of games telling me I can choose what I want to do, while screaming in my ear that I need to be hurrying somewhere else. While perhaps Jade has good reasons for pressing on as the plot progresses, the game doesn't fuss at you if you want to compete in one of the hovercraft races, or chase pirates, or hunt in caves for pearls, or just go and have a chat with the kids milling around the lighthouse or sunbathing on the cliffs. Maybe play a game with a shark in the bar (a shark, geddit?!). Or, most of all, using a scanner you've purchased, go on the hunt for other species you haven't photographed yet. There's a marvellous story to play through, and the game's distinctly different styles appear in those narrative sections, but BG&E isn't hurrying you. It's a quiet, gentle game, and it wants you to feel that, to relax into it.
Hillys is apparently being protected by a military force called The Alpha Section. Their constant, omnipresent messages on TV, radio and floating video screens, assure citizens that without them the DomZ would kill them all, and how grateful they should be to their Alpha Section overlords. Unsurprisingly, this is less than truthful. Jade soon discovers an underground movement of rebels called The IRIS Network, who are plotting against the Alpha Section, who they maintain are in league with the DomZ. Joining IRIS, Jade's photojournalistic skills are put to good use, as she's sent into the Alpha Section areas to photograph illicit activity and send it back to IRIS, who then publish it in their underground literature aimed at undermining the authorities.
Each of the three Alpha Section areas shifts the style of play into a combination of puzzle solving and stealth, and for once in the history of the universe, this doesn't mean it starts to suck. Games that aren't primarily about stealth, but then suddenly switch gears and demand you creep everywhere, tend to fall apart pretty quickly. Jade's tip-toeing is instantly fun, and not painfully slow thanks to her super-slinky forward rolling. As you sneak from room to room, you're given the choice of trying to sneak past guards, or taking them out by attacking them from behind. Either comes with risks, and neither is punitive.
Perhaps the secret to the success of the game's differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade's capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb. This also counts for combat, which is really nothing more than hammering a single button, and occasionally drawing on the skills of your buddy. Generally whacking at random gets the job done, but that's fine here, in a game that's far more interested in your photographing creatures than smashing their heads in.
The buddies in question are Pey'j, and later HH, a member of IRIS who works for the Alpha Section. Both muck in for fights, but more importantly can stomp hard enough to launch baddies in the air, letting Jade pull of a snazzy slo-mo smackdown, mostly used for solving combat-based puzzles. Having these two around, HH after Pey'j has tragically been kidnapped, also gives Jade someone to chat to as she progresses, and importantly, offers the interaction to reveal the depths of emotion in the game.
Pey'j's kidnapping is oddly horrifying. Jade's reaction is powerful, and provides far more incentive to move on with the story than nags or forced progression ever could. He's got to be rescued! Jade loves him!
But later in the game, when the lighthouse is destroyed and the children are missing, is the game's most masterful moment. Jade, sat on the floor of the ruined lighthouse, hugging her knees and ignoring HH's futile attempts to comfort her, is heart-wrenching. Then as HH gives up, leans against the wall and his head tips back in defeat - this is how cut-scenes are done, people. This is how they are great. And it's not the last time the game plans to pull the emotional rug from underneath you.
BG&E is a game that knows that ever-increasing difficulty, non-stop action, and incessant dangled carrots are not necessary. Just being consistently good is what matters. Being consistently good in a vivid world, with complicated and honest characters, and the most likeable lead in gaming history - that's how you become something really special. That's not to mention the wonderful score, and the superb voice acting (all apart from the Governer/photograph woman, who is eye-scrunchingly bad in an otherwise amazing cast).
Of course, it's also how you don't sell many copies. The game was never a success, despite being critically adored, and remembered fondly by very many people. That it is finally receiving a sequel still feels like a trick being played on the keen. It was always meant to be a trilogy, and anyone who's watched past the credits on the original will look at the three lonely screenshots we've seen so far and hug themselves with glee when they see the bandage on Pey'j's arm, and know that it's being faithful.
I can't recommend revisiting Hillys again enough. And despite originally playing it on the PS2, I strongly suggest getting the PC version from Steam if you can. Quite how a five year old game can run at 1680x1050 I'm not sure, but it certainly does. Quick tip: turn off anti-aliasing. At higher resolutions you don't need it, and it fixes a bug which otherwise causes texture-flashing that can make it pretty unplayable. Switched off, the game just looks fantastic.
There, made it the whole way through without declaring that I'm in love with Jade and her lovely green lips.