Retrospective Reviews: Beyond Good and Evil (2003)

Why has “Beyond Good and Evil” remained in the memories of many a gamer? Almost certainly not for its gameplay, which tended to be serviceable and forgettable. There was a reasonable diversity of things to do: racing, combat, picture-taking, stealth; but none of these would really get one’s blood pumping. They gave us stuff to do, but they were not the reason why we played.

Was it the story? I want to say: certainly not. The story, too, was fairly paint-by-numbers and predictable. This story lacked a memorable villain — I don’t even remember whether or not there was a visible villain for most of the game, and the Big Bad revealed in the end was also entirely forgettable. Worst of all was our main character, Jade, who was totally lacking in personality and in flaws. The side characters, Uncle Pej and Double H (or whatever his name was) provide a glimmer of hope, but even they were pretty flat, though amusing. We did develop a connection with them. We did feel for them. So that’s a start, but it does not tell the tale.

I think where this game really won was the universe and the atmosphere. A cartoony world under a totalitarian government being menaced by a Cthulu-like entity was weird and amusing enough to sustain interest over its short length. The denizens of the world seemed to have personality and history; the world felt “lived in”. Moreover, there was unspoken history between our main character and the other characters about the world. They would greet her as a friend, and maybe swap stories or refer to something unknown to us. This must’ve felt real, as I remember it.

The music added to the feeling of a real culture, especially the catchy faux-“European” songs that played during racing and gambling minigames.

Giving the gamer a world to live in was the big key to this game’s success.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) is a sequel to 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (2009) — a beautifully titled game. Its title is haunting, mysterious, memorable, and intriguing.  Its sequel’s title is unfortunately a much poorer effort. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward sound clunky, and neither tantalizes nor teases. It does not ignite the imagination.

Forgive me for putting so much stock in a title, but I believe that titles tell the tale. The title is the lens through which the whole work is viewed.  Is it fair to judge a translated work so heavily on a single sentence? I say it is, for these games are visual novels and must be judged as literature. They stand or fall on the strength of their writing, and in translation they must stand on the strength of their translation. In this department I was also disappointed by Virtue’s Last Reward (henceforth referred to as VLR). The English was perfect of course, but the translation was awkward at times and sometimes even inaccurate.

Lest my complaints seem too nitpicky in nature*, I shall dive into the meat of the game. Like its predecessor it is an interactive mystery horror story, and it plays largely the same as 999, but it feels different due to one crucial missing element, that is: gore. I am far from a carnage fiend. I believe that few games appreciate how to use it effectively and most would be better with far less. In 999, the rare moments of brutal violence haunted every moment of the rest of the game and provided a real sense of tension and stakes and discomfort. Though VLR is ostensibly a darker story, it feels much lighter. Everything about the game in relation to its predecessor feels expanded, but thinner. The cast has grown from eight to nine, but the characters are shallower and their stories less interesting. The story is much bigger, but its twists and turns are less satisfying, and its ultimate ending was frankly disappointing even on first viewing — a stark contrast with 999‘s ending, which managed to be both satisfying and utterly unforeseeable.

VLR is also less subtle than its predecessor.  999 dealt with themes of identity, memory, and the “collective unconscious”. This game brought up the same themes, but much more superficially and obviously.

I liked playing VLR, I was swept away by it and enjoyed the ride. The puzzles are probably as good as in the original, so it will feel mostly the same. It fails to live up to its predecessor in mood and in effect. I was less connected to these characters, and less moved by their stories. When the game was over, it did not linger in my thoughts like its predecessor, but was quickly forgotten.


*I do not apologize for this tendency in my writing. The big is in the small. The whole is in the details. This is true of a life as well as of a work of literature.