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20 years later, Ubisoft’s smallest world is still its best

The remaster of 2003 action-adventure classic Beyond Good and Evil harkens back to a time when Ubisoft's worlds were smart, not sprawling.

Pig man Pey'j from Beyond Good and Evil.

In the years after Beyond Good and Evil‘s launch and subsequent flop, it’s taken on a legendary status as a shining example of originality in the action-adventure space. In 2003, following the success of the Rayman games, Michel Ancel turned his hand to a new IP, moving to a darker, more young-adult-oriented universe inspired by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and late ’80s to early ’90s animation. Now, Ubisoft’s newly remastered 20th-anniversary edition offers some quality-of-life improvements, bumps up the visual fidelity, and presents an easy entry point to one of the most charming videogame worlds yet created.

Born in the mid stages of the PlayStation 2’s life cycle, Beyond Good and Evil comes from a time when developers were still getting to grips with full-3D open-world game design. 20 years later, it still plays surprisingly well, but what’s especially notable is how it helped to lay the groundwork for the types of big-budget action adventures that now ship modern consoles in their tens of millions.

Jade fighting an alien-like enemy in Beyond Good and Evil.

Its forward-thinking nature is immediately evident in its combat. Jade swings her Daï-jo staff with dovelike elegance, gracefully shifting from enemy to enemy. This style of target-switching fluidity feels like a precursor to Assassin’s Creed’s counter-based system and even Rocksteady’s generation-defining Batman Arkham brawls. But while Ubisoft undoubtedly created something inspiring in 2003, the publisher and its modern videogame lineup would do well to reflect on what exactly made Jade’s debut so beloved.

Unlike the sprawling worlds that Ubisoft is now known for, Beyond Good and Evil offers a more authored yet still open-ended design. By 2024 standards, the planet of Hillys is minuscule, with a cross-map trek in your hovercraft likely taking a couple of minutes at most. I grew to know this world and its people intimately throughout my ten-hour quest, which plays out across a handful of interconnected zones. But despite its smaller scale and tight runtime, Beyond Good and Evil still feels like a grand adventure.

A hovercraft racing across the water in Beyond Good and Evil.

Jade, Pey’j, and the rest of the game’s freedom-fighting entourage are pulled along by the narrative’s stakes with as much or as little downtime in between as you please. No momentum is lost by spending several hours searching for crafting materials or grinding thanks to some arbitrary level-gating. Getting from A to B is also speedy, and there’s a real sense that the game values your time. If you want to explore off the beaten path, there are hovercraft races, treasure hunts, and photographable critters peppered through the world. This, however, is not a game designed with mechanical player retention in mind, and it’s all the better for it.

Structurally, Beyond Good and Evil owes more to The Legend of Zelda than it does to early open-world trailblazers like Grand Theft Auto 3. As you traverse various hub zones, you’ll usually deviate from the set path to explore dungeons to obtain plot-relevant items. Outside of fantasy games, dungeons have largely fallen out of fashion, but with modern Assassin’s Creed games now resembling RPGs, I’d love to see Ubisoft trial them once again. A well-paced dungeon doesn’t mean slogging for hours through labyrinthine hallways; they’re best as playgrounds for novel new mechanics mixed with combat, puzzles, and platforming.

Jade standing in the city streets in Beyond Good and Evil.

One thing that strikes me like a swing from Jade’s blade is just how charming Beyond Good and Evil is. The game’s anthropomorphic cast is delightful, often witty, and always affable. The writing is shot through with sincerity, and the humor endears you to the odd cast without the sense anyone’s attempting to hit a quip quotient.

Ubisoft has reassured fans yet again that the sequel, which was announced back in 2008, is still in development. When, if ever, it sees the light of day, I have to hope some of the original’s well-paced, economical design shines through. That said, Beyond Good and Evil isn’t remembered as a mechanical masterpiece; it’s adored because of its playfulness, its willingness to experiment, and – above all – its unapologetic Frenchness. Let your freak flag fly, Ubisoft, and give Jade and Pey’j the delightfully weird follow-up they deserve.