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Beyond the Mundane
By: Andrew Long
Once upon a time, there was a company named Camelot. This fabulous bastion of quality game development had knocked off a heap of RPGs for various Sega systems, games that were, at least contemporaneously speaking, adequate; that is to say, by the standards that existed before companies like Square and... Square upped the ante in the sixteen bit days, these games would pass as playable under the definition of most RPG enthusiasts. Sadly, by the time 1996 rolled around, this definition had by and large ceased to exist as such. By 2000, now-defunct websites were demanding donations in the thousands of dollars before they would even consider forcing one of their reviewers to play through and review the stagnant tripe Camelot continued to issue forth from its rancid bowels. Which brings us to your resident glutton for punishment and his latest foray into the sunny fields of masochistic self-inflicted punishment, a toasty little microwaveable coaster entitled Beyond the Beyond.
After a creaky introductory FMV sequence that explains little but does manage admirably to convey the nature of the awful character design the game has going for it, players are immediately blitzkrieged with a psychedelic kaleidoscope of death centerpieced by a hideously drawn busty young lass cradling a bombed-out dragon that looks for all the world like the reptilian equivalent of Keith Richards. Actually, the dragon is named Steiner, and he's the friend (not pet, mind you) of Finn, your run-of-the-mill 14-year-old who's just aching to get thrown into a series of events beyond his control. After hypnotizing players and stealing their credit card numbers, Camelot plunks both Finn and Uglydragon into what is easily the most insipid hometown anywhere. Even in 1996, this town was achingly dull, and looking at it for too long is likely to give anyone a headache. At any rate, soon there's an evil cave with an evil something or other nearby that eats some magical crayons or something, forcing our young hero out the door and into the slightly less mundane business of saving the world.
So cue up the stirring chords of a world-map theme. This is probably the best part of the game, actually. The music in Beyond the Beyond is pretty passable, if tending heavily in the direction of painfully distorted flutes and the occasional shrill note. Unfortunately, the sound effects don't really follow suit, which is evident as soon as the first battle of thousands begins with a jarring electronic sound that hearkens to a helicopter being strangled with christmas lights. Other enjoyable aural features include recycled sounds that can represent anything from running to a sword swinging to gliding through the air on wings of gossamer or slime and careening into various objects. The sound made by swords tends towards squishing, and various other wails and duts and blips that have no place in any game developed after 1988 crop up with terrifying regularity. Still, the rest of the game rightly shouldn't exist either, so this is hardly the most noticeably bad element.
That particular distinction goes to the fighting, for several reasons. Looming largest is the encounter rate in Beyond the Beyond, which can only be called maddening. There are two reasons for this particular feature: first, the world map is actually pretty small, so fights every three steps or so help to disguise the fact that there really isn't much in the way of shimmering vistas and breathtaking scenery to parade through. Secondly, character building in Beyond the Beyond requires a boatload of experience. Neither of these mitigating factors will be of particular comfort to anyone who has to endure three fights in five footsteps (a frequent occurence), but at least once the action begins, it's comforting to realize that Camelot has gone out of its way to rip off pretty much every other game that was in existence at the time, with the noticeable exceptions of the ones that were any fun to play. As a result, things come across as two parts Dragon Warrior, a pinch of Paladin's Quest and just the faintest hint of Lunar.
What does this mean? Well, rigid turn-based action with the old RPG staples of fight, magic, defend, item and run. There is allegedly some sort of system in effect whereby if you press a button it increases the likelihood of defending, countering, or double-attacking, but it isn't governed by any reasonable mathematics, and as a result button mashing is the only hope of actually using this feature to your advantage. In any event this does nothing to disguise the fact that the battle system is horribly unbalanced for the first half of the game, and tedious throughout. This is because players do not gain access to enough party members to be able to fight effectively for quite some time, and as an added bonus, one of the four characters available early on is cursed, so he's pretty much worthless half the time. Strangely, Camelot was thoughtful enough to throw in a (poorly) hidden character, so random battles are never uniformly difficult as a result of heroic understaffing, but there are so many of them that the cumulative effects become a challenge after wandering through a floor or two of most of the game's badly designed dungeons. Even splitting HP into two categories - VP, which serve as HP, and LP, which is a pool of reserve points each character draws from if his or her VP hits zero - does not ease this particular problem.
Actually, perhaps it is not entirely fair to say the dungeons are badly designed - after all, some thought went into the tedious and moronic puzzles that are sprinkled liberally throughout every single dungeon, so they are consistently styled, if nothing else. That said, even most old-school RPGs did not find it necessary to bludgeon players about the head with feeble pattern recognition tasks, and so it remains a mystery why the fine people at Camelot continually deem this design element essential to the success of their games (Golden Sun, anyone?). It would not be half as bad solving these brainless puzzles (usually by the strikingly similar process of pressing a button, block, or switch or conversely, failing to do so) if they weren't constantly punctuated by the even more tedious battles. Unfortunately, despite being cognizant enough of this potential for maddening boredom to utilize six separate battle themes, Camelot lacked the prescience to avoid these problems outright. In the end, the rest of Beyond the Beyond is not ultimately terrible, but because battles comprise so much of the game play, it makes no difference, because they seem that way through the magic of guilt by association.
Case in point: the plot. Amidst the constant fighting (the lawns outside Zalagoon are absolutely seething with slimes, suggesting a very glurpy trek indeed), it may come as a surprise to some players that there is in fact a story linking all these pointless fights together. It isn't much of a story, to be sure, but it does have all the time-tested elements - for instance, an evil emperor in the land of evil with his evil plans and sympathetic character flaw that makes all the evil understandable in the end. There's also almost-but-not-quite character deaths galore, badly concealed identities abounding throughout, thinly veiled plot twists at every turn, and a wonderful group of cliched characters. There are also, hilariously, a number of names stolen from Tolkien and applied in poorly veiled spelling to various items and monsters. Camelot apparently fears copyright law so badly it couldn't even go so far as to include a Balrog in the game, opting instead to name it Barrog.
It's this sort of dodginess that continually erodes the perceived quality of the game's translation. Dialogue alternates between anachronism and a poor attempt at something resembling formality, and Steiner the Dragon keeps trying to be Nall and failing miserably at every turn, thankfully. Other characters complain about perceived insults that never take place, players alternate between chasing "Vicious Ones" and "Viscious Ones," and a score of other errors and inconsistencies crop up throughout this resoundingly mediocre job. The plot is bad enough without dragging it down like this, and all credibility goes out the window with lines that go something like "Oh! There is Finn, and he is astride Steiner. They are off on their fantastic journey." Yes. There is nobody who talks like this. Anywhere. There never has been. Why translators fail to realize this is a mystery, but even Yuna's pop-stardom is preferable to blandness on this scale.
Even given the opportunity to utilize sexy new non-Sega visual technology, Camelot instead opts to fall flat on its face and strain out some more mediocrity. After the world map, which looks pretty good for its time, the graphics are ugliness wrapped in wasted effort garnished with poor concepts galore. Battles take place in 3D environments, with 2D sprites doing most of the work. These sprites obviously don't look in the mirror too often, because they look terribly jaggy at anything other than the resolution they originally appear at, which unfortunately changes the second they move. The opening FMV sequence labors like a cat giving birth to an elephant, and as previously mentioned, whoever did the character art for Beyond the Beyond must live in a seriously frightening world, because every character portrait is strikingly ugly. Women look rather as though their faces are naugahyde sacks filled with dough, with saucer-like eyes and dreamy expressions. Men, on the other hand, look like women, except for those that just look badly drawn. No attempt is made to use pleasant color schemes in most areas, and the end result is a game that really could look much better.
As has been touched upon before, Camelot has never contributed anything to the evolution of RPGs, save for the addition of annoying puzzles. This trend continues with Beyond the Beyond, and then some. Anyone looking for new ideas here will be fresh out of luck and probably should have known better to begin with. Shakespeare would envy the number of stock characters used here, and when you take away the various puzzles, the dungeons are all the same.
Of much greater concern is the interface, which is deeply painful to slog through. While shopkeepers buy equipment when replacing it, it is impossible to unequip armor and weapons unless another piece is in inventory, ready to be equipped. To compound the situation, there is a slim number of items that can be carried at any time. In addition, there is virtually no possibility of changing the appearance of the menu, and as an added affront, the character portraits leer out in their hideous glory whenever players access status screens.
Needless to say, there is no reason to ever play through this game a second time. The only sidequests are almost impossible to find, but if a player does happen to stumble upon them (the only way to manage it), they are also ridiculously easy, so even this does not provide any enticement. Depending on how easily you adapt to the painful battle system, Beyond the Beyond will steal between 20 and 25 hours of your life. These are not hours well spent, so don't say you weren't warned.
Indeed, there is scant reason to play through Beyond the Beyond the first time. The GIA was right to demand thousands in exchange for the menial task, and any sane person would make a similar demand before undertaking this highly pointless endeavour. While this game isn't the worst to appear on the PlayStation, it certainly comes close, and that's saying a lot.
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