Beyond the Beyond

Long ago, a cataclysmic battle raged between the Beings of Light and the Warlocks of the Underworld, although both sides ultimately came to a truce, with the former agreeing to stay on the surface of the Earth while the latter agreed to remain underground. After centuries of peace, however, strange beings have begun appearing in the Common World, and a young warrior named Finn must embark on a quest to stop the evil powers that have broken the ancient treaty. Beyond the Beyond, developed by Camelot Software Planning (which had produced many titles for Sega as Sonic! Software Planning), was one of the very first titles for the Sony PlayStation, but unfortunately an everlasting nadir of the system’s titles.

Most noticeably hurting the game is its abysmally-high random encounter rate, with turn-based battles having up to five characters participating, three in front row and two in the back row, those in the front dealing more yet taking more physical damage and those in the back taking less yet dealing less physical damage. Characters have the options of attacking normally, using magic (with most spells having adjustable levels that consume different amounts of MP), defending, or using an item. The player, however, can choose to have all characters attempt to escape or allow the A.I. to take charge of character commands, though odds are that most players will want to manually input commands.

Once the player has inputted all commands, characters and enemies take their turns depending upon speed; interestingly, character/enemy turn order actually stays consistent in each battle unlike in many other turn-based RPGs, where turn order is often random in each round. However, Beyond the Beyond features an annoying gimmick called the Active Playing System where diamonds briefly hover above a character or enemy’s head when they reach their turn, during which the player, according to the instruction book, can supposedly input certain button sequences in hopes of defending an attack or landing a critical blow; however, it really just involves random button mashing, even if it does somewhat increase the odds of the player’s characters doing more damage and reducing enemy damage.

The Active Playing System, however, just needlessly drags out battles, no help at all given the frequency of encounters. Another feature that hurts the game more than helps is the division of character health into Vitality Points and Life Points. If a character loses all his or her VP, they become “groggy,” in which case they remain stunned until they return to normal their next turn, with some of their LP depleting to recover their VP. If a character loses all VP and has no LP, then they die, although the player can revive them with a certain item/spell or at churches. While an interesting idea, it often puts players at a disadvantage, for instance, when they fight multiple magicians, who can easily turn all characters groggy with attack spells that hit everyone.

Winning a fight nets all character experience (with levels, despite the high encounter rate, rising very slowly), and some money. If a character has advanced twenty levels, the player can “promote” them, in which case their level resets to one and they can wear more powerful equipment. If the player loses a battle, they return to the last save point with only Finn alive and half the party’s money lost, although there is a vault in the first town where the player can put gold to somewhat nullify this loss. All in all, while the battle system does have some redeeming aspects, it quickly wears out given the frequency of fighting and drawn-out nature of battles, and can easily make this twenty-hour game seem more like two hundred hours.

Gameplay outside battle doesn’t fare any better, with a noticeably terrible direction on how to advance the main storyline, along with the lack of item descriptions (with the instruction book only mentioning a few item effects). Conveniences such as a viewable in-game overworld map and the ability to warp to visited areas unfortunately don’t become available until later in the game, and even the latter convenience is somewhat awkward, with the player having to teleport characters not in the active party (once more than five are acquired) to other towns in order to warp to them. While many dungeons also feature puzzles, frequent encounters often interrupt them, making dungeon treks a chore. Ultimately, interaction is burdensome at best.

Even in the game’s time, the story was generic RPG fare, given elements such as a protagonist with a somewhat mysterious past, a diminutive dragon pet akin to Nall and Ruby in the Lunar games, ancient forces of darkness, and so forth. The plot is poorly-paced, as well, with the aforementioned lack of direction being prevalent, along with scant character development and a weak translation, full of unnatural, sometimes superfluous dialogue like “Let’s go to Zalagoon. The King of Zalagoon will help us!” The script also features many Engrish versions of names taken from Tolkien and Norse mythology such as Gundalf, Gimri, Barrog, Tolle, and the like. Ultimately, Beyond the Beyond is definitive proof of why developers need to hire actual professional writers to work on their games’ stories, not to mention their localizations.

The soundtrack, though, is probably the strongest part of the game, one of composer Motoi Sakuraba’s earliest efforts, and can actually be pleasant at times. Sakuraba-san, aware that most time in the game is spent in battle, included a decent variety of battle tracks, with some of the town and dungeon tracks being nice as well. Granted, the quality of some pieces leaves plenty to desire, with choral tracks, for instance, sounding somewhat flatulent. The sound effects are also odd, with some sounding like odd whooshing and lasers that would be more at home in a modernistic or futuristic RPG rather than a medieval title like Beyond the Beyond. In the end, the aurals are probably the best aspect of the game, though that isn’t saying a whole lot.

The game’s visual direction leaves more to desire, with Beyond the Beyond’s graphics somewhat resembling those in other Camelot-developed titles such as the Shining Force series, with chibi character sprites that shake around oddly to show emotion during cutscenes, along with lip-flapping character portraits during said scenes (although setting text speed to its fastest setting skips through the lip-flapping). The art is downright hideous, with most human and humanoid characters looking as though they have Down syndrome and/or are on drugs, although non-human characters look somewhat better. That the art on the case and in the instruction book (which the in-game art does mimic, albeit poorly) looks much better begs the question of why the developers couldn’t have directly used it instead.

The town and dungeon environments, however, look decent, and Beyond the Beyond features some 3-D elements, such as the overworld, which actually looks pretty good at times, although things don’t always look great in battle, whose visuals combine tall, pixelated character and enemy sprites with rotating scenery. Attack and spell effects look alright, but the combat visuals nonetheless look somewhat messy, even though playing the game on a Playstation 2 with smooth texturing can slightly enhance their appearance. Still, the art direction is weak at best, with this title very much showing itself as one of the PlayStation’s first RPGs.

Finally, with help from a decent walkthrough, playing time can be slightly over twenty hours, although given the ease of getting lost, those hoping to tackle it without a guide may take significantly longer, maybe up to thirty hours, with few sidequests.

Overall, considering that the same company that developed Beyond the Beyond produced titles such as the Shining Force series, it should have turned out far better. Gameplay elements such as an astronomically-high encounter rate and drawn-out battles truly lend the impression that someone at Camelot had a grudge against humanity and vented their anger in RPG form. Other aspects don’t help the game, either, such as poor control, a lackluster plot, and weak art direction, though the soundtrack is actually half-decent. Even so, gamers would be far better off playing Camelot’s many other far-better offerings.

Score Breakdown:

The Good:
+Soundtrack is okay.

The Bad:
-High encounter rate and slow battles.
-Annoying controls.
-Weak story and translation.
-Poor art direction.

Platform: Sony PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 2/10
Controls: 3/10
Story: 3/10
Music/Sound: 5/10
Graphics: 4/10
Localization: 3/10
Lasting Appeal: 1/10
Playing Time: 20-30 Hours

Overall: 2/10

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