Review: Beyond: Two Souls

Game: Beyond: Two Souls Developer: Quantic Dream Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: Out Now Available On: PS3 Version Played: PS3

Editor’s note: While I have done my best to avoid spoilers as much as possible, things like character motivations, weird plot points and the general linear outline of the story MAY be taken apart and analysed in this review. The experience won’t be spoiled for you, but if you want to go in fresh, I recommend playing the game in its entirety before ‘risking’ it. Otherwise, read on!

Beyond tells the story of Jodie Holmes, portrayed by Ellen Page, through 15 years of her life (starting at 8 til, well, 23 if we do the maths) as she battles with a strange psychic connection to the ‘other’ side, here called the Infraworld, as we explore her life, the people and events that revolve around her mysterious connection to Aiden (pronounced ‘Iden’), the entity that remains attached to her being. Aiden has the ability to control and do things outside of Jodie’s abilities, such as moving objects telepathically, destroying things with ease and controlling or killing people. This connection is the crux of the game and for the most part, is well written, as we grow genuinely interested in what this could possibly be, and the bond between the two.

Unfortunately, in terms of the pure NARRATIVE plot, the game stumbles quite a bit. Scenarios jump from one event to the other, and the overarching plot doesn’t’ come to a head until the end, and its lack of time spent on screen just leaves a feeling of scepticism and disappointment. The game would’ve been better off without the ludicrous use of ‘world annihilation imminent’ tropes and plot points, as Beyond’s greatest narrative strength is the relationship between Jodie and Aiden.

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In terms of writing, David Cage HAS learnt from Heavy Rain’s mistakes, as there are severe reductions of plot holes (for the most part) while things remain relevant and intriguing. The focus on supernatural elements allows Cage to get away with a lot more than he’s allowed, as things can be handwaved as ‘oh it’s spirits or demons’ instead of being properly explained. This still leads to some perplexing gameplay-story segregation as to WHY Aiden can’t simply solve everything. Like the Time-Turners in Harry Potter, it’s a plot element that’s a little too convenient, and the game is well aware of this, so everything is buried under a rug, and Aiden’s powers only come out when the story dictates it to.

Unfortunately, Cage’s obsession with being a movie director is clearly showing here. The non-linear structure of the game screams of Tarantino, Nolan and Jean-Luc Godard influences (maybe a hint of Kaufman as well?), but unlike the former examples, Cage executes this with a pathetically weak result. The skipping of years, wildly swinging back and forth between events is not only confusing, but infuriating. In its greatest flaw, we are introduced to a terribly unsympathetic male CIA agent who forces Jodie to leave her former handlers, we have no sympathy for this man, we do not like him, yet the very next level jumps ahead to a dinner date between the two. Not only does this hurt the narrative, it hurts potential character development, as we simply do not know him, nor do we want to know him. Cage’s story would have benefited greatly if just told in a mostly linear fashion, with flashbacks to her childhood being a much more effective result. Seriously Cage, as I am about to describe in GREAT detail in the gameplay section, maybe you should give it up and just become a film director.

beyond presentation
Beyond: Two Souls nails the presentation. Everything in this game is gorgeous. The motion capture is hands down the best I’ve seen in a game, as a sheer amount of work has been put into this game. The uncanny valley isn’t so evident here, unlike in Heavy Rain, and while more ‘intimate’ events are still slightly awkward, for the most part Beyond nails it.

The game also looks great. Graphics are solid, and the game runs smoothly for the most part. The loading times are fairly long, but it’s not a gamebreaker, not at all.

And at the heart of the game is of course the acting. Ellen Page made a name for herself in films like Hard Candy, Juno and Inception, but she absolutely KILLS it here. Even without my undying love of Ellen (having followed her religiously since the days I rewatched Juno about 50 times) no one can deny the sheer acting talent behind her performance. We knew she was good in Juno, or Super, or even the much under-appreciated Tracey Fragments, but this is another level of acting. Page excites, emotes and absolutely blows people away with her performance, and if there’s one, just ONE reason to play this game, it’s to watch and engage her performance as Jodie Holmes.

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The cast is rounded off by other solid performances, most notably Willem Dafoe as her main confidant and handler, Nathan Dawkins. The cast is solid and they all do a good job, but it’s Ellen who gets to shine here. The music is very solid, and I must give props to Normand Corbeil, who sadly passed away towards the end of development. His contributions on Heavy Rain were magnificent, and fellow composers Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer pick up where he left out with great amounts of respect and skill.

beyond gameplay
Ok, let’s talk about the gameplay. Beyond’s greatest flaw. What would be a fantastic, potential GOTY is reduced to nothing more than a weekend rental. The gameplay is non-existent. It’s not even bad; it’s just, not there. You move joysticks in vague directions at times, or you press a button to initiate conversation, or sometimes you choose from a list of responses. There’s barely anything here, and it really, really hurts the game.

Heavy Rain copped criticism for this problem, and while I’m one who LOVED Heavy Rain, apparently Cage’s response was to cut the gameplay down even more. While Heavy Rain relied on context-sensitive actions, QTE’s and widely branching paths and some open-endedness, Beyond: Two Souls has streamlined EVERYTHING and it comes off as non-engaging and boring. At least in Heavy Rain, if you wanted to pick up something, you would hold the right thumbstick in the proper context and action. Here in Beyond, you are presented with a white dot, which MEANS press the right thumbstick in a direction, but to what direction is left up to you, leaving you to wildly make a guess and just wing it. It’s minimalist gameplay. QTE’s are reduced to simplicity, and unlike Heavy Rain which correspondingly punished you for missing them, Beyond is far too forgiving. You could literally sit through most of these action scenes without pressing a button and Jodie would make it through the scene, unlike in Heavy Rain which held the prominent threat of permanent death for most of the characters and thus a worse ending. Beyond picks up towards the end with multiple endings and branching paths, but it’s far too little, far too late.

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The game provides many scenarios to showcase both the graphics and Page’s performance, such as a fantastic level set in the snow with homeless people, or a more interesting one set in the desert with Navajo people, but the sheer reduction of interactivity severely reduces both the appeal and the replayability. I was mindlessly drifting from scene to scene, dully pressing a button to move, to pick up an object, to fight a demon spirit. It didn’t MATTER what I was doing, the lack of punishment and lack of interactivity meant I wasn’t engaged at all. Though the game had multiple endings, I simply could not sit through another play through, having to trudge through unskippable cutscenes, lack of interactions and crap QTE’s. It’s not challenging, it’s not hand holding, it’s sheer and utter disregard for the gaming audience as a whole. David Cage should really question his line of work. His attitude can be seen as remarkable to some, but it just reeks of desperation and a ‘look at me! I can direct films!’ attitude that I couldn’t shake off. The sheer linearity negated any excitement I had playing as a spirit of the world. Despite the potential, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere a spirit would usually allow to be. Go through that door? Oh I can, but ONLY if the story lets me. Tip that jar over to get a guard’s attention? ONLY when the story dictates I do so. It’s just pure crap, to put it lightly.