BEYOND: Two Souls review
An ambitious story with real, complex characters makes BEYOND: Two Souls one of the year’s most memorable adventures, as long as you’re willing to look past some constrained and awkward gameplay.
In many ways, BEYOND: Two Souls is a brilliant piece of work – this PlayStation 3 exclusive is an innovative, ambitious, gorgeous game that offers a beautifully told tale that makes it difficult not to become emotionally invested in its compelling cast of characters. It’s certainly not a perfect game, however, and like Quantic Dream’s earlier efforts before it, not all of the experiments in gameplay are unequivocal successes.
The success of 2010's Heavy Rain upped the ante for David Cage’s French studio, and while it’s laudable that they've continued to push both the technological and thematic envelopes, there are some moments during the course of this latest journey which feel like they may have over-reached. That being said, it’s a welcome relief to find success hasn’t spoiled Quantic Dream’s desire to play with expectation.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right away. If you didn’t think Heavy Rain was an adventure game, you certainly won’t think that BEYOND: Two Souls is either. The game tweaks Heavy Rain’s formula but doesn’t change it: exploration is still handled by moving characters directly with an analog stick, Quick Time Events (QTEs) propel action scenes forward, and the interface is designed to facilitate a seamless narrative, not to showcase mind-bending puzzles. What it does offer is a bold, unconventional approach to storytelling that should captivate any fan of sophisticated interactive narratives.
In BEYOND you will spend 20 hours living 15 years in the life of Jodie Holmes, the game’s heroine. Like all of the characters, Jodie’s avatar, speech, and mannerisms have been motion-captured from a real live actress – in this case, the Oscar-nominated Ellen Page. You will visit specific, important moments in her life in thematic – but not chronological – order, and you'll soon learn that Jodie is no ordinary girl. Since birth, she’s been spiritually attached to a ghostly entity that she knows as Aiden. Having this paranormal presence, who is both soul mate and guardian, means that Jodie never has a real chance to have a normal life.
Taken from her mother and abandoned by her foster parents, Jodie is raised in a tiny apartment (fitted with surveillance cameras) in the Paranormal Studies Department of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The researcher in charge of this division is Nathan Hawkins, BEYOND’s second major character, here played by the equally talented and accomplished actor Willem Dafoe. Their relationship, as Jodie grows from lab rat to surrogate daughter to CIA operative, is one of the lasting and engaging plotlines featured in the game. While the younger Jodie’s adventures are mostly expository, either introducing character elements or the intricacies of her interesting powers, her later adventures as a CIA operative provide the game with a canvas to build larger tales, ultimately involving a quest to save the entire planet.
The first thing any player is going to notice is the visuals – it’s almost impossible to imagine how gaming graphics, without being entirely photo-realistic, can improve on what BEYOND offers. Jodie travels to a number of locales throughout her journey, and from a suburban home under a blanket of December snow to a Somali battlefield, each environment is painstakingly rendered and recreated with the utmost care to realism. I was struck again and again how even the smallest touches were captured. Details like the posters in teenager Jodie’s bedroom to the minute details on futuristic lab equipment make it nearly impossible to not believe that you are walking through very real environments.
Of course, the motion capture helps in creating such realism, with one caveat. Although both Page and Dafoe play their roles brilliantly – Page absolutely knocks it out of the park from beginning to end – the fact that the two most important characters are played by recognizable actors was actually a minor distraction for me. Perhaps it's just the novelty of having A-list actors appear so profoundly in a game, but I couldn’t stop thinking of them in studio with technology mapping all of their expressions, which I found somewhat disrupted the immersion. Nevertheless, the degree of emotion that Cage and his team have been able to capture in BEYOND is stunning, from Dafoe’s facial tics to the movement of Page’s eyes, even tears running down cheeks. As impressive as the facial animations in Heavy Rain were, this is a significant leap forward.
The gameplay in BEYOND is a little more uneven than its technology. You’ll spend most of the game playing as Jodie, moving her around each scene in third-person with the controller. She can interact with objects when a white dot appears – in order to push a button, open a door, or play with a doll, you simply need to push one of the thumbsticks in the right direction. Not unlike the interface in Heavy Rain, certain actions may demand the dexterous use of other buttons. Climbing, for instance, requires you to hit a sequence of keys to move Jodie up the rocks. Also like its predecessor, there are several sequences where you will have to react quickly in order to keep Jodie from harm.
There are very few "puzzles" in the game (Jodie doesn’t have an inventory), and when you do need to think through a situation, usually clicking on every available action will eventually advance the story. QTEs return here, although a little more elegantly than in Heavy Rain. When confronted with one of these action scenes, you must move the stick in the direction that Jodie is moving. For instance, if she’s punching left, in order to connect you must move the stick left. To successfully duck, you must move the stick down – it’s a fairly easy process to grasp, since all you have to do is follow Jodie’s onscreen cue. My problem was that these scenarios would often happen when I least expected them, and by the time I was prepared to respond, Jodie had probably already been hurt.
At appropriate times, you can switch to the viewpoint of Aiden with a simple touch of a button. As an enigmatic apparition, he is not confined by gravity or walls, and can move freely about in any direction – as long as he doesn’t move too far from Jodie herself. He can also manipulate the living world in rather unique ways. Aiden is able to create sudden bursts of kinetic force (which can be used to hurl open doors or smash windows) and disrupt electrical devices. His ability to affect people is even more disturbing. Certain characters in the game provide Aiden the opportunity to choke them or take bodily possession of them.
There's a unique set of tools available here, but it doesn’t work as well in practice. Without a doubt, the story is the focus of BEYOND, and there are times where gameplay suffers to serve the narrative. There are many places where Jodie can only move in one direction, and the camera swerves to point the right way. While this can work somewhat intuitively, it does take away some freedom to explore the game’s gorgeous environments as well as some elements of interactivity. Even as Aiden, you don’t have free rein. There are several areas that he can’t float into, even if they’re well within his safety radius. Even understanding the technical difficulty of designing every conceivable area, this restriction feels unnecessarily constraining. Also, it’s never explained why Aiden can’t use his powers on everyone but only a select few (perhaps the Force only works on the weak-minded?).
You may also find yourself fighting the camera on occasion. The game uses fixed views best suited for cinematic presentation, which may look terrific but are not always the most conducive choices for maneuvering Jodie where you want (especially when she’s desperately trying to avoid enemies). Also, the disorienting change in angles from one screen to the next can make for some notably awkward sequences. One of the longest chapters in the game involves Jodie navigating a war-torn African battlefield, stealthily attempting to infiltrate a warlord’s hideout. It’s supposed to be one of the most tension-filled parts of the game, but in addition to being completely unsure of which directions I was allowed to go, I was frustrated with the game’s inability to understand which walls I wanted her to hide behind – the adventuring interface was simply inadequate for the game’s sudden shift into a Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell-type stealth sneaker.
The reason these flaws didn’t detract too much from my experience is because they were serving a story that I was completely enraptured by. It starts with the characters. By showing Jodie at several stages of her life – including excruciatingly emotional ones – you’ll soon find yourself personally invested in her journey. Dafoe’s Dawkins is equally captivating and sympathetic. Even bit players, especially Dawkins's assistant Cole Freeman (played by Kadeem Hardison), are more than mere window dressing, always portraying characters that you can believe in and relate to.
The plot of BEYOND is something that simply needs to be experienced. There is a long narrative arc to the game, an imaginative and cautionary science fiction yarn about the dangers of messing around in other dimensions, which is supported by smaller episodes that are fundamental to the entirety of Jodie’s experience. Many have distinct subplots of their own, including a haunted Navajo family Jodie meets on the road and a group of homeless squatters she encounters on the streets. All of these adventures provide a catalyst for Jodie’s growth and transformation as well as the emotional arena for the game’s ultimate resolution.
The promise that David Cage and Quantic Dream have made several times is that their games offer serious and significant choices for players to make throughout the narrative; otherwise the oft-cited criticism of their games being playable films might be true. There certainly are a number of opportunities to shape Jodie’s journey – both through her choices and from failures during the game – but after a single playthrough, I’m not sure how my choices actually changed the story (with the exception of a few very big decisions during the endgame). There were plenty of times where I missed a button in an action sequence or got caught by roving guards, and yet I always seemed to get another chance. Unlike in Heavy Rain, my failures didn’t seem to have any dramatic outcomes, and I missed that. I missed the tension that came from believing my choices or mistakes could have dire consequences for characters I cared about.
I would need to play the game again with different decisions to see how much (or how little) the story truly can be changed by taking different paths, but my first time through felt so epic as it was, so emotionally draining that I’m not quite ready to go back, if I ever do. I’m absolutely satisfied with my story, but I do wonder how much impact I really had on it.
Quantic Dream had already set the bar high for themselves when it comes to genre-defying, interactive storytelling. Like the studio's earlier works, BEYOND: Two Souls is such an ambitious title that when it succeeds, it's nearly unparalleled, but when it doesn’t... well, it’s hard to not be a little disappointed. Personally, I enjoyed Heavy Rain more because it was a tight, taut thriller where gameplay mechanics and story merged effortlessly, but the tradeoff was a much less sophisticated story.
BEYOND: Two Souls is destined to be unlike any other game you play this year, and it's truly remarkable for the breadth and depth of its characters, storyline, and ability to make you believe and care about its world. Quantic Dream may have gone a little Icarus with BEYOND, but it certainly takes flight in terms of story, character and innovation, even if it singes its wings with a few curious design choices that stray a little too close to the sun. For those few moments when it soars, though, it can be magnificent and I absolutely recommend the journey to anyone, whether you love adventure games or simply the joy of experiencing a beautiful and captivating story.