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Review of BEYOND: Two Souls by Geoff Kelly

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Rating by Geoff Kelly posted on Oct 14, 2013 | edit | delete

Well worth a look, but the milage varies

The Good: Consistently a gorgeous game; Excellent voice-acting.

The Bad: Inconsistent plot; Lack of substantial gameplay.

Verdict: Beyond: Two Souls is the equivalent of the summer-blockbuster film. A lot of flash, bang, and attempts to look like it really means something. But scratch the surface and it peels, leaving a mostly hollow interior. It is an enjoyable ride if you can handle QTEs, but leave your brain at the door.

Review: Beyond: Two Souls is a smorgasbord of ideas, asking many questions, but not really giving many answers. How does a little girl grow up with powers? How does a government handle such people? What happens when individuals hold great power? How do people deal with loss? And on it goes. Perhaps the central theme of Beyond though, is the obvious; what lies beyond? Here it is explained as the Infraworld, a world of dead souls and demons, a nasty place to get mixed up with. Astute readers may recognise the name, as it has been used by Quantic Dream since 2006. Even appearing as a cameo in Heavy Rain. For most of Beyond however, the Infraworld is a backdrop which barely matters, except for the odd fact that people keep wanting to make portals there with the unfortunate side-effect that demons of unimaginable power obviously want to come out.

This is primarily the story of Jodie Holmes and her invisible entity known only as Aiden. They always are together and the player can freely switch between them during most scenes. The player follows them from Jodie’s birth, through to when she is an adult. Which presents what becomes one of the core problems with the narrative in Beyond; this is as linear a tale as the come. The player follows only Jodie and Aiden, never does the scene switch to someone else, the viewpoint is firmly rooted in what Jodie and Aiden experience. Yet for dramatic effect, Jodie’s life is told un-sequentially. The player is constantly shuttling between various ages and events over the course of this eight hour experience. The only way for the player to tell where they are at, is the loading screen at the beginning of each scene, which gives a timeline and shows where you are. For the most part this is fine and I kept track of events most of the time, but there was still the odd moment of confusion, wondering if something was before or after a previously experienced event. It begs the question of why David Cage, the game director, felt the need to add the confusion of an un-sequential narrative to what is already a jam-packed plot.

This really is a jam-packed plot. Any sort of plot of entities and demons you can imagine is probably here in some form. This is because unlike the previous two games from Quantic Dream, Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, this isn’t really a complete narrative at all. It doesn’t have a central story to tell. To best describe Beyond is to liken it to a short-story anthology, where all the stories are loosely connected by the fact they all involve Jodie and Aiden. Some of the stories are more connected then others. And then some come out of absolutely nowhere; one particularly memorable instance of this was Jodie meeting a family of Navajo in the desert. It was an interesting sequence in its own right, but it had absolutely no relevance to rest of the game, except for some very loose ideas. This becomes the real frustration with the game, the player constantly becomes disconnected because there is often no groundwork for scenes. The player is thrown into new scene after new scene, with no knowledge of what happened immediately before, so frequently there are sudden shifts in character with little to no explanation. Why did she do that? Sometimes the character shifts are explained in a later scene, often they are not. It makes for a very inconsistent protagonist. Especially when the body-count starts rising. This is a summer-blockbuster of film scripts in gaming form, please switch your brain off during play.

Which brings us to how the game does play. If you have played Fahrenheit or Heavy Rain you know what you are in for. For newcomers, the game is played entirely with quick-time-events (QTEs), basically a button or sequence of moves will flash on screen as something happens and you have to copy it quickly during action sequences, or be as slow as you like in normal sequences. During most action sequences most of the interactions are simple, either mashing a particular button, or moving the right-stick in the same direction as Jodie’s movement. Which is frustrating in itself, due to some of the animations used and camera angles, make said movement very hard to gauge. Apart from that there is no other interaction with the game apart from moments of limited exploration. In fact there is possibly even less interaction in Beyond than in Quantic Dreams previous titles. Basically player-choice or the consequences of failure to perform actions, matters very little here. Players of Fahrenheit will remember one scene right at the beginning of the game, using a mop to clean up the blood and hiding items, or choosing not to, changed the police response. There is none of that in Beyond. Interaction wasn’t a huge part of Quantic Dreams previous games either, but the lack of it becomes much more noticeably because of the format of Beyond. Given each scene in Beyond is a little short-story rather than a continuous narrative, they are complete unto themselves. The occasional interactive scene like that described in Fahrenheit leading to divergence in how the narrative plays, simply cannot happen here. There was no noticeable carry-over between scenes in Beyond that I witnessed. Even within most scenes there is little in the way of divergence.

The biggest exception really is the scene called ‘Hunted’, about a third of the way into the game, which if you followed the pre-release material for this title you may recognise, as it was the scene demonstrated to many journalists. There is a very good reason for that, ‘Hunted’ is basically the showcase for divergent options in how the scene plays out. I experimented a bit and found at least three different ways to escape the train. And afterwards the area. In contrast, in most scenes if there are divergent options at all, they are pretty subtle. Most frustrating is that there is no fail, no game-over. So in ‘Hunted’ if you continually fail the QTEs the scene changes. In most scenes it doesn’t matter if you are interacting at all, if you fail the QTE nothing changes, a character might sigh might be the only noticeable change, you may as well be watching a movie. The game itself knows this, quite frequently if you fail to interact with a QTE the character will stop moving until you interact again, which really kills the suspense. It wants to be a movie, but at the same time pushes you to treat it as a game. The most favourable way to describe Beyond is that it is a movie. David Cage is the script-writer and director and the player is the action-director. Except that too frequently David Cage decides to use his power of veto, so even your role of action-director isn’t a very big one.
There are some additions to the gameplay. Let’s go with the good first. Unfortunately it is only in one scene in the game. The scene is in the desert with the Navajo I mentioned previously. In it there is a beautiful and semi-open roaming sequence which was player controlled. Travelling across a large area of wonderfully stylised Navajo desert. Which was nice and all, but it adds to the complete un-realness and irrelevance of the scene. The backdrop and gameplay made the entirety of the scene feel like a completely different game. At best it was a nice and lovely break from the tediousness of the rest of the gameplay. The second addition to the game was not good. For some sequences in the game there is an action-cover system and stealth gameplay. Which might have passed-muster if the controls and camera weren’t annoying fiddly making the sequences frustrating. Thankfully they are not difficult, the AI is virtually non-existent and if you want to play by stealth it is very forgiving, but it just makes navigating frustrating at times. Not helped by the horrendous camera. The camera when controlling Jodie constantly wants to be cinematic, so it often gives limited control over how it turns and focuses upon things. This leads to frustration as the camera may suddenly move, and the object you need to interact with is now behind the camera. Getting it to turn around again is a frustrating endeavour. Thankfully no such problem exists while switching to Aiden as he uses a completely free camera, given he needs to travel through walls, doors, and objects it is sort of essential. The final additions to the game are co-op play and touch play. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see co-op, so I am not sure how it functions. The touch play is for iOS devices. Install the app and you can control the game from your iOS device. Which sounds like it might be okay, except although it synced with my game flawlessly, and it worked in the menus, once ingame the app failed to deliver any motions to the game.

Finally there is the matter of graphics and sound. I think these only deserve a brief mention. The game is quite obviously gorgeous, and consistently so. But one would expect it to be so given the budget and the fact that the game has no complex systems that would have required extensive development and testing time like many other computer games. This is essentially an interactive movie. Secondly the sound. Voice-acting is excellent. There was a few moments with minor characters or when characters were distraught, that broke the overall excellence. However for an eight hour game with lots of chatter, it was nothing to complain about. In terms of music the game was a bit of a letdown. It did its job, matching the tone of the scene and adding to suspense. But there was no real standout sequence of music to be found. It did its job only.
Overall the game was a bit difficult to give a final rating to. In the end I felt I could only give it a pass. If I was rating by story alone, it would have received a higher grade. Overall it was silly and bombastic in places, but overall it is decent summer-blockbuster type entertainment. Switch your brain off and enjoy. However there is an accumulation of minor problems here. The very apparent lack of divergence due to the structure. The un-sequential mess of what narrative there is. The ‘cinematic’ camera. And the addition of game-play elements that were half-hearted and fiddly in the stealth and cover systems. Your mileage will also vary on the ‘multiple endings’ of the game, which is one of those setups where a number of options (literally, a press button X, Y, Z sort of affair) appear and you choose how you want it to end. No dynamic ending based on how you played. If you enjoyed Quantic Dreams previous offerings and go in with an open mind, there is a good game here. For everyone else, approach with caution.

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Time Played: 5-10 hours
Difficulty: Very Easy

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