Beyond: Two Souls review
How interactive does something have to be to become, as David Cage describes his games, “interactive fiction”? Does holding forward on an analog stick count? Occasionally pressing a button? Hell, following that thread of logic, is turning the pages of a book enough to consider it ‘interactive’? The simple truth is that some people will never see what Cage makes as a ‘game’ and, as such, Beyond: Two Souls is a hard thing to review. Mechanically, this is almost identical to Heavy Rain, so if you had no time for that, you’ll be just as bored with this one.
For those unacquainted, what that means is that Beyond is essentially a modern day version of Dragon’s Lair: an interactive movie that you affect through Quick-Time Events, dialogue choices and the occasional puzzle. Players of last year’s The Walking Dead series should feel quite at home, too.
Players control Jodie Holmes, played by tiny Hollywood starlet Ellen Page, as the game charts her life from a small child to a young adult. Jodie has a special ability: a link to an otherworldly entity, constantly nearby, that only she can see and hear. His name is Aiden, and the powers he grants Jodie cause her to be taken to live in a lab facility from a young age. Jodie’s life is anything but normal.
Having Ellen Page on board is a decent coup that lends the game some real star power, an element that Heavy Rain noticeably lacked. That’s not all, as old favourite Willem Dafoe also stars as professor and surrogate father figure Nathan Dawkins.
Extensive motion capture has recorded their every move, and the result is a game that looks just as fantastic as its predecessor. Environments sometimes leave a bit to be desired and, if you look hard enough, some of the cracks are starting to show, but these are still some of the most realistic looking human beings on the PS3. That isn’t to say it’s perfect. Jodie looks consistently excellent, but some other characters can lack detail and a convincing range of expressions. Animations in particular are still not quite there, characters moving like puppets and never breaking free of the uncanny valley. This is one of the best looking games on PS3, but now we’ve all seen next-gen, the limitations of this one are more apparent.
Beyond features more direct character control than Heavy Rain, ostensibly making it more of a real game. Jodie moves with the left stick, players no longer needing to hold down a shoulder button to make her move forward. The problem is, she handles like a tank. Not since the original Resident Evil games do we remember handling this infuriating and unwieldy. A terrible camera doesn’t help, often pointing wherever the hell it wants and taking forever to manoeuvre back into the right position. Most of these sections don’t last long and consist merely of walking to the next plot point, but they still handle like crap.
The biggest new feature is controlling Aiden. A press of Triangle instantly switches control from Jodie to her ghostly counterpart who can fly about at will – including through objects – but cannot stray too far. Aiden can interact with parts of the environment and certain people, and it is here that most of the game’s puzzles lie. Elements that Aiden can interact with are marked, so nothing is ever too taxing, but there are a few pleasant brain-scratchers. The mechanics are quite transparent, with Aiden only able to possess specific people for reasons never explained, but examining the options available and deducing the right way to advance is enjoyable enough.
Otherwise, it plays the same as Heavy Rain, to the extent that the button prompts during Quick-Time Events are exactly the same. There seem to be less of them in Beyond, with a larger amount of time spend walking or watching, but there are several nonetheless. A new method of control involves flicking the right stick in the correct direction during fights, but the direction intended is never displayed, the player meant to discern it from the action taking place. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to figure out which direction the game wants you to press.
So, as a game, Beyond is the same deal as Heavy Rain. You barely play it, but that’s the point, and whether that’s okay or not is up to you. The point of Beyond: Two Souls is to tell a story, so let’s critique it on that in particular.
If Heavy Rain was a small indie flick, an intimate human drama (albeit one with a serial killer), Beyond is David Cage making a Hollywood blockbuster, a supernatural epic in the vein of Spielberg or (shudder) Michael Bay. What this results in is a tale with a vision perhaps beyond what Cage’s abilities allow.
The narrative is nonlinear in structure, players experiencing little sections of Jodie’s life out of chronological order. It’s an ambitious approach but one that pays off, as slowly filling in the gaps and seeing the whole picture is an intriguing hook. Seeing everything gone wrong is going to make you want to find out how it happened, and Beyond is great at creating such set-ups. A small issue with this method of storytelling is that the characters often know things the player has not yet been made privy to. It’s not a deal breaker, but a relatively cheap way of maintaining mystery. It’s not something the characters are yet to figure out, it’s just something the game hasn’t told you yet.
It’s a problem indicative of the whole game, and David Cage in general. Cage has always excelled at creating feeling and mood, aping the presentation of the movies he loves so much, but when it comes to creating compelling, watertight plots, he seems less capable. It’s a problem we saw in Heavy Rain, an intriguing story with huge promise let down by enormous plot holes and circumstantial events. Beyond looks and sounds the part, with a big, bombastic soundtrack that wouldn’t feel out of place in any Hollywood blockbuster. But the story is a mish-mash of hundreds of different influences, cribbed together into something that tries so hard to convince but ends up feeling slightly hollow.
To begin with, Beyond tells a relatively low-key story, and this is when it is best. Early scenes of Jodie as a child learning to deal with Aiden and the trouble he creates excel at developing her character and situation. Forced to live in an experimental facility with her every move monitored, her loneliness and desire to be ‘normal’ are emotions anyone who remembers adolescence will be able to sympathise with.
This is what Cage does best, create emotional situations and characters on a small scale that players can relate to and empathise with. A later chapter follows a homeless Jodie, now a young adult, as she struggles to survive. It’s undoubtedly the high point of the game, full of likable characters and gut-wrenchingly depressing situations that hit close to home. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the chapter with the least action and supernatural elements.
As Jodie grows up and gets drafted into the CIA thanks to her special powers, the whole thing takes a turn into the bizarre, Jodie morphing into an action hero thanks to extensive training. Perhaps it’s due to the quick transition, but the whole thing just feels unbelievable, and when you are struggling with the controls as Beyond tries to be an action game with Jodie dodging bullets in Somalia, you’ll wonder what happened to the emotional drama of those first hours.
Things get really supernatural and bizarre, the game jumping the shark somewhere around the point of a chapter set in the Arizona desert that has absolutely no impact on the overall plot whatsoever. By the end, Beyond descends into typical Hollywood action with a bunch of nonsense sci-fi buzzwords and little emotional stake. This might be what David Cage was going for, but the shift in tone from the start of the game is so huge that it never stops being jarring and drastically alters the overall experience.
It doesn’t help that the whole thing is very po-faced and takes itself extremely seriously. A bit of self-referential humour can help an audience buy into a nonsensical and poorly explained situation, but there is none to be found here. The player simply has to accept what is presented to them, regardless of explanation.
It results in a story that becomes less involving the more ‘epic’ it gets. There is more intensity in Heavy Rain’s infamous ‘finger’ scene than there is in any of Beyond’s huge theatrics.
Beyond also seems to have less narrative choice than Heavy Rain, with your ending being mainly decided by a couple of large decisions toward the very end of the game. Choices up to that point can affect the specifics of your current situation, but the end result is rarely affected. Again, it’s similar to The Walking Dead: the end destination is the same, but how you got there might be a bit different to someone else.
It’s also quite long, taking a solid ten hours, if not more. Completionists will want to see every variable and different outcome, and for them there is a fair amount of replay value here.
Ultimately, Beyond: Two Souls is David Cage taking his Heavy Rain formula for another spin with more star power, more spectacle and more action. Whether that sounds like a good thing or not depends on taste, but the fact is that Cage’s vision of a playable Summer blockbuster is never quite realised. If you thought Heavy Rain could do with more ghosts, Beyond is for you, but for many of us the shine is beginning to wear off.