May Contain Spoilers
On October 9th, developer Quantic Dream released Beyond: Two Souls exclusive for the PlayStation 3. Much like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls was an experience that I was looking forward to. I strapped myself in for the action-packed, non-linear rollercoaster that I had been excited for since E3. Some of the major selling points for me were the fast-paced combat, Ellen Page’s and Willem Dafoe’s acting and what appeared to be fantastic presentation. I didn’t buy this game and expect to play it like a typical video game with fidgety movements and screwing around for stupid laughs. I expected a fully-fledged narrative and a game that was made to be a thrilling experience done right.
For the non-interactive movie goers, Beyond: Two Souls is a drama covering the life of Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) from her early years until her mid-twenties. Jodie has been attached to an ‘entity’, which she refers to as Aiden, since birth. Aiden is able to detach from Jodie, mess around with the environment, travel through walls, and occasionally possess or kill people, all while you control him from a first person perspective. Early in the game it is explained that Jodie will, eventually, join the CIA, and at some point things will go bad and she’ll start killing a whole lot of men wearing armour, because this is, after all, a videogame.
The first thing I noticed was how amazing the game’s characters looked. As it loaded the starting sequence there is a close up of Jodie’s face and it’s amazing how life-like the artistic technology has become. Hairs, scars and other facial features showed up amazingly and what added to the experience of the cutscenes was the fact that behind the character of Jodie is an actress who is displaying real-time emotion, rather than a voice actor and a team of animators.
You are pushed through moments of Jodie where each moment is a linear sequence of events that progresses the story. There are no side quests and no exploring the world of Jodie. If you start to stray away from the objective point, the game pushes Jodie back in the right direction. It gives the feeling that while having control of the character, you don’t have any control over the experience. It’s as though David Cage wants to play the game for you while you sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn. If the events of Jodie’s life were sequential then maybe it would be okay.
You are jerked around a lot in the story. One minute you are a CIA agent taking down a newly elected leader with full control over Aiden, and the next you are 8 years old demonstrating you power to knock over blocks. It’s a really jarring experience when you are forced to play missions or make decisions that you wouldn’t want to make, leading to outcomes that don’t match your previous decisions. Near the start of the game there is a party that Jodie attends for the daughter of someone she works with. Now in this party you can tell that the people you are “partying” are your cool, popular people but here you are amongst them. You have to option to dance and kiss a boy at the party and get into the swing of things, before the whole party turns upside down when your gift (a rare poetry book) is something that you know the person wouldn’t care for. It would have been nice to have the option of getting rid of the present so that you weren’t seen as the awkward, spooky girl who apparently has been following a boy around for the whole of 10 minutes. After replaying the scene and doing things differently, there is no change to the outcome no matter what you do.
This is a common recurrence in the game where you have this illusion of choice when really you are driven down a pre-determined path, where the outcome is the same but your relationships may be different. To elaborate there are a few sections in the game where there are love interests that pop up.
The times we’re introduced to Ryan, a CIA agent, he’s portrayed as being this tough, insensitive, douchebag who only looks out for himself and the mission. He outright lies to Jodie or just mistreats her, yet for some reason she develops a crush on him. We’re never given any insight into his desirable qualities yet somehow we’re expected to go along with his role as the main love interest for the game. The same can be said with Jay at the Navajo ranch. When Jodie first visits, he’s rude and acts reserved around her, yet when it’s time to leave you’re given the option to make kissy faces with him after he mistreated her.
Beyond’s controls are much the same as Heavy Rain’s. Menial tasks such as taking a shower and cooking a meal still use the right analog stick, however, there are a few welcome changes. For example, the combat has changed from simple button presses to a visual based stick waggle during fight and chase scenes. Instead of a flashing X, the game will slow down to prompt player action to match the direction in which Jodie is moving. As a trained CIA agent and a skilled combatant, Jodie can hold her own intense situations. For instance, if a fist is heading in Jodie’s direction, players move the right stick to get her out of the way or launch a counterattack via “Direction-Fu”. However, the consequences of failing in these situations are non-existent and at times you can simply put the controller down, and the game will push Jodie through the scene with maybe an extra cut or bruise.
The gameplay of Beyond: Two Souls proves what David Cage has said all along: He really doesn’t like game mechanics and he is focused on a different way to tell a story. For one, the movements of the characters in the game are extremely rigid, stiff and artificial. Aiden can be used for eavesdropping, moving things, healing people – he enables the player to do all sorts of crazy things. However, this feature is limited to certain enemies and sections in the game. You can’t force choke or control every enemy because that would be too easy. It’s not explained in game but you can only do things to certain people so that it turns sections into linear puzzles with only one solution.
The game constantly hints at being this epic experience with every loading screen getting closer and closer to the infamous “Prologue” dialog at the end. It makes you think that this could be a 30hr title where your choices will mean something in the following sections of the game. Well what a great load that did because the entire point of Beyond: Two Souls is to be a prologue. You end the game, you get a few choices and then credits after about 11hrs of gameplay. It’s this jarring experience after an intense moment of gameplay that left me feeling a bit ripped off.
Ellen Page (Jodie), Willem Dafoe (Nathan) and Kareem Hardison (Cole) brought this game to life through their passion for the characters and realistic expression. There were some powerful moments that were executed excellently between the actors. Technologically this game is amazing, and with the mocap acting it brings character emotion to a new level not seen since L.A Noire. But with every game it has it’s downfalls – with different choices ultimately leading to the same conclusion and unlikeable characters scattered throughout, it makes it hard to execute an amazing experience where there is an illusion of choice. While the gameplay has improved somewhat, it isn’t enough to immerse the player in what seems to be a choose your own adventure novel that’s missing half of its pages.