Three details – the main character’s sluggish saunter, the childlike storytelling, and absence of any actual danger – told me Beyond Eyes was not the experience I envisioned. I was aware of Rae’s handicap before her journey began, but I had hoped for a more mentally stimulating adventure than what kids would read about in a popup book. Beyond Eyes practically forces you to feel empathy for Rae and her lack of vision – the reason for the verdant settings – then twists the knife in a backstab of an ending.
I felt cheated by the finale. 90 minutes of walking from location to location, filling in the blank canvas of Rae’s world with her remaining senses, to get a message that basically says, “Life sucks, hope you grow stronger for it.” Further spoilers aside, players should brace for disappointment despite Beyond Eyes’ early promise. Although a fireworks display accidentally blinds Rae at a young age, the spectacle had no malice behind it. Rae becomes reclusive in the aftermath, yet a stray cat named Nani helps the lonesome girl waste away the hours in her garden. The optimism shines through initially. No one wants to watch kids wallow in depression.
Frequent visits from Nani ease Rae’s pain, until one day the fluffy feline stops showing up. Rae then decides to leave the comfort of her yard to face the world and find her friend, using only touch, sound, and prior experiences to guide her. The narrative setup pardons the elementary storyline. However, the language contains all the complexity of a children’s novel. I almost fell asleep reading the game’s text.
“Rae wondered if Nani might have come this way.”
“Things were not always as she imagined them.”
Oh how my brain begged for multi-syllabic sentences.
I quite enjoyed the story’s start otherwise. Ignored by the other children around her, I commend Rae’s courage to finally chart a trip beyond her garden’s borders. When you cannot rely on your eyes, who can say for sure that gentle knocks against wood are a woodpecker searching for its next meal? Animals and vegetation bloom into being around Rae as she comes to know her watercolor surroundings, even locations she’s never been. A dense perfume of smoke suggests something sinister until Rae realizes it’s a road lined with cars.
I wish the developers would toy with Rae’s perception more than they do. High-pitched meows foreshadow the presence of chatty cats, while rushing water often emanates from rivers and fountains. Sometimes flapping noises lead to laundry swaying on a clothesline or birds nesting upon a scarecrow. Beyond Eyes peppers the outdoors with several of these realities. Will the putters of an engine, for example, unearth a lawn mower or antique vehicle? I enjoyed hunting each “what if” object down and expanding Rae’s knowledge, but only because her expedition provides little else to do. Play with chickens? Pick flowers? No thanks.
Did I mention Rae moves at a plodding pace? I cannot fault the developers for neglecting a run button for Rae. You try navigating a strange room in a pitch blackness without stubbing toes or leaning on a wall for support. At least our eyes eventually acclimate to the darkness, whereas Beyond Eyes reveals hillsides and suburbs around Rae merely inches at a time. I bumped into fences, bushes, and buildings regularly, exhibiting the grace of someone left blindfolded in a funhouse maze. I ground my teeth with every snag on the scenery, prolonging Rae’s middling pilgrimage. I am sure the NPCs would laugh at her plight had they seen the poor child crash into steel gates and signposts for the twentieth time.
Beyond Eyes maintains a minimal amount of interaction between Rae and the environment. Feeding a cow and sitting on a swing should be fond memories for her. She even gets to meet another girl around her age, yet I was too concerned with reaching Nani. Again, Rae ambles along, heedless of her objective. When retreading ground, she still shuffles at the same speed. I never expected her to become the Daredevil of her village, doing cartwheel flips off rooftops or using echolocation to combat criminals, but a smidgen of urgency would do wonders for players.
I did expect the developers to present more dangers than dogs or crows. Rae is never at risk of dying, regardless of the times in which she hugs her arms close to her chest to identify threats. I grew rather agitated, not anxious, knowing I would need to backtrack or solve a rudimentary puzzle to bypass these organic obstacles. Confronted by seagulls, she offers bread to the feathered fiends. Cornered by a random mutt, Rae retreats slowly. So, so, so slowly. The sole instance I felt remotely challenged happened later in the story, where rainfall washed away Rae’s mental map of the area she’d just explored.
I cursed Beyond Eyes in those situations. Despite its nominal gameplay elements, the settings featured a beauty I enjoyed soaking in. Rich blue, red, green, and golden hues mean something more to Rae than you or me. All Rae can see is what her mind remembers – an innocence the visually unimpaired take for granted. Unless I wanted to stroll about for several hours, though, I could not observe the world in full. While I adored what I saw, the rest of the white void had the makings of a wasted afternoon.
Beyond Eyes’ meager interactions did not do it for me, and neither did its story development or pace. I wanted to feel something after finishing this drawn-out art demo – the joy of a journey well done, or perhaps trepidation had Rae crossed a wooden bridge while clinging to the handrails. I suffered through impatience and indifference instead. Beyond Eyes could teach us all a deeper lesson in empathy and what it might mean to lose and cope without one of our five senses, if it aspired to be more than a tale about a girl and a stray cat.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which the reviewer purchased.
Beyond Eyes is an art showcase – beautiful to behold, undoubtedly – but I dreaded the majority of my time playing it. Unless you need to know what happens to a stray cat, don’t feel guilty for keeping Beyond Eyes in your blind spot.