As a medium, video games are constantly evolving. Every year, new ideas and techniques come to fruition, although experimentation is something that we don’t see a lot of. That’s due to the need for sales, and the unproven quality of new intellectual properties and unique products. With that said, developers like David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream are seemingly unafraid of doing their own thing and forging their own technological roads. After all, the European studio gave us the great PlayStation 3 exclusive, Heavy Rain, and now they have followed that triumphant effort up with Beyond: Two Souls.
Simply put, Beyond: Two Souls is unlike just about every other video game in existence. In fact, it’s actually more of an interactive film than a game. Sure, player input is required quite often, but it’s rarely anything strenuous. Controlling Page lookalike Jodie Holmes is accomplished through button prompts and basic joystick movements, utilizing an input scheme that is nearly identical to what Heavy Rain presented. It’s an interesting idea, and works pretty well, but isn’t perfect, as the prompts are sometimes hard to see or tough to decipher. This is especially true during direction-based combat segments, though the good news is that they only make up a portion of the ten to twelve hour campaign.
Just like its predecessor, David Cage’s latest release places heavy importance on choice. Dialogue options and moral choices are often presented to players, creating a dynamic where one’s decisions will reflect their character. Not only that, but what you say and do can have an impact on how things play out. For example, in one scenario there’s an option to either let someone walk away or choke them, but it’s just one of quite a few such opportunities.
As an interactive narrative, Beyond: Two Souls places a lot of weight upon its storyline, which centres upon the story of one spiritually gifted Jodie Holmes. Although it’s told in an occasionally strange order, the noted narrative highlights important events in its protagonist’s life. The plot, which starts at her birth and covers the next twenty plus years, comes together in the end via a satisfying, albeit weird, conclusion. Then again, Jodie’s life is shown as being far from normal.
The core idea behind everything is that Jodie is accompanied by a spirit, whom she’s named Aidan. However, it’s not the type of haunting scenario that you’d expect to see in a horror movie. Instead, Aidan is essentially an ally, or accomplice, who can aid his partner whenever she needs it, via user-controlled segments. That isn’t to say that he’s not independent, though, because it’s made clear that he has a mind of his own, as well as a jealous streak, since he’s been with Jodie since birth.
Aidan isn’t a secret, and, as such, Jodie was forced to spend much of her childhood and adolescence living inside of a paranormal research lab, where she was experimented upon quite often. As players, we get to experience some of those moments first-hand, as a large portion of the plot centres upon the character’s life in seclusion and the toll that it took on her mental health. The location is a key and central part of the game, but little else can be said about that out of respect for spoilers. It’s simply important to understand that the topic of paranormal activity is very prominent within Beyond: Two Souls, which may be a turn off for some. It delves deep into the idea of the afterlife, and has themes that centre upon life, death, and the general search for the world beyond ours.
The game’s best facet is Jodie, who is portrayed exceptionally by Ellen Page and looks exactly like her. Her fantastic performance is complemented by that of Willem Dafoe, who plays the main scientist that is in charge of the troubled child’s care. They both play very well off of each other, and lend credibility to their characters, although Quantic Dream’s tireless efforts to convey great facial animations through their primary characters also contributes positively. As a result, Jodie feels real, despite her unnatural affliction, making it relatively easy to care for her. However, when things go off the deep end and become overly surreal, that changes, and therein lies one of Beyond‘s most polarizing aspects. Frankly, its narrative is a bit too out there at times, lacks some cohesion and sometimes feels forced. That is especially true of some of the segments that focus on Jodie’s time in the Central Intelligence Agency, as a stealth operative, during which things switch to a cover-based action dynamic that feels like Heavy Rain mixed with a paranormal take on Metal Gear Solid. They’re okay, but are unspectacular.
As a secondary character, Aidan is a constant force and contributor, but he occasionally feels like an underdeveloped afterthought. It’s hard not to be disappointed by how basic his utilization options are, as it seemed like he’d either have to push or break inanimate objects to get someone’s attention, possess an enemy to either kill others or serve a purpose, open blocked doors or kill foes outright. It was tough to feel a connection with him, which meant that some of his more dramatic moments fell a bit flat.
Generally speaking, things control quite well and the game features a relatively interesting storyline. However, it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, and suffers as a result. What’s there is decent, but only brief moments of greatness ever appeared. The result is a final product that borders between decent and good, but fails to achieve a higher status. Like everyone else, I was hoping for a masterpiece, but the pre-release hype was somewhat unfounded. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy myself, but there were also times where I was a bit bored.
Presentation-wise, this much-anticipated retail title is a bit hit and miss. As mentioned above, its main character models look and sound great, and the same is true of some of its secondary cast members. However, other models lacked the same attention to detail, as did some of the game’s environments. At times, things were also way too dark, making it hard to see where I was going, as well as which items could be interacted with. Still, it’s hard to be too down on an experience that presents some of the best voice acting in recent gaming history, as well as very solid scoring. The writing is also sharp at points, but could have been a bit better as a whole.
In the end, Beyond: Two Souls is an experimental effort that won’t be for everyone. Those who like this type of design will probably enjoy it, but will be left wanting more. As such, the best advice that I can give to you is to do research before purchasing, as opposed to making this a blind buy.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 exclusive, which we were provided with.
Beyond: Two Souls is a unique, character driven experience, which will only appeal to certain gamers. Although it launched alongside high expectations, the final product is merely above average, and jumps around a bit too much.