Beyond: Two Souls Review
Is Quantic Dreams' Latest Really a Game Changer?
Standing Out In The Crowd
Beyond: Two Souls was as ambitious is its creator, David Cage. He is nothing if not a visionary, and while many gamers remain divided on whether or not they agree with his vision of what the future of gaming is, it's hard to deny the man is a hell of a salesman. Cage made some lofty promises regarding Beyond, with some lofty marketing to go along with. Footage from the game was debuted at Tribeca Film Festival, making it the first video game to stand alongside films and offered to an audience as a new type of storytelling experience.
While some hailed this move as bold and praised the game's footage for its cinematic qualities - it does feature Ellen Page and Willem DaFoe's likenesses as the main characters, after all - others felt that Cage was doing the industry a disservice. While I adore the industry's recent shift to focusing on narrative, there is such a thing as taking a good idea too far; by minimizing a game's interactive nature so that its cinematic qualities can flourish, it undermines the quality that makes video games stand out from other types of entertainment in the first place.
Beyond: Two Souls plays much like Quantic Dreams' previous offering, Heavy Rain. It's an experience heavily focused on telling the personal ordeals of the characters, with gameplay limited to a number of quicktime events. Players assume the role of Jodie (Ellen Page,) a young woman with a gift - a connection to an otherworldly being named Aiden. This connection makes Jodie the living epicenter of the connection between our world and the next. Plagued by evil spirit from a young age, Jodie's life is one that sees her placed in the care of Nathan Dawkins (William Dafoe) as he attempts to understand her paranormal connection. Jodie is eventually recruited by the CIA, tasked with using her abilities to accomplish missions that no one else is suited for.
As these things tend to go where video games and the CIA are involved, Jodie is betrayed, goes on the run, and is hunted by the government. For all Cage's talk of redefining the genre and forging the future of gaming, it all felt very formulaic and cliché. I loved the overall story, the high concept pitch of a young woman struggling to regain control of her life, despite this connection to another world. But at a more detailed level, the story often follows familiar beats, like shady government science projects and Jodie getting knocked unconscious whenever the plot needs to advance unhindered by reasons.
Falling Into The Same Traps
One of the most infuriating parts of the game is Jodie's companion, Aiden. A spirit from the other world, he is bound to Jodie, and has protected her since her youth. Aiden can knock over objects to scare or distract people, or get directly involved by injuring or possessing others. Despite his usefulness, the spirit is horrifically inconsistent in nature. No rhyme or reason is given why he can only interact with a few people. He will sometimes intervene on Jodie's behalf when she's incapacitated or in trouble, while other times apparently content to just watch her in peril.
It reminds me of some of the worst aspects of comic books, where a given character's powers and weaknesses can magically change from issue to issue, or even from page to page, at the behest and whim of writers whose primary concern is what they feel would be interesting to write in that moment, that scene, with seemingly little concern shown for any long term consistency. Instead of crafting a compelling companion for Jodie to tell her story with, I felt as if I was controlling a heroine eternally linked to a Deus Ex Machina ghost, whose behavior was dictated by what the story called for at that very moment. The result is an inconsistent narrative I found more enraging than engaging.
The gameplay is limited in nature - much like Heavy Rain's was - and reminds me how Telltale Games' The Walking Dead turned minimal gameplay and a focus on narrative into a Game of the Year contender. Despite its higher production value and similar approach, Beyond never captivated me the same way The Walking Dead and its cast did. Even if many of the consequences of Lee's decisions were cosmetic - save person A or person B, and they will occupy the same role in the story from that point on - I felt it to be a much more genuine (and consistent) experience
In Beyond, failing the quicktime events sometimes has no consequences. There was one point where I put down my controller, having failed the first few button inputs, and allowed Jodie to get knocked down. I watched as Aiden sat there, not intervening, my controller sitting idle as I waited for a GAME OVER screen so I could load a checkpoint and try again - only to have another character show up, kill my attacker, and revive Jodie, so I could simply progress like nothing happened. I managed to complete part of the game by simply putting the controller down.
Some games have taken into account that not all players care for action, and some would rather just enjoy the underlying narrative. In addition to traditional difficulty settings, many games now have settings that minimize combat to allow non-action gamers to play through with minimal frustration. But the ability to fail and still continue unhindered in some parts of Beyond made me think back to the criticism levied against Beyond, its film festival bravado and Cage's promises, the remarks about how reducing it to a cinematic experience was akin to removing a game's heart and soul. As much as I wanted to adore this game, I found myself agreeing with its detractors all too often.
Despite its flaws, Beyond has many qualities to offer. The overall plot does its best to draw the player in, and while the achronological order of the chapters is unsettling at first, it actually works fairly well in the end. Page and Dafoe's motion capture and voice acting are the foundation for two of the most impressive characters ever brought to life on a console, easily on the same level as Joel and Ellie from The Last Of Us. The varied cast of supporting characters Jodie interacts with during her ordeal all do their part to enrich her story, and it was a refreshing change of pace to play a game where I spent long portions not being prompted to kill every living thing in my path. Jodie is a remarkably refreshing heroine, a troubled young woman trying to reclaim her bizarre life, while coming to grips with her place in the world and destiny itself. She does the best she can for herself, for Aiden, and the many people she comes across in her journey. She manages to do all this without succumbing to video game tropes, like being oversexualized or turning into a frenzied killing machine every other chapter. The gameplay is a welcome deviation from the many shooters that populate gaming's landscape, even if the minimal interaction will surely be a turn-off for some players.
Somehow, even when all the positives came together, Beyond: Two Souls simply wasn't a game that I enjoyed playing nearly as much as I had hoped. For all Jodie's capability, she simply gets knocked unconscious anytime the plot demands it; for all of Aiden's intrigue, his inconsistency in aiding Jodie when she needs him most was infuriating. These brute-force tactics in moving ahead the otherwise compelling story at all costs simply took me out of the narrative, rather than captivating me. In the end, Beyond: Two Souls never felt like it lived up to its own hype or potential.
This game was reviewed on a retail copy.
- Believable protagonist
- Incredible motion capture and voice acting
- Emphasis on story over action / violence
- Hits several tropes / cliches
- Inconsistent storytelling
- Choices / failures sometimes have no consequences