Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond: Two Souls was one of those games I was really looking forward to.  Exactly why I was looking forward to it, I can’t say.  The two previous Quantic Dream titles I played, Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, were games that I didn’t love.  They presented some interesting concepts, but they didn’t build enough out of those concepts to give them more than novelty value.  Beyond: Two Souls, on the other hand, is a pretty good game.  It isn’t just good for being different; it is legitimately good.  It improves substantially on Quantic Dream’s previous games, to the point where it doesn’t feel like a proof of concept anymore.  It is more of a realization of the experience that David Cage and his studio have been trying to provide for the better part of a decade.  It may be that this experience isn’t what you are looking for, but it if you are, you will find the game’s concepts are well executed.

Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain had their ups and downs, but above all, they felt like gaming experiments.  They had a lot of mundane gameplay elements that didn’t seem to have much of a reason to exist, other than that the interesting novelty of brushing your teeth in a video game or retrieving your son’s teddy bear.  Beyond: Two Souls, doesn’t feel like an experiment, and that is a good thing.  While it also has its flaws, it is more focused and refined than Quantic Dream’s previous efforts.  There are very few “everyday life” quick time events, like putting on deodorant or peeing.  What little of this material is necessary to drive the story.  There is no contrived adult content that feels like it was shoehorned into the game in order to justify its “M” rating.  Swearing, for instance, is kept to a realistic minimum.  The action scenes are also better.  By adding a couple of very simple systems to this game, Quantic Dream has transformed it from the “movie with button prompts” of their previous games into the interactive cinema/action experience they made previously with only mixed success.  These subtle but important improvements are why even though the game shares a lot of DNA with Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, it still feels like a different experience.

Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of the supernaturally gifted Jodie (Ellen Page) and her invisible friend, Aiden.  Jodie is a classic introvert.  She doesn’t talk much and when she does, her volume is low.  As a child, she answers lots of questions with a simple shrug of the shoulders or nod of the head.  Aiden, on the other hand, is capable of wanton destruction and murder.  He can do simple poltergeist stuff like turn lights and radios on and off, but he can also be a terrifying entity when he goes into full “Carrie at the prom in pig’s blood” rage mode.  Aiden can turn on a stove and cause a house fire.  Aiden can smash people by throwing a car.  Aiden can even temporarily possess somebody and cause them to drive their car into a building or shoot someone in the head.

The most interesting parts of the game are, by far, the interactions that Jodie and Aiden have with one another and other characters.  There are a lot of chapters in the game that have little to no action and don’t ultimately affect the plot, but instead show Jodie’s everyday life and her struggle to maintain some level of normalcy.  A couple of the game's most memorable moments come when you play as teenage Jodie and use Aiden to throw a temper tantrum and destroy stuff when you get pissed off.  Some situations present interesting moral dilemmas and challenges that don’t involve running away from gunfire or karate chopping bad guys.  Jodie has had a very hard life that would break most people.  Beyond: Two Souls has a plot but at its heart, it is a character study and a very interesting one at that.

A major improvement in this game over its predecessors are the action scenes.  Quantic Dream’s previous games had action that barely offered any interaction with what was happening on the screen.  You would simply respond to random button or movement prompts that didn’t give you any sense that you were controlling the action.   Beyond: Two Souls has few of these random prompts.  In their place are some rudimentary but effective systems for hand-to-hand combat and avoiding obstacles while you run.  Whenever Jodie is about to take an action, whether it is a punch, a kick, or a jump, the scene slows down for a second while you move the right stick in the direction where Jodie needs to take action.  If there is an enemy to her right and Jodie has her arm cocked for a punch, then you flick the stick to the right and she punches him.  When she is running from the cops and she has to jump over a log, you flick the stick up.  It’s not the most robust system there has ever been, but it is good enough to make you feel as if you are part of the action, and that is what counts.

The game also throws its hat into the stealth/action ring a few times, with some decent success.  In some areas, when you want to avoid detection, you can cling to and move from various cover points.  You can also use Aiden to scout the area and create distractions for the guards.  When you get close enough to an enemy, you can perform a silent takedown.  Like the rest of the action, it works at a bare bones level.  It is another feature that wouldn’t work well if it had to carry a game, but as a small piece in an adventure game, it works just fine.

When you aren’t involved in an action sequence, you get to play through traditional and recognizable adventure game material.  You'll explore environments and talk to NPCs and solve simple and easy puzzles by pushing buttons or other simple actions.  Most of the puzzle solving involves using Aiden, who can move freely through the environments, up and down and through walls.  He can also manipulate selected objects in simple ways, like turning devices on or off and blasting them with telekinetic energy.  A typical puzzle might involve getting on the other side of a locked door to unlock it or throwing an object that Jodie needs through a wall of flame.  Occasionally, you can use Aiden to eavesdrop on an optional conversation.

The adventuring parts of the game do their job, which is to get you from point A to point B in the story, although none of them are particularly challenging or memorable.  The environments are too small and linear to give you any freedom in how you approach problems and the solutions are almost always immediately obvious.  In a more ambitious action game, Aiden’s abilities could have provided some great open-ended puzzle solving and emergent gameplay.  Instead, the game’s focus is on storytelling, cinematics, and presentation – for better or for worse – with simple action and level design.

Quantic Dream has been showing off its graphical technology since before the PS3 hit the market and Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t disappoint when it comes to visuals.  The game looks incredible, especially the faces.  It looks at least as sharp as The Last of Us, the other flagship PS3 exclusive on the year.  There are a ton of realistic animations ranging from subtle eye movements that express emotions to the impressive punches and kicks that Jodie throws to take down her opponents.  As realistic as Beyond looks, it avoids the uncanny valley flaws that make the characters look creepy or silly  (Heavy Rain was guilty of that problem).  Whether you are talking about clothing, environments, or objects, there isn’t a single wart in the game.  The game depicts Jodie’s childhood and adolescence, where some impressive work was done to present an 8 and 15 year old Ellen Page.  The visuals come at a cost, however, and that is the small playable areas separated by frequent loading times.  And, although the game’s visual fidelity is unsurpassed, it doesn’t offer any “take your breath away” moments the way that The Last of Us was able to do with its impressive vistas and postcard moments.  Since the game is a photorealistic one without a distinct style, the visuals here just kind of blend into the background once you have gotten used to them, even though they are pretty amazing when you take time out to marvel at them.

The game’s great presentation continues into its audio production, its music and voice acting are both top notch.  There is a little bit of licensed music in the game, along with an original score, both of which are very good.  Ellen Page does a pretty good job as Jodie, although she isn’t asked to do a lot of challenging work.  Jodie is pretty subdued for most of the game and doesn’t show a lot of emotion besides sadness.  Aiden’s destruction is how she expresses anger, which is part of the interesting dynamic between the pair.  Willem Dafoe is solid and his character is very likeable.  The large supporting cast of NPCs is good too.  The investment that Quantic Dream made in the voice talent was a wise one as most scenes have the right emotional weight.  The game especially gets a lot of mileage out of people’s terrified reactions to the cruel things that Aiden can do to them when angry.  There are a few scenes where just throwing a few chairs or breaking a few mirrors will have frightened, confused NPCs running around the room screaming or whimpering on the floor like a pile of goo.  They are the absolute high points of the game.

Beyond: Two Souls tells its story completely out of sequence, jumping around back and forth between Jodie’s childhood and various stages of her adulthood.  This narrative style would be confusing were it not for the story timeline displayed on the game’s loading screens that shows where every chapter fits into place.  With the exception of one or two sappy chapters that overstay their welcome, the game is well paced.  There is a good mixture of problem solving, character development, action, and plot progression, with enough variety to keep the game from getting repetitive.  If there is any weakness in the writing, it isn’t with the character interactions, but with its predictable plot points.  Since the game shows you the last chapter first, the overall arc isn’t meant to be a surprise.  How you get there is supposed to be the attraction, with each chapter functioning as a mini-story.  The game stays within the clichés of what inspired it pretty much the entire time, so the mini-stories end up being pretty predictable.  A girl with unexplained power gets ridiculed, a talented CIA agent has a crisis of conscience and goes rogue, etc, etc.  It is stuff that you have all seen many times by now, and it plays out pretty much like you would expect.  Being a little clichéd and predictable doesn’t ruin the story in Beyond, because it is more about the characters and how you react in the game than the plot.  Still, it would have been nice if the game’s story had avoided some of these traps and kept you guessing a little more.

Beyond: Two Souls turns out to be a surprisingly meaty game, clocking in somewhere between 10 and 12 hours.  Some of the chapters do feel like filler though, and some of the mini-stories go in absurd directions.  One problem that Beyond shares with Heavy Rain is that some of its attempts to tug at your heartstrings are conspicuous and corny.  Some of the scenes come across as childish or naïve, as if the person writing the script gained all of their knowledge of human nature by watching made for TV movies on the Lifetime Network.  The worst example of this problem is when Jodie becomes a midwife for a hobo.  There aren’t as many of these moments as there were in Heavy Rain, but they are still there, and they keep the story from reaching its full potential.

Beyond: Two Souls is an improvement over David Cage and Quantic Dream's previous efforts.  It probably isn’t enough to radically change your opinion about their work, but it is still improvement.  The concept of having bare bones, cinematic action to tell a story with rich characters works in this game without major problems.  If you loved Heavy Rain, then I can easily recommend this game, as it is an improvement in just about every area that is important to an adventure game.  If, on the other hand, the concept doesn’t appeal to you, then you should probably avoid it.  I’m not sure that the concept even appeals to me enough to play a game like this more than once every other year.  I did enjoy the time that I spent with Beyond: Two Souls though.  It is the first game from this studio that I have enjoyed not just because I was intrigued by it, but because it executes its concepts well and puts forth an all-around solid package.