OXCGN’s Beyond: Two Souls Review
What lies Beyond?
by Jayden Perry
©2013 Jayden Perry
This is their first game since Heavy Rain in 2010, which gathered quite a following for its unique narrative style. Once again Quantic Dream and David Cage’s unique penmanship returns in a game with slicker controls, fantastic acting and a deeper but ultimately unfocused story that still manages to immerse the player regardless of its downfalls.
The Next Chapter
It is clear from the get go that Beyond’s focal point is the story.
You play as Jodie, a girl with a strange gift. This ‘gift’ comes in the form of Aiden, an entity attached her from birth. The game progresses through various chapters covering fifteen years of her early life.
Rather than traditional linear storytelling the game adopts a sequence based narrative, jumping from an eight year old Jodie fearing the monsters in the dark to an adult Jodie training for the CIA. This initially can be disorienting for the player as the game can sometimes jump from segment to segment without a clear connection or explanation.
The major problems arising from the erratic story jumps, however, is that moments where the player would feel something, or make a choice in the section based on their experience with the character don’t have anywhere near the impact that they would if they were played later or in a more chronological setting.
The story in itself, even after you finish the game and are able to see all the chapters laid out in order, tries to pull too much into it at once.
Jumping from sci-fi, with ‘paranormal divisions’ of military and top-secret missions, to horror then back into a myriad of different genres. There’s even a sequence built around attending a teenage party, with secret drinking and teenage brutality, then another dealing with a native American family and an evil spirit.
It all starts to feel a little confusing and it can detract from the intended weight of these scenes as you’re wondering why this is going on instead of getting invested in a character. I also found some of the sequences felt like they had no real purpose and some that dragged on much longer than need be. I understood what they were trying to build, but it didn’t seem to add anything to the central idea and story, lending to the unfocused tone.
In each segment of the game as the player controls both Jodie and Aiden, you decide how ‘your’ Jodie develops and acts.
You can choose how Jodie responds to people; is she sarcastic? Reserved? You can choose whether to open up and reveal your powers and truths with others, or shut them out and keep to yourself.
The problem with this, thanks to the disjointed story chapters, is that at the end of these segments the ‘choices’ of how to act are not stored. You can be insubordinate or confrontational and yet when the next chapter starts your previous actions are gone.
All the hard choices some may labour over only feel like they have an impact in that one scene. The investment in the character of Jodie comes in how you develop your own Jodie, and her continuity and development is up to you keeping her a certain way.
My Jodie was reserved, thoughtful and tried to help people, but yours could be more volatile and destructive. The same goes with Aiden, when you control him you make decisions to how he is, if you want him to try to ruin a date for Jodie you can, but you can also listen to her requests and help her out.
All of this so far might be sounding fairly negative towards the game, but I assure you there are some things the game does really right; It’s just a shame all the small parts that make each experience amazing can’t quite pull themselves together for the whole overarching tale. What you begin to see as you look at the smaller segments is what Quantic Dream really nailed, the tiny details and the ‘human element’.
The ‘Human Element’
The subtle nuances of a character can really make or break their believability and affect how ‘real’ they appear.
In the character of Jodie, aided by state of the art motion capture and facial capture technology, Quantic Dream have really made sure that the player feels as though the characters could be real. Ellen Page’s performance is the outstanding piece in this title, overshadowing even Willem Dafoe, whose role is disappointingly underdeveloped.
These performances by real actors really allow the game characters to feel very photorealistic, the characters movements and actions are less basic and have a human touch to them. From idle motions to little moments like an eight year old Jodie making faces in the mirror, all of it feels very tangible and real.
Similarly, the way that the developers have used people’s real fears, questions and experiences in-game allow for a brilliant sense of connection between the player and Jodie. In one scene, fearing the dark, an eight year old Jodie reacts by hugging her toy rabbit.
Above all the game asks about ‘the beyond’, what happens after death and displays humanity’s fears of entities and spirits in this world, questions that resonate with most of us.
Peppered through the story we see examples of some beautiful ‘human’ moments – we see people at their very best especially in a homeless character called Stan, sharing the little he has with Jodie when she needs it most. In return Jodie allows him to move on and live again after the tragedies that have befallen him.
In another sequence we see some truly horrible acts, committed out of greed, fear or hatred. Innocence lost is another major theme, from a little girl dealing with her demons to child soldiers in a third world country, Beyond really contrasts the beauty of life with some of it’s darkest moments, especially over scene transitions, juxtaposing the two for effect.
Once you reach the end it presents a very intriguing set of answers and options to the player, and you’ll be thinking about Jodie’s journey for a good while after the credits roll. Regardless of the overall story having some issues, the smaller sequences, the hard hitting and thought provoking scenarios the player is put in, were what I loved in Beyond: Two Souls.
A Whole New World
The visuals in Beyond are another of the game’s triumphs. Character models and environments look stunning, really pulling all they can out of the PS3’s hardware. The use of motion capture technology allows the models to look incredible, as do the many effects like snow and supernatural auras.
The game is scored quite well with some truly incredible tracks, but sometimes they can be over dramatic. In game, the world is fairly closed with no real exploration elements. In bedrooms or small apartments it’s understandable, but in larger areas you feel like you’re restricted in what you can do, it sometimes feels like your simply moving the character forward on a single line.
In sections like the CIA mission you can choose to dispatch soldiers or sneak past them stealthily, but you can’t choose your route, it’s all mapped out for you and you simply move from cover to cover at the right time. It would have been nice to allow a little more exploration in the game and since there are no collectibles to be found by Jodie (only small blue icons able to be used by Aiden to unlock concept art and behind the scenes videos) the game doesn’t really provide much motive to do so.
Now, to be this far into a review and not have spoken about gameplay might seem like a strange thing, but with Beyond the gameplay takes such a second place to the storytelling that it is very simple and almost non-existent compared to many modern games.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, and for the most part the interactivity is quite slick and refined. As you move about the world items that you can interact with are marked by a small white ball and pushing the right stick in its direction allows you to interact with it.
Other than the basic movement, the rest of the gameplay is based on ‘quick time events’ – some of the smoothest and uncomplicated quick time events I’ve come across in gaming.
The fighting mechanic is the part of the controls that is unfortunately quite weak. I liked the concept, time slows down and you read the direction of Jodie’s movements, then slide the right stick that way to perform the action. Failing to do so means either taking a hit or failing, but there are no ‘game over’ screens and Jodie will not be killed by failing these scenes.
While about seventy-five percent of these motions are fairly clear, some of the motions are painfully unclear and usually end up being nothing like what you thought. This inconsistency can cause you to fail sections, miss trophies and generally annoy you.
While you can lower the difficulty and turn arrows on to guarantee you see the direction, giant arrows in the middle of a cinematic game can really break the immersion.
All of this comes with the ‘interactive drama’ genre, trying to make the player feel more like they are guiding the character rather than actually fighting with them. It is done fairly well, but it really lets itself down with a consistent lack of clarity.
At the end of the game Beyond: Two Souls is certainly a beautiful experience.
It showcases humanity; It’s questions, issues, it’s best and worst moments. Quantic Dream has crafted an adventure that will play on your mind and tug on your emotions, attaching you to Jodie in a way much like Aiden.
As you play the game you notice the tiny nuances and details that have been captured thanks to motion capture, showcasing Ellen Page’s incredible performance.
If the story jumped more smoothly and was a little more coherent it would be a serious contender amongst the best in the genre, but it is let down by some of the more extended sequences and poorly developed backing cast.
Beyond: Two Souls is well worth a play for the experience, for fans of interactive drama, there’s a lot to love here, but I can’t help but feel it could have been a lot more with a little more focus and direction, and a more coherent transition of story chapters.