by Robert Kojder, published on October 11, 2013 - 2:42 AM PDT|
Rating: 4 out of 5
What is life after death? Do we enter an unseen realm when we die? Is there life beyond life as we know it, or do we just rot in the ground while our loved ones grieve, willing to do anything to communicate with us once more? These are the focal themes elegantly and emotionally explored throughout Beyond: Two Souls (Developed by Quantic Dream, the creators of 2010s critically and commercially acclaimed Interactive Drama Heavy Rain).
Now before I even start tossing out my subjective thoughts on the game, I want to make perfectly clear that isnt a hackneyed review written by an author who is going to step up on a metaphorical soapbox and preach for five paragraphs about a personal opinion of what defines a video game. Truthfully, I side with Director David Cage in that no one is qualified to arbitrarily define what a game is, because ultimately we all play video games for different reasons.
Similar to Quantic Dreams previous outing with Heavy Rain (and Indigo Prophecy if you remember that hidden gem for PS2), Beyond is not a conventionally structured video game; instead you will find yourself spending the 10 or so hours engaging in narrative decisions, Quick Time Events, and fairly mundane activities like cooking, but juxtaposed with high octane supernatural action drama. If that doesnt intrigue you or if you simply dont enjoy games by Quantic Dream, Beyond will not sway your stance as much it pains me to say it.
If you are fascinated with this groundbreaking new genre that David Cage has coined as Interactive Drama though, then then youll assuredly enjoy this supernatural experience that follows Jodie Holmes (voiced and motion captured brilliantly by Ellen Page) and her problematic and often distressing life where she is connected to an invisible and nearly uncontrollable entity. Experiments are conducted by a paranormal scientist named Nathan (awesomely portrayed and motion captured by Willem Dafoe) as they seek answers to what lies beyond.
The game will erratically flip back and forth between a 15 year period of Jodie Holmes life, giving players control across childhood years to teenage years to CIA involvement years to a seemingly hopeless, lost, and broken era. At first, the frequently jarring transitions between pivotal life events will disorient players and potentially leave them scratching their heads into confusion as to why the game is structured that way, but what pleased me most and eventually won me over is the justification which slowly pieces itself together as you approach one of the most thrilling, riveting, and brilliant conclusions in all of gaming. Furthermore, looking back Im not sure if an interactive medium would benefit from telling a story this complex chronologically as I imagine wear and tear from set in from playing multiple hour long stretches of adolescent events with nonstop action swallowing the back half.
David Cage takes this narrative structure and through some meticulous arranging of scenes, is able to keep intrigue and interest piqued. Those jarring transitions originally met with confusion become welcomed with glee and anticipation of what youll be doing next, whether its a snowball fight, fitting in as a teenager, executing a dangerous CIA endorsed operation, or wreaking havoc as the games paranormal central sidekick entity, Aiden
And speaking of Aiden, its now relevant to mention that this isnt a solo rodeo. There are life threatening sequences in the game where you must switch to Aiden and aid Jodie through peril. What really surprised me though is the high amount of varying degrees to which Aiden can interact with the environment. Weve all probably seen a film like Paranormal Activity where objects are unexplainably manipulated but actually being in control of that essentially puts a whole new spin on something that is in my mind, now stale in other entertainment mediums. It doesnt end there though as Aiden can possess people (and have them do vengeful things such as shoot each other), heal people, and even transfer memories of other people to Jodie. If playing as a ghost is the secondary hook alongside the story, I say well executed Quantic Dream.
Jodie also has highly entertaining sequences though built around the gameplay design of Heavy Rain, but enhanced in a way thats more seamlessly resulting in less screen clutter. For example, instead of having boxed button input prompts during reflexive moments, the game enters slow motion giving players an opportunity to analyze Jodies incoming action (whether its a punch, jump, or even opening a door during a chase} to flick the Right Thumbstick in a direction that correlates with the aforementioned action. Supplementing this enhanced Quick Time Event mechanic is also youre prompts to jerk the controller or tap a button. Beyond doesnt try and reinvent the wheel but rather expands on Heavy Rains tried and true mechanics; successfully I should add.
Youre possibly wondering why I havent really spilled any beans on what the story is actually about and thats intentional. Its something best explored for yourself as you carve your own path through emotional sequences and difficult narrative choices.
I will say this though; there are some absolutely genius and magical scenes in the game that fill you with all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. You will be frequently left in awe not just at your actions, but the startling reality that these things are transpiring in a video game. When I finished Heavy Rain for the first time I was immediately dying for a similar experience; its a reaction that Beyond too successfully captures. I dont feel that every game should follow David Cages philosophies on gaming, but his imagination and ambition certainly has its place in the industry.
Beyond is admittedly not without flaws though. There is a chapter in the game titled Navajo which lasts around an entire hour. It also couldnt be any more disjointed from the narrative, shifting the game into a very bizarre string of events. Most offensively, its just boring and useless to the narrative. Its a chapter more suited for DLC as another outlook on the core themes. Thankfully, immediately after this chapter the thrills return.
Graphically, words just cannot do this game justice. Lately it seems with every high profile release we are left floored of what is being achieved on current generation consoles, but this game takes the damn cake and eats it whole. I kinda just scolded the Navajo chapter, but good God almighty, riding a horse and galloping at high speed against that desert backdrop is the most visually stunning image I have ever come across in a video game. Absolutely insane detail on character models, objects, and environments are also beautiful, as are the unbelievably lifelike character animations.
Normand Corbeil (the composer for Heavy Rain} unfortunately was taken early from cancer. Its definitely a tragic loss for the gaming industry and my sympathies go out to his loved ones, but on a less depressing note the soundtrack for Beyond is quite good. Im sure having Hans Zimmer oversee the procedures dramatically helped but no matter how you slice it, Assassins Creed 3 composer Lorne Balfe didnt crack under pressure but rather conjured up some emotional beats and action tunes to emphasize various scenes.
As usual with games by Quantic Dream, there a plethora of different paths and endings to see so your initial 10 hours may potentially double or even triple. I know I personally played Heavy Rain 5 times and am now excited to plough through Beyond multiple times. Something really interesting about Beyond though is that it can actually be played cooperatively with one person controlling Jodie and the other controlling Aiden. Now you can experience the game with someone you care about which honestly will add a lot to the experience. Even if your selected partner isnt a gamer, Beyond can be overly simplified and controlled with a touch device if that person isnt familiar with a traditional controller.
All in all, I left Beyond pleasantly satisfied. Im ecstatic that revered high profile Hollywood talents such as Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe took this project seriously, Im glad that David Cage is continuing to veer outside the conventional boundaries of what a video game can be, and Im grateful for having gone on this journey into the paranormal, for it has sparked interest in areas that resonate with our personal lives. I tip my hat to David Cage and Quantic Dream, anxiously awaiting whatever their talented and imaginative minds tackle next.
Beyond: Two Souls is available now in NA and the UK.