Look, don't touch.|
by Lucy O'Brien, published on October 8, 2013
If you are the type who scrolls down a review to see the score before reading the text, know this first: I have never found assigning a number to a game so difficult. This is principally because Beyond: Two Souls takes the vision that writer/creative director David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream have held onto for so long - that interactive drama is the way to make gamers conditioned to meaningless violence feel something in the depths of our brittle souls - to unprecedented extremes. But Beyond is a game that made me feel too much like a passive participant, which made playing it a very confusing and unrewarding experience.
Indeed, if there was ever a game that suggested that Cage is a frustrated film director at heart, its this one. Beyond is an opus a muddy and unfocused one, but an opus packed with so much plot it feels like Cage has indulged his every whim and want in a single project. Unlike Heavy Rain before it, which dipped into silliness but was at least thematically consistent, Beyonds only consistency is its focus on Jodie Holmes, the game's tragic heroine. Shes a character wonderfully realized by actress Ellen Page, who proves to be much of Beyonds saving grace.
Jodies story is told in chapters out of chronological order across 15 years of her life. Beyond dances between these chapters: Jodie as a little girl, Jodie as a stubborn teen, Jodie as a young woman, Jodie as a little girl again, and so on. Her plight is driven by an unwanted tethering to a Poltergeist-like spirit she calls Aiden, whom you can also control depending on the circumstance.
This flitting back and forth across multiple eras of Jodies life presents a couple of problems. It gives Beyond a schizophrenic, alienating feeling, and left me constantly trying to catch up with the progression of the narrative. Next to something like Quentin Tarantinos Pulp Fiction, this experiment with chronology feels unfocused; we are frequently thrust into deeply dramatic scenes that claw at our tear ducts far too early, before weve had the chance to fully invest in characters and their circumstances.
In truth, Beyonds plot would still feel disjointed even if it were told in order. Those familiar with Quantics previous works, most notably Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, should not expect anything more focused here. The story takes us from horror (where the influence of Brian de Palma and Adrian Lyne is strong) to drama, action, and sci-fi, and its peppered with pulp: evil government conspiracies, supernatural enemies, and cackling bad guys from distant climates abound.
Cage has said in interviews that switching between genres and tone was a conscious choice, as nobodys life is ever one flat note. But this is not a real life. This is a story about a girl and her ghost, and there is a reason filmmakers tend to stick with one genre or another: so as to craft a cohesive narrative. It is unfortunate there is no such discipline to be found here.
Occasionally, the plot does sing, and is dotted with moments that compelled me to continue playing. Cages best work comes out in the quieter, more human moments in his stories. Helping a teenage Jodie agonize over which music to choose at a party is one such moment; playing guitar on the streets in the middle of a bitter winter to earn enough money to buy food is another.
In these scenes, Ellen Page has the opportunity to really make us care for Jodie. Page is an eminently likeable and capable actress and gamely takes on Cages crazy twists and turns, delivering her lines with nothing less than utter sincerity. The rest of the cast dont always grant him the same favour, and frequently slip into broad theatrical strokes (for the love of God, shes a monster!) because the writing grants them this luxury. Page and yes, Willem Dafoe, although hes simply doing his Norman Osborne routine here knows when to downplay the crazy and put emphasis on those smaller moments. It is principally thanks to her, although Cage does deserve some credit here too, that I felt a lump in my throat at the end.
Whats missing, then, is the actual game built around this story. The system that allows us to interact with Jodies world has been streamlined for the better since Heavy Rain, and for the most part the action buttons - those much-maligned perpetrators of quick-time events (QTEs) - have been discarded. Theyre replaced with more intuitive contextual interactions on the right thumbstick, or iPhone touchscreen if you choose to play with an even further-simplified control scheme.
Anything you can interact with in the world is indicated by a white dot; move the right stick in the direction that feels natural, and Jodie will do the predictable thing: pick up a doll, take a shower, sit down on a chair. There are the occasional instances of QTE prompts in moments of high tension, although they are relatively unobtrusive and feel natural within that context.
Navigating Aiden, too, is easy enough. You can switch to him when Jodie needs help, and a press of the triangle button will propel you into a first person view with a satisfying woosh. In his form you can pass through walls and ceilings to possess certain enemies (why some but not all is not explained), kill certain enemies (ditto), move certain items and occasionally feed Jodie flashbacks via a telepathic link so she knows how to progress. There is little coherency to the system, for Aidens usefulness is determined on a contextual basis by Quantic. Rarely did I feel as if I was using Aiden to progress based on my own intuition alone.
When he is required, Jodie will use one of a handful of verbal prompts: help me Aiden, get rid of them, Aiden, and so on. His goals tend to be blatantly signposted - a character to possess immediately to the left, an interactive bit of ghost dust in the room above. Further, you cant always switch to him; it seems Aiden is a stubborn spirit. This simplistic gameplay and Aidens limitations are disappointing, particularly if one considers the potential for dynamic puzzle-solving interplay between Jodie and Aiden in co-op mode.
Combat is the weakest aspect of Quantics new control scheme. Time slows down during physical fights, and you must move the right stick in the same direction as Jodies body to block or punch or kick. Her body isnt always easy to read and you only have a couple of seconds in which to do so so frequently I found myself ducking instead of kicking, or moving backwards instead of forwards.
Its no matter: the outcome will be the same regardless. Jodie can get stabbed, beat up, pushed off the side of a building; shell always be fine on the other side. In circumstances where this invulnerability system is overtly nonsensical when she gets shot for example Aiden will simply heal her.
This constant push and pull between our sense that we are impacting the story and the story itself has always been at the heart of everything David Cage has created, but its examples like these that highlight just how passive Beyond made me feel. There are, of course, choices: on Quantics whim, you can choose how Jodie responds in conversation, whether shell dance at a party or not, or take revenge on someone who has wronged her. But unlike the critical decisions you make in Heavy Rain, Beyonds choices feel small, and the story will storm onward no matter how they are played out, never pausing to toss you a crunchy moral quandary to change its direction in any way that feels significant. Its disappointingly unadaptable.
I can illustrate this by comparing two scenarios. In one, Jodie is preparing for a date: you have the ability to choose her outfit, what shell cook for dinner, if she cleans up her apartment or not, and so on. How she completes these tasks will affect the outcome of the date. In another, Jodie is instructed to kill a man. You have no choice in this.
These restrictions are, of course, understandable from a technical perspective. Each time Quantic offers us a major decision, there is more game that must be made to accommodate, plus the developer only had so much flexibility with a solo protagonist. But it is unwise to build up our expectations of being able to choose our actions and then take that away from us where it feels most important.
It should be noted that Beyonds linearity also extends to general exploration, but this is an understandable decision on Quantics behalf; opening up its world would cause chaos with Beyonds tightly scripted story. You still can bask in the beautifully detailed trappings of suburbia Quantic has carefully created, or the glistening sterility of a research base, or the vast desert plains of the Great Southwestern Nowhere. These stunningly realized backdrops are triumphs of technical craftsmanship, but they are indeed backdrops, built for looking at rather than touching; a thought that perhaps encapsulates this game in its entirety.
Scene by scene, Beyond: Two Souls is compelling enough, principally thanks to a remarkable performance from Ellen Page. But never before have I felt like such a passive participant in a video game, my choices and actions merely icing on a dense, multi-layered cake. Playing Beyond is a memorable experience, yes, but a good video game it is not; and while the credits were rolling I admit to thinking I would have been happier to sit back and watch a movie version that was eight-and-a-half hours shorter.
Beyond: Two Souls is an ambitious opus, let down by lack of meaningful player choice and an unfocused plot.
+ Terrific performance from Page
+ Beautiful world
Choices feel inconsequential
Poor combat mechanics