An essential purchase for interactive-drama fans|
by Phil Iwaniuk, published on October 8, 2013 - 04:00 pm
Youll probably think Im crazy when I tell you Ive been looking forward to Beyond: Two Souls more than any other game this year. Especially as were just a few weeks downstream of the generation-defining GTA 5s arrival. But heres the thing: we all knew Rockstars game was going to be astounding. Itd be Grand Theft Auto, but better. Beyond, however, is a ticket to the side of the medium where there are no footprints in the snow.
With its superstar billing and supernatural bent, Quantic Dreams ambitious latest project could either have been a bold and beautiful game-changer or a disastrous 12-hour cutscene punctuated by missed Sixaxis gestures. Thank God someones prepared to take that considerable risk. Thank Ellen Page, an endearingly inconsistent 2,000-page script and a Parisian studio suddenly emerging as a technical powerhouse that risk paid off.
You might have noticed that Beyonds stupendously pretty, on a level that wed expect from a decent next-gen game. The uncanny facial animation was a given, but the lighting, texture resolution and environmental detail were not. Very occasionally, it even eclipses The Last Of Us eye-shredding fidelity. Who knew Quantic Dream would set PS3s graphical high point?
A subtler incarnation of Heavy Rains button-prompt-led control scheme returns to drive Beyonds 15-year story, which hits its predecessor out of the park in terms of production values, and delves deeper into the kind of sci-fi seen in last years Kara demo. There is a trade-off when using QTEs over bespoke mechanics: you lose explicit control, but gain in the range of actions and therefore situations that are possible.
Boy, does Quantic Dream take that idea to heart. You do a hundred strange new things in Beyond, and those novel experiences are thrown your way at such a rate you begin to feel like youre playing six or seven games at once. On one hand, its silly. On the other, its medicine for gaming ADD: youre horse riding. Now youre delivering a baby. Fighting off demons. Begging for change. Still paying attention? David Cage seems to be asking between every scene. Good.
The quality of those scenes inevitably rises and dips like the polygraph of a deceitful boyfriend on a talk show, but through it all, Ellen Pages performance as Jodie Holmes is astonishing. Shes the lynchpin that holds all the madness together with a painfully human presence. Cast Kristen Stewart in the role and the whole house of cards would fall down, but throw Juno in a room of make-believe car doors covered in ping-pong balls and somehow you end up with a frighteningly convincing avatar capable of setting a scene alight with a meaningful glance.
Ellen Pages performance is astonishing.
Shes the lynchpin that holds the madness together with a painfully human presence
Her co-star is Aiden, the ethereal entity bound to her from birth. He goes where she goes, sees what she sees, and interacts with our world by moving objects, giving folk chills, possessing people and even straight-up choking a fool when its called for. Hes also clearly a big M Night Shyamalan fan, opening cabinets and stacking chairs atop tables to express himself like The Sixth Sense. Horror is just one of Beyonds many flavours.
You can go ahead and put that Best Supporting Actor gong away, because although switching to the blurry, aura-filled Infraplane and getting to be the poltergeist from every horror film ever offers another gear in gameplay terms, his interactions grow repetitive quickly (forgivable theyre about the only thing that is repeated) and highlight missed opportunities. Example: youre able to pass through walls as Aiden. The first time you control him, theres a one-way mirror to travel past and lab scientists to eavesdrop on. The second time you switch control in a public bathroom, and theres absolutely no one else in there? Huh.
Aidens constant presence has a profound effect on Jodies life. It alienates her parents and leads to her being raised in a CIA test facility by Drs Nathan Dawkins and Cole Freeman (tenderly played by Willem Dafoe and Kadeem Hardison). It gives her a gift that puts her at the risk of being weaponised, lied to and abused as higher powers try to channel Aidens energy. But in spite of all this tumult Jodie never blames him. Shes too strange for other people to form relationships with, so that meddling smasher-of-windows is the best friend she has.
Her life story is fascinating, but its hard to say what you gain by playing through it in a discontinuous narrative, flitting from adulthood to infancy and back to teenage years with each chapter. You cant help but feel like all the expectant eyes on you as a joints handed to you at your first party would affect you more if you hadnt just leapt back from adulthood.
Except that isnt really the problem. Beyonds grand, ambitious sci-fi plot is the problem. Its not badly written or unimaginative, but we have plenty of grand, ambitious sci-fi in games already. Brimming with it. What is in short supply are moments like Beyonds superlative Homeless chapter, or the fantastic snow day you share with young Jodie, idly exploring her childhood house and having a snowball fight with other kids. Everyday moments you identify with, that blossom into something moving. That deal with loss, grief, alienation and spirituality.
So yes, these moments exist in Beyond, as they did in Heavy Rain when you prepared a microwave meal for your distant son or explored a building site with your adolescent buddy. But theyre often pushed aside for scenes that seem to exist only to demonstrate what the Quantic Dream control set is capazble of, not to better the story. Do we need another blood-soaked lab? Not as badly as we need another icy New York street, an empty stomach and a cardboard sign declaring our plight.
Beyonds a huge technical step forward for interactive drama, but less resolute than Heavy Rain not to stray back into familiar game territory
Beyonds a huge technical step forward for interactive drama, but seems less resolute than Heavy Rain not to stray back into familiar game territory. Commit to it like its actors do to the eccentric plot, though, and the rewards are gigantic Holmes is where the heart is. Another essential purchase for interactive-drama disciples featuring a knockout turn by Page, but one that spreads itself thin telling its story through so many genres.
Score: 8 out of 10