by Andrew Yoon, published on October 8, 2013 - 8:00am PDT|
Some would argue that an artist is only as good as his tools. For Beyond: Two Souls, writer and director David Cage has been given resources that would make any director--Hollywood or not--jealous. Cage has at his disposal some of the best visual tech of the generation, a stunning motion capture suite, and two Academy Award-nominated actors. Sony has pulled out all the stops.
The end result is a game that improves upon nearly every aspect of Quantic Dream's first PS3 effort, Heavy Rain. Beyond leaps over the uncanny valley thanks to its new engine and motion capture tech. Gone are the awkwardly-accented performances, only to be replaced by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Even the gameplay has been significantly improved, moving away from the QTE button-mashing that defined Heavy Rain. Every aspect of Beyond is a generational leap. Too bad it's all wasted on a story that isn't worth telling.
Beyond: Two Souls spans the decades-long journey of Jodie and Aiden, an invisible spirit inexplicably tethered at birth. Taken under the care of a research program, Jodie ends up being recruited by the military as they try to understand the mysteries of the afterlife. Having the narrative span such a large amount of time lets players see Jodie grow from being a child to a teenager to an adult, and Ellen Page does a wonderful job of portraying the character across her life. Unfortunately, what should be a character study instead becomes an excuse to string together unoriginal tropes and Hollywood action cliches.
With a deft touch, many of these scenes could be affecting. For example, one of Jodie's first interactions with other teens has her playing the awkward social outcast. But Cage stages the scene with the subtlety of an explosion. The gang's eventual betrayal of Jodie is so apparent, especially if you've ever seen any other movie involving teenagers. In fact, the game's heavy inspiration from film becomes a deterrent. Whether you're fighting atop a moving train, or having a spiritual encounter with a Native American family, the narrative rarely surprises, mostly because you've seen this stuff before.
While many of Cage's choices are uninspired, one in particular is baffling. Beyond is told non-chronologically, much to its detriment. There's no meaningful reason to frame the story in such a way, as scenes rarely flavor one another. Jumping between random sequences of being a child, military badass, and sexually frustrated young adult do little more than make the narrative feel disjointed. Even worse, it manages to undo one of the greatest aspects of Heavy Rain: the feeling of player agency.
Heavy Rain made good on its promise of a narrative that adapts to your choices, even when main characters die. Knowing that every scenario could have repercussions augmented the tension of the game's knuckle-biting sequences. Beyond fails to replicate that sensation because you're aware that the entire game is a flashback. You know Jodie cannot die, and you know that your decisions won't have any meaningful impact on the story--because you're already aware of what will happen in the future. Simply telling the story in chronological order would not only make the story flow better, but it would be more effective at giving the illusion of player agency.
Thinking even a little about the story will make it clear how absurd the narrative is. The end-game disaster is, like most other things in the game, so obviously going to happen. But why doesn't Jodie acknowledge that ever? Why does one character decide to so suddenly go insane? Is Cage familiar with the terms "character development" and "foreshadowing?"
Given Quantic Dream's focus on narrative, it's a little bit surprising that Beyond is the best playing game they've created. Whereas Heavy Rain used Resident Evil-style tank controls, Beyond gives players direct control over Jodie and Aiden. Quantic Dream's interpretation of combat is the best so far, with players having to move the analog stick in tandem with Jodie's motion. The kung-fu fight sequences are just as thrilling as those of Indigo Prophecy, without turning into a frenetic game of Simon Says. Playing as Aiden is also interesting, as he introduces an interesting puzzle-solving element to the game. The best moments have you figuring out "who do I need to possess now?" as you manipulate NPCs to your advantage. However, all the gameplay ultimately exists to drive the narrative forward. Given how disappointing the story is, it's difficult to recommend Beyond as a game for play's sake.
If David Cage was aspiring to be like a Hollywood director, he's succeeded with Beyond: Two Souls. Perhaps he can be best compared to George Lucas. Both are visionaries, with exciting views on the future of cinema and games. However, neither are particularly skilled storytellers. With Beyond, Cage shows us what the future of games could be--but ultimately fails to take us there.