The new game from the creators of Heavy Rain stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe but does its gameplay and story match the amazing visuals?|
by GameCentral, published on Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 4:00 pm
Beyond: Two Souls is not a very good video game. But thats not quite the criticism it might sound as given its bold storytelling ambitions the question of interaction and skill-based gameplay are very far down its list of priorities. Many games have called themselves interactive movies over the years and Beyond definitely qualifies as that, but rather than a coming of age for the genre it calls into question the validity of the whole concept.
The basic premise of the story involves a troubled young woman named Jodie. She has a mysterious poltergeist-like companion whos been with her since birth and is both fiercely and jealously protective of her. Jodie doesnt know who or what Aiden is and, its implied, neither does Aiden. You play both roles though, controlling Aiden from a first person view where he can effortlessly float through walls and interact with highlighted objects but only within a short distance of Jodie.
The games story is told in flashback, but not in chronological order as Jodie tries to piece back her memories after the main events of the game. There are four main time periods: Jodie as an eight-year-old girl being looked after by foster parents and a government scientist played by Willem Dafoe, Jodies teenage years at the same facility, her inexplicably bizarre recruitment by the CIA to work as an astral-projecting assassin, and her time on the run from her former employees.
We shouldnt spoil the final act but it gets progressively sillier until what at first had seemed like an interactive take on coming-of-age thrillers such as Carrie turns into an awkward mix of James Bond and Ghostbusters. Its just as absurd as that sounds and yet somehow manages to take itself deadly seriously, despite out-of-the-blue plot elements and changes in character motivation that follow no internal logic.
French developer Quantic Dream is best known for 2005s Fahrenheit and 2010s Heavy Rain, and although theres no plot connection Beyond shares the same style of storytelling and gameplay. However, Beyond does reign in many of Heavy Rains cheaper narrative tricks and the dialogue is noticeably better. The script still isnt great, but writer and producer David Cage seems more aware of his limitations this time and there are only a few lines that are actively cringe-worthy.
Actually, there may be far more than that but youll probably never notice thanks to the impressively committed performance from Ellen Juno Page as Jodie. It really is an astonishing example of performance capture and elevates the material well beyond its worth. Page is helped by the equally phenomenal graphics, which are amongst the best ever seen on a home console both in terms of the facial animation and the varied backdrops.
As far as the gameplay and controls go very little has changed. Your characters are a little less clumsy when moving around but other than that all your interactions with the game world are through pre-determined quick time event sequences. Pushing the right analogue stick in a particular direction is the most common activity, with the combat now introducing a slow motion element where you have to move the stick in the direction of an attack to land a blow.
But unless something in the game world is highlighted with a little white dot (blue for Aiden) it might as well not exist. There are no puzzles as such and for a game thats meant to be all about the characters very little interactive dialogue. Instead youre dragged through each scene by the nose, forced to pantomime onscreen actions as if youre controlling a virtual marionette.
Whats particularly patronising is that it often doesnt matter what you do during an extended interactive sequence. As an experiment we just put the controller down and didnt do anything through two of the major fight scenes and we won anyway, just in less glorious fashion.
There is a simplistic stealth element in some of the levels but you never aim your gun, just press a shoulder button to instantly kill someone when the game tells you youre in range. If you just sit and watch a boxed set of 24 while randomly wobbling a controller in your lap youd get much the same experience.
The game makes a big show of saying you can play through the whole thing while using a tablet as a controller, or with another player joining in at the same time, and these are great ideas. We really dont want to imply were being snobbish about the game just because it isnt a straight action title. Thats fine with us, we applaud it. But if its not an action game, if its plot and dialogue are the driving force, then theyve got to be good enough to justify the experience. And they dont come anywhere close.
Beyonds problems are essentially the opposite of Heavy Rain: instead of a good idea bogged down by a weak script and mediocre voice-acting Beyond is a thoroughly silly and poorly reasoned concept supported by actors and technology it does not at all deserve.
The hokey plot feels like it was ripped from the script of a Saturday morning cartoon, and not one of the good ones. At best it might have made an okay-ish episode of The X-Files but Pages performance and the incredible visuals hide one-dimensional characters and a plot too timid to properly explore its themes. The attempts at exploring the unanswerable questions of life beyond death come across like an eightyear-olds first fumbling thoughts in that direction, while at the same time completely ignoring any religious implications.
But thats not to say that the game cannot be affecting. The most emotionally resonate moment is a sequence where Jodie is living rough on the streets, which creates a real empathy not just for the character but the plight of the homeless in general. Gamings ability to let you walk in someone elses shoes is rarely applied to this sort of social realism and as brief as the sequence is, and as unfeasibly saintly as Jodies down-and-out friends are, its probably the games most laudable achievement.
The wider problem with Quantic Dreams whole approach is that none of the stories theyre telling justify the interactive element. There is nothing about Beyond that is improved by the fact that it is (barely) interactive and apart from the multiple choice ending you have very little direct influence on how things turn out.
As the game went on we began to realise that, particularly with the episodic nature of the storytelling, what it reminded us of was not a movie but a pop-up book. You can play with the small number of interactive elements all you like but the meat of the story is still predetermined and relatively inconsequential compared to the visual novelty of the experience.
In terms of graphics and actors performances theres almost nothing to touch Beyond, but in terms of an enjoyable game, or even just an interactive story, it barely even approaches B-movie level.
In Short: The visuals are incredible, but for a game obsessed with storytelling at all costs the dopey plot and underwritten characters in no way make up for the lack of gameplay.
Pros: Incredible graphics, both in terms of the facial animation and backdrops. A superb central performance from Ellen Page.
Cons: Silly, tonally inconsistent story and shallow characterisation. Very little real gameplay and far more linear than it likes to pretend.