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Game Podunk Review: Beyond: Two Souls
by Marcus Estrada, published on October 14, 2013 - 11:55 AM
Developer: Quantic Dream Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Platform: PS3 Release Date: October 8, 2013 ESRB: M for Mature
David Cage is an incredibly diversive man in the gaming community. Some have loved most or all of Quantic Dreams output, while others have labeled them as ridiculous. If you fall into either camp, it should still be easy to tell that the developer has certainly been refining their output with each new game. From Omikron: The Nomad Soul to Heavy Rain, its obvious that Beyond: Two Souls is their most ambitious project to date. But is that enough to wow players everywhere?
Beyond: Two Souls is the story of a young woman by the name of Jodie Holmes. Although there are many mysteries surrounding her, we know that she was scientifically observed from a very young age because of a strange power she exhibited. This power is actually a spirit name Aiden and he is mostly under Jodies control. At some point, she was turned over to the CIA to begin training with them. After all, her spiritual skills would make her an incredible asset in infiltration and war.
None of this is a spoiler, but the hows and whys are. Instead of presenting the story in a typical fashion, were given insight into Jodies world in small chunks. Each memory chunk serves as a chapter and is also presented to the viewer in a nonlinear fashion. Nonlinear narratives are nothing new, but it may surprise some players since it is a tactic not often used with video games. Although there is a point to this narrative device (driven home very rigorously in the conclusion), it doesnt seem to be the most effective way of getting players engrossed in Jodies world. Instead, it feels more hectic and annoying. At least it isnt very confusing to tell what comes when in her lifes timeline.
If youve ever played Indigo Prophecy, or better yet, Heavy Rain, then you already have a pretty good concept of how Beyond: Two Souls is played. There is such a great deal of focus on the cinematic presentation that player control is relegated to a simplistic format. Sometimes you can move a character around an environment and interact with specific bits. Other times, youre mostly tasked with hitting button prompts for QTE events. New to this title is a new type of QTE which shows no prompt at all and hopes youll understand the direction to push based off what is happening on screen.
For example, Jodie may be running and need to duck under a high tree branch. The game will slow down, signifying this is a moment to press the thumbstick in one of four directions. Its simple enough to assume that down is the direction to press because she needs to duck. At times, this can become confusing as Jodies body moves backwards but her arms move forward, or at other junctions. Jodie is pretty tough, though, and will usually survive through multiple mistakes on the players part without repercussions. If you find this frustrating, then turning the difficulty down to easy will add on-screen prompts to these sections.
Beyond that there are also a variety of choices to make. These are usually related to conversations that Jodie has with other characters. By choosing one, you are possibly tweaking the relationship between the two characters, or simply prying into their lives. Although the point of choices is to change the narrative, it seems that many still result in the same conclusions. For example, early on there is a moment where you can choose to dance with/kiss a boy who seems to like you. Whether you go through with it or completely rebuff his advances, he will still end up calling Jodie a ****. Is this incredibly biting social commentary or the limitations of choice in games? Its likely the latter. However, because the game does not allow for multiple saves, Quantic Dream has made it harder to immediately compare the differences between choices to see what actually affects plot points.
The most notable feature of Beyond: Two Souls is that players control both Jodie and her spirit friend Aiden. Aiden can only be used at certain times, but youll know when because Jodie will begin barking orders for him. In this mode, everything is vaguely blurry around the edges and objects that can be interacted with are highlighted. Sometimes it is just objects which need to be pushed or thrown, and other times Aiden can possess or kill humans. Possessions often end up resulting in killing too, but are a bit cooler.
There are some out there who discount Quantic Dreams latest endeavors because they are not enough of a game. This is a silly thing to say, of course, but my mind did wander a bit when considering what Cage ended up directing this time around. I kept being reminded of FMV games on the Sega CD and 32X. Back then, developer Digital Pictures (best known for Night Trap) created multiple games which often related to a story playing out that the player had to interact with from some sort of control room. It was hard to not feel the similarities as Jodie called out to Aiden (effectively you) for aid manipulating the environment. With that said, it is still an incredibly cinematic experience and is not hindered by its FMV and adventure style. Its a reminder that maybe these types of games didnt need to go away after all.
As far as calling Beyond: Two Souls cinematic goes, one must also consider the fact that two big name actors are a part of the game. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are both present, although Dafoe is a secondary character. Seeing Page rendered in 3D is incredibly odd for a while and you can never really shake that its her playing Jodie. This happens often with certain actors in films as well, and as fun as it may be, it detracts from the storyline. We arent completely wrapped up in Jodies tale because all the while we are reminded that this is Ellen Page playing the lead role in Cages Beyond: Two Souls.
It may be for this reason that it was hard for me to become involved in the narrative. Thats not to say Quantic Dream doesnt try extremely hard to make you feel for Jodie and her struggles. Oh, they try, and they try hard to appeal to a viewers simplest emotions. Everything becomes dramatic to an extreme degree because thats apparently what Cage views as skillful storytelling. It does seem to be more practiced than any of his previously directed projects, but there is still a ways to go. After all, drama for dramas sake can work maybe once or twice in a storyline, but is not to be relied upon time and time again. It can easily exhaust the player and effectively drain them of emotional reaction after a while.
Another likely result of the famous involvement was that other characters had far less attention paid to them. Almost everything is Jodie, Jodie, Jodie, and by the time the narrative switches back to someone else, it has far less impact. We get to know Jodie, but everyone else is merely an acquaintance. Even after setting my heart on one of the characters, it was with a shock that I realized late in the game I didnt even know his name.
To be fair, the story does have some interesting interludes. Perhaps the most interesting were Jodies experiences outside of the CIA. The paranormal stuff as a whole might get a little overwhelming at times, but if Cage has showed anything over his career, its that he is really interested in spirits and alternate realities. If you absolutely hate that sort of storytelling then stay far away. However, those who are not biased against ghostly stuff may be able to appreciate the story.
Of course, he has also repeatedly shown an interest in adult content. His reasoning for this is always to push the medium of games closer to films, which are far less restricted in content than games. However, his method of pursuing this artistic freedom seems to betray his explanation. Players are treated to two shower scenes and both seem to exist to briefly view parts of Jodies body, since she herself doesnt even seem fussed with actually cleaning herself. Instead, she stands around with her eyes closed or leans forward for inexplicable reasons. On the other hand, a possible romantic encounter is incredibly stilted and awkward. Perhaps Cage is still worried that pushing that boundary too far would get his game censored in North America again.
Then there's the whole romance aspect of the narrative. Jodie has her choice of a few guys, but it seems very apparent who Cage hopes to pair her with. Unfortunately, the man in question is pretty terrible and gives little reason to make him any more appealing except for the fact that the game constantly gives you the choice to say yes to him and his advances. It's definitely weird and just another example of how player choice is still heavily controlled by the developer's overall vision of how it is supposed to play out.
With all this said, there is nothing wrong with players getting invested in Beyond: Two Souls. It is a graphically impressive and well-acted story that takes us to a multitude of locations. Jodie is strong, if conflicted, and it is exciting to see her presented as a capable protagonist. And even if Cage is not as fantastic as he believes his work to be, he is still trying to create something interesting which is more than can be said than most other developers. I could definitely see players attracted to the game for that very reason - its something that is rarely available in the gaming medium. But just because Quantic Dream was trying something new doesnt mean they instantly deserve nothing but praise.
I appreciate that Beyond: Two Souls exists but the execution leaves much to be desired. If youre in it for a standard action film-like experience with paranormal elements then this will definitely fit the bill. It is fun and even offers up choices that can be quite hard to make. Still, I couldnt help but keep running into the borders of the world which showed how much Quantic Dream is still restricted in their presentation. Much of the choice is shallow and gameplay (for those looking for it) is extremely light. But if youre interested in seeing a bold, imperfect attempt at storytelling in the gaming medium then Beyond: Two Souls is a worthwhile experience. And honestly, most who play it are probably looking for exactly that.
+ Gameplay usually serves narrative well instead of getting in the way of it
+ Jodies journey takes many twists and it is interesting to see what comes next
+ High quality visuals and soundtrack
+ Has a good deal of replayability if youd like to see how things play out differently at critical junctures
- Paying attention reveals the many aspects where the game fails at its grandiose goals
- Narrative relies on excessive, sometimes borderline silly, drama to strong-arm an emotional reaction out of players
- It appears most game choices dont affect much
- People other than Jodie are left undeveloped and feel like types rather than compelling characters
Overall Score: 6.0 (out of 10)
Beyond: Two Souls strains at the seams of what a video game narrative is allowed to be and falters. Still, it serves as an interesting experience which will entice some players with its paranormal storyline, cinematic flourishes, and accessible control scheme.