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Andrew Freedman - Review: Beyond: Two Souls
by Andrew Freedman, published on October 21, 2013 - 11:01 am
Everyone has demons. Jodie Holmes has demons. David Cage has demons.
Beyond: Two Souls explores them all, and then some.
Jodie Holmes (a spectacular Ellen Page, The East) is tied to Aiden. Aiden is a mysterious entity with supernatural powers such as moving objects, possessing people and healing the wounded. Naturally, this scares the bejesus out of Jodies parents and other children, so her family drops her off to be cared for and observed by Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe, John Carter).
The game covers 15 years of Jodies life, which is mapped out on a timeline in chronological order. The game tells the story out of order. Youll move from Jodie struggling to be a normal teenager (despite her gifts) to her first night under the Dawkins care to hitchhiking in the desert and back again.
In each of these scenes, players interact with Jodie in a number of ways. This brings us to David Cages aforementioned demons.
Cage, the writer and director of Beyond: Two Souls and head of developer Quantic Dream, has been chasing after the perfect way to tell an interactive story for almost a decade. Quantic Dreams two previous games, Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain built a system that mixes video games and cinematic experiences.
Beyond: Two Souls is the most refined version of this system yet.
There are numerous ways to interact with Jodie throughout the game. You can pick how she reacts to certain dialogue. You can use context clues to decide how Jodie interacts with the environment. The same simple button presses and movements of the control stick also allow you to climb walls, ride a motorcycle, fight, cook and do farm work.
Quantic Dreams formula, love it or hate it, works in Beyond: Two Souls. While its at its best at quiet, introspective moments when we learn about Jodie (the most fleshed out character in the game by far), the same control scheme works for action sequences and stealth missions.
New to Beyond is the way you control Aiden. Aiden is almost always accessible and provides yet another way to interact with the world. It can fly through walls, see things that Jodie cannot and sometimes simply watches and listens to the people in the world around it.
The controls arent perfect. The freedom you get in the game comes with limits. Jodies exploration of her world is occasionally ridden with strange camera angles. In the case of Aiden, his potential is limited. It takes time to get used to flying Aiden around, but once you do, you realize you cant do everything you want to with him. Only specific enemies can be possessed and certain items can be moved. It makes the whole thing feel linear.
The game strives to break that linear mold, but it only sort of works. The story is told out of chronological order, but that method of storytelling is only sometimes worthwhile. It can lead to some strange tonal shifts. In addition, Jodie is so much more fleshed out than the characters around her despite a ton of potential for growth.
Some of the writing is convenient for the storytelling. You can tell there were some things Cage really wanted to have in the script and forced them in there and it even goes a little over-the-top by the end. For the game to really work, players will have to be able to invest themselves in it entirely.
The game does surpass Quantic Dreams previous titles in a number of ways. The performances are truly strong (with Page in particular delivering consistently) and the motion capture and facial capture really draw you in. You can empathize with these digital characters by looking into their eyes. The environments are beautiful.
Still, aspects of the story bog down Beyond: Two Souls. Some flat supporting characters, the occasional clunky line (though Cage has grown better at this) and romance that feels forced dont do the game any favors.
Quantic Dream has built a storytelling system that produces experiences like none other in video games. It allows for investment, exploration and empathy in a way other games havent dreamed of. Still, because it is based so completely around a story, the narrative needs to be extremely strong. This is a good shot - Quantic Dreams most impressive yet - but the studio hasnt found its perfect story yet.
So Cage and Quantic Dream will continue to chase their demons.
Beyond: Two Souls released in the U.S. on October 8 on PlayStation 3. A copy of the game was purchased.