Beyond: Two Souls - the game that thinks it's a Hollywood blockbuster
Do the dishes, then save the world? It can only be David Cage’s new sci-fi thriller
Review Say hello to Jodie Holmes, a woman whose eventful life from infancy to adulthood forms the entirety of Beyond: Two Souls.
Beyond: Two Souls tracks Jodie Holmes‘ life from paranormally active nipper...
Assist Jodie as she sneaks out of her house during her rebellious teenage goth stage. Help her chop vegetables before guiding her through a romantic dinner for two. And, ultimately, be party to her forays into the ghostly Infraworld as she tangles with the spirits therein.
Not that you and Jodie will do so alone, however. Aiden, a non-corporeal entity who happens to be joined to Jodie by a psychic tether, will be there at every turn too. Opening cupboards, knocking over chairs and causing such devilry as causing human henchmen to shoot their comrades before turning the gun on themselves. Nice.
It all sounds bewildering, and it is. But perhaps when I add that Beyond is by David Cage, he of Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit fame, you might begin to understand how a game that lurches from fixing dinner to fragging terrorists for the CIA might just make some sense.
...to homeless teen guitarist...
You see, like Heavy Rain, Beyond is far from a normal game - if the term "game" is even appropriate here. Cage and his team at France’s Quantic Dream seem to be on a lone crusade to turn games into interactive movies. Beyond is the sci-fi thriller where Heavy Rain was the detective noir.
The delivery of such scripted, linear stories won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course. Engineered pacing, minimalist player input and a rigid structure of plot-advancing "scenes" result in an experience that's far from how most of us expect games to work.
It’s worth mentioning that Beyond’s plot is delivered episodically, and in a haphazard order, skipping back and forth between three points in Jodie’s life. Before each section you’ll see a timeline of sorts. It’s here that you can gauge just how far into her life the next scene is likely to delve.
...to CIA ass-kicker
Each episode might take mere minutes to complete, or last for a couple of hours. Jodie’s age in the scenario will greatly affect how much action the episode is likely to contain. So expect exposition over direct action during her childhood, for instance, as she comes to terms with Aiden’s presence and learns to control him.
Cage talked during preview events about Beyond being the depiction of Jodie’s life from child to adult, and it is. But in showing some of the more miserable points of her life – being separated from various sets of foster parents, being rejected for being "different", and escaping into homelessness – there’s a danger that Beyond becomes rather depressing to play.
Because you actually have to experience these parts of Beyond whether you like it or not, it’s up to you to expedite the scene and get on to more engaging stuff. This makes it more than a little annoying if you can’t find that final interactive item you need to locate to progress.
This is also an issue during Beyond’s more action-based episodes, where Jodie is usually cast as a CIA operative. Here, once again, you can be left searching for that one last interactive spot, even to the point where the game will turn Jodie around if she’s too far off-piste. An instant blow to the tension and believability the game otherwise delivers.
Talk of environmental interaction brings me expediently towards problem number two: user input. At times it’s almost as if Cage simply doesn’t trust the player to make the most of his game, so few are the opportunities for the player to deviate from his plan.
Beyond eventually becomes more "movie in which you occasionally direct the two main characters" than an actual game. The fact that Quick Time Events (QTEs) are used to cue opportunities for interaction means you’ll be watching for QTE prompts as much as you watch the action.
Inspiration from Terminator 2...
The ghostly Aiden is similarly locked and, rather than having the capacity to go rogue and tear an environment apart, is limited to interacting with certain items and hostiles. That’s not entirely believable behaviour for a supposedly all-powerful entity, even one tethered to its host.
Eventually my eyes ceased to properly take in the game’s often beautifully designed locations and instead simply grew used to surface scanning for the blue dots that signify objects and people that Aiden must mess with to progress.
A shame, especially as Aiden has but three ways to trigger such interactions and which are repeated throughout ad nauseam.
...and Blackhawk Down
Attempts to present the action through movie-style viewing angles and a cinematic aspect ratio also compromise believability. Not because such scenes don’t look impressive, but because you’ll end up stumbling around environments blindly – a situation not helped by Jodie’s rather bloated turning circle.
So far, so many criticisms, but that’s only because Beyond is so good that its limitations - perhaps "differences from mainstream gameplay" would be a better description - stand out so glaringly.
Few games communicate emotion with the skill in display here – a quality helped massively by the performance capture of actors Ellen "Juno" Page as Jodie and Willem Defoe as Doctor Nathan Dawkins, the parapsychology boffin who befriends her. Fewer games still even attempt to address issues such as homelessness, rape and loss with anything approaching Beyond’s maturity.
Hand-nursing Jodie through her early life also connects you with her character, and that of Aiden. Like a worrisome father despairing at his daughter’s boyfriends, I even ended up banking on her choosing the "right" man. I think I need to lie down.
The Reg Verdict
Beyond is destined to be a divisive title and it’s certainly not a game without flaws. But it does cover new ground. In an industry always being stifled by publishers who play it safe, that’s nothing to be sniffed at.
A lack of what you might call traditional gameplay – Beyond is almost on autopilot at times – might be game-breaking. Likewise the limits in where Jodie and Aiden can go and what they can interact with.
Rentaghost was never like this...
Many games seek to put you in the centre of the action and give you the control you lack as a passive watcher of a film. But rarely does story exist as anything more than a pretext or as gap-filler between levels.
Beyond tries to combine movie storytelling with sufficient choices to allow the player to control events. It hasn’t perhaps found the sweet spot that must exist somewhere between films and games, but it comes darn close. ®