Love or loathe him, David Cage’s games certainly get people talking. Beyond: Two Souls, a PS3 exclusive, is his studios latest effort and Matt Reynolds has put it through its paces…
You already know whether or not this is your thing. We could go in-depth yet again on the old argument of player agency in games and whether titles such as The Walking Dead, Asura’s Wrath and Heavy Rain deserve to be called games at all, but we won’t. Beyond: Two Souls is potentially a very difficult game to review, so we will start this critique with a caveat – if you hate the ‘interactive drama’ genre you can score this game a 2 and walk on by. If you like Ellen Page a lot, you can bump that up to 3 or 4. This review will judge Beyond on its own merits within its respective genre.
Have they all gone? Ok, we’ll begin.
Beyond: Two Souls is a non-linear interactive drama that tells the story of Jodie Holmes; played to a fantastic degree by Juno and Inception actress Ellen Page. The story takes us through fifteen years of Jodie’s life, from a small; lonely eight year old girl to a troubled teenager and eventually a terrifyingly powerful government agent. The source of Jodie’s power is Aiden; an ‘entity’ that has been linked to her since birth. Jodie doesn’t know who or what Aiden really is and only has superficial control over him – Aiden can do Jodie’s bidding, but equally he can be petulant, willful, terrifying and has an agenda all his own. Studying the strange pair over the years is Professor Nathan Dawkins, played by The Deer Hunter and Spiderman stalwart Willem Dafoe. It’s a massively ambitious tale that sails through many different genres and ultimately aims to move you in many different ways. With a game like this, the story is the most important element so the million dollar question is – have David Cage and Quantic Dream succeeded? The answer is; partially.
Let’s take a step back a moment and deal with the technical side of things. Presentation wise this game is astounding. Ryse and maybe Forza 5 aside, this is the best looking game we’ve ever seen, and certainly the best looking current gen title. The main cast are photorealistic; the motion capture managing to grab every minute detail in frightening clarity. We are almost past uncanny valley territory here, the tech is staggering. The music is also terrific; Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer have created a beautiful, haunting and memorable soundtrack. When it comes to game mechanics, players of Heavy Rain will be in familiar territory. Beyond refines the QTE mechanics of its predecessor to even more simplistic heights; to the point that you can play the game on your tablet or smartphone should you wish. You will still get many button prompts throughout your adventure, but when it comes to exploring the environment your only guide is small white orbs that indicate whether or not an object or person can be interacted with. Simply push the right stick towards the orb and Jodie will enact the requisite action. While evidently too simple for some, it’s an elegantly tasteful system that helps the gorgeous visuals take centre stage.
Combat feels more natural too; which is a good thing as Beyond features a lot more of it than Heavy Rain. When Jodie throws a punch or kick, time slows down and the colour bleeds from the screen for a moment. You simply push the stick in the direction that carries through the move. Again, its simple but effective. There are no fail states in Beyond – no character permadeath here. Instead, the battle merely plays out differently, but you do feel you are making Jodie pay the price as some brutal kicks to the face and punches to the midriff really make you feel like it is her you are failing.
A single press of the Triangle button surrenders control over to Aiden (when the game allows it). Aiden is a disembodied camera that can float around the environment at will. He is basically an extension of David Cage’s direction; allowing you to frame scenes the way you want to. Aiden has a lot more options open to him than Jodie and can interact with many objects and people. He can also possess and even kill certain NPCs, although bizarrely the game never explains why only certain characters can be manipulated in this way. Something that was seemingly played down in Beyond’s previews was the ability to play the game in co-op; with one player as Jodie and the other as Aidan. This actually makes a lot of sense – when player 1 surrenders control to player 2, they must wait until control is handed back. This perfectly illustrates the relationship between Jodie and Aidan – while they are joined together, sometimes Aidan will not wish to do things Jodie’s way…
And so to Beyond’s divisive and controversial narrative.
Another element that went largely unremarked upon during the game’s promotion was the fragmented, non-linear timeline of the story. Much like seminal flicks 21 Grams and Memento; the game’s narrative is mixed up – one moment you are playing as a temperamental teen goth Jodie; in the next scene you will be an adult CIA operative on a covert mission, and half an hour later you will be eight year old Jodie meeting Dawkins for the first time. Unlike the aforementioned films there isn’t a whole lot of reason for Beyond to be experienced this way. Having said that; we enjoyed the jumbled narrative and looked forward to seeing what seemingly random situation Jodie would be in next, but we can certainly see why some would view it as a mess. As previously mentioned the different scenes flirt with different genres and there are yet more clear film influences ranging from The Sixth Sense through Sphere and Event Horizon, to The Butterfly Effect and The Abyss. Sadly, the constantly shifting tone doesn’t make for the most coherent experience, and the game’s remarkable highs are marred by some awful lows, particularly in the dialogue department. It needs to be said – Cage is a terrible writer. We couldn’t believe the barrage of clichés being thrown at us throughout; some choice examples being ‘Don’t worry, I don’t plan on dying today’, ‘We don’t need a doctor, we need a whole hospital!’ ‘Don’t you die on me!’ and our personal favourite; when someone punches their senior and says ‘Consider that my resignation’. There are also some borderline racist racial stereotypes of black people, Somalians and Koreans that beggar belief. We kept expecting one black hobo to ask ‘Where to, Miss Daisy?’. Dawkins’ character arc is disappointingly weak too; with increasingly bizarre behaviour that rapidly shifts direction without warning. It’s a shame as Dafoe is a serious acting heavyweight and is wasted here.
When Beyond works though; it achieves everything that Cage wants to achieve. The game succeeded in bringing a lump to our throat at times, and even a shiver down the spine. There are some very moving scenes and the narrative – while flawed – has some great ideas, the eventual reveal of Aidan’s identity and motives being a nice touch. If you like the genre we have no qualms about recommending you play this and we are glad that David Cage and Quantic Dream exist. They are something refreshing and unique in this world of endless military shooters and we believe they are capable of true greatness – just not quite yet.
– Matt Reynolds. Love him on Twitter @thelostmoment