Beyond: Two Souls Review
Sony PlayStation 3
David Cage is gaming’s auteur. The term was common in Hollywood in the 1970’s, with many filmmakers garnering description as such, until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate took a studio down in its wake. From that point on the auteur was a remnant of the past, with studios and executives wresting some control at least from the director’s hands - no matter how successful they were. With Heavy Rain Cage produced his Deer Hunter. This gave him free rein to tackle Beyond: Two Souls’ creation with complete responsibility resting on his shoulders alone, not the giant shoulders of Sony. Whilst the end result is not akin to that coming from the Heaven’s Gate disaster, it does lend weight to those who argue against one person’s vision, the auteur-like production and more again who will dismiss the assertion that an interactive drama has a place in modern video gaming. The truth is much less black and white than this would suggest but what we have here is a backwards step after 2010’s stunning precipitating drama.
Beyond in truth is a mixed bag in many regards. It takes wholesale the gaming mechanics of Quantic Dream’s previous game, adds back in the sci-fi tones of 2005’s Fahrenheit and mixes it all up to try and enhance the emotional impact but ultimately numbs it. Whilst there are scenes which cause jaws to drop, others which you will not believe have made it into a modern triple-A title and moments to make the heart sing, there are also times when boredom creeps in, confusion is the overwhelming force and you feel like you’re simply going through the motions.
Let’s take the narrative first. The game is after all an interactive movie more than anything, if we’re to believe its director. You play the role of Jodie Holmes throughout her lifetime. You’ll typically interact with her as a child, a teenager, a student (of sorts) and a young woman trying to find her path in life. You also get to play as Aiden, a spiritual companion (similar to the Daemons in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) who behaves like a poltergeist in what he can and can’t do. You experience what Jodie experiences as she learns how different she is, what she can do, how to control it and why others might want to use her unique skills. You learn how she can’t have a normal life because of the emotions of Aiden and how very often there’s a dichotomy between desires resulting in a Mexican standoff, metaphorically anyway. There are tens of scenes in total and each varies in length but what you do is very similar throughout.
Given the setup this is very much in Fahrenheit territory more than Heavy Rain, which was more a future-tech procedural crime thriller. This has the two bound souls, the ability to play as Aiden and make things move, take control of people, kill people and so on. It also moves from simple life simulator - getting your place ready for a date, for example, which would be familiar to players of previous games from this stable - to running and gunning in the Middle East when working for the CIA. This can jar somewhat given it doesn’t control like your standard action game - the mechanism is the same as for the rest of the title, perhaps with a bit of extra urgency but no more punishing for gamers or non-gamers alike. That first example, for instance - you control Jodie with the left stick and when she can interact with things a dot appears and you push the right stick to then pick up some clothes, or switch the oven on. You might then press X and Circle to cook the Asian beef, or press and hold L1 and R1 then move both sticks at once if controlling Aiden. When you get to the Middle East you might press and hold and push sticks at the same time, and more frequently if avoiding hits or fighting someone, but it still plays the same way. There’s no real punishment for failure, either. Not obviously. The game doesn’t end, the scene just plays out differently and in many cases will send you down a slightly different path given there are twenty-three endings to see. But the game does continue. There’s no real feeling of pressure and it means the action scenes don’t really have the desired effect unless they are contained within a particularly engaging part of the story.
The problem then is that the truly engaging scenes are few and far between. Some are action-oriented, but arguably the only amazing scene in the entire game comes around the halfway mark and is something you would never have expected to see in a video game. It was remarkable in itself but disappointing given the game doesn’t crack on from that point. The main reason why it struggles to engage and motivate the player all the way through to the end is that we jump around the timeline after every scene. We go from Jodie as a child, to a teen, to the Middle East, to her training, to the present day to her travels and just when something is put in motion you move elsewhere, letting any tension or emotion which has built up dissipate. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock taking North by Northwest and cutting it into the individual scenes then presenting them as a serial in random order. It would lose its power. It’s a shame because taken as a more linear progression the opportunity is here to really hit home by the end.
In each individual scene there is the feeling of immense choice. There are so many things you can interact with, so many things you can do and quite often you’re presented with a choice but don’t actually realise it - you’ll go in for that kiss, or take down that person because it’s what you want to happen in-game to Jodie. After the fact you stop and think that actually you could have done that differently, but at the time you had singular vision. This is a very good thing and being able to provide choice but also drive a person in a particular direction because of the unfolding story is extremely powerful. This is the strength of Beyond. Looking back at our experience we can see the choices we made and are comfortable with them and would do them again but equally want to see what would happen if we do things differently. For sure this would garner some more shiny trophies but it would also take us to a different end point. There are just two disappointing things about this. One, of the twenty-three endings at least seven can be seen at end game in that all choices take you to those options. So it’s really far fewer which are derived from your unique playthrough. Two, by the end you’ll likely be so dispirited with the clunky action and tedious scenes which exist more prominently in the back-end of the game, that playing through again will quite possibly seem a chore. It was most upsetting that for two-thirds of this game we were itching to finish it so we could play it all over again and then, by the end, well, that feeling had vanished.
The mechanism from Heavy Rain has some additions made to it for this outing. Aiden controls very differently to Jodie, for instance. A touch of Triangle switches you to him and you then see the world from the air through a blurred and coloured haze. Anything Aiden can interact with is shown by a blue dot and typically you would hold L1 and move the two analogue sticks in a particular direction to make the item move, or strangle that baddie. When in an action scene Jodie will need to move between cover by holding X and pushing the left stick but otherwise her movement is very much on rails. For fighting it intuitively asks you to push the stick in the direction of her attack, or required evasion direction, to make it happen onscreen successfully. Bizarrely the controls never cause you to feel uncomfortable. A big part of this scheme’s development was that it was meant to mirror the awkward and distressing positions the avatar encountered in Heavy Rain and here you’d think it should be no different in many cases, plus perhaps more pacey and urgent during the action moments. It doesn’t feel that way though. Even on the ‘experienced gamer’ difficulty setting there was never really any challenge or awkwardness - the button combinations were simple and adjacent, like press X and Circle, rather than press X, Triangle, L2 and L1. If you did fail - as mentioned earlier - the game carried on. It was difficult to truly connect with Jodie or Aiden in this case - often the game felt on rails and this didn’t help with the overall engagement issue already traumatised due to the mix-up of scenes.
The technical achievement of Beyond is very much the pinnacle of the generation - at times. There are scenes in-game where the detail and animation on the faces and bodies of the proponents is wonderful and really does look photo-realistic. The environments have these flashes too. Unfortunately there’s also an inconsistency inherent where you’re often reminded this is only a game because of the frankly normal graphical quality. It seems strange that we have this two-tier system at play but given the time and power taken to develop and make the good stuff happen, it’s perhaps understandable this cannot be maintained throughout. What we’re left with is a moment of the most impressive visuals you’ve seen on this generation of consoles followed by something very much experienced these past couple of years. None of it is bad, but it’s not all at that same top level. Something like The Last of Us managed a level of quality in-between the two tiers in this for its whole runtime. That was a better overall technical experience because once you were in, that was it. Here - along with the narrative - there’s something pulling you out periodically.
The detail and love shown to the main characters, specifically Jodie Holmes played by Ellen Page (with Willem Defoe another key character), is stunning for sure. Facially the detail is so great that it really does look like the actress in a film. When the characters move things can get a little clunky as the game engine is not really setup for free movement and the control of the character is extremely wayward - almost as if they were drunk. But the smaller movements, the ticks, the moments of angst as a teenager and so on are marvellous examples of what good coding can bring you. Disappointingly there is some censorship (violence and possibly even a little bit of nudity) in the EU version of the game and despite Sony’s protestations to the contrary, it’s quite obvious when this occurs. Frustrating when the developers should have known broadly what rating they wanted to achieve and what was needed as such, so to see a cut or two to bring it inline with PEGI 16 is annoying. And again, quite jarring.
Everything adds up to what could have been. Heavy Rain was a wonderful and fresh experience really delivering on the promise of the interactive movie. Whilst the genre isn’t to everyone’s liking for many it represented a game of the generation. With Beyond the scope is expanded awkwardly without really refreshing the mechanics to support it. The fantastical is brought back into the fray thanks to Cage being unleashed and whilst he drives the narrative with that seed it loses the plot because of it. The fact then that any tension and emotion are wrested from the gamer’s heart and mind by the random scattering of scenes just completes the failure compared to the game’s predecessor. Yet it’s not that easy to dismiss. It’s still something very different to what else is out there and Quantic Dream, David Cage and company should be applauded for doing what they wanted and following through with it. Sometimes a failure is glorious and this is one such example. Whilst it doesn’t deliver on its promise, the fact that it had this promise in the first place assures it of some success. That might be defined as a game remembered for what it didn’t do but then at least it will be remembered, right?