Beyond: Two Souls Review
After about four hours playing Quantic Dream’s latest ambitious title, Beyond: Two Souls, I felt nothing but confliction. I figured that would be erased when I completed the game, and I could pen the review with no reservations. Unfortunately, my conflicted state only intensified when watching the credits roll, as dozens of questions spun through my head. I had acquired answers to some of those questions, but not all, and I kept coming back to one all-encompassing question:
In their admirable quest to prove that video games can be pursued in different ways, that interactive storytelling can involve great drama, intense emotion, and even crowd-pleasing action, did Cage and Co. shoot themselves in the foot? My answer is detailed below.
Firstly, the graphics are impressive, although they don’t qualify as amazing. There’s a fantastic cleanliness to this visual presentation, and the character modeling really is excellent. Facial details are awesome, the environmental design is compelling (to a point), and I love how each sequence has its own distinct appeal. It’s just a little underwhelming, as that aforementioned cleanliness seems to detract from the potential richness of the atmosphere. Colors seem a bit more muted and subtle. Then there are a few hitches, such as when the camera tries to quickly change its view, but the special effects can be pretty damn remarkable at times. Especially when controlling Aiden.
I expected the audio to be off-the-charts great due to the inclusion of Hollywood talent and the splendid music I so well remember from Heavy Rain. And indeed, we get top-notch performances from the two primary actors, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. They bring their professional, refined talents to a really intriguing script, and both deliver captivating performances. However, I think a few of the smaller roles could’ve been better voiced, and the soundtrack, while nicely orchestrated and implemented, doesn’t do much for me. The quality is undeniable but the music doesn’t qualify as memorable in my eyes. Technically speaking, I feel that Heavy Rain was a more complete, truly eye-opening achievement.
The latter statement can be applied to this entire analysis, in fact. But before I get into the comparisons, let’s start with the basics— Beyond tells the story of Jodie Holmes (Page), a girl who was born with a very special gift. She describes it as being tied to a ghostly personality, who she has named Aiden. Aiden can be mischievous and even dangerous early on, but he eventually becomes Jodie’s protector. In turn, a scientist named Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe) has been examining her for years and thinks of himself as her protector as well. Jodie faces plenty of growing pains, as you might expect; a good example of that is a particularly scarring birthday party in her teen years that goes horribly wrong.
The narrative involves the whole of Jodie’s life, but it’s not told in chronological order. It bounces around, letting you play significant sequences from her childhood and teen years, and the more action-oriented years as a member of the CIA. The game consists of a series of Quick Time Events (QTEs), as we expected, but there’s a twist to that relatively simple mechanic. This time, in addition to standard QTEs, there are moments when the action slows, the screen goes black and white, and you must move the right analog stick in the proper direction. There is no on-screen prompt; you must watch what’s happening and respond accordingly.
You’re supposed to simply press in the direction that makes sense. So, for instance, when Jodie is fleeing through a train and she reaches a door, you just press up to open it. In combat, when she goes to land a punch, just follow the intended path of her arm. But here’s where we come to our first problem. While this works in theory and isn’t particularly difficult to understand, there is some confusion. Fighting is the biggest problem, as one is never really sure if Jodie is supposed to be blocking or evading. There’s only one right answer. When training, you block by pressing toward the oncoming fist, but she’s not always supposed to block.
Sometimes, it’s obvious but many times, it really isn’t. Still, it isn’t that big of a deal because there appears to be little or no consequences when it comes to failure. This leads me to the second big problem, which involves the concept of choice and branching story paths. In Heavy Rain, with four primary characters, there were 22 possible endings and many narrative branches. There was no “Game Over” because if a character failed or even died, the story would instantly mold itself to that occurrence. But in Beyond, Jodie really can’t die or there’s no story; hence, there are many instances where she’s simply given two, three, four, perhaps even endless chances to get something right. That’s not progressive, that’s just…cheap.
I don’t know how many different endings there are for Beyond, nor do I know how many branching paths there are. But I’m almost certain there are fewer than there were in Heavy Rain, and each branch is less significant and less dramatic. I sense this because most of the sequences are crucial to the plot, and although you may see a few different scenes if you succeed or fail, the result will – most times – be basically the same. That’s not anything special, either. But before I make my final statement as to why I’m somewhat disappointed with this game, and answer the one burning question I wrote above, let me explain why this production is special.
Quantic Dream really tries to produce a captivating, well-written story with excellent characters and intense, emotional situations. The game has fantastic acting. The game has fantastically interesting concepts and ideas. The game has fantastically choreographed sequences that get the blood pumping. It’s easy to root for Jodie, it’s easy to feel her frustration, confusion and fear, and it’s easy to find intrigue in her relationship with the mysterious Aiden. The gameplay mechanics do work well enough; it’s actually surprising how well QTEs – and those more advanced input commands via slo-mo – work with traditional action sequences. It’s seamless and accessible, and the game rewards timing and tact.
There are decisions to be made that warrant plenty of thought. There are multiple scenarios that will have you on the edge of your seat, if only for a few brief moments. Each segment has its own personality and charm, and Quantic Dream’s attention to detail always adds to our growing immersion. The story has plenty of positive points, the dialogue is very good, and the impressive performances keep us emotionally tied to the characters for a certain amount of time. Finally, utilizing Aiden, a disembodied spirit that can go wherever it wants and wreak all sorts of havoc, is always entertaining. From an artistic standpoint, there’s a lot to like. Don’t forget that.
And yet, I couldn’t help feeling disconnected and detached at times. Jumping around with the story works fine for four unique characters but when there’s only one, it feels a little chaotic. We’re never really given time to get into Jodie’s mind at that particular moment in her life; the segments are more like brief, albeit brutal, snapshots. As for that question, where I wonder if the developers shot themselves in the foot: Look, I understand what they were trying to do. I agree wholeheartedly that not everything has to be about shooting guns, and what we’ve all come to accept as traditional gameplay. Heavy Rain presented us with puzzles and original, hugely emotional and intense situations that blended beautifully with QTEs.
However, when you implement more action, like hand-to-hand combat, third-person shooting and stealth elements, that theory doesn’t work as well. Then we really are feeling more detached, because we’re itching to have more control. You can’t put QTEs into a game like Uncharted, for example. I’m not saying Beyond is even remotely similar to Uncharted, but my point is that if you have the character doing more, acting more, the player is going to feel more left out with QTEs. It’s fine when Ethan is trying to carefully maneuver through high-voltage wires, or when Madison is trying to avoid an intruder’s attacks in her apartment.
In those instances, we’re emotionally attached to the scene, and we’re not worried about directly controlling the character. But too many times in Beyond, I wasn’t emotionally connected to the scene, and it was partially because I felt distanced from the action. Action requires more participation from the player. It just does. The more a character is doing on screen and the less we have anything to say about it, the more the controller starts to feel superfluous. This is what I mean about the developers trying to do too much and subsequently sabotaging themselves. That all being said, I always applaud ambition and there’s no doubt that this game is hugely ambitious.
Make no mistake: Beyond: Two Souls is worth experiencing. It excels in a variety of important areas and ignoring those achievements is a disservice to Quantic Dream. The acting is top-notch, the writing is good, the design and implementation of the life sequences is excellent, and the mechanics are functional and ask you to remain vigilant and timely. It’s just that it doesn’t feel as cohesively polished as one would hope, and there are limitations to the QTE concept, even when it’s expanded upon. It’s hard to say if the story would’ve benefited from a chronological presentation, and there may be more branching than I know. I just know that occasionally, when you have the best talent and best intentions, you stretch a tad too far.
The Good: Smooth, atmospheric visual design. Wonderful acting performances. The Jodie/Aiden relationship is complex and intriguing. Decent writing and some intense sequences. Great choreography. Solid blending of unorthodox mechanics and narrative delivery. Ambitious and thought-provoking.
The Bad: A few uncharacteristic technical hitches. Story feels disjointed and uninvolving at times. Combat inputs can be confusing. More action and less participation equals detachment.
The Ugly: “It’s difficult to accept when a game with so much potential falls short.”
10/9/2013 Ben Dutka