Few developers can cause as much of a debate as Quantic Dream. Headed by the eccentric David Cage, their games have always been unique in the fact that they defy conventions for a more cinematic approach to the medium. Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t buck that trend, but instead embraces and advances the style Quantic Dream is going for. The big difference this time around is a focus on real actors, and more dynamic interactions. The end result is a mixed bag, but it still feels unlike anything else in the medium.
Beyond is the story of Jodie Holmes, played by well-known actress Ellen Page and her struggle with a supernatural entity she has been tied to since birth. The story flows in a jumbled timeline that switches back and forth between Jodie’s early years, up through present day. One of the biggest changes from Quantic Dream’s previous effort Heavy Rain is that Beyond utilizes professional actors this time around, creating a much more believable narrative.
There are exceptions to this unfortunately. In a game that focuses so much on performance and story, when they place a seasoned actor next to an amateur, it sticks out. One such example is the party scene. It almost felt laughable at times as those around Jodie were performing well under the standard set to that point. It took me out of the experience, solely because of how good the acting had been up to that point.
The first three quarters of the game are engaging and well-paced, but the last quarter really drags it out. I felt like there were three places where the story peaked, only to be introduced to a new conflict. There are twists and turns, and one revelation in the final run that I should have seen coming, but didn’t. It was a wild ride, and one that I constantly wanted to learn more about. I just wish that last piece wasn’t so padded and drawn out.
There are also plenty of branching paths and decisions to make along the way, including two large choices at the end of the game that affect the ending. It was cool to go back and make different decisions to see how things panned out, though the bulk of each branch remains similar. Still what continues to sell the story throughout the game are its characters. I grew attached to Cole and Stan during their segments, and Nathan, while always seeming a bit peculiar, was also a favorite. It goes leaps and bounds past normal story integration when using professional actors combined with motion capture to truly bring these characters to life.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced this type of game before, it may come as a shock. This is not a traditional interactive experience. Instead, many actions are performed using button prompts and mashing away. Jodie is controlled with left stick, while the right serves as a context-sensitive device for interacting with the world. A white dot appears when something can be interacted with, and I could choose to slowly move the stick to see the animation begin. This gave me a chance to cancel a decision, thus eliminating a lot of trial and error in the process.
It is a neat touch, but a lot of the actual interactions took me out of the experience at times. Having to wander around my apartment looking for the proper interactive element was jarring. The motion controls are also not my favorite inclusion. Why do I need to flip my Dual Shock 3 in a downward motion to leap off a ledge? It feels awkward and not immersive at all. Also the button mashing gets old. I understand that it is supposed to raise tension, but it never felt like anything more than an exercise in tedium.
Combat has also been added to the repertoire of mechanics in the game. Again this is all performed with the right analog stick. When Jodie is being attacked, the screen goes into a slow motion state, complete with black and white visuals. I had to swing the right stick in the direction of her momentum in order to pass the sequence. It actually worked a lot better than I imagined. This is one area where the new additions made all the difference.
Jodie is attached to a supernatural entity named Aiden, which can also be controlled almost at will. Pressing the triangle button switches to Aiden, and allowed me the ability to manipulate objects and even people in the world. This is the bulk of the puzzle solving. Switching to Aiden and figuring out who or what to interact with was very fun.
Where Beyond falls apart a lot of times is its inconsistency. I was really engaged in the story and characters, but when I was stumbling around rooms, looking for the next white dot to progress the plot, it felt awkward. For a world that sucked me into its characters so much, it was really noticeable when the game portion kicked in. Also, flailing my controller around simply does not feel immersive anymore. I wish some of those segments had been handled with various button presses, much like how the climbing was handled by pressing and holding buttons in succession.
The story runs anywhere between 8-10 hours, and there are bonuses to find with Aiden. Beyond also supports a two player mode, which is a little weird because it really just informs players to hand over the controller when switching between Aiden and Jodie. There is also an app that I downloaded that let me play the game with just my smartphone. Again I never felt the need to do this, as the controller was much more familiar, and I never had to divert my eyes to look down.
The most amazing thing about Beyond: Two Souls for me though, is its visuals. This game is gorgeous. I am talking perhaps the best looking game this generation. The environments are unparalleled. The sequence on the train, running through the night rain, facial animations and expressions; all are just amazingly crafted. I stopped several times just to admire how good this game looks. It is also a testament to how long this generation has dragged on, as my PS3 felt the strain. Even with the nearly 3GB install, my system was constantly whirring and working overtime while playing Beyond. It even locked up once due to strain.
Audio is on the same level as the visuals with a sweeping soundtrack that is both haunting and memorable. Voice acting is fabulous for the professional actors, and again not so much with the smaller parts. It likely only stands out so much due to the key performances, but it still feels jarring.
Beyond: Two Souls is closer to realizing David Cage’s vision of blurring the line between cinema and games more than any attempt before it. That comes with plenty of potholes, including various levels of quality sticking out more than they likely would anywhere else. Still there is little like Quantic Dream’s titles anywhere else, and Beyond tells a genuinely interesting tale that is worth seeing through to the end. While it might not invoke as much “emotion” as some would like, it generates more than almost any other title this generation.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.