Review: Beyond: Two Souls (Sony PlayStation 3)

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Beyond: Two Souls
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Quantic Dream
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 10/08/2013

I’ve been writing video game reviews for nearly six years now. In that time, I’ve covered pretty much every conceivable genre. I’ve done shooters, platformers, rhythm games, sports games, puzzle games, racers, RPGs, adventure titles, etc. Hell. I once reviewed a break dancing game. I mention this because Beyond: Two Souls is utterly incapable of fitting into any genre that I’ve ever covered before. The closest I suppose would be adventure, but to call it that would be a disservice both to BTS and the adventure genre. In fact, I think the biggest misconception about BTS is that it even IS a game.

Even still, somehow, I’m going to review this sucker.

So Quantic Dream has made no secret that it wants to completely revolutionize the entertainment industry. Bit by bit, it has moved forward with its goal, most recently with Heavy Rain in 2010. While that game had promise, it ultimately fell short due to story and control issues. However, the imagined future was exciting. It was clear that Quantic Dream was onto something. The big question was whether or not their next entry could deliver.

The short answer is no. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t the epic interactive drama we hoped it would be. It doesn’t revolutionize anything. It’s merely another stepping stone on the path to that dream. For the long answer, keep reading.

beyond1BTS is all about a girl and her ghost. Wait. Hold up. I shouldn’t use the term “ghost” here. In fact, the game (I’ll continue to call it that for sheer convenience, but I honestly don’t think it really is a “game” in the traditional sense of the word) goes out of its way to not call it a ghost. It’s an “entity”. That entity is named Aiden, and he’s been tethered to the girl since she was born. Her name is Jodie, and boy is her life miserable. Played by Ellen Page, Jodie is an interesting character to say the least. While much of her makeup is the typical story of a troubled child, the presence of Aiden puts things into a whole new light. I’m sure lots of girls are tormented by peers, but none that I can think of have the ability to set a poltergeist after them for revenge. Likewise, how many little girls can commune with the dead? That’s right. Aiden and Jodie have a number of abilities when their powers are combined. It makes her the ideal subject for a CIA research team, as well as a potential weapon to be used in the field. You can see where this is going, I’m sure.

beyond2The plot itself is pretty much straight forward and basic. However, the writer attempts to make it seem more intriguing by mixing it up. Literally. You will constantly fly between different times in Jodie’s life. You start off as an adult on the run, turn into a kid taking a test, and then you’re a teenager trying to fit in. It’s disorienting, and it gets worse thanks to the lack of context. Look. Non-linear storytelling can be quite good. One of my all time favorite movies is Memento, and that’s about as straight as the St. Louis arch. The problem with this game is that you’re often allowed to respond, as part of the necessary interaction. Thus, someone might ask Jodie a question about those marks on her arm. Jodie herself knows the answer, but you have no clue. Yet somehow you’re supposed to pick a response. In other cases, it might make more sense for Jodie to lie about her powers. Why on earth would she start telling complete strangers that she has a ghost who does things for her? However, the player is tempted to have her open up about her powers just so he/she can learn more about them. Time and again, I selected answers that could potentially put Jodie in harm just so I could actually learn about her. The story is also absolutely terrible at giving you a proper sense of how much time has elapses. As far as I know, I was with the homeless people a day or two. However, the strength of the bond that formed between Jodie and the group suggests that it might have really been as much as a month. I don’t know.

Perhaps the biggest offender, and one that deserves its own paragraph, comes at a point when the game tasks you with deciding whether or not Jodie should attempt suicide. First of all, a decision like that thrust into the hands of the player is pretty nuts in and of itself. Secondly, I had no idea why she would even want to end her life. Sure, she seemed to be in a bad way, but I had no idea what was wrong or why she felt the only way out was to jump off a bridge. How am I as a player supposed to make a life or death decision without any sort of background information?

The characters, though they initially seem complex and interesting, fall into a small handful of archetypes when you finally have all of the pieces of the puzzle. The character of Nathan, played by Willem Dafoe and billed as a main character, is exceedingly simple. If I wanted to spoil things, I could describe his entire personality in one sentence. He’s given a ton of screen time, but it amounts to nothing. It’s a shame, because the actor actually does a bang up job. The same can be said about all of the characters really. The actors do a heck of a job despite a bad script and hokey writing.

It isn’t all bad. There are several poignant moments that will tug at your heartstrings. However, these tend to be the quieter moments that are far removed from the supernatural shenanigans that make up the game’s primary plot point. It’s one of those odd situations where the story is better when things aren’t moving forward. I would much rather watch Jodie converse with that homeless man again than go through that chase scene on the train.

beyond3When it comes to the game’s presentation, every single aspect is top notch. I don’t want to get too into it, because you can get a better idea of these strengths through videos. The characters models look great and the motion capture allows for the most realistic facial expressions ever seen in a game. At times, it manages to overcome the natural uncanny valley uneasiness. At times, I started to believe these characters were actually alive. I’m not being facetious either. Aurally, the voices are all phenomenal. Even the hokiest of lines is delivered with sincerity. The game’s music is brooding and fitting to the tee. Quantic Dream spared no expense on the presentation, and it paid off in spades. While it’s not perfect, it’s certainly way above what you’d normally see in a game.

When it comes to controls, Beyond keeps things incredibly simple. When you’re allowed to move Jodie, you’ll use the left analog stick. Some areas can be interacted with, and for this you’ll simply move the right stick in the associated direction. Areas of interest are represented by a white dot. If you can talk to someone, a list of available options will float near them. Each option is given a corresponding button. When there isn’t an area of interest available, all you can really do is walk around until you find one. Whether Jodie runs or walks is determined by the scene, which can make traversal needlessly slow.

Combat in the game is surprisingly frequent. When Jodie gets in a scrap, it’ll pretty much run like a choreographed fight scene. At certain moments, time will slow down and you’ll have to use the right stick to mimic Jodie’s movements. Getting it right will allow her to dodge a strike or counter with her own. Missing gets her hit, but she can’t really lose, so the end result is that she’ll just look beat up at the end of the scene. It’s not an ideal setup, but it allows for crazy cinematics while still giving the player at least some illusion of control.

The real treat is controlling Aiden. When the game allows it, you can switch to Aiden by holding a button. You can then move freely with him, using the left stick to move and the right stick to aim. Aiden can also interact with areas of interest, again represented by white dots. However, the options available to him are limited to his ghostly powers. As such, he can’t simply pick an object up or start a conversation. What he can do is throw some items, possess someone, choke someone to death, and other things like that. In order to perform these moves, you simply hold down a shoulder button and perform one of a few different actions with the analog sticks. For example, when you can throw something, you’ll pull down on the sticks and release the trigger to give it a good shove. When you attempts to choke someone out, you’ll move the sticks toward each other. It’s very easy to get a grasp on, so to speak.

beyond4Playing as Aiden is one of the biggest teases in video games. It promises a way to explore and interact with the world in order to solve puzzles and make it through tough combat scenarios. However, what you can actually do with Aiden is severely limited. Only some people can be possessed, and only some people can be choked. While an area may be rife with items to throw around, you may or may not be allowed to do anything about it. The rules governing what can and can’t be interacted with are unclear. It seems to be simply at the mercy of the pre-planned script. It kills any sense of freedom you controlling a poltergeist might otherwise offer.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the game is an overwhelming sense that nothing you do matters. At most, your actions are comparable to hitting the play button on a DVD player. You’re simply moving the story forward, and not actively participating in it. There are only a small handful of decisions that make any sort of difference later on. For the most part, it doesn’t matter how one scene plays out. The rest will happen as they are regardless. For example, you can use Aiden to terrify a group of teenagers at a party, or simply use him to leave the house without incident. It doesn’t matter. The scene is never mentioned again, and Jodie’s personality is unaffected. You’re just along for the ride. While you can pick and choose between a few bumps along the way, your ultimate destination is undeterred.

In the end, Beyond is an interesting experience that’s probably worth going through even with all of the issues. It’s best to come in prepared though. If you’re expecting any sort of a traditional game experience, you will be let down. If you’re someone who’s used to more hands off stuff, you’ll probably end up having a little bit of fun with it. Were the writing better, I’d say everyone should go out and play it regardless.

Short Attention Span Summary

Beyond: Two Souls is yet another offering from Quantic Dream that merely hints at possible incredible future of interactive entertainment. It doesn’t live up to its potential thanks to poor writing and a sense that your in-game actions are all but meaningless. There are some bright spots, such as the incredible presentation and fantastic acting, but these things don’t entirely make up for all of the let downs. Here’s hoping whatever QD is cooking up for the PS4 can finally deliver.

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