The argument of whether or not games can be more than just a game is something that has always interested Beyond: Two Souls writer and director, David Cage. He has always advocated that games can be “experiences” that allow players to travel with a playable character in the carefully orchestrated worlds he’s created. His and Quantic Dream’s last attempt at having an interactive journey, Heavy Rain, proved that this dream could be possible, but could his newest supernatural thriller accomplish and build on his goals?
Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes -- played perfectly by Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) -- as she grows and adapts to having the entity, Aiden, constantly leashed to her. The course of the “game” takes place over more than 15 years of Jodie’s life which is something I was extremely intrigued to see implemented smoothly. Unfortunately, it is not. The “game” constantly bounces back and forth through time which if it were presented properly, could deliver some great “did not see that coming” moments. Movies like Memento prove that if you present a work of fiction in an intelligent way, it allows for the viewer to discover the story as bits and fragments are introduced. Beyond can sometimes feel like there was a “game” put together that went from start to finish and, like some movies, went into the editing department to be hacked to the point that the story became a disjointed mess. More times than I’d like to remember I had to stop and think, “What the hell just happened? How old is Jodie supposed to be here?” or, “Where does this fit in the timeline?” Those are questions that should rarely come out of a viewer’s mouth but if they are, should be addressed accordingly. That isn’t saying that the “game” doesn’t have any redeemable qualities that warrant playing.
For starters, Beyond’s performances are top-notch as Page, Willem Dafoe (Platoon), and Kadeem Hardison (A Different World) collectively show what the future of performance can be as video games continue to progress as a medium. A large amount of kudos to not only the actors, but David Cage for getting some truly emotional moments captured in “game”. There was even a moment or two that really got to me on a deeply emotional level which is something I rarely feel in video games, let alone other mediums. One of the most touching sequences can be found in the homeless memory in which Jodie encounters Stan in a standout performance presented by David Coburn. If there is one thing to say of Cage, his ability to capture the warmth of Stan, Dawkins (Dafoe), and Freeman (Hardison) is unparalleled to many video game creators out there. Hardison’s portrayal of Freeman is also particularly worth noting as seeing his relationship with Jodie develop and grow was one of the best interactions shown throughout Beyond. The ability to capture these emotions in a realistic fashion owes a great deal to the tech powering Beyond.
Quantic Dream’s performance capture studio is easily one of the best in the business and the engine Beyond is built with provides for some of the best graphical fidelity I’ve seen on this console generation. Character facial animations are life-like. The lighting is realistic. Even the particle effects are some of the best around. If there is anything you can count on it’s that Beyond does not struggle at looking fantastic. When Aiden uses his ability to possess or kill powers, the lighting and particles combine for some visuals that parallel, or even rival, the graphical fidelity of the PS4. Beyond really is a stunning “game” to look at.
You may have noticed that while reading this review that the word game is consistently in quotes. That’s because it is more of a movie or television series than an actual video game that we’ve become accustomed to over the years. For those annoyed with Heavy Rain for the amount of interactive cut scenes that were presented, the chances that you will enjoy Beyond are slim-to-none. Players complete actions following button prompts and holds, much like Heavy Rain, as well as use the right joystick to react to Jodie’s momentum. When in fights or intense situations, time slows down (not controlled by the player) and Jodie’s direction will shift. At this point players flick the right joystick in the direction matching her movement. I was actually more annoyed with this control scheme than actually enjoying it. It was difficult to see where the momentum was taking Jodie which resulted in a ton of mistakes. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in terms repercussion as I was being carefully guided through the experience.
An unexpected play option called “Duo” allows players to play with a friend as each player selects to control either Jodie or Aiden. This mode can be played using either the DualShock 3 or an iOS/Android companion app. I often think mixing an iPhone with a gaming experience can be gimmicky, but in the case of Beyond, it can create a very unique experience for novice and expert gamers alike; sometimes even enhancing the experience since touch controls with Aiden are simple enough for anybody to join. I would not, however, recommend controlling Jodie with a touch device as her movements feel more natural with the DualShock.
Beyond: Two Souls is the last great showing in the strength of the PS3. There are great moments in the journey, but the overall lacking of a comprehensive story pulls it back into the realm of experimental. Cage’s ambition is admirable, but I fear that he may be a better fit in the world of film and television rather than video games. That isn’t to say Beyond wasn’t a great experience. I am saying that if Cage doesn’t begin incorporating simple game features like being able to control the character for more than 5 hours of a 12 hour experience, the niche consumer base may not be there after his next project. The potential is there and the pieces to the puzzle are in place, but the disjointed storytelling and lack of gameplay prevent Cage’s PS3 sendoff from being something great.