*Note: You will be wading into some spoiler territory in this review. Given the complaints and praises—mostly complaints—I will be raising with the story, I can't avoid spoiling some details (not huge ones) while also trying to provide an exploration on the game. If you want a fresh experience on all the game has to offer, I suggest avoiding this review for now.*
Ever since the releases of Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, it’s been obvious that Quantic Dream has had a desire to create that bridge between film and videogame. Now, the next effort by this studio shows there's still room to grow in realizing that dream. Production values for these sorts of titles keep getting higher which in turns helps the technology continually get closer and closer to reaching photorealistic levels, the gameplay is often regimented to quick-time events (QTE’s) in order to have greater focus on storytelling, and now Hollywood A-listers provide their acting talent here. It’s certainly admirable to have a videogame creator such as David Cage strive for this sort of single-minded vision within his titles—though I often question how much this has gotten to his head. Because of this, some are staunchly determined to use the term “auteur” whenever his name crops up. Though it's worth venerating the community for attempting to applaud those types of unobstructed artists, works like Beyond: Two Souls brings into question if such a heralded word has lost its true meaning.
The story of Beyond follows the life of Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) from her childhood to her twenties. Jodie was born with an uncommon link to a supernatural entity, known as Aiden. The most important secondary character, which could also be considered Jodie’s closest thing to a father, Dr. Nathan Dawkins (starring Willem Dafoe) is given charge over Jodie to discover more about the supernatural by examining her bizarre connection.
To put it simply, there are a lot problems with this story's execution. The over-arching plot that's hardly present to begin with borrows sci-fi and horror tropes so liberally that most surprises are expected, especially for Aiden's origins. It's a story with some reliable formulas yet still isn't sure what to do with itself. Plus, every side character lacks any sort of depth and many don't really bear any pertinence whatsoever. Part of this is due to the way in which this story is told.
Using a frustrating non-linear method of storytelling, this pieced-together narrative begins with Jodie as a little girl and continually jumps between four different periods of her life: an eight year old, a teenager, an agent for the CIA, and a fugitive. Using that descriptive word “frustrating” of how I think of Beyond’s storytelling is nowise suggesting I dislike that method altogether; in fact, Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” happens to be one of my favorite films for that very reason, and that story is going in two different directions. Tarantino, Altman, and more have all used that method to great effect, but Beyond’s desultory execution shows it’s just blindly copying from those greats and leaves most of the plot feeling rather vacuous.
The first noticeable problem is the usual lead-in and background into these mini-sodes of Jodie’s life. The first step in Jodie’s adult shoes involves undercover work at a ball. Before players take control, another agent reminds her of the mission at hand. “You know what to do,” he coldly states. Well…you, as the player, don’t know yet, but that will be dealt with shortly enough when the game determines the right time to extol thin exposition on this situation. Since this sort of listlessness in delivering proper context is so common, it becomes apparent there’s really no good reason for this jumping between different times of Jodie's life other than to put her in interesting situations, regardless of their overall relevance. Rather than there being a sense of purpose about the preceding events, so many of these “levels” feel segmented and unrelated. It bears the mark of David Cage’s own capriciousness in wanting to pit Jodie against impossible odds at a consistent pace while everyone else on the team was afraid to say no to him or just demand fleshed-out explanations for the players to understand.
Many side characters are typically thrown away on a whim and important ones that stick around often require their character traits and dimensions TOLD to you. For instance, a character in every previous scene he’s in is only depicted as acting cold towards Jodie, yet in the next scene that jumps a few years ahead Jodie tells the player—via Aiden—that she’s now fallen for him because he has a plethora of likable qualities. It’s rare to see a love interest like this fail so badly by having to be told a character’s personality without said character ever showing a single trait relating to that visual description beforehand. The relationship can descend from bad to slightly creepy due to how he can keep pressing for a relationship even if players chose to turn that offer down in previous sections. Even Dr. Dawkins’ arc takes a wild turn towards the end where he just spells out his motives through a monologue rather than through gradual development during the course of the game.
Aside from the nuts and bolts of the impetuous plot contrivances and character development, the tone and atmosphere fly out of control too. Despite being to the benefit of gameplay variety, these vignettes of Jodie are constantly flipping between genres: undercover espionage thriller, character drama, supernatural horror, etc. Think of an entire music album’s various beats squished into one song while a DJ uses it during turntable scratching sessions and you have a good idea of how wildly everything is mixed up until the final twenty percent of the narrative. One minute could have her settling into her new home as a kid while the next may show her using Aiden to kill a dozen soldiers and commit a great deal of property damage. While there is a reason for this explained at the end, there’s nothing here that gives reason to believe it serves any benefit.
On their own though, some of these short stories that serve as non-sequiturs actually have good mini-plot threads and satisfying closures. There’s one short adventure of Jodie in the Navajo Desert that’s able to marry the quieter, atmospheric moments of day work with action and mystery sequences. It’s paced very well and has some of the best events in the game, even though it does have to rely on some tasteless Native American stereotypes. There’s also another mini-story thread of Jodie taking shelter with a group of homeless people that acts way too over-sentimental in its tone, yet that’s also what makes it so fascinating. From its own reinterpretation of the Nativity scene to the different ways of trying to beg for money, it’s a cohesive and very compelling mini-narrative. As much as these moments and some others were emotionally evocative, they still have no real bearing to the overall plot so they’re really just filler intended to put Jodie in these situations because they sound like cool ideas.
It's understandable why these side stories receive such attention in this game too, especially when looking at the main focus of the narrative: Jodie as a CIA agent. Take that aforementioned ball scene for instance. There, the mission undertaken hints at there being some kind of a foreseen threat later on but is actually never seen from again. When traditional linear storytelling occurs during the end, emotional moments don't have much punch and so many elements come off as too ridiculous. Expository information on all of the pseudoscience gets too goofy, enemy factions are evil to cartoonish degrees, and some events that unfold show the script got away from the writers. In the end, it's a plot that took far too long to establish itself and has to rely on cheaper writing theatrics because of it.
Through all of the egregious moments, there’s still something about what kind of story wanted to be told that still wants me to try appreciating it, silly as that sounds. I do genuinely like the idea of a young teenager dealing not only with their angst but also an invisible being that’s always watching. That's a concept with room to grow. So is the notion of implanting several heavy moments here which demand Jodie to question if she’s treated more as a tool to meet someone’s ends rather than a person. Yet, for all the themes and thought-provoking questions I may wish to have thought of more often here, Beyond’s execution is just too messy to give that effort.
Outside of the core element of writing in Quantic’s movie aspirations with Beyond, the extra presentational qualities are some of the best to date. The acting in particular goes beyond typical voice acting and mo-cap sessions but also facial animations that top LA Noire’s technology. It’s being able to see the closest thing to legitimate “acting” within the cutscenes and gameplay which in turn makes the story a bit more compelling. Part of the immersion is harmed by the same problem as LA Noire: top-of-the-line facial features attached with body animations that still look robotic in some sequences. Still, having most of the cast, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in particular, show such conviction to their roles makes them worthy of some year-end awards for trying their best to make some of these cringe-inducing lines feel convincing. As typical with borrowing some of Hollywood’s tricks and talents, the august soundtrack is sometimes overly-manipulative yet is still a great piece of work in its own right that makes many scenes more engaging than they deserve being.
The technical aspects of visuals and sound design handsomely compliment the interactive drama, movie-wannabeism this team is so desperately trying to achieve. With the supernatural angle, detailed sound effects for the real world and the dreamlike, haunting atmosphere when peering into the first-person perspective of Aiden display dedicated workmanship. Coming into the homestretch of the PS3’s lifecycle can make even great-looking titles look dated, yet Beyond is still able to hint at moments of photorealism—not just the facial animations—thanks to fastidious designers and great cinematic camerawork. The one foible is the underwhelming consistency in Beyond. The game has a habit of getting quick freezes and texture pop-in, which slightly damages the immersion it’s tried so hard to achieve.
For all of the story annoyances one might notice, perhaps the experimental gameplay could save the title. Sadly, gameplay seems to be the aspect that’s atrophied the most since Quantic’s last title.
Encapsulating some qualities from Heavy Rain, interactions are a mixture of dialogue options, quick-time events, and controlling Aiden. Most dialogue choices are inconsequential and bring no sort of impact to the overall story. Whatever dialogue chosen will give you a snippet of information you may have otherwise not been given, but they’re all so irrelevant anyways due to the meaninglessness of so many filler sub-plots and the necessity to stick with one story. Such as with one of Dawkins’ requests towards the end of the game, even the choice of Jodie relenting will eventually lead to her performing actions anyways because it’s the only way to move this story forward.
The action sequences play to the same effect. Oftentimes replacing the plethora of random button prompts during action scenes in Heavy Rain, the game will go into slow motion and require you hit the right analog stick in the correct direction to succeed the QTE. The smart idea behind this is in having the direction being indicated by Jodie’s movement instead of a floating icon. Conceptually, that sounds like a natural progression to the age-old QTE formula by allowing players to always focus on the on-screen actions rather than the button prompts. Unfortunately, the execution is a bit unsophisticated because certain movements give conflicting visual information. Aside from being a bit more battered and bruised from the action scene, it doesn’t really matter anyways since failure or success typically results in the same outcome; and for the ones where failure can bring a different result, there’s a contrived way to get out of that situation so the game can progress. It’s not tough to spot a theme here. It feels rather patronizing to have the supposed meaningfulness of choices so easily shown to be an illusion and the only real incentive to move forward is just to humor the allegedly-great story from a game creator who deigned to put gameplay in for us to do something between watching cutscenes.
The control of Aiden had promise thanks to the Poltergeist pastiche, but, as expected, this mechanic is heavily restricted by the game. Aiden’s list of abilities against NPCs ranges from healing, possessing, or killing them; the problem is who to use these powers against and when to use them has already been dictated by the game beforehand. The same ideal goes for throwing around inanimate objects or going through walls: these actions can only be performed when the game approves this either by highlighting objects and people or when there’s no invisible walls. This seems like another missed opportunity in which the game was more invested in trying to impress me with these events rather than involve me in them. There are a couple of instances of Aiden being used for a better purpose, such as the stealth segments or in leading a couple of NPCs somewhere by manipulating various objects. Sure, these sequences aren’t very complex, but at least they do provide fleeting instances of engaging the player in an inventive way.
Quantic also made their best promise of interesting gameplay not that fun to play either. The controls for Aiden feel sluggish and disorienting while all of his interactions with the world are limited to rote control stick movements like flicking both analog sticks or pushing them inwards or outwards in unison.
What’s left is gameplay with no sense of tension or meaning behind it, just mechanics. Mechanics that oftentimes don’t even require any input from you in the first place. So, many lengthy combat scenarios and dialogue options can still be completed if you lay the controller down. Aside from a couple combat-oriented bouts or quieter moments, ennui develops so quickly because the sensation of having a leash wrapped around my neck and a handler saying “the show goes on with or without you” seeps in so quickly and poisons much of the game.
There’s couch cooperative play too. That’s about as enthusiastic of a reaction from me as you’ll get because I honestly don’t see how it enriches the experience. One player can play as Jodie and the other as Aiden. If not familiar with simplistic Dualshock controls already, players can use their iOS or Andriod mobile devices as a controller after acquiring the free “Beyond Touch” app. That’s all I have to say about that.
As one who appreciates seeing developers break from the norm in subtle or grandiose ways, it’s not exactly enjoyable to denigrate a title like Beyond: Two Souls—regardless of the annoying attitude the game director may display behind the scenes. Despite what’s been done here, I like the concept of cinematic-heavy titles and think there’s many ways to explore it further. I like the idea of using a moderate AAA budget that’s dedicated to using that in enhancing storytelling. Amid my frustrations, there are still qualities here that show that same kind of enthusiasm to produce something worthwhile; however, these are all for naught when the heart of this game is about ACTING instead of BEING: the incoherencies, the ineffectual actions, the unmoving pauses, the torpor continually building from the lack of tension. All of these things and more are what make Beyond half the narrative-driven game of Quantic’s previous effort.
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