Beyond: Two Souls Review – Stories of a troubled girl
David Cage is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial developers in the gaming industry. Some hail him as the pioneer of a new way to conceive video games, while others criticize his works as hybrids which ultimately can’t satisfy neither hardcore nor casual gamers. This is because since Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America and released in 2005), Cage tried to create products that are best described as “interactive drama”, blending the strong focus on storytelling that is appropriate for movies and the interactivity that is exclusive to video games.
While there had been strides in creating better plots for video games, nothing even came close to what Quantic Dream was doing and this meant that Cage immediately gained a cult following. His following project, Heavy Rain, was also the first in Quantic Dream‘s new partnership with Sony Computer Entertainment; released in 2010 and highly acclaimed, the game went on to sell over 5 million copies despite being exclusive to PlayStation 3.
It’s only natural, then, that critics and gamers alike looked with renewed interest to his latest and newly released game, of which we’ll talk about in today’s Beyond: Two Souls review. Simply by reading the title you could very well make an informed guess about the premise of Beyond: in the game, we follow closely some of the most iconic events in the young life of Jodie Holmes, a girl inexplicably and inextricably connected to an unknown entity called Aiden.
This is an important part of Beyond’s gameplay, because often Jodie will need help from his invisible friend, and it works pretty smoothly. However, I have to say that Beyond starts quite slowly. The plot is developed using the nonlinear narrative technique and as such, the scenes go back and forth between Jodie as a child and Jodie as a teenager / adult; it takes a while before everything comes together, but when it does, everything works better – from the story to gameplay.
A great deal of that is thanks to the fantastic performance of Ellen Page, who managed to convey her emotions through Jodie in an exceptional way. As Cage pointed out in the presentations ahead of the release, some people might hear of Aiden and think of Beyond: Two Souls as a plot based on supernatural events – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Beyond is all about the pain and suffering of Jodie, a girl who’s been through more than anyone should ever have to bear; the gamer becomes witness to her struggles, both the ones who simply come from the hardship of being a teenager cast out and those who are specific to her supernatural condition. Rarely has a character been so gripping in videogames as that of Jodie Holmes, to the point that even Nathan Dawkins, the researcher played by Hollywood star Willem Dafoe, is overshadowed by her.
Because of the strong focus on the character of Jodie, one of the most innovative features introduced in Heavy Rain is absent in Beyond. I’m talking about the lack of any “game over” screen, which has been explicitly frowned upon by David Cage as a failure on game designers rather than players: in Heavy Rain, if the character you’re controlling dies the story continues taking that into account, and putting you in control of another character of the cast. I loved it and at first I was mildly disappointed to see it gone in Beyond, but after completing the game it’s clear that Jodie’s character could have never become what it is if they kept it. Ultimately, it was the right decision, although I still hope to see the feature again in future games by Quantic Dream and other developers.
Unfortunately, this also means that Beyond’s moment-to-moment gameplay is not quite as thrilling as Heavy Rain was, with the knowledge of being able to die at any given time. This is also because the control system, whilst somewhat enhanced in comparison to the QTE-based one featured in the previous game, is still designed to cater to mainstream users who aren’t really used to challenging gameplay and tight mechanics; Cage explicitly said that their desire was to involve even non-traditional gamers, but in doing so, the gameplay challenge clearly had to be lowered, and it shows. Personally, I think that Beyond: Two Souls and generally the games made by Quantic Dream would benefit so much for having tighter gameplay and more traditional controls, because this would enable them to create challenging situations for core gamers.
I don’t see much point in having casual- oriented controls for what is after all a game for a core console such as PlayStation 3; it’s certainly not a mobile game. Even more curious is the fact that you can, actually, play the game on mobile devices and they did it to further ease (as if it wasn’t already enough of a push-over) non-gamers in Beyond, but the problem is that their concept was wrong: players in co-op can’t actually play at the same time, but only in turns.
Just looking at another Sony exclusive released this year, Knack, I can see a better implementation. Knack is an uncompromisingly difficult game in single player, but whenever there’s a need for some co-op action with a fellow casual gamer, he/she can drop in any time and play as Robo-Knack, an additional character which has no death penalty and all and will respawn indefinitely. I feel that Beyond should have gone in this way, with a proper action/adventure control system for the main player and additional options for co-op (even though just watching Beyond: Two Souls, much like Heavy Rain, is more interesting than most games due to its cinematic nature).
Graphically, the game is simply amazing, as you can notice yourself by the screens. Quantic Dream has proved to be capable of delivering some of the best graphics on PlayStation 3, perhaps even topping The Last of Us, although to be fair Beyond is much more limited in scope and interactivity, thus making it easier to deliver all the hardware’s power just for graphics. If you want to take a glimpse of what they’ll be able to do with PlayStation 4 you can watch this stunning (and funny) tech demo; keep in mind that, according to Cage, this was just a simple porting of Beyond’s engine, so the actual PlayStation 4 game should be even more impressive.
Voice over is also generally pretty good thanks to the aforementioned real actors involved in the project.