Update: Apologies for the changes in scheduling this week, but t’is life and it has a tendency to get in the way sometimes. I think from now on I’ll try to post my articles on Thursdays, although that may change as required. Although I may decide to be a little more flexible from time to time, you can still almost always expect the 3 videos and one blog post a week that I’m putting out now! Also, next week there will be another special event on my humble blog and one that I’m certain you’re going to love, so check back next Wednesday for the big news! Now, on with the review!
Beyond: Two Souls is my first Quantic Dream experience and it seems that unlike many critics who reviewed it, I enjoyed it. I’m under no illusions though, it was without a doubt also a very flawed game. I’m all for interactive fiction or whatever you want to call it. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the kind of game I usually choose to play, but I do enjoy them sometimes. Take The Walking Dead game for instance. As I mentioned in my review of it I absolutely loved Season 1 and am eagerly awaiting Season 2. So my issues with Beyond has nothing to do with David Cage’s choice of genre. My real problem with Beyond comes down to the fact that Cage tries to do too much and the result is that it’s spread too thin and never quite achieves any one thing it sets out to do. It’s a shame, because despite the fact that there were many things I like about Beyond, it’s just not a strong enough game for me to want to recommend to everyone.
In Beyond we’re taken on a 14 year journey through the life of main character Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page. The chapters of her life that you play through are out of sync, jumping one portion of her life to another as she tries to piece together the events that led her to where she is when we meet her in the prologue. Since birth she’s been tied to an entity, known to her as ‘Aiden’. Aiden can manipulate objects or control or possess people for either mischief or for more sinister reasons. For obvious reasons, this link of hers is picked up scientists and later, even the CIA. There other plot points about rifts and the mysterious infraworld where the entities dwell and CIA schemes, but honestly none of it seems that important or even relevant. The main focus of the game seems to be on Jodie and her life and personal struggles. Everything else is less significant.
And if it was left at just that, Beyond might have been really strong title along the lines of The Walking Dead – a piece of interactive drama that is less about action and shooting things and more about the characters and their personal stories. After all, the best things about Beyond was Ellen Page. She was perfectly cast as troubled kid/young woman Jodie Holmes and her vocal and motion capture performance were flawless. She really brought Jodie to life and made her into a believable person with warts and all. It wasn’t just her character that provoked empathy though. There were a few interesting characters that you meet along the way, like a group of homeless people that Jodie comes in contact with or a kid that she meets during a CIA operation abroad, but your interactions with them are far too short to be satisfying. Because of the structure of the game, as soon soon as you begin to care about the new cast of characters you’ve been introduced to, you’re immediately whisked off to some other unrelated part of her life. Of course, there are a few recurring characters throughout the game, notably the scientists who essentially raises her, Nathan (played by Willem Dafoe) and Cole. The problem with many of the characters that remain a constant throughout the game is that they’re never really given a chance to develop either. Even though we see them a fair amount, we never learn that much about them. What do they like to do? Where are they from? How did they end up where they are? Other than Jodie, the other characters are mostly two-dimensional and only painted in very broad strokes. The dedicated scientist. The ambitious CIA operative. The kind homeless man. It didn’t help that the dialogue was often littered with cliches and predictability so that even Dafoe couldn’t help but sound strained or flat when delivering his lines. In fact, despite his character being a major player in Beyond, he was also one of the most boring and forgettable. In a game that is so focused on narrative, it’s crucial that the characters are believable and engaging and unfortunately, despite some of them showing a huge amount of promise they’re often let down by the script.
David Cage stated from the beginning that his goal was to create an emotional narrative first and foremost. To a certain extent he did just that.There were some genuinely emotional moments that tugged at my heartstrings and there was clearly effort put into making each chapter engaging on its own. Each one has its own tone and its own surprises and takes you on its own emotional roller coaster, some more subtle than others. It’s hard not to feel for Jodie when you feel like you’re watching her grow up and you’re there for all her biggest triumphs and failures. It’s her personal story that I loved the most. However, one of the biggest problems I had with the game was as also its narrative. Like I mentioned before, if the game was just about Jodie and her struggles it may have been a very different and possibly much better game. As things stand, David Cage seems to have gotten a little too over-ambitious by throwing every theme and genre he could think of into the pot. Jodie’s personal journey that has you at various moments attending another teenager’s party or preparing dinner for a big date clashes with the more grandiose themes of mysticism and war and the increasingly out-there plot. Not only did the latter third of the game suffer some issues with pacing with some missions lasting an inexplicably long time compared to the rest, despite the fact that nothing really happens, but the different chapters became increasingly fragmented and inconsistent. Some of the missions like when Jodie, still a teen with no military training has to go into the burning Department of Paranormal Activity to close the rift to the infraworld all by herself are just unbelievable, but possibly still within the realms of acceptability in a video game world. Other later missions are just completely ludicrous. I could largely forgive it because there were so many missions that I also enjoyed, but there’s no denying that even if it doesn’t put you off it will inevitably distance you from the characters and the story, which is exactly the opposite of what Cage wants. It didn’t help that even though the game was supposed to be about the choices you make along the way, it didn’t really feel like many of them made a significant impact on the game except for one, beyond whether the mission ends early or whether you escape now or later. The end result is often the same even if the path you took was different. The result was that you end up feeling even more detached from Jodie and more like you’re on the sidelines looking in. Also, despite Cage’s insistence that he wants to make something completely different from all those standard action games out there, in many ways he does just that, only not as well and not consistently. A CIA mission that takes you to war-torn Somalia and has you tracking down a warlord mirrors any AAA title that has soldiers and guns, except the mechanics of Beyond are ill suited to it.
Then there’s the gameplay. From what I’ve heard, Beyond is much more interactive than its predecessor Heavy Rain. I haven’t played it yet, so I wouldn’t know, but on its own it’s fairly mediocre. You control Jodie mostly by flicking the right analogue stick in the required direction and during combat time slows down and you have to flick it in the direction Jodie’s body is moving. There’s also the occasional quicktime event, but they generally don’t feel intrusive or over-used. It’s not all bad and the way you control Jodie actually feels quite natural most of the time and you get to focus more on what’s actually happening on the screen rather than having to mash buttons constantly if they had just gone with quicktime events. There are also some really interesting gameplay mechanics that were introduced like being able to switch to Aiden, the entity’s perspective and being able to interact with the environment through him. Many times, you can only progress by taking control of him and scouting the surrounding areas. His controls are fairly simple, target and then push the sticks together or push them apart depending on the situation and whether you want to possess or strangle someone, for instance. However, the interaction is still fairly minimal and often seems more of an afterthought, to break up the large chunks of dialogue and cut-scenes. Perhaps if Cage hadn’t tried so hard to make Beyond action-y, it would have been more fun. The controls in Beyond were simply not that well suited to combat and even though it might have been fun and unique at first, later action sequences were mostly repetitive and monotonous gameplay-wise. Cage’s desire of merging of film and video games is clear, but unfortunately I think he’s still lacking in the video game department. Also, I don’t think it really needs to be said but the looks great, with excellent motion capture and graphics to make the world look as real as it’s possible to look on a last gen console, but looking good alone doesn’t make a game.
Basically with Beyond Cage tried to do too much and tried too hard to draw you in and make you feel something. The only thing stopping it all from feeling completely pretentious at times and the only thing that really ties it together is Ellen Page’s stellar acting and some moments that were genuine and memorable. Yet despite the problems with pacing, characterisation and the inconsistent themes, I still largely enjoyed it. There was a lot of potential for Beyond and I don’t think it was all wasted. So, I would say some of you might enjoy it like I did, but I think many of you will hate it too. It’s not a must-play, but if you like Quantic Dream or psychological thrillers I’d suggest giving it a shot.