Beyond: Two Souls is the latest “game” from developer Quantic Dream, who are best known for creating the murder mystery Heavy Rain. I use the phrase “game” in the loosest sense of the word as at times this PS3 title feels more like an interactive movie. David Cage, the brains behind Quantic Dream, comes across as pretentious when promoting his company’s products. He lambasts modern video games for being uncreative in their storytelling by depending on cycles of game play, followed by cut scenes, followed by more gameplay. Ironically Beyond: Two Souls is little more than an extended cut scene broken up by quick time events (the shallowest form of game play, which only asks players to press whatever button flashes on the screen.)
The game chronicles the life of Jodie Holmes who ever since birth has been tethered to an invisible spirit named Aiden. The story follows Jodie as she grows up from being a little girl, raised at a lab that is studying her ghostly link, to a young woman who is eventually recruited by the CIA. The Central Intelligence Agency is naturally keen to employ an agent who commands a poltergeist, given that the entity can spy on others unseen as well as possess people. It’s an interesting tale, although the narrative can be confusing to follow as it constantly switches from levels covering Jodie’s adult life to chapters dealing with her youth. It’s a creative decision I didn’t approve of, but I suppose the developers wanted to avoid boring players with too many slow paced stages of toddler Jodie by mixing them up with adult Jodie’s espionage adventures.
Presentation is without doubt the area in which Beyond: Two Souls excels. The stunning visuals and audio help mask the game’s many failings. The graphics are photo realistic, which help bring the characters to life – even if they teeter on falling into the uncanny valley (were artificial creations end up looking creepy despite appearing life like.) The leading characters resemble their voice actors so players are sure to recognise that Jodie is played by Ellen Page (Juno) whilst the scientist who raises her is none other than Willem Dafoe (Platoon.) Even though the pair are big name Hollywood stars they don’t come across as being above voicing a lowly video game as their performances are excellent.
Even though the game boasts multiple endings, it doesn’t feel like the choices you make have much impact on the story. Near the end for example one of Jodie’s colleagues professes his undying love for her, which made little sense given the decisions I made earlier in the game. Prior to that a disastrous date between the two ended with said love interest walking out on her, after he turned up at Jodie’s messy apartment (which I failed to clean) only to find an inappropriately dressed Jodie who hadn’t bothered to make any dinner. This was followed by a mission were the budding Romeo betrays Jodie, culminating in me proclaiming that I hated his guts. In spite of all that the loyal CIA operative betrays his superiors out of love. Who cares if players orchestrated things so the two detest each other? Trifling things like player input will not derail David Cage’s script.
Another thing I disliked about the game were the controls. In certain areas the camera refuses to pan more than a few inches in either direction, making it hard to see where you are going. Interacting with objects is also a chore, as it requires some guess work. Items you can perform an action on are marked with a white dot. When you are within touching distance of such an item you need to tilt the analogue stick in a certain direction. You may for example have to press down to sit on a chair or right to open a door. Why not just assign one button on the controller to interact with objects? The idea must be to mimic what you would do in real life, but for a seasoned gamer it just breaks the immersion as you are forced to pull off silly acts, like shaking the controller, to jump off a ledge.
What appalled me the most however was the severe lack of freedom you have in terms of game play. At any time you can switch between Jodie and Aiden, which should give you plenty of options on how to tackle the challenges you come across. Alas the game steers you into playing things in a predetermined way. Look there’s a guard blocking a doorway, I know, I’ll get Aiden to possess him… oh wait I can’t because the designers only allow you to possess certain characters when it suits them. This is very weak when you consider that other games on the market (Fallout, Deus Ex, Dishonoured etc) encourage inventive use of powers to overcome obstacles.
The only real game play sequences are the levels were you need to sneak past enemies, which I didn’t enjoy as I am not fond of stealth games. You can’t tiptoe past every danger though so sometimes Jodie will be expected to fight for her life. Alas no skill or strategy is required in those encounters as battles are just quick time events were you press the analogue stick in whatever direction the on screen arrow is pointing. I did my best to complete the quick time events successfully, although I have heard from other sources that most of the time it doesn’t matter if you press the wrong direction or nothing at all. Jodie apparently will win the day no matter what you do. If there’s no substantial penalty for failing tasks what’s the point? This is a step back from Quantic Dream’s own Heavy Rain were you could permanently lose characters if you botched up a life or death struggle.
Due to the limited game play, whether you enjoy Beyond: Two Souls or not depends solely on the story. If you like the plot this could potentially be a four star game, but for me it was a two star offering. The tale of a CIA agent kicking ass with the aid of an incorporeal partner sounded cool, but by the end of it all I was feeling rather bored. The narrative is sadly hampered by dull parts were the eight-hour long running time is padded out with sequences were you perform mundane household chores, clean up your house or pack a suitcase.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to using the video game medium to tell interactive stories. The Walking Dead for example was my game of the year thanks to its gripping story and memorable characters. Even though that game only had one ending, the writers succeeded in making you feel like your choices mattered, which is not the case in Beyond: Two Souls. Although David Cage harps on about the importance of story, the tale he presents here isn’t strong enough to make up for the sacrifices in game play.