Hoo, boy. Where do I begin on this one? Perhaps if I describe my feelings towards it, I’ll find the start of this review. I loved Beyond: Two Souls, I really did, but I’m not sure which part of me loved it. The gamer part of me – the part that loves to press buttons and wiggle the analogue sticks to avoid hazards, defeat enemies and overcome obstacles – was actually left quite unfulfilled.
I’ll just come out and say it: Beyond: Two Souls is not a game. I’m not sure Heavy Rain was either, or Fahrenheit before it – it’s only now that I’ve come to realise it. There are a few bits where B:TS almost becomes a game, but I’ll get more into that later. I guess we’ll have to go with the “interactive drama” or “interactive movie” label for now, since I can’t think of any better way to describe it.
I’ll admit, my reasons for rushing out to buy a special edition of the ga- …um, “interactive story” on launch day was largely because it stars Ellen Page, the most beautiful woman alive, and Willem Dafoe, who is the man! And when I see both names displayed proudly on the box above the title like a movie poster, I think that’s how it was meant to be. If it had featured unknown actors – talented though they may have been – I might have let it pass me by, my financial situation being what it is. But purely for the star power, I spent the money, to my detriment if needs be, and I’m not sure whether or not I should be ashamed of myself.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
[Editor's note: from this point on, there's text that could be considered spoiler-ish, both in terms of narrative and mechanics. If you'd rather play the game completely devoid of any knowledge of its meandering narrative or its mechanics, you may want to stop reading here. I'll let you know when it's safe to continue reading below.]
Ellen Page plays the role of Jody Holmes, a girl born with a link to a strange, poltergeist-like entity she calls Aiden. We get to follow her through 15 years of her life, from an eight year-old girl to her young adulthood as she’s feared, ostracised, punished, exploited and occasionally praised for the powers Aiden grants her. Her relationship with Aiden also changes, as she goes through phases of hating, loving and relying on him – whatever he is. Willem Dafoe plays Nathan Dawkins, a researcher at a centre for paranormal studies who genuinely cares for Jody, wants to help her, and becomes a surrogate father to her.
The narrative doesn’t play out in chronological order, though. This is probably a good thing, because some sections, particularly her childhood, can be quite slow; and one of the biggest complaints about Quantic Dream’s previous game, Heavy Rain, was that it took forever to get started. Instead, B:TS jumps back and forth, letting us play sections from her childhood, her forced recruitment as a CIA agent, her time as a homeless drifter, her rebellious teen years and so on. Her personality and living conditions are so starkly different from one era to another, it’s quite easy to keep track of what’s going on. It’s a pretty riveting story too, full of emotion, drama and controller-gripping tension. You’ll want to keep playing to the end to see if she ever learns who or what Aiden is, and if she ever finds peace in her life.
In each chapter, players can control Jody, making her walk around the scene, looking for things to interact with or people to talk to. Unlike Heavy Rain, players usually aren’t required to make motions on the analogue sticks to mimic, say, opening cupboards or sitting in chairs. Instead, interaction “hot-spots” are denoted by white dots on the screen, and all you have to do to activate them is point at them with the right analogue stick. Sometimes you’ll have to watch for prompts to press other buttons, like when Jody is climbing or doing some other complicated task.
Players can press the triangle button to control the ghostly entity, Aiden. When doing this, players see through Aiden’s viewpoint, floating around in a first-person mode, similar to spectator mode in multiplayer shooters. You can see the spiritual cord or tether that links him to Jody in this mode, which is not only a nice touch, but handy when you want to find your way back to her. Aiden can pass through solid objects and manipulate items by pushing or lifting them. So he can, for instance, pass through a door and unlock it for Jody from the other side – in fact, he does that a lot, and the obvious opportunity for brain-bending puzzles requiring switching between Jody and Aiden goes by unused. Usually there’s only one action to keep the plot moving, and you just wander around interacting with the three or four things on screen until you find the right one.
Then there are the action sequences when Jody blunders into a dangerous situation. Rather than the usual button-prompt quick-time events, time slows down whenever Jody has to avoid something, or fight someone. The tutorial tells us to watch which direction she’s moving in and press the analogue stick in that direction. It works, mostly. There are a few sections, usually when she’s dodging, where it’s hard to tell which direction she’s going in – in the developers’ opinion. Sometimes, Aiden plays a part in the action scenes, and he can knock items into people, possess people or even strangle people. Again, this sounds like you’re free to create all kinds of supernatural havoc – but the people you can posses or kill or knock around are decided beforehand, which is disappointing.
The bits where B:TS most resembles an actual video game are the stealth sections when Jody’s working for the CIA. Jody can crouch behind cover and move from one hiding spot to another like a modern shooter, popping up to shoot enemies (with strict auto-targeting, not free aim), taking them out silently in melee, or using Aiden to distract or attack them. When you get to these sections, you’ll want so badly for them to ramp up the challenge – but, once again, they’re over far too quickly and they’re way too easy, the route through each one being practically pre-made for you.
But perhaps the biggest part of the game, and one of the most interesting features for me, is the choices. In many of the chapters, players get to choose how Jody reacts to the situations in which she finds herself. Does she cooperate with Nathan’s experiments when she’s kid? Does she bite her tongue and cooperate with the CIA agent when he comes to recruit her, or does she tell him to go eff himself (literally)? Does she blindly cooperate with the CIA, or does she question her orders? You get to decide all of these things.
There’s a particularly choice-laden bit in her young teens, when she reluctantly goes to a birthday party with other, less-innocent kids her age. How far will she go to fit in? Will she accept the beer? Will she accept the weed? How will she respond to the boy hitting on her? If she dances with him, how will she react when he cops a feel? It’s all up to you, which can result in the scene playing out differently each time. I particularly like the ones where you get to decide how good or bad Jody is – like when the bullies lock her in a cupboard and Aiden breaks her out. Does she slink off quietly, crying, or does she take supernatural revenge on them, Carrie style?
[Editor's note: Right, I think it's safe to continue reading from here. Now, if you didn't read any of the above, I know this makes this review a bit awkward, given that Matthew's gone a different route with the score below. Just know that it seems he enjoyed Beyond immensely – but you'll need to want to enjoy its nature as an interactive drama and not a game, just as it was with Heavy Rain, to get the most out of it.]
It’s just a pity the developers couldn’t find some way to make a game out of all this, because the performances are fantastic. I watched one of the bonus features when I was done, and the developers were talking about how they tried to give the player as much “freedom” as they could. I nearly spat the tea I was drinking all over my TV screen. They have a strange definition of freedom. Does the player open the door? They ask. Well, since it’s the only thing you can do at that point, I guess the player will. Does the player ride the horse? They ask. I should bloody hope so! Because it’s the only way to get past that section of the game. What’s your other option? To stare at the horse until your PS3 breaks down? Half the time you can’t even control the camera, which is infuriating in a game with such good graphics that you’ll want to admire. Oh man, phew. Freedom. Good one guys.
And now the million dollar question – would I recommend this game? Well, I can’t. It’s not really a game. It requires you to hold a controller and press buttons to make progress, which would normally constitute a game in the eyes of the uninitiated – but without challenge or choice or impediments to progress, it’s hard to classify it as such from the perspective of a lifelong gamer. It’s more like a movie with a hundred alternate endings you can choose.
And yet, I did enjoy it from beginning to end and I don’t regret my purchase. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and some of the choices were quite uncomfortable. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe’s performances are excellent and I want to go back and play it again to make different choices in key scenes – so I guess I can’t call it a failure either.
But somehow, I don’t think everyone will enjoy it as much as I did, especially people expecting a “game” game. I don’t even know what to score it – I’m not even sure score applies here. I’ve done my best to describe it to you in detail, so I guess it’s up to you whether or not it sounds like something you’d buy.