Beyond: Two Souls is like playing on a seesaw. When it’s up, you’re up. When it’s down, you’re down. At its peak, Beyond: TS has some of the most realistic 3D character modeling and animation ever and surprisingly enjoyable, unique movement based controls. At its lowest, it takes a scattershot approach to telling a story with chapters that undermine the creative vision of David Cage, Producer at Quantic Dream, making Beyond: Two Souls literally a tale of two halves.
The marketing push for Beyond: TS focused on Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Thanks to state of the art motion capturing, Page as Jodie Holmes, Dafoe as Dr. Nathan Dawkins, and Kadeem Hardison as Dr. Cole Freeman turn in some hyper-realistic performances in an effort to illustrate how games have transcended the medium. A lot of work went into making this game as close to a cinematic experience as a game can be. The voice-acting ranges from phenomenal to laughable.
Page does an admirable job bringing Jodie to life even if she comes across as a little impassive. I was curious to see which Dafoe we would get as he has played a variety of parts in his career. Nathan is pretty much the Beyond: TS version of Norman Osborne which is a tad disappointing. I was actually surprised at how much I appreciated Hardison’s role. He provided a much needed bond between Jodie and Nathan and was essentially the better father figure in Jodie’s life. I was equally surprised at how Quantic Dream employed actors with French accents to voice Chinese characters. I was so taken aback by that; especially considering the obvious quality they shot for with the Hollywood actors. It is hard to take a torture scene seriously with such egregious voice-acting. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often.
The visuals are nothing short of stunning. Games like Beyond: TS show the gap in visual quality between its contemporaries. The primary characters are incredibly realized and the various locales like the forest or burning building look fantastic. The effects like fire are some of the best I’ve seen in any game. That said, you can tell the difference between primary and supporting characters as the supporting characters have slightly less detail and the chapters featuring child Jodie’s living quarters and the laboratories are pretty sterile. There are times where I wished I could spend more time looking around the fantastic world Quantic Dream created, like the forest. Unfortunately those times usually involved cops or dogs chasing me.
Jodie’s story is told from birth to adulthood through a rather peculiar nonlinear narrative choice. Each chapter jumps back and forth between points in Jodie’s life, obviously drawing inspiration from films like Pulp Fiction. Ultimately, it doesn’t make much sense for this design choice because the justification revealed at the end just didn’t work for me. It only serves to highlight the good chapters from the bad. I spent half of the game wondering just what in the world was going on. The end felt like a comic book style rationalization. What is great isn’t enough to overcome the problems with Beyond: TS.
Homeless was a chapter that was nearly perfect. It centered on Jodie as a vagrant in hiding in the city in the middle of winter. It featured excellent conversation between Jodie and the vagrants that take her in, a four-against-one fight scene, and a scene assisting with childbirth which was a first for me in gaming. I actually got a little emotional with the childbirth scene because it brought back memories of the birth of my soon to be one-year-old son. The absolute highlight of the game is when Jodie picks up a guitar and sings a song that gave me pause as I admired the moment. I’m not even sure I can explain why, but it is simply a moment in time that encapsulates the tragedy and hope in Jodie’s life. If only the majority of the game were this good.
This chapter is canceled out by chapters like Jodie’s little jaunt on a ranch owned by a Navajo family. Again, she’s on the run, tired and hungry. The family, being the good Samaritans that they are, asks Jodie to stick around because there’s plenty of work to do on the ranch. She has no real motivation for what she’s doing. I’m not sure if that was a story design choice or not, but she just seems listless in her actions. Chores in video games are my ultimate pet peeve. Chores just aren’t interesting. Unfortunately this chapter also served as an example of filler since it served no real purpose to connect with Jodie, her connection to Aiden, or her plights. Skipping around made it hard to identify with Jodie and bond with her relationships thanks to an illusion of choice.
You cannot die in Beyond: TS. It is hard to fathom a video game that doesn’t punish you for making the wrong choice. Quantic Dream puts forth a valiant effort in trying something different, but there isn’t any point in the game that I don’t feel like it is pushing Jodie to the finish line in each chapter. Like its predecessor Heavy Rain, choice is a focal point of the game design, but it doesn’t do enough to make the player understand the ramifications of those choices until the very end. Regardless of the immediate result of a choice, you will come to the end of the chapter and be thrown forward or backward in Jodie’s timeline as the narrative dictates. What I do as adult Jodie doesn’t matter as I move into child Jodie’s chapter; however, the control scheme does translate to choice beyond just choosing how you respond to dialogue.
There are two sides to gameplay, Jodie and Aiden. For Jodie, it is as simple as pressing or holding the appropriate buttons as they are displayed on screen. It is much less obtrusive than it sounds. Beyond: TS uses a unique set of commands for action scenes like running or fighting. When Jodie needs to dodge or attack, her hands will move in a certain direction. That is your prompt to flick the right thumbstick in the appropriate direction. Jodie’s control scheme takes some getting used to, but it becomes second nature as the game goes along. Aiden’s controls are much less intuitive. It felt like I was piloting a helicopter and it can be disorienting navigating horizontal and vertical planes. His actions require the manipulation of two dots with the thumbsticks. Much less thought went into what you can do with Aiden versus what you can’t. Aiden can choke or possess people, but only certain people that glow a specific color. Beyond: TS doesn’t profess to be an open-world game and it actually provides even less approach to action sequences, especially any sequence involving Aiden.
There has long been talk of David Cage using video games as a way into directing movies. I believe he just wants to make a game that is more than just a video game, but Beyond: TS can’t escape its trappings. It is one thing to ask the player to suspend disbelief for a girl with a temperamental imaginary friend. It is another thing when that story comes off of the rails. One second we’re in the middle of a fugitive story. The next we’re little Jodie imprisoned in an experimental laboratory, frustrated by the people around her that don’t understand her. The Department of Paranormal Activity seals the deal. The government practically enslaves Jodie to do its bidding which includes everything from the assassination of a third world president to tracking down dimensional rifts that are gateways to a spirit world somewhere in a snow-blasted Chinese lakeside town.
Beyond: Two Souls’ had plenty of compelling details going for it; superb acting, stunning visuals, unique gameplay that I enjoyed more than I expected I would. It had some extraordinary moments, but they were overshadowed by the unremarkable parts of the whole. The story descends into complex absurdity and the chronological order it is presented in doesn’t do anything to rescue it. The ending just doesn’t come together like it should have considering how far off the rails this game went. It was an intriguing experience that just doesn’t excel as a video game.
A copy of Beyond: Two Souls on the PS3 was obtained by the reviewer for this review.