Beyond: Two Souls Review
Beyond: Two Souls is
Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls is a tale of the supernatural, spiritual and downright expensive as David Cage’s latest melodrama comes to the small screen.If you’ve never played a Quantic videogame before, it's probably fair to describe their primary draw as presenting "cinematic storytelling" as their raison d'être. They jettison all notions of traditional action-led gameplay, instead placing their audience in the role of a film director, watching each scene unfold and making key decisions on the part of their lead protagonists. Those decisions carry weight not only within the moment but also within the course of the overall narrative, often serving to branch the story towards any one of a vast array of conclusions.
Such a linear experience isn’t for everybody of course, and director David Cage’s previous titles within the genre Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain - are a mixture of utterly brilliant and downright awful QTE and choose-your-own-adventure sequences, often choosing to insert bizarre science fiction or supernatural threads into storylines that were better served with a focus solely on the real. Those games were also relentlessly interesting experiments with the form of videogame interaction however, and Beyond: Two Souls at least acknowledges previous narrative flaws by leaving no doubt that it’s running with a supernatural premise from the start.
Paging HolmesBeyond tells the story of troubled young girl Jodie Holmes (played brilliantly by Ellen Page), a character mysteriously followed by a supernatural “friend” named Aiden. Nobody can see Aiden but he can interact with our world just fine, working with or against Jodie’s wishes to create mischief, save her from danger, possess other creatures and generally act as a plot Macguffin whenever Quantic sees fit; for although Aiden is the catalyst for a lot of the major story beats in Beyond, it’s Jodie’s struggle with absent parents, teenage alienation, homelessness and subsequent failure to fit in as an adult that underpins much of the emotional resonance.
There’s a lot of storyline material to get through here, and although Beyond provides just as linear an interactive experience as Quantic’s previous games, Jodie’s struggle for acceptance is presented in an off-kilter fashion, frequently jumping between scenes that could take place at any point during a 15-year timespan.
Jodie’s struggle with absent parents, teenage alienation and homelessness underpins much of the emotional resonance.
Framed in such a manner and supported by a stable of character actors delivering dialogue of wildly varying quality (led by the dependable Willem Dafoe), Jodie’s tale plays out as a series of storyline vignettes that sometimes work (occasionally brilliantly so), but just as frequently begin with an intriguing setup and end as unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny. From one moment to the next you’re never quite sure as to which foot Beyond is going to lead with, and whether you’re going to be tasked with doing the dishes, having harrowing conversations about procuring food on the streets in the dead of winter, shooting up the streets in Mogadishu, romancing a CIA agent by cooking a terrible meal or wandering around a snowy backyard as a child.
Of course as is tradition with Quantic Dream, it’s all impeccably rendered with a technical prowess that’s astounding; especially so when considering the limitations of the aging PS3 hardware.
Choose your pathIn controlling each of Jodie’s disparate tasks, Beyond’s limited interaction is much in line with Quantic’s previous work. Jodie can be moved with the left analogue stick at a pace that’s always chosen by the game, and she can interact with her environment with simple flicks of the right analogue stick whenever a glowing white orb is found. Doing so will trigger a cutscene with a resultant change to the environment, narrative, or maybe just a bit of background information to give a little more context for each of the characters. It’s simple, but it works to provide just enough player agency so Beyond feels less like a movie and more like a game, and - as witnessed in Telltale’s superb The Walking Dead - there are clear storytelling advantages for keeping a tight ship in such a fashion.
Where Beyond differs from The Walking Dead is in terms of its scope however, and it’s when things get fantastical that everything begins to fall apart with its clichéd, dopey script.
For me, these types of interactive dramas work best when I’m not conscious of my interactions, and Beyond is guilty of both far too much control and not enough in varying degrees. When character interactions are kept simple the controls work beautifully, albeit with no small amount of excess when tasked with pushing a stick to turn Jodie over in bed or to get her to sit on a chair and cry. Action sequences however, are another story - or they should be.
The majority of Beyond’s many set pieces involve holding an analogue stick forward to move whilst occasionally pushing on the right analogue stick to dodge something. Combat is exactly the same, you just need to mirror Jodie’s body direction with a flick of the stick in order to succeed. Rather than becoming short transitional spectacles, Beyond’s action-heavy sequences get bogged down with the incessant need to produce a timed Simon Says response every few seconds, leading them into the territory of QTE events that last for minutes at a time. It’s just not fun, I’d rather watch.
Failure in those sequences has few consequences other than a couple of spots that change the narrative, and messing up an input usually results either in a second chance or a whole new scene in which Jodie is able to find a different, simpler way out of her predicament. The ultimate result is the same, and it’s all too easy to trace the branching paths that Telltale did so well to obfuscate.
Press Triangle to AidenThere are some interesting concessions however. In the moments in which Beyond allows control of the ever-present Aiden, the player is at least afforded the opportunity to fly around each scene with traditional analogue controls, snooping on conversations and triggering supernatural mischief with a quick flick of the stick. From a pure mechanical perspective, a few of those sequences offer the most interesting distillation of the ‘director’ concept that Beyond promotes, literally offering players an invisible hand with which to tinker with the environment and prompt humour or darkness dependant on the context of the story vignette.
That’s the first time a Quantic game has really allowed you to inject your own personality directly into the game in such a forceful manner, and the concept of Aiden as a player-driven cypher is explored even further in Beyond’s two-player mode, which allows another person to take control of his spectral presence throughout the entire story with either a second DualShock or via their super-simple tablet app (which worked fine on both an iPad and a Nexus 7 during testing).
Beyond’s two-player mode allows a second player to take control of Aiden via a super-simple tablet app
All I can say is that you’d better have a good relationship with the friend or partner that you’re playing with, as the few sequences that allow Aiden the chance to alter the course of the game are usually the ones that offer social repercussions for Jodie, such as scaring bullies (almost to death) at a teenage party or choosing to sabotage a dinner date.
Regardless as to the quality of the script as a whole, Ellen Page has done such a good job characterising her troubled lead that there’s no small amount of empathy generated in the course of her performance, and Aiden can make her life absolute hell. That feeling of helplessness as the second player undermines your control is a surprisingly powerful dynamic not often encountered in videogame form, although it has to be said Aiden’s role is usually underplayed and confined to unlocking doors from a different side, finding secrets or knocking objects out of the way for Jodie to find her way to safety. It’s a concept with legs though, and I’d love to see it explored more thoroughly outside of the rigid confines that Beyond routinely presents.
- Superb performances
- Incredibly atmospheric visuals
- Some chapters are superb
- Ambitious and different
- Far too inconsistent
- Controls are not suited for all sequences
- Spectacularly silly in latter stages
- Too much filler material
Beyond: Two Souls ReviewRegardless as to the bright moments, in embracing the supernatural elements of Cage’s work, Beyond has become at once tremendously honest but also brutally revealing in the silliness of its narrative and problematic control scheme. Much like the peerless Walking Dead, it’s a game that works best when interactions are on a calm human level, showcasing the talents of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe and allowing their conversations to take centre stage with small prompts from the player.
That’s too often not the case. As an ‘interactive cinema’ project such as this will always hinge on the quality and delivery of its story, despite the best efforts of Page & co, unfortunately Beyond is just too flabby, hokey and undeniably cheesy.
There are whole scenes that serve barely any purpose and should have been left on the cutting room floor, including a brief journey into native American spiritual territory that really has to be seen to be believed. You could spot the setup and the payoff for that plot segment from space, and that sentiment is just as applicable when considering any number of scenes that make up a huge amount of misguided filler.
Regardless as to whether you treat Beyond: Two Souls as either videogame or cinema then, it’s another hugely flawed, tremendously ambitious and misguided project from David Cage. There are moments of character empathy that you simply can’t get anywhere else contained with Beyond's excellent performances, but its inconsistency kills any aspirations of greatness.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £44.99