Beyond: Two Souls review
Sony Computer Entertainment, Quantic Dreams 2013
It has to be recommended to play Beyond: Two Souls with a partner. It really just makes the whole experience that much more tolerable, and at times, hilarious. I tag teamed Heavy Rain with a good friend way back when, and I remember how this guy failed the button sequence for grabbing your wife's groceries. I've never laughed harder at a game before, it was just the stupidest thing I've ever seen. Beyond: Two Souls has some of those moments too, like failing to hold down a couple buttons properly during a sit-up, or having Ellen Page clothes-line herself with tree branches because you couldn't tell whether to hit the analog up or down while sprinting through a dark forest. It's pure gold. And what's great about Beyond is that it features a co-op mode, which I think is an excellent way to encourage people to get their non-gamer friends, significant others, or family members to give this hobby a shot.
Beyond: Two Souls admirably forgoes the cheap shock value of Heavy Rain's gun-to-your-head decision making in favor of a more linear experience where you merely press through the motions presented to you. Player choices in Beyond aren't exactly meant to change any outcomes of importance, rather, they exist to entertain. This is hardly criticism, because at times they are very entertaining indeed. A kung fu sequence atop a speeding train demands you follow the direction of various punches and kicks with the analog to successfully complete them. There's no losing these sequences, it's just a matter of performing well or poorly. Some might find that off putting, but for the demographic this game is reaching for, it's actually quite novel not having to worry about Game Overs and checkpoints because of a missed QTE.
It's accessible, and if you got a friend near you then you're in for a good time in the same way laughing at a horrible movie is a good time, sweet action sequences included.
Things do quickly get messy, the game jumping to different events of a convoluted, if purposely medias res storyboard. Nothing is inherently wrong with the style of narrative, but more so with how it asks you to latch onto characters at a moment's notice,and then somehow care about them later. Nonetheless, Jodie -- modeled after and voiced by Ellen Page -- is a girl you'll get to know at various stages of her life in no particular order: childhood, adolescence, a later stint as a CIA operative, and as a fugitive. She'll walk through environments that feature points of interaction, and engage in intense strings of button presses in your quest to solve the game's ultimate mystery and complementary gameplay component: a ghost named Aiden.
'Ghost' is a placeholder term. Jodie doesn't really know what Aiden is, just that the entity has been tied to her since birth. Much of the game, then, is about dealing with her 'imaginary' friend's presence in the face of friends, family, and eventually the military. He complicates her life in this way, scaring both her and her loved ones, but he can also be helpful, protective, and friendly. Pressing triangle gives you control over Aiden's ethereal self, passing him through walls to open doors and clear paths for Jodie, heal her wounds, toy with other people, or hurt them.
The dangerous side of Aiden is Beyond's most compelling aspect, since it's you (or your co-op partner) who controls the ghost, not Jodie. In one of the early chapters of the game, Jodie spends a portion of her childhood in a research facility whose staff are fascinated by her powers. As you control Aiden through a simple experiment, you'll have the opportunity to interact with various objects around a room. As directed, you could knock over a water bottle and some building blocks and simply end the experiment, but you could just continue to knock down tables, chairs and cameras, smash into windows and terrify bystanders all while Jodie screams for you to stop. This uncontrollable nature of you, the player, is nothing short of chilling, yet after this sequence it seems Quantic never intended for this mechanism to be so interesting, as they never put it to such use again.
Control of Aiden takes a much less creative turn, as does the experience in general. Further opportunities to abuse people and environments with the ghost arise, but it becomes clear you're restricted to whatever is dictated by the interactables -- the white dots that appear on objects and people signifying you can engage them. For example, you can have Aiden interact with a white dot on a police officer and proceed to choke the man to death, all Darth Vader like. But on other interactables, Aiden will do something else, maybe just make the person feel chilly. It's all predetermined, which is understandable given that most gamers would just choke out every person they saw, but it raises problematic questions. How is Aiden this uncontrollable animal if he is completely locked in the bounds of the developer's ever changing rules? Such as later when you automatically stop hurting someone when Jodie demands you too.
The crime here isn't linearity (shame on anyone who claims it is), it's that the game completely betrays the player's perspective and what it's capable of. With this seed of doubt in your mind, any form of interactivity begins to feel monotonous since it lacks meaning, and it's not just for Aiden. There's a scene where Jodie has to escape a room before the police get to the door, and if you fail? Well they open the door and she's gone anyway.
Outside of the aforementioned kung fu and covert take downs, I often found myself wishing the game would take control away from me so I could watch a crisp cutscene instead of waddling a slow character model down a hallway to open a door. But though scenes play out like they would in a movie, an insufferable script makes anything outside an action sequence hard to stomach, and the complex narrative seem even more childish. Ellen Page's soft voice and shtick of awkwardness is accompanied by some odd and profoundly dumb situations. A whole chapter is dedicated to portraying how she struggled to fit in with other teenagers, asking you to participate in things like underage drinking, smoking a joint, dancing, and flirting -- the whole party like something out of a cheesy public service announcement. "This music is garbage! Turn on something poppin!" says one of the teenagers, as the birthday girl unwraps one of her gifts, "It's a thong!"
You'd expect a game after such a dramatic style would have writers more in touch with reality, but it isn't so. Topped with some equally cringe inducing voice work, much heard when Ellen Page has to help a homeless women deliver a baby (who wouldn't want to play through that?), and Beyond is marginally more embarrassing than any given segment of its predecessor.
It's unfortunate, especially since Quantic Dreams has come up with such quality designs for their vision of interactive movies. The production values are unmatched for the genre, the programming is smart, and the concept of gameplay by button prompt is genuinely enjoyable. But silly writing does little for a confusing story and equally deceptive rules of engagement. There's no doubt these games are paving new ground in the industry, and to be able to get names like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe on board for one is truly inspiring. But if this style of gaming blows up in the coming generation and other developers feel like they can compete, games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls will, in retrospect, be quickly regarded as absolute bottom of the barrel examples of what these control schemes have to offer.