Developers: Quantic Dream
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Let's get one thing straight, right from the start. Your appreciation, or lack thereof, of David Cage and Quantic Dream's latest opus is largely going to be determined by how much you subscribe to many of the controversial statements that Cage has made over the last couple of years, not to mention whether or not you enjoyed his last QTE-'em-up: Heavy Rain.
And even then, given Heavy Rain arguably worked because of its delicately balanced mix of genre, form and function, you might not find Beyond to your liking.
Let's start with the most important aspect of this game: the story. You play the role of Jodie Holmes -- a young woman reflecting upon a life led constantly in the company of a powerful ethereal entity named Aiden -- stepping into her shoes and going with her on a journey that takes us from birth, through adolescence, and into young adulthood. From an early age, she's placed under the observation of the Department of Paranormal Activities, and cared for by Nathan Dawkins and his assistant Cole Freeman. Cage's narrative hops about Jodie's timeline -- sometimes to great effect, though it is at times slightly overused and feels a little gimmicky at points -- letting us witness her first attempts to play with other kids, go to her first teenage party, and sneak out of the military compound in which she's spent most of her life to grab a quiet drink at a local bar.
That might all sound pretty mundane, but Jodie's not exactly a normal girl, and many of Beyond: Two Souls' most curious moments come from essentially injecting Aiden into familiar coming-of-age scenarios. The eventual cliquey cruelty of Jodie's peers at the house party is perfectly answered when players have the chance to muck about with Aiden, locking the teens in a room, and progressively terrifying them with the machinations of an angry poltergeist. The freedom to play with the interactive items in the room is what makes this particular chapter so memorable as you throw chairs around, crack windows, make lights flicker and balloons burst, all the while bearing witness to the cowering fear of the bullies who wronged Jodie moments before.
Of course, it's also because so much of the game is abjectly forgettable mulch.
It's not really the fault of the quick-time events. Coming into a David Cage game, these execrable excuses for interaction are to be expected. Quantic Dream's director has frequently rejected traditional controller paradigms, instead opting for something more expansive and accessible. Now, you can control the game with a mobile phone app should the DualShock 3 feel too unintuitive, which simplifies the QTEs to telegraphed swipes and simple taps of the screen. I'll be honest, my DS3 broke halfway through my initial playthrough, and so I was forced to complete a number of chapters with the mobile app, and I think I preferred it. There wasn't even the pretence of challenging gameplay here, and it made the experience seem a little purer. Beyond is basically an absurdly cinematic 3D point-and-click adventure game when played via a touchscreen, albeit without any cerebral speed bumps or puzzles to solve.
The story itself is an overwrought piece of sci-fi hokum, though there's enough promise in the premise to pique the curiosity and provoke the imagination. Two souls, and two worlds, with untapped potential for maniacal scientists and idiotic military types dabbling in things they barely understand. As the only person in the world who has an ethereal entity from '"The Other Side" as a constant companion, Jodie is in demand. But whereas one might have expected the weighty, momentous decisions of Heavy Rain's police procedural to make more sense in a bombastic, ambitious narrative such as this, Cage and his team remove the meaningful decisions that formed the backbone of this game's predecessor, instead gearing towards the more subtle. It is not until the very last hour where you begin to notice that you've actually had some sort of impact -- you, the player -- on proceedings, and get to make a series of choices that actually affect how the story pans out thereafter. At least Heavy Rain had the good grace to ask your opinion every now and then, to sell us the illusion of being slightly involved even when we weren't. Beyond has the player tapping buttons for no other reason than to check to see if he/she is still there.
Normally we might applaud this realigned focus on detailed things, but Beyond, for some reason, feels the need to beat the player over the head with what will surely become known as The Worst Action Sequences Ever Created In A Game. Combat involves pushing the analogue stick in the direction Jodie needs to move -- towards an attack if on the offensive, or away from a punch or a kick if looking to evade -- with time slowing down to give you a decent window of action. It's clunky and awkward and the camera angles change constantly to dizzying effect, but it's fairly visually impressive, and allows Cage and co. to fully choreograph fights without ever worrying that the player might deviate from the rigid script. But you can't die or fail and there's no tension to any of these encounters, although the game attempts to create some through aesthetic smoke and mirrors. These are the tools of cinema, and they are used incredibly well, but they have absolutely no emotional impact whatsoever and remove the player from the action completely. More than once during a fight, I put the controller down and went to get a drink, and returned to find Jodie victorious, if a little more bruised than before.
Beyond: Two Souls is not supposed to be about the action, though. It's about story, stimulating the mind, appealling to the heart, and wringing feelings out of us whizz-bang-shoot gamers. At least that's what we've been told. But Quantic Dream seem incapable of bringing us to a point where we actually care as gamers rather than spectators. Attempts to provide narrative relief and self-contained emotional arcs are clunky at best, with the writers incapable of making any scenario in which Jodie finds herself in trouble feel dangerous, risky, or climactic in any way. Only at the end, after 12 or so hours, are we given a glimpse of Jodie compromised both emotional, physically, and supernaturally, and for the first time in half a day, Beyond becomes genuinely thrilling. As the narrative throws all of its rules out of the pram, there's a real feeling of tension in the air, and the last hour is the triumph of emotional storytelling and player-driven urgency that we've been waiting so long for up until that point. We learn that after 12 hours of incessant hand-holding and oppressive game direction that actually the things we do might matter, and it suddenly injects a sense of purpose into proceedings. By that time, though, it's too little, too late.
Ellen Page is fantastic, and she makes Beyond: Two Souls seem far better than it has any real right to be. The same can be said of Willem Dafoe, who was vying with Liam Neeson for Best Father Figure in a Video Game of This Generation until his Nathan Dawkins gets saddled with the biggest, most uncomfortable character shift as the narrative does a handbrake turn and almost falls into an enormous plot hole towards the end. The two of them are brilliant, with Page in particular giving an incredibly nuanced performance that Quantic Dream's graphical engine still can't quite hope to capture fully. There are times when you wish the whole thing was in fact an old-school interactive live-action adventure game, because the game keeps careening off of the cliff of immersion into the uncanny valley. At the very end I had misty eyes, but that was because Page, Dafoe, and Kadeem Hardison had really sold the relationships and invested emotion between their characters. Hardison in particular is magnificent as Cole. But that was actually all in spite of the enormous narrative shift that sets up the finale, in spite of the clunky controls and pretensions towards any sort of player agency, and in spite of a script that swings wildly between trite and overblown.
This leads on to the fundamental question that lies at the heart of Beyond's experience: why is it a game? I've never had to ask that before of Quantic Dream's work, partially because I subscribe to the notion that taking control of a character's movements and actions forms a basic level of interaction that can't be afforded anywhere else. The very nature of sitting down, controller in hand -- linked directly, personally, to the events onscreen -- can be very powerful just on that simple, basic level. But your mind has to be engaged for that to happen, and Beyond's story simply doesn't do that. It doesn't present unanswered questions to leave you wondering, or dish out puzzles to solve, or obstacles to overcome. There are more action setpieces in this game than some of Naughty Dog's efforts, but they all pan out the same way, and failure to accomplish your QTEs has no impact. The story marches on regardless, rather making a mockery of the medium in which it is set. What's the point? You might being to wonder to yourself. There are narrative setups designed to provoke some kind of response, but we're held at arm’s length for far too long, constantly being pushed away, never allowed to engage with the material on our terms, stuck in a limbo between the interactive immersion that this medium can afford, and the passive participation of a movie-watching audience.
The presence of Aiden is problematic too. Early on, we learn that he can heal wounds, extend force-fields around Jodie, and cushion her fall from high buildings. But the story will weaken him at any given moment to provide some drama without explanation or serve some other narrative hairpin so riddled with holes that you could use it as a sieve, and his entire relationship to Jodie doesn't really grow or progress, he just is. Reducing such a potentially interesting character to becoming a mere plot device is enormously frustrating, especially because we have no say in the matter. There comes a point where you have the chance to murder someone who's gravely wronged Jodie (actually, that happens several times), but try as hard as I might, the game wouldn't let me finish the job. I was there, I was investing in the character, I wanted to do this for Jodie, because of what she'd just been through, but the game wouldn't let me. Cage talks of forging emotional connections, but never actually allows us to get there.
And it's a crying shame, for Beyond has so much potential. It's a truly interesting, important game, but that doesn't give it a free pass, and it doesn't automatically make it good. The trouble is that since Heavy Rain, we've had a slew of really engrossing, fantastically-designed experiential games -- Amnesia, Dear Esther, Journey, To The Moon -- that illicit an emotional response, and nearly all of them involve player agency to some degree. Even Journey, for all of its linearity, gives you direct control, never seeking to pull you out of the experience, and eschewing traditional narrative for one sculpted by song and sight and action. By contrast, Beyond is emotional string-pulling by numbers, vomiting out chronologically-shuffled vignettes in the hope of intriguing the player through skewed structure, driven onwards by repetitive button mashing. But when you've created a game without gameplay, delivered a story without purpose, and hamstrung your most interesting, unique character, hopping about in time like a weeping Tarantino can't save you.
- It looks pretty
- There are fleeting moments when everything aligns and Beyond grabs your attention
- Momentous decisions do finally come... at the end
- Fantastic performances from many of the actors
- Would have made a great SyFy TV mini-series to get drunk in front of
- You're even more of a spectator than you were in Heavy Rain
- Shuffled structure can't compensate for a lack of narrative purpose
- Emotional arcs at odds with alienating presentation
- More action, but less gameplay
- Contrived drama: Plot escalation is transparent and clunky far too often, especially at the end
- Sterilised drama: No feeling of tension or impact or feeling
- Aiden reduced to a rigid, inconsistent plot device
The Short Version: Beyond: Two Souls presents a massively overblown sci-fi carousel of high melodrama that's sadly undermined completely by an antithetical focus on routine choices and fine detail for the player, numerous plot holes and a lack of tension and mystery, and the squandering of its one truly unique selling point. The high calibre performances from Beyond's star-studded cast can't save Beyond from being little more than a discussion piece designed to be seen and not touched.