Developers: Quantic Dream
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
It's been a long time coming, but I finally, finally got hands-on with Beyond: Two Souls a couple of weeks ago at a recent Sony event. I'm a fan of Heavy Rain, I liked that it brought a cinematic narrative together with player agency, and that player choices led to striking consequences. But it would be churlish of me to suggest that the game was not without its faults. Quick Time Events are a fairly risible means of interaction for a game of such length, after all.
Not that I found the game to be particularly laborious, and I rather loved the PS Move version, but when Jon came back from E3 last year with messages of slightly open-ended gameplay (by Quantic Dream's slender standards anyway), I was enormously excited. Could it be true? Could Beyond finally be the title that balances meaningful, engrossing interaction with a game world along with a taut narrative that offers players a chance to heavily affect proceedings via the choices that they make both in thought and word and deed?
Well, not if the demo I played is any indication of what's to come.
We all saw the E3 trailer, and it was an intriguing video to be sure. We've seen Ellen Page's Jodie Holmes as a scared street rat, as a suspect under interrogation, as a powerful psychic with a poltergeist companion who can cause no end of trouble. But here she was in an all-too familiar setting. In the desert, in combats, holding a gun. There are the waist-high stone walls to take cover behind, here's the smattering of guard to take out. The thought of a totally different game popped into my head. Army of Two (Souls) anyone?
Only that's really not the case. Recruited and weaponised by the CIA, Jodie isn't here for her marksmanship, nor as a super spy. She's in Somalia because the Agency wants a warlord taken out, and rather than have Jodie rot in a cell, they'd quite like to leverage her unique capabilities -- such as being tethered to a ridiculously powerful ethereal entity named Aiden -- to get the job done without too many casualties. Hell, at least it'll keep the two of them out of trouble.
Beyond: Two Souls has the same floaty, rather vague feeling of control that Heavy Rain exhibited, only you can now control not only Jodie's full range of movement, but Aiden's too, and switch between the two of them at any time. So it is that we're forced to take cover behind a low-slung stone wall, with a Somali child in tow, as a mounted turret keeps Jodie's progress in check. At the tap of a button, though, we're controlling Aiden, who can fly through walls and floors and ceilings, and interact with designated targets at the push of a button. Then, depending on what you're asking of the poltergeist, there's a QTE to pull off, like pushing both analogue sticks together to choke a guard, or pulling them apart to possess another gunman, and then tapping a further button to shoot the machine gunner.
It's all rather sterilised stuff, to be honest, and the expansive level in which we find ourselves isn't really used much, there's a little bit where we use Aiden to distract a guard so we can sneak by, but it all seems highly scripted and pretty linear. We get to see a diverse array of Aiden's powers, but we're never let off the leash, so as much as we might be able to roam around to our heart's content as the invisible entity, the game dictates our actions. There's a limit as to how far he can roam from Jodie, too, which makes sense, but also reminds you as a player that you're dancing to someone else's tune.
The deaths that Aiden can cause through possession are rather grisly, such as forcing one guard to jam a machete through another's neck, but there's little in this particular demo to really reflect on, and the game ushers you onwards as the unlikely soldier and her ethereal chum bump off a battalion of brigands and then have you descend on the warlord's base. There's a chase sequence, and Jodie has to engage in some hand-to-hand combat, but all that really means is another QTE sequence, flicking the analogue sticks occasionally to avoid blows.
Once she reaches her destination, Jodie bids her young Somali charge farewell, ducks behind a rock, and Aiden floats through the compound's perimeter wall. The distance is too great for Aiden himself to interfere with the warlord -- his name is Jamaal -- directly, but there are a bunch of guards loitering around outside of the warlord's tent. One little QTE later and Aiden has possessed one of those guards. We pinch a nearby rifle, stroll into the tent, and gun everybody down. Only at the very end of this sequence, with the mission accomplished does Quantic Dream spring a little narrative twist and tug the heartstrings a little. I won't spoil it here, and the impact is lessened somewhat because of the lack of meaningful player interaction, but it's still rather effective. What follows after is basically a cutscene in motion as
Ellie Jodie flees the scene of the crime, barricades herself into a shack as the town explodes with violence, and waits for extraction.
Beyond: Two Souls looks fantastic, of course. The tech that Quantic Dream have utilised to construct this world on PS3 has yielded some spectacular result, and the quality of the cinematic performances from Page and the rest of the cast was evident even from this short demo; the production values are very impressive indeed. But there was little impact to be had here, and I can't speak of options in terms of player action because there were none to be found in this particular demo. The possibilities afforded by the presence of a figure such as Aidan are truly exciting, but there was little to really be thrilled by here. There was no risk, no reward, no skill required, and only the promise of story development to keep us going, and in a demo shorn of narrative context, that's not ideal. It was a perfectly adequate cinematic vignette, and that's all we can really say of this particular preview opportunity.
I personally want to know more about these characters, about this intriguing setup, partly to see if Quantic Dream can wrestle more than a film you can sleepwalk through out of this opportunity. There's no doubt that all of the things you'd expect to see from a David Cage game -- great performances, a script capable of eliciting emotion, thought provoking story beats -- are in there, and that's what is carrying me through this. But if Heavy Rain left you cold from a gameplay standpoint, nothing I really saw here, save for the clunky implementation of "regular" third-person action dual-stick controls (left for movement, right for camera), leads me to suspect that you'll be any happier with this title.
But you don't just have to listen to me, and the strength of a preview is only as good as the demo it's based on. You can read Jon's Beyond: Two Souls preview from last year here.