Beyond: Two Souls is a new game from Quantic Dream which tells the story of Jodie Holmes and Aiden, an invisible spirit presence/imaginary friend that has followed Jodie around since she was a girl. Aiden has all the requisite poltergeist style powers. He is able to move things around telekinetically, possess people to take control of them, phase through walls and floors to remotely spy on people, and can choke people to death. He can even see the last few minutes of recently deceased person’s life. Unfortunately, he is always tethered to Jodie and cannot exert his influence outside of a set distance from her, which also means that Jodie is stuck with him whether she likes it or not. Will Aiden be a watchful protector or a malevolent force out to destroy Jodie and all those around her? That’s where you come in.
Beyond: Two Souls is told through a discontinuous narrative, starting with Jodie attempting to piece together her memories at a vague point in the future, and leapfrogging back and forth through time in order to show the important moments in her life. This gives Beyond a great sense of pacing, but oddly enough it actually makes it feel more linear than other straight forward narratives. There are decisions you can make that affect the story's outcome but starting at an end point makes you feel, perhaps mistakenly, as if the majority of these decisions will be moot. After all, you know Jodie will at least survive to see the final scene.
Jodie interacts with the world by responding to on screen prompts, much like characters did in Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s last game. She’ll use face buttons, triggers, and even the DualShock 3’s motion sensors to perform a variety of actions. Quantic Dream does their best to try and make the controller inputs mimic the actions being performed, so pilling a gun’s trigger is done by squeezing the controller’s trigger and shaking off a pursuer is done by shaking the controller.
Aiden, on the other hand, is completely incorporeal and is controlled in the first person, like Quake with no-clip turned on. Things he can interact with are highlighted with glowing auras and tiny blue circles. Actions are performed by “locking on” with a shoulder button and then moving both thumbsticks to perform his poltergeist tricks. It’s a little frustrating controlling with dual analog sticks, and at the beginning you’ll find yourself accidentally flying in circles around your target or getting stuck inside a wall somewhere at the edge of Jodie’s control radius. But you get used to it eventually, especially when you realize you can use the shoulder buttons to alter Aiden’s height.
There are a few hitches with Jodies "Heavy Rain" style control scheme that are worth mentioning. Prompts that ask you to flick the right thumbstick in a direction have been replaced with a little white dot that means “this object can be interacted with.” This works OK most of the time, but sometimes the white circle blends in to the background and you are left wandering around like an idiot, waggling the right stick in the hopes you interact with something.
Jodie’s “danger” quick time events controls are the worst. During these sequences, time slows down and you have to “flick the stick in the direction Jodie is moving.” Unfortunately, Jodie’s animation can tend to be ambiguous. If she is ducking and swaying back, do you tap the right stick down or to the left? These changes feel like they were meant to make slower moments more challenging or immersive, but really they just end up leading to some frustrating and unearned failures.
The real “gameplay” of Beyond comes in the ability to switch back and forth between Jodie and Aiden at will. Several times you’ll progress through a scene with Jodie, only to be blocked, caught, captured, or otherwise detained. At this point you’ll have to switch to Aiden and poltergeist some stuff up in order to proceed. Similarly, there are plenty of situations where Aiden has to use his powers on something out of his reach, so you have to somehow move closer with Jodie to let him do his thing. This switching back and forth actually makes Beyond feel like a puzzle game at times.
Quantic Dream was heavily criticized for Heavy Rain being more like a movie than a game, and it feels like they tried to “fix” this a little bit too much in Beyond. There are points in which Jodie has to participate in makeshift stealth sequences, driving sequences, or facsimiles of a cover based shooting. Unfortunately, these sequences end up coming off as forced at best and pandering to the action game crowd at worst. In fact, the whole military/CIA angle of Jodie's adult life seems a bit disjointed, especially when it kind of flies off the handle and takes a sharp left into crazy town toward the end. Beyond is really at its best when it takes its time and focuses on the narrative and character development, rather than trying to be a Zack Snyder-esque action movie.
It’s worth noting that you can’t “fail” in Beyond. There are no “game over” screens, just alternate scenarios that take place if you mess up your button prompts too much. Also, as I said before, Jodie is alive at the start so you know she will be alive at the end. As a result, you never reach the levels of tension you do in other cinematic games, but you also never get frustrated by failing the same section over and over again. There is “death” in this game… but I won’t say much more than that. Figure it out for yourself
Beyond is still an excellent game, simply due to its story and presentation. The graphics are absolutely phenomenal. Characters move in realistic ways, and Quantic Dream’s facial emotion capture software really shines in every scene. Granted, young Jodie Holmes and her time-shifted Ellen Page face can be a little freaky at times, and for some reason Willem Dafoe’s mouth just seems a little too big, but these are nitpicks in a game that is otherwise perfect graphically.
And now, to get on a “games as art” pedestal for a second, let me just say that Beyond: Two Souls is a joy to pick apart and analyze. Aiden, stands as a sort of representation of the player more than Jodie does. Whenever Jodie speaks to him, she looks directly into the camera as if looking directly at you. Aiden controls in first person, whereas Jodie controls in third person, making you identify with Aiden more. Each scene is set up to take advantage of humanity's natural curiosity in order to fuel Aiden’s destructive tendencies. When an object is highlighted, the gamer naturally fiddles with it as Aiden. It doesn’t matter that their actions are breaking windows, flipping cars, or killing people, gamers will screw up Jodie's life just because they are curious! In a way it’s a bizarre and somewhat disturbing commentary on the player as an omnipotent being in a game.
Despite its mechanical flaws, Beyond: Two Souls is a game that is worth your time, especially if you consider games to be a story telling platform. You’ll get 12 hours of great performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, a beautiful narrative that keeps you guessing right until the end, and a strange sense of introspection that makes you wonder about life beyond death and your role as an omnipotent controller in video games. It’s a fitting swan song for the PS3. Now let’s hope that David Cage makes a game about that android Kara for the PS4.
This review was based on a retail copy of Beyond: Two Souls for the PS3.