With games becoming a sizeable contender for the well established world of cinema, it seems that the cinematic game experience is a genre that is on the steady increase. One such purveyor of the fine line between interactive experience and video game is David Cage, a man who is sure to need no introduction to many industry fans. Cage and his France-based studio Quantic Dream have been creating games that at the very least challenge the stereotypes of the genre for many years now, boasting titles such as The Nomad Soul, Fahrenheit (The Indigo Prophecy outside of Europe), Heavy Rain and most recently, BEYOND: Two Souls. BEYOND tells the story of Jodie, a young girl with a special gift and a desire to be normal, whilst the world around her demands anything but normality.
Despite some issues shown by the pacing early in Cage’s lineage, it seemed that PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain was taking things in the right direction, focusing more on a personal and believable tale. Unfortunately despite the presence of an extremely well developed, believable protagonist, BEYOND: Two Souls only serves as a step backwards for not only the genre but also for Quantic Dream’s storytelling.
One thing that should be commended here is the attempted scale. Covering much of Jodie’s life in a non-linear, chapter based framework gives the designers almost free reign to change the game’s very genre at will. Although this leads to a mixed bag, what it also means is some of the game’s sections are incredibly impressive and have set pieces to rival those seen in many a triple A title before it. Despite ultimately being detrimental to the overall pacing, the genre mix up does at least in part keep the game fresh and allow you the pleasant feeling of never knowing what is coming next.
Another area where BEYOND shines is in its aesthetics. Being released towards the end of the PS3’s life cycle has meant that many of the visuals here push the boundaries of what the machine can do and also allow BEYOND to stand as Quantic Dream’s most impressive looking game to date.
However, what gives BEYOND: Two Souls its real grounding is its protagonist. Jodie is central to everything here and without such a great performance from actress Ellen Page, it would have been far less compelling and also far less grounded as an experience. Given the heavy emphasis on the supernatural, this would have allowed BEYOND to stray further in to the realms of the overzealous without the emotional tether that Page’s performance creates. This performance is also backed up by a more than competent supporting cast of characters including Willem Defoe’s Nathan Dawkins, who is a constant feature in Jodie’s life.
Unfortunately BEYOND’s greatest attempted strength ultimately serves as its greatest weakness. The main issue here is that the game jumps around too much and tries to justify it by putting too many changes in pace into the mix. Jumping around the timeline is not a bad idea, but the juxtaposition of action with the mundane and back again only serves to alienate the player and hurt the story’s cohesion. This along with some of the game’s changes in pace and supernatural ideals means that you are left with a narrative mess. It’s not that the story doesn’t make sense or isn’t good, just that it (at least in part) is badly told and tangent prone making it disjointed and unfocused.
Another issue here is the illusion of choice. At many moments throughout the game I was presented with what felt like big decision to make, however unlike many of Quantic’s past titles, these choices seemed to have little or no consequence on the direction of the story. This is more an issue with character reaction and believability than events, however if a character is just going to say what they want regardless, then why give the player a choice?
Adding to this feeling of lack of participation is the level of interactivity in the control system that seems to have been heavily scaled back from the likes of Heavy Rain or even Fahrenheit (The Indigo Prophecy). In many of the game’s sections, all that is required is a flick of the stick and all the actions are performed for you. This is also the case in many of the action set pieces giving the whole thing a feeling of player/game observation over interactivity. These problems thankfully do not persist in much of the game’s combat, however the lack of clear direction in many of the QTE’s (Quick Time Events) also serves to frustrate in these areas.
BEYOND: Two Souls is as interesting as it is mundane, as well told as it is messy and as innovative as it is counterproductive. Many of its ideas, concepts and ambitions are incredible and rarely seen in gaming, however just as many are the complete opposite. This ambitious attempt at a new type of experience marred by a messy narrative, poor controls and some massively unnecessary tangents means Quantic Dream’s latest is sure to divide opinions for many years to come.