Beyond: Two Souls was another Quantic dream title that I initially skipped but was always aware of its existence in the gaming ether. I saw much of the buzz around the game and witnessed the general appreciation and distaste this game garnered for itself upon release, generally leaving people divided in either loving or hating it. Even in our small group here at Playstationer, opinions on the game are varied but boil down to either admiration for or disapproval of Beyond. Now, after plunging headfirst into this eccentric tale, I can safely say I grew to enjoy it and its brand storytelling, though I can appreciate the criticisms thrown against Beyond.
Similar to Heavy Rain (A title I very much loved, review can be found here), Quantic Dream followed up their acclaimed breakthrough success with creating another story driven, action-adventure but delved into new water with their narrative by dipping into several genres, from sci-fi to horror to create something unique in style and tone. You play as Jodie Holmes, wonderfully acted by Ellen Page, as you follow her throughout various stages of her life, from a young child to adulthood, as she deals with possessing supernatural powers from being linked to an incorporeal entity named Aiden, who has been with her since birth, with Willem Dafoe co-starring as Nathan Dawkins, a researcher in the Department of Paranormal Activity and Jodie’s surrogate-father-figure.
Like their previous outing, Beyond is a game designed to be an, “interactive storyteller,” and as such is best experienced with as little spoiled as possible. Going in fresh headed gives way to allowing you to have full immersion and allows any surprises and emotional turns to have as much weight as possible, hence, I’ll tread lightly on giving away spoilers. However I can say the story here was a relatively interesting, albeit flawed to an extent in its execution. You can play the story in or out of chronological order, which may change up your enjoyment of the game, but for my playthrough I stuck to playing it in the original un-chronological order which offers quite a strange method of conveying the narrative.
One moment you’ll be playing Jodie as an adult, with much more control and synchronicity with Aiden, the next you’ll be a child, grappling with being in control of her feelings and keeping Aiden in check. It bolts from each period in her life with such rapid succession that it can seriously hamper any flow and immersion within the story, particularly when you go from a deeply depressing and heartfelt moment in Jodie’s life, to her being a little girl wanting to play in the snow. Even the choice of creating a paranormal driven tale with splices of dimensional theories and paranormal entities would furnish both moments of genuinely creative storytelling, to just downright confusing and alienating plot points.
Beyond: Two Souls is at its best when it allows for the human moments to settle in and chooses to sprinkle the spectral occurrences as a driving force to allow the story to progress more naturally. The perfect example of this is the chapter, “Homeless,” one of my favourite moments in the game. Here, Aiden and Jodie’s powers mostly takes a backseat until the latter half of the chapter, as she deals with a deeply depressing situation in her life where she’s fallen on hard times. Her desire to be done with everything and the interactions she has with those around her is one of the many moments Beyond finds itself grounded in a semblance of reality, while simultaneously injecting the abnormal, ghostly presence of Aiden in specific sections to push things forward. There’s a much more coherent plot in development here, similar to the chapter, “Navajo,” in which the paranormal feature is at the forefront but in much more natural and compelling way. Both are proceed with tonally jarring chapter, leaving you with a yearning for more scenarios similar to what you just experienced rather than a slower paced look at an earlier point in Jodie’s life.
Presentation is a very admirable step up from their previous outing, showing a growth in Quantic Dreams capabilities. Graphically, this game is stunning. Animation is incredibly smooth and significantly more natural, allowing characters to feel far more human and real, important to a story such as this. Facial animation in particular has been greatly improved since Heavy Rain and emotions feel genuine when a character is expressing them, particularly during the many moments of tears.
The upscale in resolution possible from the PS4 is immediately obvious, particularly for the world and the surrounding background. Not as boundless and free as some might hope, with both visible and invisible walls blocking you from leaving designated areas, it still manages to feel like a much richer and vivid world for you to explore, particularly when Beyond takes a step back and gives you room to explore outside. Landscapes are visually interesting, often vibrant with colour and littered in various objects and buildings to give substance and atmosphere to each area. Music, while still delightful and perfectly suited to the overall mood, it doesn’t quite reach being fully memorable and emotionally gripping, often being serviceable at heightening a scene but never being particularly memorable.
The most stand out component of this title though is its acting, particularly from the lead actor Ellen Page. She steals the show in regards to portraying her character excellently throughout some of the most bizarre scenes. Even when given an odd line or difficult moment to give substance too, she manages to lend an absorbing and charming quality to it. Whether it’s a love interest or a tender moment between her and fellow star Willem Dafoe, we are presented with something warm, real and touching. Same goes for Dafoe, playing a much more adult and quiet character than what some might expect, they both lend a certain passion to their roles that Beyond completely benefits from. It does make some of the less strong performances stick out and seem flat, but thankfully the cast tends to be consistently strong and believable for the most part.
Gameplay is where much of this game derives it’s criticism from and I honestly understand where it comes from. Beyond: Two Souls takes what Heavy Rain set in motion and streamlines it to both failure and success. While structurally it still uses QTE’s as the bones of the gameplay, the way in which you enact the motions is different. During action scenes, the game goes into slow motion, whereby you must point the right control stick in the corresponding direction the danger is coming from. The problem lies however in the cues given for where the hit is coming from or where the danger corresponds to Jodie’s body, more often than not leaving me confused and annoyed as I fumble to try and correctly adjust to what’s happening on screen at any given action moment. Despite this though, often times your actions will not directly change the course of the game, giving no direct punishment to incorrect button timing. This is where the core of the issue with Beyond comes from for many people.
Beyond is linear in functionality, which is the main deal breaker of the game. It’s outwardly appearance gives the impression of a densely deep tale of varying trails and paths, but as I previously mentioned, this is an, “interactive storyteller.” There is a story it wants to tell and it sticks to its conviction when telling it, hence this is more of an interactive ride along than what you might expect and as such this will shape your view on the game. For me, I’m happy with a linear narrative that wants me to follow along the path when the story is this weird and chaotic to begin with, particularly because of the implementation of Aiden.
As he is a spirit, the game allows you to explore around designated areas freely and pass through various objects, provided you never stray too far from Jodie. Seeing the world through the eyes of Aiden and being able to control, murder and interact with objects to a paranormal degree is clever and unique in its execution and does give Beyond an identity all its own not seen in other titles. While it is somewhat more restrictive than I would have hoped and selective in what you can do with Aiden at times, the ambition behind the idea is simply just inventive and interesting to play around with. Your first time parading around with Aiden is an awe inducing one.
Beyond: Two Souls is experimental adventure into interactive storytelling with very mixed results. It hits the mark on so many positive notes, but also completely misfires on several other accounts. After pouring plenty of hours into, I found my play sessions growing longer and longer, curious where the story was leading me and the direction it wanted to take me. The linear structure will undoubtedly rub several players the wrong way in a medium where interactive is key and here can lend itself to feeling far more like a passive participation. However, if like me you enjoy allowing a game to pull you along it’s designated route and appreciate a surreal tale bursting with character, I definitely recommend picking up Beyond: Two Souls on the PS4. It has flaws and blemishes abound, but nonetheless is an enjoyable cruise throughout. If you were a fan of Heavy Rain, you’ll appreciate what this title has to offer.