Beyond Two Souls is the latest in a series of games from the mind of David Cage, and I fully expect it to once again receive backlash for the directional choices made by the team at Quantic Dream. Some will see this as the maturing of video games with its themes and emotional undertones, and others will see it as a pale representation of video games due to its lack of “true” gameplay. Then there is the remainder of gamers who sit somewhere in the middle. Its accomplishments or failures aside, by simply existing, this game and its predecessors have made us look inwardly to see what makes us tick as gamers. Are we happy with the evolution of games at the moment, with established gaming hooks and mechanics with ever increasingly realistic graphical fidelity, or do we yearn for something different?
Beyond Two Souls is without a doubt something different, but sadly trying to be something different has given the game something of an identity crisis. Part paranormal thriller; part conspiracy; part action; a pinch of teen drama and a dash of coming-of-age; it’s almost as if David Cage was trying to write a plot to cover every type of movie ever made. It’s just surprising that there was no slapstick section where Aiden conveniently sets up rakes and buckets for a hilarious prank on Jodie and he would have covered almost all the bases. This jumping between themes is jarring at times and surprisingly fluid with others with the transition occurring when stepping back or forward in time to points in Jodie’s life.
The opening sequence is the same section that served as a demo at E3, a slightly disheveled and shorn-headed Jodie sits silently in a sheriff’s office as he tries to coax some information from her. This is one of the key defining moments of the game, but throughout the entire section you have no input whatsoever.
You are then transported back to her Youth, with Jodie aged six undergoing a test of her extra sensory perception using the instantly recognisable Zener Card test, with a volunteer sitting in the next room. This is your first opportunity to control Aiden, Jodie’s constant otherworldly companion. You are tasked with using Aiden to read the cards that the volunteer is picking. Navigating the world as Aiden can feel clumsy at first as his movement is extremely fluid giving the right level of ethereality and frictionless mobility you would expect from a “spirit”. Traversing between the highlighted orbs that are the focal points for your movement can be extremely disorientating. The world in Aiden’s eyes is a permanent cloudy haze, with Aura’s around characters with which you can interact, red glowing Orbs which indicate a new focus point from which to take vantage, and white dots on the items you can manipulate.
This is the first chance for you to release his malevolent side and shows the first clear delimitation between Aiden and Jodie as individuals rather than one singular entity. Following instructions from Dr Nathan Dawkins, played by the superlative Willem Dafoe, you are requested to interact with objects in the other room where the volunteer sits. To begin with, Jodie asks Aiden to undertake the actions requested by Dawkins, but soon things can go too far (if you, the player want it to), ripping out lights, flipping the table and scaring the seven hells out of the volunteer. During these actions you can clearly hear a slightly scared and upset Jodie ask you to stop.
This lack of control over her constant companion is a key motivator for most of the secondary characters as, without understanding her limited control of Aiden, they believe Jodie is directly in control of every action he takes. So when you decide to place a Jedi choke hold on Jodie’s unsympathetic and downright nasty foster father, or the kid that picks on Jodie when she is younger, it is ultimately Jodie that is blamed. Quantic Dream do a pretty fine job of showing how this sort of life can be an isolated one, with Jodie consistently left feeling like an outsider when trying to lead a “normal” life. Conveying these emotions of sympathy to the player is made all that easier given the amazing performance given by Ellen Page throughout, and the eerily realistic motion and facial capture work that brings a very uncanny valley touch to proceedings.
The graphics involved are clearly pushing the seven year old hardware to the brink of its capacity. With every nuance of Page and Dafoe’s performance captured in a digital form, there is no doubt this is one of the most technically accomplished and polished titles for the Sony platform. Assets are almost photo-realistic and thankfully character and background scaling is one for one. There is nothing more immersion breaking than seeing a character trying to sit in a chair, or lean on a desk that is completely out of proportion to the scale of the character or room. Sadly, there are always some technical problems, and in this game it would be how they portray fluids. Weather effects are picture perfect, with rain and wind battering your character in a believable way, but when it comes to pouring a glass of wine or drinking from a bottle of water and we are transported back to the graphics we expected to be displayed on a PS2 or original Xbox. I think It fair to say, that since this is my only real gripe, (and a small one at that), that the overall graphics are a fantastic achievement from the team, breaking new ground where Heavy Rain set a precedent.
The plot is your typical David Cage affair. His move to a paranormal setting has brought him full circle from the somewhat believable and more serious affair that was Heavy Rain, with its mental anguish and overtones of the perception of Serial killers in that thriller spectacular, to his more commonly tread fantastical stories which we have seen him bring to us before in Fahrenheit. At least this time the paranormal elements aren’t thrust upon us 90% of the way through the game to much head scratching and confusion.
Sadly, with the leaping between time periods and occasionally awkward, stilted dialogue and perplexing pacing to the conversations, the game does frequently leave you floundering. One particularly memorable section has Jodie join a group of teenagers, who at first are fairly open to her arrival (excluding the obligatory “bitchy” character) and welcome her somewhat into the clique.
This group then transforms, turning on her like a pack of jackals within a period of 10 seconds. Either these pre-pubescent teens have severe issues and this was actually an Anger Management class Jodie had stumbled upon instead of a birthday party, or Cage and Quantic Dreams could find no way to progressively change the mood and attitudes of the characters around her during the 30 minute sequence.
This makes for a very puzzling experience where I couldn’t fully empathise with Jodie like they intended, as this instantaneous pack mentality is not something I have ever experienced. A cultured corruption of the group’s perception of Jodie by the “bitch” character during the entire 30 minutes could easily have explained the animosity, but none of this is put across and apart from a snide comment on your choice of music during the opening blows of the scene, this critical character has little to no interaction with Jodie until the situation ultimately changes.
As such, when given the option to take revenge or simply leave, the motivation to right the perceived wrong was hard for me to justify logically and felt like a knee jerk reaction to counter their unexpected betrayal. These confusing transformations of the tone during conversations occur frequently enough to be noticeable and break the flow of the narrative each time it happens. In its defence, Page and Dafoe’s portrayal of their characters manages to carry through what appears to be these weak points in the dialogue.
Finally, the biggest deciding factor for most people and what tends to split the audience the most is the gameplay. Once again, Beyond Two Souls has more in common with the twenty year old Don Bluth games Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, than it does with any of its contemporaries. Unlike these archaic titles, where it was simply a case of memorising a sequence of button presses to avoid the inevitable death screen, Cage has removed the death screen from 90% of the game and this leaves you with an interactive story with no real challenge to accomplish other than sitting through the proceedings as they unfold. Action sections are accomplished through prompted stick movements and button presses, which those who have played Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit will be more than familiar. The controls for Aiden though requires you to move the dual sticks in a variety of directions dependent on the on screen prompts, which does make a welcome change from Quantic Dream’s tried and tested controls.
It is worth mentioning at this point, the Beyond Two Souls companion app. This app is available for your Apple or Android device of choice, and connects directly with the PS3 via your wireless network. Once connected, you can utilise your device as an alternative to using the dual shock controller, and in all honesty works extremely well. Swipes, holds and presses replace all interaction within the game, and this change of pace was enough to distract me away from the fact that the same old controls from his previous games have been resurrected. Surprisingly, this app works extremely well and as such, I played the game in its entirety using this method without any inconvenience.
At the end of the day, it comes down once again to whether you are willing to accept a greater emphasis on story over the more rewarding gameplay hooks of other games. If you are willing to overlook this choice in favour of a story which, for the most part, is extremely well acted and thought out this is a title worth picking up. If you can’t get behind what is in effect an interactive movie then Beyond Two Souls is not for you.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Format: Playstation 3 Release Date: 11/10/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Beyond: Two Souls for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 7 days on a PS3. Companion app was utilising using a Nexus 7 Tablet. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.