It's difficult to say what a video game should be. These days, "video game" is basically shorthand for any form of interactive media. The Walking Dead is effectively a television show mixed with choose-your-own-adventure stories, but it's shoved into the same broad category as Super Mario Bros. For good or ill, David Cage has attempted to redefine what a game is, moving away from traditional gameplay elements to more plot-heavy concepts. His last foray, Heavy Rain, was met with critical and commercial success. Beyond: Two Souls tries to follow that accomplishment, but unfortunately, the attempts to improve on the formula have made it a more disjointed and awkward experience.
Beyond: Two Souls is an unusual game in that it follows a character through most of her life, instead of just a brief but exciting cross-section. Jodie Holmes (as played by Ellen Page) is not a normal girl. From the moment she was born, she has been "tethered" to a mysterious incorporeal entity known as Aiden. He's a powerful spirit who gifts Jodie with amazing powers, but his existence also leaves her vulnerable to attacks from otherworldly monsters. The nonlinear plot follows Jodie from her troubled childhood to her adult career as a CIA agent, to her life on the run from the law and beyond. You'll get glimpses into her future and then hop back to her childhood to find out more about her and learn the truth about Aiden.
The gameplay in Beyond and Heavy Rain is practically identical. You move Jodie with the left analog stick and interact by using the right analog stick. Any action or dramatic sequences involve Quick Time Events (QTEs), where you press buttons as they pop up on-screen or push the right stick in the direction Jodie is moving. Much like Heavy Rain, there don't seem to be any real failure states, but cut scenes play out differently depending on how often you fail or succeed. If you miss a bunch of QTEs during a fight, poor Jodie gets the living daylights beaten out of her but keeps on trucking. If you do during an escape, she might get captured and be forced to go in a different direction. The controls work fine, but there are a few times when it's difficult to tell which direction the game wants you to press.
The biggest twist is Aiden. He's almost always with Jodie, and the player can switch control to him at any time. Aiden can't interact with the physical world, but he can float around and explore, including the common ghostly ability to go through walls. He also has telekinetic abilities that allow him to move objects or disrupt electronic systems, and you can use this to alter the outcome of certain sequences. In special circumstances, he also can possess or choke certain characters, allowing you to disable dangerous foes. During certain cut scenes, he can also heal people's wounds and give Jodie a bulletproof shield, but these abilities are limited to those situations.
Part of the problem with Aiden is that there's no rhyme or reason to how he works. He functions as needed for the particular situation. Sometimes, we're given the idea that he can only work when Jodie focuses, and other times, he takes action on his own in direct opposition to what Jodie wants. Sometimes, he can only go a short distance away from Jodie, and other times, he can fly as far away as the plot demands. He can only possess or choke characters that the plot highlights with orange or red. Most annoying is when the game seems to forget he exists. There are a few scenes where Jodie is being menaced or endangered, and Aiden does nothing because the plot demands that Jodie faces danger at this point. Several times, you have to watch Jodie weeping over someone before she remembers she has the power to heal wounds. In the strictest sense of the word, Aiden is a plot device.
The game offers a few different play modes. In addition to the controller, you can also use an Android or iOS tablet to control the game using a "Beyond Touch" app. This is unfortunately a pretty flawed choice. The controls in Beyond Touch are identical to the main game, but they replace physical controls with more awkward touch controls. They work fine for the QTEs but are really uncomfortable for moving around. What really shines is using the app for the game's two-player mode. One player with a controller for Jodie and one with a tablet for Aiden is the optimal configuration. Aiden's mechanics work a lot better with the tablet, and Jodie controls better with the controller. It makes it a much more enjoyable co-op experience, especially since both players can influence the story. I would even go as far as to say that playing Beyond in single-player mode is a weaker experience. The story seems to assume Aiden and Jodie are two different people, which doesn't really work when one person controls both of them.
The nonlinear story is interesting but flawed, causing the game to never really hit a proper tone. You begin at one point and then jump seemingly randomly through time to get the whole truth. The constant flittering back and forth does nothing for the story. Instead of a gradual buildup, you get cause and effect in random order, which often deflates the potential tension of a number of scenes. It also leads to some strange tone shifts. You can jump from casual conversations to the middle of a military stealth sequence with nary a moment to breathe.
Heavy Rain, for its flaws, felt like a horror/murder mystery in the same style as "Seven." I couldn't tell you what Beyond is. Sometimes it's an action movie. Sometimes it's a slice of life. Sometimes it's a military story. Sometimes it's a horror movie. None of these things lead into each other in a coherent or understandable way. Instead of each part of the story leading to the next, you feel tossed from set piece to set piece. There are also several sequences that feel unnecessary or overly long. Halfway through the game, there's a diversion to a ranch, and while it's a distinctive sequence, it feels completely out of sync with the rest of the title and hints at a deeper story that doesn't come into play. Other moments seem to exist solely to reiterate plot points. Several plot elements come to an unsatisfying conclusion, including what I can only assume is supposed to be a hook for a sequel since it appeared in every ending I watched.
Beyond desperately wants to be a movie, and in many ways, it succeeds. However, its attempt at mimicking Hollywood films also underlines that Beyond could have benefited from a good editor. A good action movie cuts out the boring or unnecessary parts to keep the movie going at a fast pace. Beyond chooses to linger on them, urging the player to go through every little step and movement. Sometimes, this can help build the tone for an area. There's a scene where you're helping Jodie get ready for a dinner date while Aiden throws a tantrum. More often, it plods along, and you wait for the next interesting thing to happen as you fiddle around. A good editor could have done wonders with Beyond as a movie. As a game, its own nature works against it. The desire to include interactive elements is understandable, but it eventually gets in the way. I'd rather skip to the interesting part instead of have to hit five buttons and watch two minutes of filler to get there.
Judging by the achievement list, and my own attempts to replay chapters, there isn't a lot of variation to the game's main narrative. Much like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead, it's fairly static in its choices while presenting the illusion of choice. However, at least to me, it felt even more static than its predecessor. Heavy Rain presented a false illusion of danger for many characters but the fact that real danger of capture or death existed presented a more dynamic feeling narrative. Beyond feels a lot more set in the choices it offers. You can certainly alter the flow of some scenes but in the end things seem to come back to the same outcomes with very little variation, and lack the illusion to really hold them together beyond that. There are some variations, a couple which are significant, but they seem to be short-term, since the long-term nonlinear narrative doesn't give much of a chance for things to develop.
One of the more frustrating things, for example, involves what was supposed to be the designated romantic interest. I was supposed to choose him but I rejected him at every opportunity. This led to the love interest asking me in every other cut scene if Jodie loved him, and no matter how many times she told him off, he kept asking. The end result was a particularly eye-rolling moment during the lead-up to the ending sequence where the pair shared a dramatic kiss. A lot of the choices are like that. As long as you play the way the game expects, it holds together. Don't, and it can get awkward.
Page and Willem Dafoe do an excellent job in their roles. Their acting is strong and effective, and when a scene works, it really works. The cinematography and shot direction on several scenes, particularly during the ranch level, are breathtaking. There are some really clever and interesting moments that make it easier to sit through the problems, and the basic story is fun in a light horror/action movie sort of way. There are a lot of interesting set pieces, but they lack emotion due to the disjointed narrative. It's hard to get into one of Jodie's dramatic escapes when I know from later chapters that she's fine. I came out of the game liking Jodie, and that was largely due to Page's performance. She put the exact right amount of bite into the role, and it helped carry some of the weaker dialogue and slower sequences.
The other actors in the game, unfortunately, are not as good as the Hollywood lot. The major supporting characters are fine, but the acting takes a very noticeable drop in quality once you leave the inner sphere of important characters. The dialogue and voice acting can get remarkably awkward when you're dealing with teenagers and young children.
The graphics remain absolutely top-notch, and Beyond is a step up from Heavy Rain in that regard. The characters look and move like actual people. When Jodie is walking around, she has little quirks and body movements like an actual human instead of just repeating a basic walk cycle. The close-up shots, especially of Page and Dafoe, come close enough to photorealistic to be somewhat unnerving. Only the eyes and the hair betray the illusion at times. The secondary characters get less care and less screen time, so it balances out.
Beyond: Two Souls is fun like a summer popcorn action movie. There are likeable characters and good set pieces, but it falls apart if you analyze it too closely. The story is paper-thin and in need of editing, and the gameplay is bland. It also gets frustratingly boring at times due to poor editing, leaving the story to plod along between the fun parts. Its biggest failure is the inability to craft an illusion of choice in the way that something linear like The Walking Dead did. There's little reason to replay the game, and it doesn't do anything memorable enough with its story or characters to consider revisiting. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn't hold up either, with the potentially cool Aiden mechanics ending up being of relatively little use. In many ways, it is the perfect rental game, but it would be tough to justify buying at $20, let alone $60.
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