Beyond: Two Souls
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: October 8, 2013
Beyond: Two Souls is Quantic Dream’s latest endeavor seeking to blur the lines between video gaming and cinema. In what is definitely one of my most anticipated games of the year, does Beyond possess that same seducing flair when it was first revealed? In many ways it does. In very few ways does it just miss that mark. At its core, Beyond is an interactive drama that possesses a character driven plot that sees the player attempt to weave an understanding about where the game’s premise ultimately leads to.
Beyond tells the story of Jodie Holmes and the spirit, or soul, which has been tethered to her since the day she was born. This soul, who Jodie calls Aiden, acts as a watchful protector and even friend to the girl who lives a troubled life. We see that much is so because the story is told in a series of flashbacks that highlight pivotal moments in Jodie’s life. Each chapter of the game focuses on these moments, such as her childhood upbringing, her emotional exhaustion as a moody teenager, to her training as a resilient CIA agent.
At times the progression of the game seems cluttered as you jump back and forth periodically when Jodie is an adult, to Jodie as a child, to Jodie on the run, and so on. Thankfully, in between each chapter is an actual timeline of the game’s events. If ever I was curious which moment of Jodie’s life I was about to visit, the timeline brought my traveling mind back to normalcy.
You are Jodie Holmes, a young woman with greatness thrust upon her.
Whether it was Quantic Dream’s design or not, the game’s jumbled timeline added to the cinematography of it all. This isn’t your typical game, and it’s not your average movie or TV show either. Yet properties of those mediums made themselves known in my play through. As random as the events of the game might play out, I have to admire its direction. Other reviews have pointed out references to other cinematic works. In this sense I was reminded of LOST and its tendency to leave behind questions that are answered later on in the same episode, or revisited and answered in another. Even Ellen Page’s work on Inception came to mind. These plots, like Beyond, invite you to not just take what you see, but attempt to read between the lines and expect the unexpected. Jodie’s life, broken up into these sizeable chapters, feature plot holes, intentional ones, which ever nip at the player’s mind. Eventually this comes down to an epiphany when the player realizes they’ve stumbled on an “a-ha” moment.
The narrative is only amplified by Ellen Page’s wonderful performance, in which she is able to bring life into such sensitive facets of the human condition. In one scene a young teenage Jodie is invited to a birthday party in which she knows none of the other kids. She tries to make an effort to come out of her shell and she seemingly succeeds to do so. Later on in that same party a boy approaches her, flirts with her, and even manages to land a kiss on her, much to Jodie’s delight. Then that party surprisingly takes a turn for the worse and suddenly the woes of being a teenager, the odd one out, come rushing back to my mind.
In another scene, Jodie takes on a solo top secret mission for the CIA. She finds herself plunged into an African battleground plagued by warlords and the ever increasing threat of genocide. Along the way she meets an ally, a child soldier, yet she’s impeded by a language barrier. Despite that, the child is able to help Jodie advance towards her mission’s goal. By the end of that chapter there’s a twist so good that you can’t help but say aloud: “did that just happen?”
Moreover, credit has to be given to Willem Dafoe’s performance as Nathan Dawkins, a doctor specializing in the investigation of paranormal activity. In short, Nathan becomes the father figure that Jodie needed in her life. The extent, to which Nathan relies on Jodie, and Jodie to Nathan, becomes clearer as the plot goes ever on. By the game’s ending you’re left moved by the outcome.
The complicated bond between Jodie and Nathan is a commendable plot device.
If you haven’t noticed, this review is different in pacing compared to my others. That’s where Beyond is different. The “action-adventure” genre has been associated with the game. I see it much more for what it truly is: an interactive drama that has elements of action-adventure blended in. That being said, the control scheme for Beyond seems similar to that of Heavy Rain. Coming from that game, there are subtle changes that have been made for the better. Gone is the “R2 to walk” mechanic, where it has instead been confined to the right analog stick.
Interactive objects make themselves known with a white dot. Whether it’s playing a guitar, picking out an outfit, or taking a drink from a cup, as long as Jodie is near such an object she can intermingle with it with a flick of the analog stick. Other instances will require the player to hold down certain buttons at a time, mash a button repeatedly, or make use of the sixaxis controller to make delicate movements.
Action makes itself known in combat situations. When Jodie finds herself in a struggle the screen will periodically go off color and time will slow down, triggering a moment to fight back. This is all dedicated to the right analog stick. Depending on the direction in which Jodie moves, pushing the stick in the direction you see on-screen will result in Jodie succeeding or failing. Often times your course of action is made clear. However, there were several moments in which I found Jodie’s movements hard to discern because her movement would be so delicate that I couldn’t figure out whether she’s moving exactly to the right, or downwards to the right.
Another aspect of the game is choice. Occasionally Jodie can make choices that can affect the outcome of the chapter the player experiences. Choices such as whether to take revenge on those misbehaved teenagers or take the high road are such options. These choices open up a sequence of events that encompasses the player, some of which possess avenues that can’t be explored in a single play through of the game. So there’s definitely lasting appeal here in this respect.
Jodie's movement dictates what action the player needs to take.
Perhaps the seemingly greatest aspect of gameplay in Beyond is taking control of Aiden. As the invisible specter you can interact with the environment surrounding Jodie from a first-person perspective. It would seem, however, that there’s a certain time and a certain place to switch to Aiden’s perspective. At first, taking control of a spirit that can possess the minds of enemies and pass through walls seems like a refreshing concept, which it is, but the lengths to which Aiden’s usefulness shows is limited. Aiden is only really useful when Jodie is in a dangerous situation. Some of the times it’s at Jodie’s call: “take care of them, Aiden”, or “help me, Aiden”, which act as a cue to switch to Aiden’s perspective. While the player can switch to Aiden’s perception to view their surroundings for danger, it doesn’t feel necessary. Aiden is primarily Jodie’s bodyguard. There are puzzle solving sequences in which switching to Aiden is key and it’s an element I would have liked to have seen more of. Yet, in a way, this is rectified a bit by the fact that two players can play together. One player takes on Jodie’s perspective and the other player in Aiden’s perspective, where control over each character happens interchangeably.
Beyond must also be given credit for its amazing graphical presentation. The very likenesses of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are given life in digital form. Every now and then I’m taken aback by the little things that you wouldn’t give a second glance at. Facial ticks, eye flairs, all those things that we don’t think about but actually do are translated into Beyond’s characters as well. The length to which Quantic Dream makes this noticeable is in Jodie Holmes, of course. Because the game takes place throughout her life it’s easy to pick up on these shifts. Young Jodie is a lighthearted girl who dresses like any little girl her age. Late teenage Jodie works the Goth look with heavy eyeliner, died hair, and plaid. Environments are lushly detailed, like the arid wastes of a Navajo ranch or the marvel of a CIA base in a spotless, pristine condition. There’s a few instances of texture pop in, such as in detail in clothing or vegetation suddenly coming into view in a desert setting.
There's no point in denying Beyond: Two Souls' graphical feats.
The score by Lorne Balfe and the late Normand Corbeil work wonders in the highly dramatic sequences of Beyond, but also in those restrained moments of Jodie’s impactful life.
From my perspective, Beyond presents a few gameplay flaws, but its true strength is found in its overall presentation. Yes, the game looks fantastic but it’s the storyline and the characters therein that will take you on a fascinating journey if you allow it. Honestly, the game’s final moments are on par with that of the BioShock Infinite ending. I was genuinely pleased. True, this is a game that may not be for everyone. And for those who have taken the plunge they’ve met Beyond with differing points of view. Again, this is an interactive drama with action and adventure interspersed within. And, hey, there’s even a curious science fiction element to it as well. While one review may say one thing and another review may say something completely different, I will say that Beyond: Two Souls is one of the last of the PlayStation 3’s accomplishments and it can’t be missed.