Beyond: Two Souls Review: A captivating story with shallow gameplay
David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream are back with a brand new game that explores death -- well, not so much the actual death, but what lies beyond in the afterlife. Anyone familiar with the work from French game studio -- most notably Heavy Rain -- knows that Cage has a knack for storytelling. 2010's Heavy Rain pushed the boundaries in the way stories are told through video games by borrowing certain techniques from traditional cinema, and while Beyond: Two Souls largely replicates those ideas, it also builds upon them.
With Beyond: Two Souls, Cage, more than ever, has embraced more cinematic approach to storytelling in video games. The game tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a girl mysteriously linked to a otherworldly entity known as Aiden. That's somewhat misleading though, as games may tell a story, but you are directly in control of the events that unfold in Jodie's life. What makes Beyond a fascinating story is that you aren't just idly watching; you are experiencing it -- as both Jodie and Aiden. As you embark on this 15-year journey, told in nonchronological order (another technique borrowed from cinema), you make the decisions; you play through the pivotal points in Jodie's life; you experience what it's like to be a young girl that's both blessed and cursed by this connection to a mysterious entity.
The relationship between Jodie and Aiden is one of both sadness and blessing. Since she was born, Jodie has been linked to this strange entity for reasons unknown. The two are connected by a spiritual shackle that ties them together with either one unable to roam too far from the other. This serves as the driving point of the game's plot and the core gameplay mechanic.
As I mentioned, you play through the most pivotal points in Jodie's life from ages 8 to 23 as she attempts to recall certain memories in an effort to figure out who she is and why "haunted" by this strange entity. I use the word "haunted" loosely because there's a strange love relationship between the two. Despite Jodie's attempts to rid herself of Aiden, it's clear that there's a part of her that also embraces him, as both a sense of protection and friend. Aiden, likewise, feels the need to protect Jodie from both harm and potential love interests. It's a bond that can only be described as a double-edged sword; for as much as Aiden protects Jodie, he's also the main source of her problems.
Beyond: Two Souls non-linear storytelling was both hit and miss for me. Cage was definitely going for a unique approach when unraveling the events in Jodie's life through, but it almost plays out as a series of TV episodes that -- while there is an overarching plot -- sometimes feel disjointed. Jumping back and forth from the homeless city girl to the frightened eight-year-old to the CIA agent can be jarring at times. At the same time, it serves as a reminder of just how chaotic Jodie's life has been.
As you play through the spectacular life of Jodie, you'll face extraordinary challenges, danger, and heartbreak. You'll help some Navajos in the Southwest overcome a haunting spirit; you'll live with a group of homeless under the bridge as you scrounge for change for food; you'll befriend a child soldier in Mogadishu on a covert operation seeking to assassinate a warlord. For as exciting as all of that sounds, gameplay can sometimes fall flat.
Beyond: Two Souls plays quite similar to Heavy Rain. Gameplay is comprised mostly of simplistic, gesture-based commands. Quantic has ditched complex gameplay (not that Heavy Rain had that to begin with) in favor of a more simplified interface that creates a more authentic experience. Interactive elements in the environment are highlighted by a small white circle that pops up when nearby. A simple flick of the joystick in the direction of the object will have you interact with it and basically watch the action take place. The majority of your time spent playing the game will consist of this type of action.
Action sequences do require a little more effort, though it's little more than button mashing, holding certain buttons, or flicking the joystick during a fight scene. Climbing rocks may require you to press L1 and hold it while pressing R1. Fighting requires you to flick the joystick in the direction Jodie is dodging or attacking. Gameplay will slowdown giving you adequate amount of time to respond to action, but sometimes poor camera angles or awkward movements can make it difficult to discern the required motion.
The lack of button pressing isn't where Beyond's gameplay falls short, though. Despite the simplistic controls, Beyond's action scenes actually do a very good job evoking the tension. Clever camera angles, pulsing soundtrack, and intense quicktime events actually create a pretty heightened sense of emotion. Where Beyond falters are with the menial tasks. Sequences are drawn out by forcing you to perform tedious activities. I understand it's about impacting the story with your decisions, but things like picking a dress out for a date preparing dinner step-by-step just don't interest me. At times, even the action sequences go a little too long for their own good. Two sequences that stick out to me in particular as running too long are when you help the Navajos and when you go on a cover CIA operation into the middle east.
For as simplistic as Beyond's control scheme actually is, there are some clever moments within the gameplay -- particularly during sequences in which you control Aiden. Throughout much of the game, Jodie and Aiden will have to work together. With a simple press of the Triangle button you can switch between the two on-the-fly. When playing as Aiden, you have the power manipulate the environment (blowing open or unlocking doors, turning cameras off, etc.); possess, strangle or heal humans; or help Jodie recall memories from certain objects within an environment. Some of the most memorable moments are when you combine all of Aiden's powers to carry out a series of tasks.
When it's all said and done though, story is Beyond: Two Souls strong suit. And the story would not be nearly as impactful if it were not for wonderful talent of Ellen Page (Juno, Inception), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), and a tremendously talented supporting cast that's comprised of Kadeem Hardison, Eric Winter, and plenty more. Page and Dafoe have been the focal point of Beyond: Two Souls' marketing, rightfully so as the two put on an amazing performance together. Page, in particular, puts on an Oscar-worthy performance as she conveys a wide range of dynamic emotion throughout the entire game. Watching her play the role of Holmes is truly magnificent.
To top it all off, the game looks fantastic. Simplified UI coupled with advanced performance capture technology delivers a visually breathtaking and stunningly realistic world. It's a dark world Jodie is living in, but it's certainly beautiful. While the game looks great, though, it's sometimes hindered by wonky camera angles, graphical glitches and screen tearing that remind you that you are playing a game.
Beyond: Two Souls is like you're playing a movie. Cinematic narrative is definitely the driving force behind the game, but it's aided by competent gameplay that enhances the experience. Beyond: Two Souls is not without a few technical issues, but it's a wonderful example that story and gameplay can coexist within a video game.