When Heavy Rain was released in 2010, many said it was one of those experiences only possible on PlayStation 3. That sentiment was used as both joke and accolade. Detractors got a chuckle at how only the PS3 would be home to a game that was little more than an interactive movie. Supporters welcomed the story of the Origami Killer, claiming that only the PS3 would house such unique games. What ultimately couldn’t be denied was that David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream took players on an interactive journey full of emotion and mystery. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it redefined gaming as a medium for storytelling. Beyond: Two Souls is an evolution of those core concepts laid out by Heavy Rain. It defies what players can traditionally expect from a video game while pushing the limits of technology and game direction. In short, this isn’t one to miss.
What waits for us beyond life and into death? The Afterlife? Heaven? Nothing? That’s the question driving the heart of Beyond: Two Souls. Guiding players to the answer is Jodie Holmes, a girl with with a certain “gift”. This gift comes in the form of an entity called Aiden, a ghost-like presence who never leaves Jodie’s side because they are inextricably linked. For as long as Jodie has been alive, Aiden has been there as both a blessing and a curse. Sure Aiden can pass through walls, move objects and otherwise help out Jodie, but he is also capable of hurting people, interfering in her personal life and, well, never leaving her side. Enter Dr. Nathan Hawkins, a paranormal researcher who has taken care of Jodie since she was a child. Though Nathan’s motives are not always clear, he represents a much-needed parental figure for Jodie.
It would be easy for the game to be marred by obvious plot threads – such as Jodie’s recruitment into the CIA – but instead, the events of Beyond are told in a non-linear way. This single device frames the narrative in a brilliant way that keeps the player guessing by answering some questions while opening up new ones. Beyond’s prologue is actually the end of the game and players will spend the next dozen or so hours watching a timeline fill with different events over a 15 year span of Jodie’s life. We see her as a girl in her twenties on the run from the police but don’t know why. We then switch to a simple scene of her as child not even in her teens. The narrative becomes more about weaving a complex tale rather than filling in missing blanks.
Watching events connect to each other is great but none of that could be done without some excellent writing and the high quality of Ellen Page’s acting. Without a doubt, Page embodies the role of Jodie as a girl in a unique circumstance. Capturing the essence of a girl who experiences loss, young love, heartbreak, emotional torment and more, Page’s work here sets a new standard for acting in games. The performance never feels phoned-in and her commitment only makes the players emotionally invest in her life even more. A lot more could be said about the plot but to do so would give away too much. For someone who has followed the game and seen a lot of footage from it, there’s still a question of “where is this actually going?” a few hours into the game. It’s with one particular section fairly early in the game that a new part of the story rears its head and will intrigue many. Soon enough, more layers are added on to the narrative that it becomes impossible to put down.
Regardless of how some might feel about David Cage, his accomplishments here are hard to ignore. Beyond’s story could have been a mess. At a few points in the game, there were moments the plot could have moved into contrived drivel. The way the story unfolds can at times lead the player to think that things are going to wrap up in a painfully obvious way. Instead, events are reeled in and paced out. Where Heavy Rain was more open, Beyond is more focused. Some will likely miss the wealth of player choice but Beyond is not that type of game. Occasionally, Cage will let the acting or the plot get a little “filmy” with a passionate kiss or a heroic rescue but they are all a part of the cinematic experience in the game.
Calling Beyond an interactive movie is a fair call. Quick time events and directional inputs are the crux of how players will actually “play” the game. Various button presses will allow Jodie to climb cliffs, shoot guns, ride a horse and a handful of other actions. For most of the game, the right stick is used to interact with objects and during action scenes and combat. Like most games, the character’s actions are dependent upon player input. Unlike most games, however, Beyond isn’t necessarily about the gameplay. Most of the mechanics used are just one way of delivering and progressing the story. Beyond contains significantly less quick time events than Heavy Rain and the pacing benefits from it. Here, when a fight or chase is triggered the action will slow down and the player must move the right thumbstick in the direction Jodie is moving. For the most part, it feels natural but there are several times where it is hard to make out where Jodie is directing her body. Luckily, screwing up a few of these moments won’t result in a game over. And this does take away some of the challenge of the game.
Players can freely (for the most part) switch to Aiden by hitting the triangle button. The camera will then shift to Aiden’s perspective above Jodie. Because Aiden has a glowing purple trail connecting him to Jodie and because he can’t be too far from her, it’s hard to get too disoriented. There are times, though, when passing through walls that the player might get lost or returning to Jodie might shift the camera in a weird way. Many scenes require Aiden to interact with objects or people to assist Jodie. Holding L1 and using the left and right sticks allows Aiden to push objects, possess people who glow orange, kill those who glow red or even allow Jodie to relive other’s memories.
In the big picture of things, there might not be a lot of gameplay for players to take part in. Whether or not that is an unforgiveable sin mostly relies on player expectation. Plenty of dramatic scenes in the game require some button mashing that actually feels significant but it might be different for each person. There’s a section near the end of the game that requires Jodie to sneak through a militarized zone taking out enemies. It feels odd if only because it strives so hard to be game-like but never develops enough complicated mechanics. Times like this do bring into question what Quantic Dream would be capable of if they pushed themselves.
Graphics & Sound
The uncanny valley has always been a concern as technology in games continues to improve. Characters looking too real but not real enough makes for a weird human that doesn’t feel all that believable. Beyond’s extreme realism, especially in the case of Jodie and Nathan brings the performances to life rather than making them feel weird. There is no doubt you are watching Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe perform these roles. The level of detail is truly stunning, especially up close. With a game that relies on this much storytelling, it is important that everyone acts like a real person and, thankfully, everyone does. Character animations aren’t always the most varied with the secondary characters, but Jodie has many subtle animations even while walking that make her feel more complete.
It’s almost hard to believe that this kind of quality is running on a PS3. At times, the hardware does show its age. Some of the bigger scenes will actually stutter a good deal with the framerate dropping considerably. Loading times can go on a bit long and there are even moments where a scene will temporarily freeze while it is transitioning. While it’s a frequent enough occurrence to bring up, it never breaks or ruins the experience. Special recognition should be given to not only the environmental design for their intricately crafted areas but to the overall direction. Scenes are captured in such a way to take full advantage of lighting, action and general “wow” factor.
Well-known actors in video games have had varying degrees of success. Often big names are used purely for their star power and their roles feel hollow. This isn’t the case with Beyond. Coupled with the motion capture, the audio performance is sublime. Page has done some incredible work here but so has everyone else. Characters some players might not otherwise care about feel worthwhile because of the incredible quality of their performances. And though it may be overshadowed by the acting, Beyond has an excellent orchestral soundtrack that really is able to capture the atmosphere of several moments in the game. Pieces are reused throughout but done so to appropriately match the tension and drama.
Beyond: Two Souls’ classification as a “game” will no doubt be up for debate until the next effort from Cage and his team at Quantic Dream arrives. Most gamers have likely already made up their mind about whether or not an “interactive thriller” is their cup of tea or not. Denying that Beyond is just as much of an interactive movie as it is a game is silly. Those looking for a wonderful story and very solid experience shouldn’t let those issues deter them from playing. 2013 has been such an incredible year for Sony. In a little more than a month the PlayStation 4 will arrive with a legacy of incredible PS3 titles paving its way. The Dark Sorcerer demo at Sony’s E3 conference showed the possibilities of what Quantic Dream will be capable of next. But right now, we have Beyond: Two Souls, a triumph of storytelling in video games with incredible performances to back it up. It’s unique, different and certainly not what anyone might expect. And because of that, it’s one of the PS3’s best games and a beautiful swan song.