Beyond: Two Souls
The conversation around storytelling in gaming has changed of late, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of more personal game stories that look to not only provide flashy visuals but real characters and emotion to boot. Quantic Dream as a developer has been at the forefront of this movement for nearly a decade now, their PS2 game Indigo Prophesy (or Fahrenheit as it was called over here) established them as breaking from tradition, a habit they carried over with the PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain a few years ago. Now with their third effort, Beyond, they have honed their technique to produce arguably their best and most well rounded game yet, but not one without its fair share of problems either.
Ellen Page stars as Jodie Holmes, a gifted and troubled young woman who, ever since birth, has found herself tethered to another being: Aiden. Invisible to others, Aiden is always with her, a fact that garners her significant interest from the scientific community. Willem Defoe plays Nathan Dawkins, head of the team of researchers that raise Jodie in a secret facility.
Beyond, as a story, spans two decades of Jodie’s life, mixing the fantastical and thrilling with the mundane in an ambitious, and not always successful way. By casting recognisable actors Beyond takes even further strides down the path Quantic Dream have been pursuing with regards to storytelling. Factor in an increased focus on cinematic framing and presentation and you have what could be, somewhat facetiously, described as a game doubling as a movie with added quick-time events.
This is somewhat unfair to the way in which Beyond integrates its controls with the narrative. The contextual cues and non-standard controls allow them to present a much broader range of scenarios for the player to engage with than you would normally find in a game. It also helps that the systems themselves have been refined and honed since Heavy Rain, the minimal on-screen prompts are enough to guide you to the points of interaction within the world without distracting. Stand-out amongst these is the new combat mechanic in which the action slows down at key points with the player following Jodie’s movement to complete the sequences. It’s a much more elegant way of making you feel engaged in the action without giant button prompts filling the screen, but those wishing for more freedom of control will not find their desires sated here.
Story-wise the game flits about between different times and places as it explores Jodie’s life, a technique that, especially early on, can fragment the experience somewhat. It’s here that David Cage seems to have sacrificed some narrative coherence for variety, front-loading the game with some impressive action but without the grounding that may have set these sequences up more effectively.
When the game does slow down and engage on a more personal, human level it is often more successful. Thanks in no small part to the acting talent on-board, and the impressive motion capture and facial animation, there are moments that are genuinely moving, engaging and unlike any other game experience out there. One of the central chapters, Homeless, was highly effective at grounding the player in a place and life-experience that may well be unfamiliar, and imbuing it with real heart.
The more standard action sequences that pepper the game are often thrilling, but also somewhat disjointed and ridiculous when compared with their surroundings. However Ellen Page must be singled out in particular for fully embodying Jodie in a way that sells many of the game’s emotional moments, often in spite of some of the writing. The supernatural element is key to the story, but navigating some of the narrative’s more implausible elements involves a certain acceptance of the game’s pulpy ambitions. Whatever David Cage may suggest, this is not a game aiming for high art, but the tale it spins is, nonetheless, tighter and more coherent than that of Heavy Rain, though not quite as involving due to its more linear nature.
The main element of the game that separates it from Quantic Dream’s prior output is your ability to control Aiden, Jodie’s ghostly companion. By pressing Triangle you switch control, and as Aiden you have freedom to float about your current location, often travelling through walls, and interacting with people and objects in the environment in interesting ways.
Unfortunately these are nearly always prescribed and the true freedom seemingly offered by this mode is something of an illusion, but it remains a novel, and highly enjoyable option to either exploit or not as you progress through the game. An early mission that sees Jodie bullied by some kids at a birthday party allows you the option to either leave, or wreak some revenge as Aiden, a task that I perhaps took a little too much enjoyment in. Elsewhere Aiden plays a part in some fun, but simplistic puzzle-like setups where you can manipulate scenes to allow the story to progress, be it sneaking into a supermarket or, most enjoyably, scouting ahead on the battlefield and possessing soldiers, thus clearing a path.
It’s common to take game visuals for granted at this late stage of the console cycle, but Beyond somehow manages to squeeze every last drop from the ageing PS3 hardware. The environments are often limited in terms of size, but impeccably crafted with some gorgeous lighting in particular, and with the character models being some of the best and most detailed yet seen. Rather than just eye-candy this verisimilitude enhances your connection to the actions on screen. It may not be true that greater visual fidelity leads automatically to better, more emotional game stories, but for those moments where the vision of Beyond meets the execution it’s a remarkable feat.
For many the very nature of the game will be enough to turn them off it, and it is an entirely understandable point of view. The game is very much an evolution of everything Heavy Rain was, and for those more attuned to gameplay mechanics and game systems, Beyond is likely to frustrate and annoy in equal measure. For those with more of an inclination to game narrative Beyond feels like another step along the way to wherever videogames end up in the future.
Flawed and silly, but also ambitious and heartfelt, this is a game with a clear vision, like it or not, that follows through with utter conviction to the end. There’s something admirable in that, and as long as you go in with your eyes open there is a lot to enjoy here. It does beg questions about what comes next from David Cage and his team though. Beyond feels like the crystallisation of his entire philosophy, but with the gaming landscape outside of Quantic Dream changing so rapidly, they risk being left behind if they don’t continue to evolve themselves.
Game reviewed on PlayStation 3; game was purchased by the reviewer.
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