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Beyond: Two Souls Review

B2S 1I’ve been playing Beyond: Two Souls for a couple weeks now. It’s the PS3 exclusive, David Cage directed, Quantic dream produced mega-title that is one of the only exclusives you’re bound to see as this console cycle comes to an end. The game features a host of motion captured actors with some upper echelon talent holding it down including Ellen Page (Juno) and Willem Dafoe (Jesus). Their performances are actually captured and animated for the game with all of their dialog acted out as if it were a movie. The cinematic nature of the game is the hallmark of David Cage’s movement to meld the worlds of games and cinema. Let’s see how the game measures up to some very pretty cinematics.

There are a couple things I’ve come to expect when playing a David Cage game: At some point you will control a character making dinner and that character will take a shower…possibly two. Despite the minutia and mundane aspects of a person’s life that you have seemingly limitless control over in his games, you will also be immersed in an opulent and vast story that is going to take you places emotionally that you don’t typically see in any type of media. Whether it’s video games, movies or television, the games that Cage produced at Quantic Dream have been on another level of storytelling. If anything I would compare the scope of Beyond: Two Souls with the type of storytelling you see in a novel. It is not only on par with previous efforts like Heavy Rain, but in many ways it has surpassed anything we’ve seen before in video games.

B2S 2This is a difficult game to review. The obvious problem I run into when talking about a game like Beyond or Heavy Rain is that the story is in essence the game and I can’t just give away the story elements that make it so amazing. In spoiler free terms, Beyond: Two Souls is about the growth, maturity, trials, losses, and resolution in the life of Jodie, a girl linked to a spirit named Aiden. From birth Jodie and Aiden are inseparable and it causes her many problems. As a result of her power she is recruited first as a child into a research program that separates her from her family and then into the CIA, which then removes her from Nathan and Cole, the two scientists who raise her through very turbulent years into young adulthood. 

Now I know what you’re thinking: This doesn’t sound like a video game, except for maybe the CIA part. But Beyond: Two Souls combines elements of drama with action sequences that include many different motifs, including chase scenes, escapes, stealth, and supernatural occurrences. There are also some horror elements as well. Holding it all together is Aiden, your invisible sidekick who simultaneously seems to ruin and save your life. Aiden is controlled separately when you go into what I call Beyond Mode. Once you activate him you can move freely around an area, within certain limitations as you are still tethered to Jodie. You can see things or witness conversations that she can’t. In fact the more I played the game, the more I realized how much more you know as Aiden compared to Jodie. Depending on your curiosity using Aiden, there can be drastic effects on how you view characters when you make decisions later on in the game. Aiden can also be controlled with a separate controller co-op style in what is called “Duo Mode.” But only one character is active at a time. Jodie’s controller triggers Beyond Mode, while Aiden’s shuts it off.

If you have never played a Quantic Dream game then you may be unfamiliar with the control scheme, which is a combo of free roaming and quick time events. The Walking Dead game by Telltale is a recent example of the type of narrative driven action that Quantic Dream pioneered. But unlike any game I can think of off-hand, Beyond: Two Souls is idiot-proof in the sense you can’t mess up the sequences to the point you get a “game over screen” or the game has to re-start. The story continues, sometimes on an altered path if other characters are involved. Sometimes Aiden just bails you out. As I’ve played through the game a couple times, I’ve orchestrated different paths knowing what comes later, which may seem like cheating but I’ll defend the right to see all 20-some odd endings as I am a shameful completist. Emphasis on shame and the money it costs me to find rare and unnecessary items, like the time I bought an unopened VHS Robotech box set thinking it wouldn’t come out on DVD. Bought those too. Twice.

The sequences are deliberately constructed for you to participate in without fail. There is even a trophy for being bad at the game mockingly called “Houdini” when you escape custody three times in one chapter. I had to look this up though as I wasn’t caught once. To me it seemed unlikely that anyone could struggle that badly. But the game isn’t closed off to intrigue. There is an element of discovery. In some chapters you may be uncovering clues to a mystery. You may also be just trying to survive by finding food and shelter. This is a game filled with extremes, with settings that range from a laboratory dorm to a swanky condo to being homeless on the street. Then you have the range of emotions that come with being raised as a child into the situation that you are fighting out of. It’s extremely compelling and instantly recognizable as your own life. I have a feeling that the people who love this game will connect with it on that level and those who don’t are probably made out of concrete.

B2S 4

You better feel the emotion because this was hella expensive to make.

Now for criticisms. Despite loving this game I don’t think the game is perfect. The beginning of the game initially made be a little unsure and that was probably good for the overall experience. It’s very methodical and slow but as the story picks up in intensity so did my love of the game. I think the reason is that the first few hours are designed as a learning curve to allow people to adjust to the gameplay. I also think that the controls are too simplistic. The pace and the controls to me seem tailored to people who don’t play video games and although I can’t prove it I have my suspicions that this was a deliberate decision. One of David Cage’s major tenets is not only delivering epic and meaningful stories, but to have those experiences reach a mass audience. In Cage’s words:

Look at how many people played Heavy Rain in comparison to Call of Duty. We want as many players as that. And even that is nothing. Look at how many people watched Avatar. That is where we want to go.”

Even at the beginning of the game the difficulty setting is framed by two questions: do you play video games a lot or a little. I play a lot and it was way too easy. Heavy Rain by comparison had some extremely challenging sections that I would replay to try and master. There are very interesting wrinkles that you will uncover story wise, but there are no difficult sections. It seems like an odd decision because the PS3 is not a Wii. Casual gamers didn’t flock to Sony. If anything the system was billed as the console powerhouse for this generation with all matter of innovations like the Cell processor to justify the huge expense when it came out. The decision to make Beyond overly inclusive makes me scratch my head a little, especially since there is no “hard” difficulty setting and the crowd who would play the game may be left wondering if it is actually a game since it’s so stripped down.

Although, one added dimension in the gameplay that is cool in Beyond: Two Souls as opposed to Heavy Rain  is the combat system. It’s more intuitive than Heavy Rain  because in a combat situation you will most likely not have a prompt. The game will slow down and you will have to decide based on your opponent’s movement how to react. You may have a blocking angle, you may be out of position and have to evade. You may be able to attack. All of this is accomplished by moving the right analog stick in the direction you wish to move. It works really well and could definitely be expounded upon in future releases. It’s just a little too easy. I’d like to see some type of CQC (Close-Quarters-Combat) system like you see in later installments of the Metal Gear games. That would add an extra dimension of skill and a fun-factor as well as give the player choices. As that is something Cage is about it just seems like a natural evolution.

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More please.

Most of the criticism of this game though is going to be about the story because it is the marquis out in front of the title, for better or worse, it will be the main target. Just type in “Heavy Rain plot holes” into your favorite search engine and you will see page after page of people with nothing better to do. Most of these criticisms seem like rubbish to me or just flat out not important. But as Cage himself proclaimed: 

“I don’t want to be alone on my flagship shouting, Hey! emotional storytelling! There should be more games trying this. But very few developers have the luxury of having a great publisher trusting them. We did an indie game with the financial support of a Triple A title. I don’t see Heavy Rain as an achievement, I see it as a first step. I know we can do much better, we can go further. I know there are many people out there to convince.”

This attitude will make him a target this time around as well. I’m not sure if the chatter will be as loud but it might because Beyond: Two Souls is even more ambitious. I will say that there were a couple instances in the game that I questioned but nothing that would be a deal breaker. For Cage I think the scenario is paramount. Getting there is ambiguous. In real life you don’t get to control other people’s motivations, you only have a choice in how you react to them. That is the power you are afforded in Beyond: Two Souls and it’s high stakes. It’s forgiveness, rage, life, and death. Hopefully I’ll be able to go more in depth in a future post once people have played the game because I feel there is a lot to talk about. Mainly when you think of this game or even Heavy Rain, you have to consider that there isn’t a traditional villain. Dr. Wily and King Koopa are not there to thwart your every move. It’s a gray area. I think some people have trouble with that. It means you have to admit that any given enemy you face was an innocent child at some point and that doesn’t sit well with people who like their villains to wear black and shoot lasers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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The shower scene. It’s creepy, yet I couldn’t avert my eyes from the wonderful motion capture.

Bottom Line: Beyond: Two Souls is a triumph for emotional storytelling and interactive dramas. It’s extremely easy and therefore accessible to a main stream audience that needs to stop watching NCIS and get back in touch with their inner child who has been killed by iPhones and skinny jeans – Except Ellen Page who looks great in skinny jeans in this game. Willem Dafoe mercifully does not wear skinny jeans but brought us the “Platoon Pose” and is still the best Jesus next to the real Jesus I have ever seen. 4 out of 5 Cans of Laser with one Platoon Pose.

 

 

Four Cans of Laser

Full Platoon Pose

2 Comments

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  1. EEon says
    2013/10/24, 10:24

    Is the Platoon pose in honor of Dafoe being in the game, or a reaction to the limited combat? I’ll gladly rent and/or borrow this game from you if you’d like a second opinion from an avowed non-gamer. From my perspective, being able to sit back and watch the story unfold is more enjoyable than the challenge of aiming RPG rounds against a level boss. For a person like me, who can (and has) been driven into an apoplectic rage by the board 2-3 in Super Mario World (the Donut Ghost House), this new direction in games is appealing (at least superficially).

    • Pete says
      2013/10/24, 20:23

      It’s in honor of Dafoe mostly. But I think the lack of gameplay is a knock on the game. After playing Heavy Rain, Beyond feels extremely light. I didn’t delve into it in this piece but there may be a reason for the lack of a “game over” screen that is tied to the overall story thematically. There are no boss battles and no leveling up. You can just play through the game and enjoy the story, which I know is up your alley. When I finish up the last couple things to see all the endings I’ll pass it along to you.

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