The subject of video games as an art has been debated since the late 1980’s, and it has been picking up steam over the past ten years. French developer Quantic Dream have positioned themselves firmly on one side of the debate, with their games Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain being largely considered “interactive films”. It is in that vein that they have brought us their next title – Beyond: Two Souls.
Quantic Dream love to push the boundaries of graphics, motion capture technology, and the “interactive drama” genre, as was evident with Heavy Rain. With Beyond they have definitely stepped it up a notch, enlisting Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, and a number of other seasoned actors for various roles within the game.
Beyond follows the story of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a young girl who was born and lives in a government facility. Jodie is special; she has a permanent link to an “entity” (read ghost/spirit) named Aiden, whom she can control to manipulate objects and people in the world. The story is presented in a fragmented style, jumping back and forth to moments in Jodie’s life at different ages. For example, one chapter may be set in her teenage years, and then the next might be her at age five. Fortunately there is a handy way to keep track of where you are in the story, as the loading screen between chapters shows you a timeline with each completed chapter marked chronologically.
This disjointed storytelling style meant that my first impressions of the game were admittedly not the best. I found it quite jarring, and although I have seen movies that use that effect, Beyond: Two Souls did not manage to grip my attention initially. In fact, I played it for at least a couple of hours before something occurred that dragged me in, and it kept me engaged from there on. I’ve now started my second playthrough so I can properly appreciate the beginning of the game, although aside from appreciating the story there isn’t much replayability for the game.
Beyond gives the player an illusion of choice, but aside from a final decision at the end of the game, the story plays out the same. Even wanting to see the result of making different decisions at the end does not warrant an entire new playthrough since the game allows you to replay chapters. Overall, while the narrative isn’t perfect, it definitely has a lot of great moments to keep you entertained.
The “quick-time event” control style of Heavy Rain has returned in Beyond, although it has been dumbed down a bit, which has successfully made it a lot less tedious to play. Having said that, there are numerous moments where the game requires you to do multiple button presses to achieve an action that seems a bit overcomplicated. For example, during the game you are occasionally required to climb up walls and it presents quick time sequences of trigger and face button presses that can vary each time. While it is not that big of a deal, it can draw you out of the game, which is counterproductive in a game heavily relying on player engagement in the story.
The quick time events also suffer in another way; there doesn’t seem to be any consequences for failing them. Apart from one moment in the final chapter in which you have to stuff up EVERY button prompt it gives you to fail, there are no times where making an error will cause a negative effect for your character or the story. Unfortunately, that leaves them feeling pretty superfluous and once you notice that, it becomes a chore to complete them.
The gameplay of Beyond is not all bad though, with the introduction of vehicle use during certain chapters that include riding a motorbike, driving a car and even horse riding. These moments make a nice change from just wandering around with Jodie looking for interactive objects. The moments where you get to control the entity Aiden are arguably the most fun, with the much more dynamic movement that you would expect from a ghost. As Aiden, you can float through walls and other through other characters, which means it all flows quite smoothly when you need to move him around. When the player becomes Aiden, you can interact with objects to cause reactions from non-player characters as well as possessing and even killing them. All of this is done with a clever system of holding down R1, and then moving the left and right analog sticks in the prompted direction.
Combat with Jodie is mostly quite smooth, with the game slowing down time and requiring you to push the right stick in the direction she is moving to perform punches, kicks and to dodge. Unfortunately, it sometimes can be difficult to see which direction you need to direct her, so I found myself failing these moments every so often. As I mentioned earlier though, failing button prompts doesn’t have much of a negative effect on the game anyway so it’s not that frustrating or detrimental.
A multiplayer element called Duo is also included in the game, allowing co-operative play with a second player who controls Aiden using either a second controller or a companion app on iPad/iPhone. This app can also be used to play the entirety of the game in single player mode, although I found myself preferring to just use a controller.
Graphically there is no denying the quality of the facial animations in the game, and their ability to convey the emotion of the actors playing their parts. The downside of that immense attention to detail is a lack of polish in some of the other graphical elements within the game.
Some of the objects around the environments look quite shabby with poor textures and aliasing, and there are some slightly odd-looking animations scattered here and there through the game. As I said, it’s clear that the attention was on creating life-like characters to be able to draw you into the narrative, and I feel like I’m nit-picking other things in spite of that. The great variety of locations you play in across the different chapters all look quite nice though and they help to keep it fresh as you work your way through the story.
While Beyond: Two Souls may not be a game that everyone enjoys, I definitely think it stands out as a game that people should at least try to experience given that it differs from most other games out there. If you played Heavy Rain and did not like it, you might still enjoy this one. I definitely suggest giving it a try.
In my opinion, while it’s not perfect, Quantic Dream has definitely taken a step in the right direction in their quest to create a truly great interactive movie.