Developer: Quantic Dream | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment | Platform: PlayStation3 | Release Date: October 8, 2013 | Price: $59.99 | ESRB: Mature [Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol]
The narrative foundation of Beyond: Two Souls is a string of pearls, though some of those pearls are imperfect. When chronicling the life of a person that covers fifteen years within a ten to twelve-hour game, you pretty much have to present the story in vignettes. As the follow up to Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, Beyond is certainly a cinematic experience, but one with improvements in gameplay and interaction, not to mention great performances by actors with natural American accents.
Beyond: Two Souls, as its title implies, is a tale of dual protagonists. Jodie, played by the oh-so talented Ellen Page, has been tied, since birth, to an invisible entity name Aiden (which might be pronounced Eye-den). It’s a relationship not unlike living with a conjoined twin. Aiden’s persistent presence reveals those codependency issues and an unsurprising love/hate relationship. And that becomes all the more problematic when potential love interests enter Jodie’s life.
As a blessing and a curse, Aiden isn’t a mere ghost, but rather an entity with what seems to be psychokinetic abilities. You can imagine the challenges growing up with such a presence, and even more so when such powers catch the eye of the U.S. government. While Jodie spends much of her childhood and adolescence as a lab rat, she is watched over by the fatherly researcher Nathan Dawkins, expertly portrayed by veteran actor Willem Dafoe.
The game effectively conveys Aiden’s usefulness early on, most notably with his ability to pass through nearby walls. This makes him the ethereal lockpick whenever Jodie is faced with a locked door. Even before you have a chance to problem-solve, Jodie occasionally tells Aiden what needs to be done. This kind of hand-holding doesn’t diminish the overall experience as there’s a lot of opportunities to screw up. The challenges come when the game offers multiple points of interaction whether you’re aware of them or not. This mostly involves awareness of surveillance systems in tense sneaking scenarios.
Aiden’s talents go way beyond opening doors, hitting switches, and knocking over objects. His ability to roam freely in close proximity to Jodie is what makes Beyond: Two Souls more than just a series of interactive cinematics. While the ability to force choke others is disturbing enough, his ability to inhabit other bodies is both useful and creepy, especially when many such possessions lead to suicide. Aiden’s powers are crucial to Jodie’s survival, including the ability to create a protective, multi-purpose shield bubble.
One of Aiden’s traits that closely serves the narrative is being a conduit to the spirit world. By connecting Jodie to the recently deceased, you get to witness the final living seconds of characters before their untimely demise. This works on living beings as well, but to go into more detail would spoil some of the game’s key scenes.
Many chapters offer opportunities to explore when some not-so-obvious interactions will move the narrative forward. Many objects exist for you to use with no special meaning. Other items will have resonance that you won’t fully grasp until near the end of the game. Compared to shaking juice boxes and tying neckties in Heavy Rain, having fewer trivial items to interact with in Beyond is a welcome change. You also don’t have to worry about precise directional commands when handling these objects, instead simply pointing the analog stick toward the item’s corresponding dot.
One of Beyond’s strengths is how it doesn’t spell out the short- and long-term repercussions of your interactions and conversation choices. This results in significant replay value, particularly given the varied possible end-game scenarios. Much like Heavy Rain, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and life in general, the best intentions might not lead to the best outcomes.
Beyond’s melee sequences are a marked improvement over Heavy Rain’s quick-time event fisticuffs as the command prompts are much more straightforward. Like object interactions with the dots, you simply move the right analog stick toward the target in order to attack and away from the target to dodge. The scene slows down whenever you’re prompted to act so you always feel like you have a fighting chance. One minor issue is that it’s occasionally hard to tell whether to go on offense or defense, leaving you to flip a coin and hoping for the best. At least Beyond doesn’t feature traditional ‘game over’ states, so getting hit from time to time doesn’t stop the story.
For as much as designer David Cage kept pitching Beyond as the unique opportunity to witness the fifteen-year journey of a young woman, it was hard to appreciate this journey aspect through the game’s non-linear storytelling. The first dozen chapters feel like a swinging pendulum, meandering back and forth between adulthood and childhood. When we replayed the game in chronological order by manually selecting chapters, the narrative was clear and decisive. In fact, we noticed that such a playthrough effectively followed a traditional three act structure. Save for a scene-setting prologue and one line in the end that acknowledges’ Jodie’s scattered memories, we found this non-chronological approach unnecessary.
Hearing Jodie’s opening line echoes the introductory narration of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, when the title character says “I was born under unusual circumstances.” In both that film and Beyond, many of the best moments come when the protagonists are simply trying to find themselves. You wonder if Cage can pull off a game that primarily consists of such scenes, free from CIA missions and overt explorations into the afterlife. In the context of Beyond, those scenes did complement Jodie’s soul-searching chapters and speaks to the how the narrative excels in subject variety.
Diversity is also the how the gameplay excels, from combat to exploration to controlling Aiden. While we could have done without the non-linear storytelling, it wasn’t hard to keep tabs on the scattered episodes of Jodie’s life. Beyond: Two Souls is certainly an overall advancement on the mechanics of Heavy Rain, just don’t expect it to be David Cage’s magnum opus… that’s still to come.
+ Unique story
+ Well constructed and diverse gameplay
+ Unpredictable conversation
- Unnecessary non-linear storytelling
8 / 10