Visionary creator David Cage and his team, Quantic Dream, have once again taken to the proverbial gaming stage. Quantic have continued to deliver completely unique gaming experiences throughout the years with titles such as Fahrenheit and the superb Heavy Rain. But with such vivid, interactive and unique triumphs from the past, could Quantic Dream really offer any new surprises?
Beyond: Two Souls is Quantic’s latest title, which is a science fiction based story set in modern times. You play as Jodie Holmes, portrayed in motion capture by the superbly talented Ellen Page. The game centres around Jodie’s life and how she attempts to grow up and cope with an entity or spirit named Aiden. No one is able to see or hear Aiden except Jodie, but they are inherently linked together.
This strange phenomenon sees Jodie’s life effectively taken away from her. She becomes a science experiment and a military product. All of this is told over 15 years but in a non-linear way. The game’s opening is in fact the prologue to Beyond: Two Souls and each section of the game is effectively a flashback. During the loading screens a timeline starts to form, as each level is completed you begin to see the whole picture. This non-linear form is in complete credit to David Cage’s story telling. Often players will be left mystified as to why an event has taken place and it is only until further into the game (or in some cases earlier in the timeline) that certain plot arcs and character defining moments fall into place.
What is interesting about this form of story telling is how it affects your decisions. Beyond: Two Souls confronts you with character defining choices, similar to Heavy Rain. However, these choices can often be made without realising the full story. For example, hypothetically, you could interact with another character who appears to be cruel and initially your reaction might be to respond in a similar vein. However, when the timeline skips back to other events you soon realise this form of cruelty might have been triggered by yourself or by an event that you both had to undergo. Once all the pieces start to fit together, it’s interesting to see how differently you are willing to react to a character.
Beyond’s themes, characterisation and ethos are amongst some of the most challenging and adult to ever enter the gaming industry. Whilst certain plot arcs are at times predictable or cliched, it is the entanglement of emotion that separates Beyond from any form of generic pitfall. Whilst the events are what brings our chief characters to the forefront, Cage cleverly chooses to focus on the emotional impact that these events have. When looking back you are more likely to remember the moods of each scenario and their implications, rather than the specific events themselves. Quantic Dream carefully and subtly challenges perceptions of religion, spiritualism, ritualism, life after death, science, myth, ghosts, suicide and the value of life. Beyond is more of an experience rather than a game and, as such, is certainly not for everyone.
Essentially, Beyond: Two Souls is about your choices. Heavy Rain was molded in a similar way, in that every decision you made dictated the outcome of the overall plot. Heavy Rain has over 20 possible endings but the decisions made are mainly plot driven. In Heavy Rain I often found the choices I made may have been morally driven by myself but in effect were partially decided upon to help force the plot into a direction of my choosing. The decisions were pretty much black and white. Like many I replayed various chapters to see what differences my decisions made. I never really based a decision on what I felt that character should do.
Beyond: Two Souls feels like the polar opposite. Whilst there are choices that affect the pathways of the plot, the emphasis, although subtle, is on the moral decisions and they are very much in the hands of the player. However, these moral decisions are heavily influenced by two things. Firstly, what we’ve already discussed, the time frame. Not having all the information at first does change your perspective throughout the game. Secondly, and most importantly, unlike Heavy Rain, you play as one character – or technically two when you include Aiden (more on that later).
Playing as only Jodie changes everything. The audience throughout the game, despite the interchanging timeline, grows up alongside Jodie. I often found that playing as child Jodie, my decisions would be timid and often juvenile; as a teenager perhaps more aggressive or with an adolescent attitude towards the world, and as an adult my decisions and actions would be more thoughtful or concise, fully aware that there could be severe consequences. As is the case with real life. I personally feel no game has portrayed a large part of someone’s life without the sense that they left something important out. Games like Assassin’s Creed 3, for example, showed Connor as a young boy and the next thing we know he’s a man. Whilst this is just a shortcut to speed up the story, it left Connor lacking in character. I also feel that few games have touched upon moral decisions in quite the same way, even amongst the greatest RPG’s currently out there.
Furthermore, your moral judgments feel life changing. You are not necessarily playing as yourself in the shoes of Jodie, but you are constantly playing with Jodie and Aiden’s well-being in mind. A subtle example I can give you is that Jodie doesn’t lead a normal life. So when these brief moments of normality come to pass, I allowed them to. One scenario see’s Ellen Page’s character preparing for a dinner date. Rather childishly, Aiden is resentful and jealous of this date. During the date itself you play as Aiden and have the option to float obediently around the room or continue to smash things and disrupt the date. I personally cared so much about Jodie’s character and was so aware of the torrid time she had been experiencing at this point in the game, that I chose to respect her and leave her be. All of this was in spite of the fact that I didn’t approve of the character she was dating.
This now brings us to Aiden himself. The relationship between Jodie and Aiden is the most important. Jodie both loves and resents Aiden. Her life would have turned out very differently if it wasn’t for Aiden, but they both rely on and protect each other. They are bonded in such a way that is reminiscent of any of the best companion based games such as Another World, Ico and The Last of Us.
Players can switch to Aiden at almost any point in the game. This switches the camera to a first person view point and Aiden can float freely around the room. Aiden can travel through walls making him the perfect spy and reveal points of interest that are unseen to the human eye, although as he is linked to Jodie he can’t stray too far. What I enjoyed about this aspect was the ability to eavesdrop on unsuspecting people or stray into rooms the game had perhaps not intended me to wander into. However, Cage and the team seem to have thought of everything. One example I can give you is when you first meet Willem Dafoe’s character, Nathan. Nathan asks you to send Aiden into the other room and observe a woman who has a set of cards. As a very young Jodie, you must determine which card she has selected. I however, opted to float into the room where Willem Dafoe was situated. I listened in on his conversation and as Aiden knocked various objects around the room. Instead of some generic dialogue Nathan responds to the situation and you can discover a whole host of unseen dialogue should you choose to explore the game, despite the ‘flexible’ linear pathways you are lead to follow.
What I found with Aiden is that he represents the audience or player. Whilst David Cage’s writing doesn’t break the fourth wall, he immerses players and encourages them to step in and be part of this world he has created. Your actions and decisions may be implemented by Jodie but they are very much influenced by Aiden or in reality you.
As stated, Aiden also has the ability to move objects but he can also choke people to death or, more interestingly, possess people. You will often come across moments only Aiden can accomplish and players must be savvy enough to solve the puzzles or problems before them by switching quickly between both characters. Whilst this opens up a whole new aspect of gameplay, Aiden’s controls are repetitive. Aiden has a small series of moves which don’t offer too much in the way of challenge until the more frenetic events, which sadly I can’t reveal without spoiler elements of the plot. However this slightly repetitive aspect of control is counter-balanced by the constant changing and variation of gameplay.
Depending on what section of Jodie’s timeline you are in, the style of game mechanics available will change. During the military missions, stealth and close quarters combat controls come into play. As a young Jodie you are more likely to see the quick time event cues often associated with Heavy Rain. Missions with Aiden offer up a completely different control system that involve locating mission objectives and defending Jodie.
What has significantly changed is the combat system. Comparing this with Heavy Rain, timed events are replaced by an intuitive, more natural and fluent movement. Early tutorials (in the form of a montage) carefully explain that the analogue sticks control your movement. For example; if an opponent goes to strike you with their left fist you must motion the analogue stick to the left to either strike first or block the incoming attack. Players must also motion the stick in the opposite direction to avoid contact. During any incoming attack, time is slowed down to allow the player to react – but strangely, despite this slow down, the action feels frantic. You are very much on a knife edge with your own life as every movement of the analogue stick is either rewarding or punishing. There are times where you will panic and are too slow to react. Other times you will motion to dive out of the way when you should have leapt in with a swift kick, because after the initial tutorial there are no cues, which were often persistent throughout Heavy Rain. The lack of visual cues is an aspect that makes gamers forget they are playing a game and stay fully immersed.
This intuitive control method is present during much of Beyond. The intricacies and nuances of character inflections are reflected in the controls. Mundane tasks such as climbing and cooking are considered as important as the action sequences or character driven storyline. No part of the game is rushed. Every moment is delicately placed, despite the surprising direction the players themselves can take the story. In spite of the linear restrictions, there is much to discover in Beyond: Two Souls that cannot be accomplished in one play through, but I’ll let you discover those wonders.
However, David Cage did suggest that we should all play this game only once. This goes against the ethos many publishers will try to instill in gamers. They want you to play their game over and over, go online or download the latest DLC. Even with Heavy Rain constantly in mind and the deliberate baiting for you to replay and push the story in a different direction, it was only until I played Two Souls that I understood what Cage meant. It is my belief that Cage wanted you to live with your decisions that you make in the game, much like you would have to do in real life. There is no changing the past and the choices you make in Beyond: Two Souls defines who you perhaps really are?
By the end of the game, I had been pulled apart emotionally and even though the game was magnificent, I couldn’t bring myself to replay chapters, at least not right away. I felt good in my decisions, even surprised by some of them and that is the angle Cage is very much going for. Don’t get me wrong, you will inevitably go over some of the more defining moments and maybe you’ll even play through the entire game several times, but nothing will equate to your first experience.
The big question I have is – why this game isn’t a launch title for the PS4?
Graphically this could be the greatest game I have ever seen on current gen. Placed next to some of the big hitters on next gen Beyond: Two Souls would not look out of place. In fact at times Beyond could embarrass some of the big games on display. The interactive cinematics are equal to some of the great film cinematography over the years. Delicate scenes feel warm and personal. Action scenes feel adrenaline fueled and manic. I remember being complete startled by Beyond’s chief characters Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. I almost couldn’t comprehend it, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe were on screen and they both looked so life like. This may have been the PS3’s Swan Song but could so easily have been the PS4’s Grand Opening. Only time will tell which was the right decision.
The one problem I faced when writing this review was, despite what many consider to be a short 12 hour campaign, how I would condense everything that needed to be told about Beyond: Two Souls. But whatever you take away from this review, you need to know only one thing. I was truly moved by the delicate yet harrowing tale spun by David Cage and his team at Quantic. Even though Beyond sits firmly in the realms of Sci-Fi, I have never truly believed in characters so strongly as I have in this game. The adult themes and thoughtfulness of play will not appeal to everyone, even Heavy Rain purist may feel short changed in light of what they perceived, with Heavy Rain, to have been a truly unique experience. That perhaps Beyond offered them nothing new or nothing that they hadn’t played before. Is Beyond Two Souls better than Heavy Rain? Yes. For me, there is no question – I believe in what lies beyond.