Beyond: Two Souls – Review

A review of Beyond: Two Souls I wrote for the website www.square-go.com

A video game auteur seems like an oxymoron; in these days of triple A games with staffs of developers bordering on the thousands, how can we say that a video game reflects one person’s creative vision?

And yet this industry is one of surnames, like Miyamoto or Molyneux or Spector. Or David Cage. Head of studio Quantic Dreams, the games with his name on plough a lonely furrow, one that looks to combine the best of movies and video games. At the tail end of this generation of consoles he returns with a new game, Beyond: Two Souls, that looks to further refine his vision telling stories through video games. But how close is his vision to the rest of us?

Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie who is attached to a spirit named Aiden that is constantly by her side. This spirt is invisible to everyone else except her but can interact with the physical world, so knocking things over or taking over people’s bodies. The game is set, broadly speaking, at three different times in her life: as a young girl first being taken in by a government agency to study her powers; whilst being trained by the CIA and her subsequent missions; after she has escaped from the CIA and her life as a fugitive.

The first thing to note is the names that have been brought into this game; Ellen Page lends both her voice and likeness to the main character Jodie. This means we’re fully into performance capture, a technique explored in movies (think The Polar Express or the more recent Tintin film) now becoming more popular in games. We also have Willem Dafoe in the supporting role of Nathan Dawkins, the man who investigates Jodie’s powers and acts as a father figure to her.

It all looks great. Most of the time. Have a character stand there, great. Have it try to eat or drink then the flaws quickly show themselves.

Now, you might think these flaws should be meaningless but they aren’t. This is because the story is a bit of a cliched mess with characters that are as stiff as a diving board. You could ignore the niggles with a game if the story would suck you in but Beyond doesn’t.

By mentioning the word game we’re also hitting up the other problem with it; it’s barely a game. Now that shouldn’t be a problem, the previous games from Cage have been a similar mix of quick time events (cut scenes where you follow on screen button presses to keep it flowing) and fairly basic third person action. But the game part of it is so under cooked it’s not even funny; the controls are clunky and moving a character around feels like they’re walking through mounds of treacle. Sometimes just getting through a door is the biggest challenge of the game.

But then thats not the point, Beyond is supposed to be a cinematic experience, like playing a film only you’re in control. That’s great but you never feel in control, you always feel like you’re playing out a story. Thats fine, thats why the world loves Uncharted, but in Beyond you’re too aware of the limitations of the world: invisible walls, locked doors, areas your character just won’t go down. Yes you have choices but you only have the choices given to you.

The other problem is that Beyond is in a world where The Walking Dead exists. Strip away all the fluff from both games and you have essentially the same thing; a point and click adventure with interactive cut scenes. One of these games gives you great characters that tug at your emotions with painful choices and the other is Beyond: Two Souls. Maybe it’s the art style, maybe the fact that Beyond jumps head first into the uncanny valley stops it from being as engaging as it wants to be.

The crux of the matter is this; David Cage wants you to feel emotions when playing the game. He wants you to feel sad and happy and all that but those moments rarely rise out of the story organically. It’s always smashed over your head with a hammer, like you need these things pointed out. If Cage had a bit more respect for the player’s intelligence and polished the script a bit then it’d be fine. Whilst there’s nothing in here as bad as the ending to Heavy Rain (which is painfully insulting to the player) everything is so heavily sign posted it gets frustrating.

What Beyond wants to be is a mix of movies and game, which it is. But in doing so it highlights the flaws of each medium and ends up less than the sum of it’s parts. David Cage wants you to feel emotions but he forgot about the one that got us hooked on video games in the first place.

Joy.

Two stars out of five

Originally published November 21st 2013

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