Quantic Dream, the studio behind Heavy Rain, brings us Beyond: Two Souls, a supernatural tale of life, death and spirituality that spans around 20 years in the life of Jodie Holmes, a child/teenager/woman with a very special gift. Adopted as a baby, abandoned as a child and sucked into working for the CIA as a young woman, Jodie shares her life with Aiden (pronounced EYE-den, seemingly borrowing Hideo Kojima’s liberal use of vowel sounds), a ghostly entity that is always with her to act as guide, friend and tormentor. Directed by David Cage, the game is the third attempt by the studio to produce a more cinematic and thought provoking experience in the gaming world, but is it a truly interactive movie, or just a heavily scripted game?
Firstly, I need to recap my thoughts on Heavy Rain because it’s pretty much the only thing out there I can use as a benchmark in the videogame genre. Back in 2010, along came a game that decided that it was going to focus on absorbing you in a story by removing complexity of control, focussing on character performance and voice-acting, and also managed to raise the bar for graphical presentation. One of the key features, outside the characterisation not seen in other titles, was that actions during the story affected the outcome at the end with the intent that gamers could play it once and have a relatively unique experience in comparison to other games out there. It succeeded to a degree, the story was good, there was a twist that most people (including myself) didn’t see coming, you felt a connection with at least one of the playable characters, and I had a moment of genuine sadness when I accidentally got one of them killed. What it came under fire for was the overly long focus on day-to-day activities that you had to perform, and this made it inaccessible for some because it took time to pick up pace. I played it through once, got my ending, then went back and replayed chapters to change my actions and see the consequences of these alternate decisions. Despite the players influence on the story and the ability to change the end result, the game still forced you into certain actions to maintain the story and keep things moving along.
Beyond: Two Souls uses the same principle for telling the story as Heavy Rain, but with a few significant tweaks. Most noticeable is the game engine, I have not seen any other game that looks as good as this. Right from the menu screen you’re looking at a magnificently detailed Jodie Holmes whilst you’re selecting what to do. In some sections of the game it looks near photo realistic, though to balance this out it does have points that seem a bit ragged (even though in any other game you’d be impressed). Screen tear and slowdown is nearly non-existent, but I did have a few instances of late texture pop-in during some of the busier cutscenes. It’s worth noting that the screen is permanently in anamorphic widescreen to keep the theatrical feel, it’s not distracting and does manage to keep the flow between scripted events and when you take control.
The control mechanics are largely the same as Heavy Rain, making full use of the motion sensors as well as the buttons, though the movement has been improved and made more intuitive by having the right stick as a context sensitive action control. Basically, if Jodie is in front of a door you press up on the stick to open, if there’s a light switch on the right, you move it in that direction to flick it, and so on. It works the same in combat too with time slowing down to give you chance to study the situation and work out if you need to attack, dodge or counter by moving the stick in the appropriate direction (all managed by analysing the character movements and position). It probably sounds more complicated than it is, but if it is too tough, there’s an easy control mode selected during the install process (which is great use of install screens again too, setup your basic options instead of sitting there with nothing to do). What I’m not a fan of is the sudden change in camera angles when you’re moving through the environment, you end up with the Resident Evil walk where you can’t get to where you’re going because your too busy wandering round in circles.
As there are two playable characters in this you can also choose to do it in co-op with two DualShock 3′s, or by one of you controlling Aiden or Jodie using your mobile phone. Seriously. This is a really understated game function that opens up the possibility of getting other people in the room who are not normally gamers involved in the story. I don’t know about you but my girlfriend tends to sit through most of the games I play because she’s in the room at the time, and in a lot of cases she watches the story and goes back to whatever she’s doing when the gameplay starts. This extra option means the passive gamers in the room can join in with an interface they might be more familiar with, and still keep focus on the thing they’re more interested in. The app connects rapidly, the interface is easy to use, and whether you’re using a phone, tablet or controller, it gives the characters two distinct personalities which you don’t get from playing on your own. Search the Play or App stores for Beyond Touch to install to your chosen device.
The audio and score is a key component of something like this, and I’ve mentioned the quality voice acting already. Ellen Page is in for the voice of Jodie, Willem Dafoe as Nathan, and Kadeem Hardison as Cole (I still love I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!), and all others turn in brilliant performances. The soundtrack sets the mood for each of the chapters and works very well with each of the situations that you’ll come across. I did have a couple of problems with the audio, there were a couple of times where it stuttered or made the actors sound like they were delivering their lines through cotton wool, and early on in the game the lip syncing went as well. I recommend cranking the volume up a bit if you can get away with upsetting your neighbours, not just because when the orchestral work kicks in it sounds lovely, but because you’ll need to drown out the sound of your blu-ray drive working overtime. There’s a lot of disk accessing going on and at points I feared for my ageing machine’s mechanism. I did encounter one crash during loading a segment which I thought would be a serious issue, but rebooting put me back at the exact point the problem happened, and I come across nothing else after that.
I’ve got this far without mentioning the story, and this is deliberate because it’s where unfortunately things start to unravel. It is entertaining throughout and nicely structured to reveal different aspects of Jodie’s life without it running in chronological order, and there’s a twist in the tale you’d expect considering the pedigree of the studio (which sadly I figured out what it was around the second chapter, so it lost some impact at the actual reveal). However, the game never fully engaged me with the character. I felt for the ancillary characters and the events that happen to them, but couldn’t get really in to Jodie and her situation. I don’t think this is down to the acting or the writing, but there were a couple of points where I could see I was being forced to make decisions I didn’t want to, and if I chose an option that felt right to me, the game tried to make me change my mind later, several times. There are 23 different endings that are determined by the choices you make, but it feels like most of these are deliberate choices (as in on screen “Press X to…”) that you only make in the last 2 chapters. Then there’s an epilogue section that I found totally unnecessary and out of character with the rest of the game, something that made me think I’d been watching a B-movie. There are other things that I thought really jarred with the overall narrative that I don’t think I can put down to my game decisions, but I can’t go into detail without spoiling the story.
I think the biggest issue with the game though is that it throws you into playing a character with a predetermined personality, asks you to make decisions based on your experience of a situation, then reverts back to the personality that isn’t yours for the game. It ends up feeling restrictive and disconnected from how you would think and feel. It’s bizarre that the more effort goes into characterisation of the playable parts, the more you don’t relate to the character, whereas when you’re left with a blank canvas you imprint your own personality on it and get into it more. Maybe that’s part of what’s being aimed at here, there’s the main character with the scripted and directed life, but you get the freedom with Aiden because at these points you have more control and are nearly free of constraints, you’re only tied by the distance of the link to Jodie.
All this said, I’ve enjoyed the story and the game, there aren’t many like it out there and it’s good to see someone taking a chance with a different style and sticking with it to tell the tales they want to. I’ve played it my way so far, made the decisions I wanted to, and will now probably do what I did with Heavy Rain, go back through and change my actions to see what impact it has. I might even attempt to get the platinum by the end of October, Sony and PlayStation Access are running a competition to win a load of A/V gear if you manage it, it’s worth a try.