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Beyond: Two Souls review

Solid
AT A GLANCE
  • The stunning amount of choices in the game
  • The emotion Ellen Page brings to Jodie
  • The game drips with innovation
  • Chemistry between the characters is minimal
  • Jodie's gameplay isn't rewarding
  • The writing and plot design sometimes feels weak

Beyond: Two Souls, more so than any other big budget game in recent memory, pulls the most out of what the medium is capable of offering the gamer. An incredibly elaborate production of motion-capture, writing, story design, technological achievement, and international collaboration, Beyond shows the consumer what video games can accomplish artistically when they reach out and push the envelope. Yes, there are definitely issues with Beyond, but how it attempts to tell a story through a video game, especially given the maturity and production value it approaches the medium with, is astonishing. Playing the game will be like looking through a crystal ball at a future of possibility.

The premise of the game practically drips potential: it details the life of a young woman, Jodie, who is tied to a spirit from another world. Its name is Aiden, and the two have been connected since Jodie was a young girl. She's the only human with this connection, and her entire life is one of experimentation, probing, prodding, and exploitation--using Aiden to augment her own, very human abilities and traits. Ultimately your story as Jodie is one of a search for happiness, to find someone or somewhere that will give you love and agency.

"Ultimately your story as Jodie is one of a search for happiness..." 

Because Beyond is a project that attempts to bridge films and video games, Quantic Dream has placed a far greater emphasis on story than on gameplay. Its execution of this narrative, though, is uneven. Jodie herself as a character is very well done, yet the rest of the cast just wasn't as filled out. They say things and move to action in ways that are unnatural; their motivations are sometimes questionable, and emotional scenes often fall flat because you don’t feel a character’s actions are justified. By the fifth time Jodie gets knocked out by the butt of a machine gun--and doesn’t even acknowledge it after coming around--you start understanding that this game leans much too heavily on suspension of disbelief. Yet one the other end of the spectrum: the choices you can make inside of each conversation are fantastic and robust. Many times during dialogue, the conversation will pause and you will get options for what Jodie can say next. Each option fits well into the flow, and once you choose which path you'll go down, Ellen Page will deliver the line so well that it will feel as though you chose the only correct answer. 

Beyond: Two Souls is predominantly motion-captured, which both adds and detracts from the story. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe play the two title characters Jodie and Nathan, and while in their own right they’re incredible actors, their performance together in Beyond feels a bit disjointed. Page is usually cast as a quieter, more reserved character in films, and this is evident in her performance of Jodie. Her more mellow energy works in most aspects of the game, but the more emotional scenes have trouble translating because of it. This could've been balanced by actors with a more energetic approach, yet the quietly calm disposition of Willem Dafoe means that there's zero chemistry between the two characters on screen. Page and Defoe's chemistry aside, Jodie as a character is able to form nuanced connections with other characters within in the game. One particular moment involves a relatively minor character but yields one of the most powerful moments in Beyond.

"...this game leans much too heavily on suspension of disbelief."

One of Beyond's more innovative components is the way in which it deals with the "failure" condition. You can't die in this game. Instead, and this is something you won't realize until the end, every small thing you "failed" at actually has this interesting butterfly effect that changes Jodie’s path through life. You’ll never know when a simple decision will end up affecting, years later in the story, who you can fall in love with. That is one of the most amazing aspects of Beyond: the way it seamlessly edits together its narrative modules. You may even assume that the story is totally linear, until you talk to someone about their experience with the game. All of your choices propel Jodie down a path that's so filled with detail, you’ll be astounded that there were other possible storylines you missed.

Luckily, because of the way Beyond is structured, replaying sections for a different outcome isn’t all that time-consuming. This is thanks, in part, to the minimal gameplay involved in Beyond. Action is split between two characters: Jodie and Aiden. If you’ve played Heavy Rain, then you’ll be familiar with the movement mechanics of Jodie. They’ve been improved here: you don’t get stuck on corners or suddenly have a wide turning radius, and when you switch directions of movement it feels quite organic. Jodie's actions, though, are hard to master. Interacting with the world is challenging, as contextual clues don’t do a very good job at pointing you to where you need to go. The problem is that you’ll never fully understand what direction you need to respond with, and you’ll spend the entire game just flicking the thumbstick randomly until she finally does what you want her to.

"...one of the most amazing aspects of Beyond: the way it seamlessly edits together its narrative modules." 

Aiden, on the other hand, is a first-person experience where you use the thumbsticks to fly him around. He can go through walls, hit objects, kill or control other people; in general, he serves as the puzzle-solving aspect of the game. Because Beyond leans so heavily on the cutscenes and narrative, you’ll never be truly challenged by the gameplay. You may even sometimes wonder why the scene was stopped just so you can complete a single arbitrary task. Yet while his his gameplay is lacking, you'll find yourself oddly drawn to the spirit. The game, of course, doesn't let you in on its origin story right off, and so you'll latch onto the small amounts of personality that they let slip in order to put the puzzle together yourself. 

But gameplay isn’t the driving factor of Beyond, which--for better or worse--rejects many traditional constraints of video games to push the boundaries of what a game can be. It tells its story in a unique way, it disregards many gaming tropes that we've come to accept as 'standard'. Beyond offers myriad lessons for other developers to follow and improve upon. Even though this game is rife with innovation, the narrative is still heavy-handed, and that ultimately means that you need to suspend disbelief and fully invest in the story to get the most out of the game. Forgive its flaws and Beyond offers a truly special story-telling experience that you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Editor's Note: The above review received minor edits for clarity and consistency following its publication.

More Info

Release date: Oct 08 2013 - PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: PS4, PS3
Genre: Other Games/Compilations
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developed by: Quantic Dream
ESRB Rating:
Rating Pending

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46 comments

  • joseph-blower - October 13, 2013 8:11 a.m.

    Your mileage may vary, but for me, the game is transcendent. It transcends both video games and movies to become something greater than either medium would ever be by themselves. I'm an avid gamer (I have 400+ Steam games, 400+ iOS games, and 100+ console games). Yet--to speak for myself--*I* found this game far more moving, thought-provoking, meaningful, and entertaining than many other games (including Super Mario Galaxy 1-2, Grand Theft Auto 4-5, The Last of Us, and others). I can only compare it to Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, or the Metal Gear Solid series: deep rich stories that have themes and messages that convey something of lasting meaning; something beyond the mindless (but fun) shooting and platforming of other titles. I will remember this game for years to come. There are few works of fiction of any medium for which I can say the same. If you like a rich deep story line and don't care about a lack of "agency" (it's always illusory in video games, anyway--there are always incredibly restrictive rules on game play), then this is *the* game of the seventh generation. The comparably minor errors in execution and direction can be ignored, when viewed in light of the whole. Indeed, the question of whether this qualifies as a game is, like Dear Ester, a largely irrelevant and pedantic: It entertains. It provokes thought. It is emotionally moving. And it illustrates that games--like cinema or literature--can be taken seriously as a medium to both entertain and enlighten. It seems to me that most reviewers of this game have profoundly and tragically missed the point. I've tentatively come to the conclusion that most people who dislike Beyond do so because they cannot (or will not) accept the game on its own terms: They have certain expectations of video games, and deviation from well-established norms vexes them. So, for instance, they demand interactivity, even when accepting passivity allows a far more compelling and moving narrative. In contrast, other people are more flexible (with regards to their expectations of the medium). For instance, the "passivity" of playing Beyond did not bother me in the slightest. I knew what I was getting into, and I knew it was worth the tradeoff: there has been only one other title in forty years of gaming history that provides an experience comparable to Beyond: Two Souls, and it was released three years ago (Heavy Rain). I believe that many reviewers, given their larger than average exposure to the medium are even less tolerant that other players of certain deviations from gameplay norms. This, I think, explains the large divergence of opinions on metacritic, and the (to me) inconceivably low average the game currently has (a mere 73 for the professionals, and 78 for gamers). Like the criticism that the game strips the player of freedom/agency, I do not think the others have merit: I consider the script to be impeccable. I have noticed no plot holes, and very few problems with the dialogue. It is telling that David Cage took a year of 12-14-hour days to write it and that it is 2000 pages in length. I consider Page's acting to be truly and deeply awe-inspiring. I cannot praise her highly enough. She memorized 30-40 pages of dialogue each day. She had very little time to prepare and rehearse. She often had to juggle different emotional responses to the situations (e.g., playing the part one way in a scene and playing it another way in the same scene). Yet, despite these challenges, her acting is consistently of the highest professional quality. I have noticed no flaws in her performance; it is (along with William Dafoe's performance) very much in keeping with her Academy Award for Best Actress. I consider her to be the most talented actress I've seen. I also think that the myriad ad hominem attacks against David Cage seem entirely unwarranted. He does not try to impose his views on others. Rather, he is merely passionate, has a vision he believes in, and is outspoken in his beliefs. He believes that gaming can, like cinema or literature, change the world (or try to). This is not arrogant; it is noble. Moreover, the game has other strengths that seem to be overlooked by many: - The social commentary is entirely warranted, and appropriately biting. - The graphical quality of the game is the best of any on a console. - The story is incredibly moving and thought-provoking. The narrative was very easy for me to follow, despite the non-chronological presentation. - There is a wide range of different locales and gameplay dynamics employed. To put it succinctly (and a little melodramatically): For me, the game is both a reminder and illustration of the many challenges and the triumphs, the sadnesses and joys that life has to offer. For me, it's life affirming, and I consider it deep, rich and meaningful. There are almost no other games (and few movies and books, for that matter) for which I can say the same. Take a chance: play this game.
  • Shinn - October 10, 2013 4:56 p.m.

    There are too many quick time events and way too many 'mash this button to make this happen' things for me. The story and choices are kinda cool so far, but there's almost no actual gameplay. I'm guessing things will pick up soon, but the game just doesn't do any of those things well enough for me to like it as I liked the walking dead.
  • EvilWaterman - October 9, 2013 2:44 a.m.

    Sounds like a riveting gaming experience...............not.
  • shawksta - October 8, 2013 5:27 p.m.

    So its basically Heavy Rain 2.0? Nothing really bad honestly, Heavy Rain was neat
  • Darkhawk - October 8, 2013 2:11 p.m.

    This is an embarrassingly poorly written review. I see from the Editor's Note that it's already been "fixed up" a bit, which is just a shame since it's still riddled with grammatical errors and poor explanations. For Shame, 'Radar, For Shame. Why didn't this go to David Houghton, whose review of "Heavy Rain" was the very best?
  • meg127 - October 8, 2013 12:50 p.m.

    That's about what I was expecting. I still really want to play this game, but I'm glad I made the decision to hold off on it until it gets cheaper.
  • Redeater - October 8, 2013 12:36 p.m.

    3.5 out of 5 with "The writing and plot design sometimes feels weak" as a minus. Yup. It's a Cage game alright.
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - October 8, 2013 12:11 p.m.

    The disappointment burns like river Styx. I was hoping for an emotional story that bears down on me with the weight of 900 thousand breeks.
  • shawksta - October 8, 2013 5:28 p.m.

    You say River Styx with feelings of 900 thousand breeks I hear River Twygz and i think of this goddamn music
  • shawksta - October 8, 2013 5:28 p.m.

    Whoops, forgot the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsuTC1yGqng
  • FriedPi - October 8, 2013 11:22 a.m.

    I did love Heavy Rain and I'm sure I'll enjoy this as well, but as a budget-conscious gamer I can't justify paying full price for a few hours of entertainment. If Quantic Dreams can give me a great story with more beef and/or bigger world (I'm thinking of L.A. Noire) then I'd be happy to reward them with my gaming dollars.
  • cricket0 - October 8, 2013 3:35 p.m.

    Well from what I can gather, this game has multiple paths, and potentially multiple endings, so it would take you multiple playthroughs to get all of the content out of it, so more than a few hours worth if your willing to get the most out of the game.
  • HOOfan_1 - October 9, 2013 8 p.m.

    I read an article, where the developer stated that players should only play the game once..... Then again, I read several articles which stated that Beyond Two Souls would not be quick time based....and that is exactly what it is. I don't consider this a game at all.
  • Rhymenocerous - October 8, 2013 11:06 a.m.

    Good review. Finally a writer that picked up on the fact that decisions really do have an impact, but you may not know until you compare to someone else's experience. I expect the actions you take are less black and white (or red & blue in Mass Effect's case) than in other choose-your-own-path games. I'm willing to give this game a shot.
  • Jennero_Rossi - October 8, 2013 10:47 a.m.

    After reading the review it sounds like it is a small update to Heavy Rain.
  • TanookiMan - October 8, 2013 10:23 a.m.

    I started playing this afternoon, having never played heavy rain. I'd say this review is pretty spot on, although I must say I find the game play pretty fun, although simple. Also, it is extremely pretty!
  • StonedMagician99 - October 8, 2013 10:08 a.m.

    Honestly, I think that unless a story is told in a way that really rakes advantage of the fact that it's being told through a video game, this type of genre should just go away. Having taken turns with a friend playing through both Heavy Rain and Beyond, I can say with certainty that neither of us had all that much fun playing them. In HR, you did make meaningful choices, but the plot was badly told and even worsely (I guess that's a word) acted. In Beyond, the story was interesting and better told, but aside from a small handful of choices near the end, your decisions really do not affect the gameplay or the story in any noticeable way. Ultimately, the fact that the narratives of both games (as well as Indigo Prophecy) are almost completely linear drags them down. Also, even if the stories of all three were utterly brilliant, they would be okay EXPERIENCES, but bad GAMES. The vast majority of the gameplay of IP, HR, and Beyond consists of QTEs, making it incredibly hard to feel like you're actually in the game. In all of these games, it would be perfectly possible to play them like other games (meaning: incorporate some actual gameplay rather than just using the four face buttons). But instead, David Cage seemingly finds it impossible to bring himself to trust players, out of the fear that they'll venture even a step off the path. I dunno. They all just feel very pretentious and player-unfriendly.
  • BladedFalcon - October 8, 2013 10:58 a.m.

    Learn what pretentious means first, please. That term gets thrown around way too much these days without merit.
  • duffer00 - October 8, 2013 4:05 p.m.

    I know! People always say other things are like "biased" but it seems like every other comment throws out that word but nobody uses it correctly.
  • BladedFalcon - October 8, 2013 4:18 p.m.

    It's because the internet is filled with ignorant shitheads trying to sound smarter than they are by using words they don't even understand.

Showing 1-20 of 46 comments

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