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Review: Beyond: Two Souls

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Beyond: Two Souls attempts to raise the bar of the cinematic approach to video games. In many ways it succeeds.

Developer: Quantic Dream

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Platform: PlayStation 3

Release Date: October 8, 2013

Current MSRP: $59.99

Two Souls is the story of Jodie Holmes and an invisible entity named Aiden, a supernatural force that’s been at her side her entire life. As a child Jodie doesn’t exactly know what’s wrong with her. Nathan Dawkins, a government research scientist, forms a close bond with Jodie over the years as he studies her special abilities. Jodie is eventually recruited by the CIA for their paranormal department, but discovers that it has ulterior motives for using her powers.

The stars of Two Souls are Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Page, known for her roles in “Hard Candy” (2005), “Juno” (2007) and “Inception” (2010), plays the part of Jodie. Dafoe, who acts as Nathan, had a variety of well known performances in iconic films like “Platoon” (1986), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Boondock Saints” (1999) and “Spider-Man” (2002). David Cage’s two previous games with Quantic Dream, Indigo Prophecy (2005) and Heavy Rain (2010), took an interactive drama focus and he tries to take it even further in Beyond: Two Souls, which he wrote and directed.

The part of Jodie in Beyond was written specifically for Ellen Page. David Cage had her in mind from the start of his creative process after seeing a picture of the actress. That Quantic Dream and Sony were able to get both Page and Dafoe for this game is quite shocking. These aren’t unknown actors or those that had minor television roles but major film stars.

Cage only has two real written creations under his credits in the past eight years. The caliber of movies, writers and directors both main actors have worked with in their careers easily outshines Heavy Rain. Fortunately Cage doesn’t collapse under the pressure.

Watch a glimpse of Two Souls:

Stripped Down Interactivity

Two Souls has an even simpler gameplay set up than Cage’s previous games. Beyond’s focus is on the narrative, so the game is played mostly through an interactive storyline.

Jodie is controlled with the left analog stick and environmental interactions are with the right. A little white dot is shown for directing the character’s actions, like opening a door or picking up something. Simply moving the right analog in that direction completes the task. Other actions are completed by physically moving the controller with its motion feature.

Aiden can be summoned by the triangle button. A blue dot will appear on objects or people that can be interacted with using the L1 button. When holding down L1, two purple dots appear on the object. The player needs to interact these with the blue dot using both analog sticks, either by pushing them down, closing them together or apart to finish the action. Aiden can go through walls and other obstacles. It floats around the area, going as far the game’s boundaries allow it. Objects in the environment can be toyed with to spook people or help Jodie out. Aiden can also listen in on conversations that are away from Jodie’s earshot.

When playing as Aiden, a nearby person’s spirit is either blue, orange or red. Those in orange can be possessed and used to the player’s advantage, being controlled the same way as Jodie. However if they touch another person, the possession is lost. Those with red energy can be killed by choking them. Jodie can channel a spirit or see a vision of the past through a dead body to get information by connecting two dots between Jodie and the person. Aiden is a purple line always connected to Jodie, which makes it easy to figure out where she is in the area.

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Quick Time Events are easy but picking the right movements in combat can make it challenging to defend Jodie. (Image by SCE)

There are Quick Time Events of shaking the controller repeatedly or button mashing to ward off attackers or move around in certain areas. Holding one button while another one appears on screen to complete the action is another way scenes continue. These aren’t complicated button sequences and are almost impossible to fail. Quick Time Events are also used during combat. When in a fight the scene slows down, waiting for the player to move the right analog stick in the correct direction to land a blow or dodge an attack. These happen in rapid succession. The “Infraworld,” the place where other spirits are, brings out entities in certain chapters that Jodie has to avoid in the same manner.

Hand-to-hand combat situations can be tricky to figure out. It can be hard to keep up a perfect sequence during these combat scenes because it’s not always clear what direction to move Jodie towards, especially with it all happening so quickly. Even if you mess up horribly in combat the game will continue. Jodie can get beaten to a point that should lead to a typical game over, but there will be some situation where the attacker is then taken out through an outside force.

There are a few situations where Jodie needs to get in cover as you sneak around an area. Running into cover is done by holding down the X button until reaching the next wall or barricade. In sections where cover is part of the chapter’s gameplay, the camera can be wonky and distracting, making it hard to scope out the surrounding area. You can also shoot a gun in cover but only when prompted by the game, which rarely takes place.

Two Souls features local co-op play with a phone or tablet by using the free Beyond app on iOS or Android. The second player controls either Jodie or Aiden by tapping or swiping the screen on their device when prompted by the scene. Playing on mobile is even easier than with a controller. You can play the whole game using the app during single-player too. Using a phone works surprisingly well. There’s no lag or input problems. Co-op is like watching a movie with a significant other or friend and is a great addition for those who might not play games or even be interested in them.

The mundane moments in Beyond are enthralling. Setting up your apartment for a dinner date, packing up your belongings to move or searching for money are oddly interesting and can generate deep responses from the player. Even though the gameplay mechanics are simple, playing still throws you right into Beyond’s story. With Beyond’s focal point nearly all on its storytelling, the interface almost has no hindrance on the player.

Imitating Reality

The actors were put into the game through motion capture technology, as seen in this video. The performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe make Beyond: Two Souls a special experience. Dafoe’s character Nathan doesn’t get nearly as much time as Jodie but his acting and voice work is still extremely strong. The supporting cast of Kadeem Hardison as Dawkins’ research partner  Cole Freeman and Eric Winter as CIA agent Ryan Clayton also deliver terrific performances. For the most part, they all come across as real people in the character models.

The characters do look amazing and highly detailed. Jodie’s pained emotional state comes through in her expressions. The cracks on her lips from the cold weather during winter or sweat on a character’s face are remarkable. The environments look amazing and many scenes even seem photo-realistic. Beyond is one of the best looking games of the PS3’s lifespan. It can be hard to tell it’s even a video game.

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Two Souls is life-like with its character appearances and environmental visuals. (Image by SCE)

Each area is incredibly detailed, especially the outdoor chapters. Buildings and rooms are filled with miscellaneous items that make them feel authentic. The camera angles during scenes are superb, which adds to the layer of Two Souls feeling like an interactive film. The music adds plenty of emotion to the game. Beyond’s main theme is incredible. The rest of the music fills in Jodie’s roller coaster experience tremendously. All these cinematics set the player up for an emotional investment in Jodie and the story.

Beyond’s use of motion capture technology is incredible but sometimes fails to show the full impact of the human emotion. Body language is almost there but often can’t quite perfectly convey the desired feeling of the moment. The game doesn’t fully capture Dafoe’s wide range of fantastic facial expressions he’s known for throughout his career either.

Sometimes body movements in cut-scenes or gameplay situations like pouring a glass of wine don’t seem fully human, almost robotic in their appearance. Kissing looks extremely weird and unnatural. Some other intimate moments don’t make the same impact as well. While the animations and technical aspects aren’t consistent throughout the entire game, they’re still fantastic in creating a believable setting.

Make the Choice

The way Two Souls structured is somewhat confusing. The story follows Jodie from the age of 8 to 23 but it isn’t told in chronological order. Instead it bounces around at different points in Jodie’s life, which can go between her as an 8-year-old to being on the run from authorities as an adult. It’s similar to Page’s movie, “The Tracey Fragments” (2007). This breaks up the story’s pacing, otherwise you’d play as young Jodie for the first few hours of the game, but there’s also a storyline explanation for this.

The story unfolds through choices made by the player in various situations. Where these decisions may take your personalized play session is hard to say. There are choices in dialogue in how Jodie answers someone, like telling the truth, evading a question or responding with a sarcastic or cold line. There are moments when dialogue choices are shaky under the emotional distress like in Heavy Rain, giving less time to pick a response.

There’s also gameplay choices in using certain items with Jodie or making Aiden mess with people. Aiden can’t verbally communicate with Jodie, but they have a relationship where she knows what the entity is thinking. In scenes it will write a message on a foggy window or take over a television to get its point across. As the player, you can choose for Aiden to be a jerk in certain situations that could impact Jodie’s relationships and how a chapter plays out.

The branching choices create a reactive storyline for that chapter. Picking a line of options might end a chapter early or a different selection might extend it with smaller scenes that show more relationship and character development. The many smaller and completely missable gameplay scenes, like having tea time with dolls, or ripping up a family photo in anger, are fantastic. The overall story still follows a linear path though, so it can feel like most choices don’t have a major influence on the main narrative.

Selecting choices doesn’t have a huge impact until the game’s final chapter, when you pick the type of ending you want. A few of the player’s choices do affect if some of the supporting cast survive. Unlike in Heavy Rain, your choices don’t impact whether the main character will live or die. Jodie can’t pass away, and you can’t fail chapters or get a game over. If a scene is played badly, it just continues on to to the next section or new chapter. Take too long with a prompt and a character will make a comment on what you should do, or the game just awkwardly waits until a move is made. However there is a lot than can be missed or overlooked by not exploring or choosing certain paths. The player is still guiding the story but the narrative pushes it in a few directions.

Growing with Jodie

Cage wants video games to be more emotional experiences and he accomplishes this in Beyond. For the entire game you feel terrible for Jodie. Ignoring the supernatural and military aspects, Jodie is a relatable and phenomenal character. She’s a sympathetic person, a woman isolated, sad and hated her entire life. These themes only grow stronger as Two Souls continues on. She’s manipulated into doing what others want then abandoned when they’re finished with her. Her past, the strained relationship with her parents, the longing for true friends and the inability to have a healthy romantic relationship all make Jodie a complex character.

With part of the gameplay as an invisible entity, it does feel like the player is actually Aiden, Jodie’s only true companion throughout her life. This gameplay element forms a bond with her as a character. The storyline throughout 15 years of her life builds and strengthens this deep connection as well.

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Ellen Page’s acting takes Two Souls to a level it wouldn’t reach without her. (Image by SCE)

Jodie’s child actor is phenomenal. The chapters featuring her are heartbreaking and moving moments because of the turmoil she has to endure as a kid. Jodie’s evolution from a young girl to a strong woman spanning 15 years is the true highlight of Beyond: Two Souls and separates it from most other titles.

Beyond creates empathy for other people that you don’t find in many other games. The small and avoidable side choices to attempt suicide in different ways throughout the game are incredibly emotional too. Relationships formed with the homeless made for some of the most moving parts in Two Souls.

Jodie’s journey is a sad and depressing. It isn’t a happy story, which may put off some players. The crushing weight of Jodie’s shame is almost too much, but throughout the story she develops a unique brand of hope from her inner strength.

Two Different Worlds

With Beyond’s gameplay stripped down to a simplified idea, the game is entirely dependent on its writing, acting and storyline to carry the experience. One of the game’s problems is that Beyond jumps around everywhere. One chapter you’re training Jodie’s special agent skills but they’re not used until many chapters down the line. In the next chapter you might play as a teenage Jodie trying to sneak out to meet people at a bar or interacting with Nathan as a young girl.

Unlike a movie that might last 90 minutes, Two Souls can take around 10 hours to finish. This stylistic approach makes it hard to piece everything together as the game goes on. Some chapters even feel almost self-contained. You wait for a follow-up scene or interaction but instead it goes to an entirely different part of Jodie’s life.

Some of the chapters and sequences could be removed from Beyond and it wouldn’t change the overall storyline. You could see what Cage was trying to show but it still felt like extra padding. A few chapters felt out of place, like something out of Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. At times the dialogue is too cliché and felt like lazy writing, especially when the game ventured into typical blockbuster moments. Minor characters also bring quality acting, but some of the offshoot and background people feel amateur and cheesy. Romances come across as awkward, poorly written and unnecessarily forced into the story at certain points, especially considering the context the relationship forms and evolves from.

Without going into spoiler territory, Cage does sometimes fall into his old traps in Beyond, with silly sections that could use some editing, a revamp or even exclusion. The game’s story is at its best when it’s focused on the smaller human interactions and Jodie’s personal journey. When Two Souls attempts to have the huge scope as a Hollywood action thriller, it can come across as goofy and something from an entirely different game. Cage tries to combine too many things into one game, seemingly hesitant to leave behind any interesting idea in his mind.

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Beyond sometimes dives into bad movie territory when it tries to widen its scope. (Image by SCE)

It can be hard to follow that Jodie is a struggling young woman searching for her identity and also be a special CIA agent/pet weapon taking part in espionage missions or fighting soldiers in hand-to-hand combat during high speed chases in remote parts of the world. Cage dabbles in supernatural concepts and action movie tropes, sometimes unsuccessfully combining the two in Beyond, making for outlandish scenarios that break the storytelling and move the focus away from Jodie’s struggle. Some of the scenes and writing comes across as too video gamey in a bad sense. These wouldn’t make the final cut in a movie and it’s getting harder to put up with them in games too. Cage needs someone to reel in his vision, without the unnecessary ingredients, exaggerations and inconsistencies.

Apart from certain obvious attempts at imitating an action movie, the more intimate moments are where Beyond shows its uniqueness and Cage’s direction is at its most profound. The relationship between Jodie and Nathan or chapters as a lonely child are terrific. Beyond’s focus on death, the afterlife, loneliness, emotional pain, a longing for a real loved one and striving for personal freedom from the past are some of its strongest elements. These are enough to tolerate the other questionable and ridiculous moments. Unlike Indigo Prophecy that utterly collapses into a mess during the last third of the game or Heavy Rain’s plot holes, Beyond doesn’t repeat these mistakes to those extents.

Beyond is more Indigo Prophecy than Heavy Rain, with its paranormal and science fiction elements. What Cage exactly says about life and death might be too simplified and is ultimately left up to the player to interpret. This is somewhat disappointing considering there are few games that deal with these topics in a serious manner. The supernatural chapters that have horror elements to them work extremely well though. Some information surrounding events, like the government research into the Infraworld, aren’t fully developed or explained, leaving it up to the player to make assumptions, while other story reasoning aspects are a big stretch in suspending belief.

Without Page and Dafoe, Beyond wouldn’t even come close to the same impact it does. Their performances are so vital to the game, elevating both Cage’s writing and Two Souls’ sometimes questionable 2,000 page script. These two took the roles seriously, putting a lot of themselves into their performance. The supporting characters, from Kadeem Hardison to a homeless group, also do an outstanding job bringing Cage’s vision alive. Some of the dialogue, conversations and scenarios show Cage’s weakness as a writer, but Page’s performance makes them so much more believable than they should be. She’s the perfect choice for Jodie Holmes.

The story will take 9-13 hours to finish. Obtaining any of the game’s 23 endings depends on the player’s choices made throughout the story. Several of the endings are a payoff to Jodie’s lifelong struggle in discovering who she is as a person, even with all her broken experiences and painful memories. Individual chapters can be replayed from the main menu but to see the full weight of those decisions the game needs to be continued from that point on. Bonuses in the form of spirits can be discovered with Aiden, like behind-the-scenes videos or concept art for each chapter.

Two Souls will be a divisive and polarizing title. As an adventure game, interactive cinematic experience-whatever label people want to stick on it-Two Souls sets itself apart in many ways. Beyond is most likely one of the last major PlayStation 3-exclusive releases for the console and it leaves a heavy impression. Hopefully Beyond: Two Souls starts the trend of bringing more credible actors into video games along with stronger narratives and personal stories in mainstream releases. It’s exciting to think about what doors could open in the future.

Final Thoughts

Beyond: Two Souls is David Cage’s and Quantic Dream’s best work. Jodie Holmes is such a amazing character and her development is what makes Beyond special. An experimental game like Two Souls-with an entire focus on the narrative, the high-quality actors, remarkable production values and all the money behind it-is a rare oddity next to most other mainstream titles. Beyond’s strong acting from the perfect selection of talent and Cage’s focus on a relatable human story creates both a moving and memorable experience. 

Score: 4 /5

Positives

  • Ellen Page makes the game
  • Acting and voice work are tremendous
  • Playing Jodie’s growth from child to adult
  • Bond formed with Jodie through gameplay
  • Visuals look almost like real life
  • Young Jodie is phenomenal
  • Game’s themes and Jodie’s personal story
  • Music adds another layer of emotion
  • Local co-op is a surprisingly good addition

Negatives

  • Goofy sections that have plagued Cage’s games
  • Storyline can be hard to follow with chapter structure
  • Occasional bad dialogue
  • Combat Quick Time Events
  • Animations are sometimes awkward

A physical copy of BEYOND: Two Souls was purchased new for $59.99 for this review. As of this publication, 24/46 Trophies were obtained for 39 percent completion.

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