Beyond: Two Souls Review — Supernaturally Bad Storytelling

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Posted on October 8, 2013, Ross Lincoln Beyond: Two Souls Review — Supernaturally Bad Storytelling

A note to would-be storytellers who might be inclined to find inspiration within Beyond: Two Souls, the latest work of “interactive fiction” by David Cage and Quantic Dream: When you leave huge plot holes, when you introduce significant developments with no supporting context, when you ask your audience to accept a certain relationship exists between characters despite providing no evidence or justification for such a relationship in the material, you’re not being deep. What you’re doing is asking your audience to do your damned job for you. No matter how big your ambitions or lofty your concepts, when you force your audience to fill in the blanks, you have failed as a storyteller.

That strange combination of authorial laziness and unfocused ambition is at the heart of Beyond: Two Souls.

Rest assured, the game is not terrible in a strictly play-oriented context. It boasts exceptional performances from a stellar cast which includes Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, as well as supporting players that is, at least partly, well worth the enormous amount of money it (probably) took to secure their services. It retains and refines Quantic Dream’s signature control mechanics (mostly successfully). It has beautiful visuals, and incorporates several exciting, almost flimic moments.

But, good god. Beyond: Two Souls is full of cool concepts that are half-baked, poorly combined, and used in service to a story whose mediocrity is only matched by its incoherence. Its exciting sequences fail to have impact because they appear to have been designed because they sounded cool, not because they serve the story. Adding insult to injury, the actors’ excellence is mostly overshadowed by the limited and inconsistent characters they portray. And in case this wasn’t made clear, Beyond contains perhaps the worst story seen in a game all year, if not the last several years.

A muddled, pretentious mess, Beyond: Two Souls defies the patience and affection of everyone who played Heavy Rain (or its predecessor, Indigo Prophecy) and thought perhaps Quantic Dream was in the process of creating the future of storytelling in games.

Beyond: Two Souls
Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2013
MSRP: $59.99

It’s likely this review will leave readers feeling like we’ve just delivered a painful spanking to Quantic Dream studio founder David Cage, so it’s important to re-emphasize that Beyond: Two Souls is, in fact, not a full-on disaster.

For one thing, Quantic Dream continues to improve on its signature control scheme. If you’ve played Heavy Rain or Indigo Prophecy, then the controls of Beyond: Two Souls need little explanation, but in case you haven’t, note that rather than a free range of movement and a fully positionable camera, the game is a series of discreet instances in which you essentially partake of interactive cutscenes. This most frequently means quick time events requiring quick taps to the X or square buttons, or pushing the left and right analog sticks in particular directions at particular times, in order to react to an attack or pull off an impressively difficult action such as “walk quietly.”

I kid, but only slightly. Every Quantic Dream game makes an effort to defy gaming conventions wherever possible, up to and including making even mundane tasks — like, no joke, putting on shoes — into tiny challenges. But Beyond: Two Souls see further refinement of this. In part, this is thanks to the game’s central conceit — Jodie (Page) is connected by some unexplained spiritual tether to a spirit she calls “Aiden” (pronounced “Eye-Den,” and no, I have no idea why that is).

Through Aiden, Jodie is able to telekinetically interact with, and impact, her surroundings. This includes picking locks, hacking computers and, occasionally, engaging in combat. During normal play, the player controls Jodie, but at any moment aside from certain scripted scenes, you can switch to Aiden. At these points, the game becomes first-person as you look around from Aiden’s POV and potentially cause mischief or simply help out, depending on at what point the story happens to be.

Aiden is also accessible in the game’s two-player mode. Installing the Beyond Touch app on your iOs or Android mobile device, you can control Aiden via these devices and enjoy potentially easier controls than with the Playstation 3′s dual-shock controller. It’s not really an essential feature, but as far as mobile functionality goes, it’s one of the more novel approaches.

Beyond: Two Souls also improves on previous Quantic Dream games by making the mundane tutorial aspects less tedious. There’s no need to make Jodie go to the bathroom or brush her teeth. Instead, you learn the ropes by actually putting her abilities and Aiden’s powers to work. Not that you need very much tutorial; commands are somewhat less complicated than before, easier to pull off in a pinch — certainly compared the nightmarish driving or the almost-possibly-could-be basement murder scenes in Heavy Rain. The control scheme still has problems, but this time it’s a matter of application rather than conception.

For one, the style really isn’t suited for an action/combat game, which Beyond: Two Souls sometimes is. The fixed camera makes certain QTE commands difficult to pull off. In certain combat situations, you’re prompted by slow-motion triggers to press the right analog stick in the same direction as Jodie’s action to complete it. Simple enough, but when blocking or counterattacking, you’re often not spatially oriented in a way that makes the command feel natural. This means more often than not, you’ll find yourself being beaten up and not understanding what you did wrong. That it’s very difficult to fail a mission makes this problem even more inscrutable. Related to this, Quantic Dream still hasn’t figured out how to make normal, basic movement feel natural. You’ll find far too often that you accidentally walk into a wall because you keep missing what you’re supposed to interact with to open a door. These problems may vary from player to player, but they’re worth keeping in mind.

As for graphics, this isn’t a game that pushes the PS3′s graphical capabilities to the limit, but it takes every opportunity to treat the player to some stunning visuals and absolutely riveting scenes. From the landscape painting beauty of desert wilderness on a Native American reservation, to the doom landscape of a rift between the spirit world and the world of the living, Beyond keeps giving you a reason to look. Several scenes are as frenetic and intense as anything we’ve come to expect from middling blockbusters, at least in terms of pacing and scenario. And these scenes — like one set in an East African shanty town — feel textured in a way we normally see only in Naughty Dog productions.

There are a few serious issues with Beyond’s graphics, though. It’s glitchy, and errors include characters disappearing from scenes for several seconds. The color pallet is a bit on the pastel side, giving everything an unnaturally cartoonish look, even when ominous and dark. And the motion capture technology used here proves that facial mo-cap really isn’t there yet, at least in games. Faces look far too big for the bodies they’re on, and those bodies never seem to inhabit the environments. Frankly, it puts large chunks of the game firmly in the uncanny valley and it’s occasionally enough to take you out of the story.

Fortunately for Quantic Dream, the cast is excellent. Page and Dafoe are, of course, unsurprisingly excellent. They deliver nuanced performances that avoid the curse of major actors taking a video game job, and as one colleague of mine noted, make good use of the crazy motion-capture style Quantic Dream is built on. These performances are certainly nothing like the tortured mediocrity of previous games. Page and Dafoe are joined by a decent supporting cast that includes Kadeem Hardison (“Cult,” “A Different World”), and the result is perhaps the first-ever instance of a game packed with celebrities that never once feels bogged down by stunt casting.

So there’s plenty to like. But when your schtick is “interactive fiction” instead of “video game,” then the “fiction” part has to be exactly perfect. Beyond: Two Souls comes close. It’s a perfect example of everything wrong with the way game developers approach story.

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