Beyond: Two Souls – Review

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This is a game for which I really struggled to form a solid opinion. As it stands, for me, Beyond: Two Souls was okay; it had some truly incredible moments that made the playthrough an enriching experience. These moments were often tapered by moments that really ruined the game experience. So, as I said above, my overall impression is that it’s okay.

Beyond‘s biggest selling point has to be the talent attached to it. Boy, oh boy, is it a talent and a half. Ellen Page’s performance as the protagonist Jodie Holmes, is absolutely mesmerising. Page proves that she is more than able to portray an extremely wide array of emotions, and this may be one of her best performances to date. Though the story often went to places that I found soul-crushingly ridiculous, the consistency in Page’s performance as Holmes really helped me to see past sections which would normally lead to intense eye-rolling, and arrogant scoffing.

Willem Dafoe is also in this game, and he is also good. However, Dafoe’s character, being auxiliary, isn’t given the same chance to shine that is given to our Ms. Page. Well done Mr. Defoe, I rate your performance as exemplary despite you doing very little. Bravo.

Jokes aside, the quality of the performances across the board in this game are incredible. If these performances were voice only I would still be dazzled. With the inclusion of the technological wonder that is MoCap, it reinforces the overall quality of the performances during this game.

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That being said, this is still a game, not a film, a television show, nor an eighteenth-century Italian opera, and it is very much a contributors’ sport. During the game you control both Jodie Holmes, and her ghostly ghost companion, Aiden. As Jodie you can walk, open windows, and other such activities, pre-determined by the game’s designers. As Aiden you float and throw things around. Rather than allowing the player to explore large areas themselves there is a very linear path that must be taken. There are slight variations to this rule, but for the most part these are seemingly cosmetic and don’t necessarily further the story, for example, at one section you get a house to explore, instructed to do something other than stare out the window. Though I could do any activity made available to me in any order, there were no real consequences to playing with my dolls before making faces in the mirror. Sure my playthrough was different to another person’s on the surface, but this is a shallow example.

There are several occasions when making one decision changes the outcome of that episode in quite a drastic way. However due to the game’s structure, you reliving your life is non-chronological sections, there is a sense of inevitability. Such inevitability leaves a hollow feeling, a knowing that the game is only different on the surface. Though I don’t expect every game to have multiple endings, the idea that I am posed with a life-changing decision for it to only be relevant to a 15-minute section is wholly dissatisfying. This is one of the things that concerned me most about the game, and then I realised I was playing the game incorrectly. I was doing my best to empathise with Jodie, when really, I should have been, and I think to some extent was, empathising with Aiden. Both you and Aiden play the same role: it is you who are controlling Jodie’s life. It’s not she who gets to say whether or not she enjoys her date, it’s my decision, both as the player and as Aiden; maybe I’m feeling mischievous and want to ruin the date.

That’s the hidden beauty of this game: I enjoyed playing as Aiden because I got to punish people who had wronged Jodie, and who bugged me as a player, and I felt comfortable doing so because there was a restriction set on how far my actions would have consequences. The game seemed so desperate for you to empathise with the human protagonist that it forgets that the player is closer to the omnipresent being. These tonal inconsistencies lend the game a confusing blend of shallowness and the potential for great depth. By continually bashing the player over the head with the Jodieness of this story it loses the power it could have achieved by focusing slightly more on Aiden.

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Due to the way the game’s narrative is set, not only does the game lack consequence, it also lacks danger. I knew for a fact I wasn’t going to die, and as such wasn’t too worried about failing button prompts, especially those that occur during action sequences, such as fighting. This lack of danger is incredibly convenient, as the controls, again especially during action sequences, seem to be completely inconsistent. On paper, the mechanic sounds fairly straight forward: if Jodie is going left, flick the right analogue stick left, same with right, down and up. However, while playing the game, there were several times when I had no idea in which direction Jodie was going, she would appear to be leaning left, only to drop like a sack of haunted potatoes. The controls in general felt extremely clumsy. Walking in particular not only felt uncomfortable, but looked uncomfortable on-screen. It was gratifying that most running sections were cut-scenes rather than controlled by the player. Though the controls technically work, they get more of a soft pass. Though I can’t really commend them, I can’t publicly denounce them either.

What I can publicly denounce is how stupid this game is from a narrative perspective. True this isn’t relevant to the whole story, but it seems that in order to make a world in which a ghost companion is plausible, the game designers felt they needed to shoehorn in a bunch of supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Because of this the game is separated into two opposing camps. Camp 1 is the awesome life narrative, in which we see how having a meddling ghost companion by your side at all times can screw with your life: being a kid, going to a party, all of these become difficult situations because of Aiden. These were my favourite parts of the game.

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The opposing camp, or, Camp 2, is made up of long chapters that completely confuse the narrative, and introduce unbelievable character motivations. This camp involves scenes such as Jodie being sent to assassinate a warlord, or Jodie unlocking the secret of a Navajo family. These sections are overly long, and really mess with the game’s pacing; they’re not fun. They make the game feel more like a goofy B-movie.

I can understand why these sections are included, as I’ve mentioned above, but the fact of the matter is, I never questioned Jodie having a ghost companion. The early sections of the game particularly (early chronologically, not early as in the order in which you play them) feel so powerful, and natural, that the more ‘serious’ sections, or the more supernatural sections just feel superficial in comparison. There is a clear lack of confidence in the story’s arch. The game concludes in a way which removes all loopholes, but in the process dismantles all the narrative beats that made the game powerful.

Thus is my quandary, Beyond includes great performances, is an absolutely stunning game to look at, and at times truly packs an emotional wallop, and these things are great. However, the clunky controls, goofy plot developments, inconsistent character arcs, and overall superficiality of it all really put a dent in my enjoyment of the game as a whole. Beyond is okay: when it’s good it’s fantastic, but when it’s bad it’s terrible. The moments that gripped me left more of an impression than the moments that had the potential to sully the experience. As such Beyond is a game that is good more than it’s bad, but despite that it’s still an extremely flawed game.

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