Jodie Holmes is kind of like Domino Harvey, if Domino Harvey were spliced with Carol Ann from Poltergeist.
David Cage seems to have learned lessons not from 2010 Quantic Dreams offering Heavy Rain but from Metal Gear Solid 4. What I expected to be a fairly straightforward narrative piece turned out to be something else entirely, and I’m thankful I didn’t spend too much time reading up on the game’s story.
First of all, Beyond: Two Souls is not necessarily just an interactive fiction the way that Heavy Rain was. There are plenty of pre-rendered cut scenes and QTEs throughout this 10 hour experience, but within the parameters of what is a fairly linear vision from writer / creator David Cage is also very distinctly a game.
That is not to denigrate what Quantic Dreams does whatsoever, but the difference in what kind of experience the two major releases offer are markedly different. Both ultimately serve story, but though Heavy Rain’s various sequences stray from the objective only to work as reinforcement, Beyond’s narrative aim is entirely character-driven and doesn’t mind going far afield of “the point” in order to give insight into the main character’s (Ellen Page’s) life.
It’s hard to discuss the game without going too much into specific spoiler-y material, so you’ll have to forgive me here. I’m just going to say what I have to say, and if it includes story spoilers, then it will.
But first, let’s take a step back.
The game looks amazing, even by the standards of Heavy Rain, so three years has made a difference. Quantic Dream is doing some amazing stuff with tech, so everyone who works there should be commended for that, and Beyond’s world is just one that is sometimes amazing to behold. The variety of environments - not just a rainy, dreary, Seven-ish city - are mindblowing, and though they don’t always feel connected, they are impressive nonetheless.
Which kind of leads indirectly to the acting. The acting, even beyond stars Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, and Kadeem Hardison (what’s up!) is at least on par with a mid-level TV show, and though that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s hard to assess where acting SHOULD be in a game of this caliber. Considering the actors probably spent hours with MoCap equipment on them means the acting is absolutely amazing.
I haven’t really read reviews of Beyond, but I thought Ellen Page absolutely did carry the story, and I played the game through during a furious gaming weekend, so it had the potential to really become tedious, and for me, it didn’t. I thought she worked perfectly for the character the game was trying to sell to the audience, and even when I thought the story itself became somewhat un-compelling, I never thought the same for her as the protagonist.
Visually the game is stunning. I don’t think anyone has problems with that. The controls, however, are difficult to master - and I never really got the hang of them - because it’s hard to get a sense of spatial awareness, especially when controlling the “ghost-y person” (to quote Doctor Sleep) Aidan. Going through walls and rising up to view the surrounding environment is cool, but if you’re bad with the control scheme - and believe me, I was - then you’ll struggle with the controls until you don’t. Though I got sort of accustomed to them beyond the halfway point, I never felt like I was proficient with the mechanics at any point in the game. I sort of drunkenly swayed around when controlling Aiden (pronounced eye-den), but luckily most of the commands tied to him do not have to be completed in a timely fashion, so it was never really an issue.
Not only that, but some of the controller commands, too, aren’t entirely clear, so sometimes you might slip up due to confusion rather than slowness. The “momentum” cues are a nice touch, but they are also sometimes confusing. The idea is, you’re supposed to move the right thumbstick in the direction Jodie’s momentum is going when punching or jumping or avoiding something.
In the split seconds you are given (in slow motion), it is easy for you to misinterpret the cue and therefore make a mistake. The good thing is, most of the momentum mistakes are not fatal but merely punitive. You might get punched a few times, but a single mistake does not determine whether or not you win some form of combat or not.
I don’t think they’re good controls, but I’m not sure they’re entirely broken, either. Last time around, people complained about being able to see the gears working under the surface, the weird story shortcomings and the problematic simplicity of the QTEs. This time around, it could be easy to harp on the controls, because even though the QTEs are generally much more smooth in the experience, they still lack something fundamental, it seems.
Still, Beyond feels like a step toward more of a traditional gaming experience. There is more gamey-ness involved here - driving and other things - which simply did not exist in Heavy Rain. (Side note: I have not played Indigo Prophecy.)
As mentioned above, there appears to be some influence from Hideo Kojima in this game, because even though plenty of the game feels like a giant pre-rendered cinematic, other parts are quite video game-y. Parts of it definitely reminded me of Metal Gear Solid, and though the controls are never that tight, there’s some pretty intense stealth here. It’s definitely done better in other games, but the fact that it is here at all bears mentioning.
The game doesn’t vary controls very much, but the variety of environments and experiences makes it feel that way. It becomes Metal Gear for a while, and then it’s Red Dead, only to then become Alan Wake. It does not live within strict confines, and yet it has a distinct and unalterable path.
Unlike with the last game, which felt varied even though it wasn’t, not really, this game seems to be less opaque with where it wants you to go. There are some variations, but I doubt that you’ll spend all that much time agonizing over individual decisions the same way you did with Heavy Rain.
And that might be the game’s biggest problem (although the controls come close). It is too readily compared to Heavy Rain, which is unfair. I think Heavy Rain took a lot of people by surprise, and they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it, so they took the default position of liking it. (Plenty of people hated it, I know.)
But Beyond: Two Souls isn’t merely a refinement of the previous game. It takes some chances - with story, with controls, with the possibilities for emotional resonance - and it doesn’t fit neatly within a genre, so it is probably unpopular with large swaths of the gaming public. However, I think it will be fondly remembered and may fall into the “cult classic” camp, if enough people continue to play it.
However, even though I have read that there are 23 possible endings, I’m satisfied with the one I earned, so I don’t really have any inkling to play it again, unlike with Heavy Rain, where I did a bit of save-tweaking so that I could get the ending I wanted, or at least prevent myself from getting the worst ending.
It does present an interesting issue, though, with player choice. You know that, ultimately, your choices don’t matter all that much, but they still seem to matter more than the choices you make in, say, The Walking Dead, both of which seem (to me) to tell stories differently but in similarly interesting ways.
Still, Beyond takes a nonlinear path, so it is not a straight line from the beginning to the end. And even though I think the story of the first game is stronger, the narrative sense of Beyond is much better. The story choices feel more subtle in a lot of places, and perhaps because we kind of got to see how the gears were grinding beneath the skin of Heavy Rain, the choices in Beyond: Two Souls feel way less binary.
I’m going to recommend the game, even though it received some middling reviews. I enjoyed it as much as I would a strong season of television. In a resonant story, there have to be peaks and valleys, and even though some of the valleys drop a bit lower than I’d have expected, it still works as a beautiful, somewhat different gaming experience.