Beyond: Two Souls seems to have somewhat divided opinion, and indeed it’s divided my opinion rather. An amazing technical achievement in some ways with great acting impressively captured, some stupendous visuals and spectacular sequences, an intense piece of storytelling that hits much more than it misses, but as a game it can be a limited and frustrating experience … indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s hardly a game at all.
So little Jodie is born with the amazing gift (or perhaps curse) of being linked to a ghostly entity called Aiden who can do all kinds of crazy shit. Like open doors and knock stuff over, then later possess people, choke them to death, and show snippets of the past and future. Which sounds way cool, except that scientists, soldiers, and the CIA are intent on exploiting Jodie and Aiden for their own nefarious goals. Beyond relates the story of Jodie’s extraordinary life as she grows up, rebels, loves, loses, triumphs, drinks coffee, breaks horses, busks, interacts in highly specific ways with a limited range of objects, delivers babies, and closes interdimensional rifts in space time with the help of her telekinetic imaginary friend.
This is all delivered in a highly cinematic manner familiar to anyone who’s played the game’s idealogical forebear Heavy Rain. If you imagine a spectrum with free-form open-worlders like Skyrim at one end, and much more limited but cinematic and story-rich fare like The Last of Us at the other, Beyond is way off the scale past The Last of Us and not a long way away from, well, a film. Player input is relatively minimal, usually in the form of timed button presses or movements of the controller, and the feeling is sometimes that of watching a giant cutscene. With Beyond they’ve added some slightly more complex and involving gameplay forms. In fights action occasionally slows down while you guide Jodie to a successful block, punch or kick with pushes of the right stick. There are some darting between cover sequences and avoiding guards reminiscent of a greatly simplified Metal Gear Solid. Then you can usually switch to control of Aiden, who’s able to float through walls, shift objects, manipulate people and otherwise help Jodie through trouble. A lot of this is beautifully realised, but these different modes tend to come piecemeal, and don’t really integrate into one cohesive style of play. Most of your time is spent wandering about looking for things to interact with or just ushering events along and watching them unfold. There’s also less of the feeling of variable outcomes that you got with Heavy Rain, here things truly do feel ‘on rails’.
What’s good, then? Well, a lot, actually. The narrative doesn’t go in order but springs nimbly between scattered episodes, from Jodie as isolated child experimental subject to troubled teenager to ass-kicking adult and back, gradually filling in the blanks in her life and shedding new light and offering new perspectives on the events you’ve already seen. It’s clever, it’s varied, at times it’s affecting, at others exciting, and sometimes seriously beautiful to look at. It’s all anchored by an excellent central performance from Ellen Page, with just the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability and, even when the dialogue gets a little ropey, you never doubt the reality of the character. Acting all round is strong, in fact, and the capture of the acting is outstanding. At times Beyond has the most realistic and expressive faces I’ve ever seen on a game. Tear tracks glisten on every nick and freckle, eyes gleam, cracked lips quiver, choppy hair is artfully tugged by explosions. Willem Defoe has never looked so much like Willem Defoe. EVER. Though capturing the actor’s faces whole rather than capturing the performance and applying it to a face built from scratch does give a different vibe to something like The Last of Us (probably the closest competitor in this regard) – not worse, just different. More filmic, less game-y, if that makes sense?
And more filmic, less game-y, is very much the overall feel here. While Beyond is coasting along on its own terms, delivering fluid cutscene after lavishly tooled action sequence after emotional close-up exchange between beautifully rendered characters it can be mesmerising, but when the player is grudgingly invited to the party, things can begin to creak. Your minimal level of impact on the game is occasionally made painfully clear. Sometimes you’ll be required to push your right stick towards something in order to make Jodie move things along, characters awkwardly frozen while they await your input. No choice, just input, and you wonder whether that input is really adding anything except to spoil the illusion of a smooth-flowing story. Sometimes sequences rather jerk from one to another, fragments of wide shots flickering up awkwardly between, and the more fluid and spectacular these little sequences become the more those ungainly joins stand out. And when the game occasionally opens out to at least give you a small area to wander in and explore, more often than not you end up steering a rather plastic-feeling Jodie clumsily about, walking into cupboards, struggling with ungainly camera angles and hoping you’ll find the next little dot to push your right stick towards sooner rather than later. At times like these Beyond feels a lot less like a bold, slick, next generation concept and more like a clunky, daft and rather tedious one. It’s not always clear what the required movements are when the action hots up, nor is it totally obvious what’s gained by doing them right or lost by doing them wrong. There’s no real art or cleverness to controlling Aiden either. Taking possession of guards and getting them to shoot their friends can be cool, the rush of images when you look into the past can be impressive, but in essence you float around looking for objects or people you can interact with then interact with them in the one way the game allows you. There’s no puzzle, no reflex, no strategy to speak of. One could say, ‘I’m good at Grand Theft Auto,’ or ‘I’m good at Street Fighter II.’ No one could really claim to be good at Beyond. “What, you can push the right stick in roughly the right direction at kind of the right moment, then, under no apparent time pressure, align two glowing balls in roughly the right place? WOW.”
The thinness of the gameplay really does shift all the attention onto character and story – I guess that’s the idea – but the storytelling is, especially in the light of such great work done this year in the likes of Bioshock: Infinite, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us, I dunno, a little patchy. Some episodes are really great. Some are less convincing. The mythos and background, not to mention Aiden’s abilities, seem inconsistent – as so often, the more of the mystery is revealed, the less interesting it seems. Sometimes there’s a genuine emotion to be gained from the performances and excitement from the action. Sometimes they splurge you with drama without doing the groundwork. Sometimes the development of the plot just isn’t very believable. So isolated Jodie visits a party with other teenagers and some seem OK and others are a bit snide then, suddenly and without much reason, they gang up on her savagely, assault her and lock her in a cupboard leaving the player (or at least this player) thinking – uh? There are enough of these brow-furrowing moments and unconvincing behaviours to prevent me ever getting totally immersed.
When it comes to a game that really aims to deliver great characters and a powerful narrative, Beyond is nowhere near so coherent, convincing, subtle or, in the end, effective, as the Last of Us. Maybe I’m being unfair with the comparison, because there is a lot to admire, and if not being as good as The Last of Us is a crime, then pretty much every game ever is guilty. But while Heavy Rain went for subtle emotion and mystery, Beyond aims more at big emotion and spectacle. While Heavy Rain had the feel of an art house thriller, Beyond is much more in big budget Sci-Fi territory. Not necessarily a bad thing, as Heavy Rain could feel a bit dour, a bit humdrum, but it does bring Beyond much more into competition with titles like The Last of Us, or maybe even Mass Effect and, despite some great elements, it suffers by comparison. In The Last of Us, character, plot and gameplay all dovetail together to intensify the experience. In Beyond gameplay becomes vestigial, and character and plot and the believability of the whole exercise suffer somewhat as a result.
Perhaps it sounds like I was thoroughly disappointed by Beyond: Two Souls, and I don’t mean to sound that way. I enjoyed it overall, was gripped for some sections and it’s certainly stuck in my mind afterwards. I greatly admire the concept and the rendering of the central performance – no doubt it’s a fascinating one-off – and maybe that’s why the shortcomings are so frustrating.
You certainly wouldn’t want every game to be like Beyond. But I’m glad a couple are…