David Cage and the Quantic Dream crew are up to their attempts at making gorgeous cinematic masterworks in gaming with Beyond Two Souls for the Playstation 3. Did Quantic Dream learn lessons from it’s first unique yet flawed attempt Heavy Rain, or does the Beyond Two Souls miss the mark?
Beyond Two Souls is what happens when a director like David Cage does not have someone to on staff who is willing to stand up and say, “You know what? We probably don’t need that entire ten-page section about how the main character felt bad after flunking an math test in the third grade.” Beyond Two Souls is one of the most schizophrenic storylines I’ve ever had to sit through, filled with entire unnecessary story arcs that lay out backstory. Where Quantic Dream’s last at-bat, Heavy Rain, was criticized heavily for having truck-sized gaps in its plot, Beyond Two Souls spends hours upon hours of making sure every nook and cranny are filled trying to explain the motivations of the lead character, Jodie.
So what is going on? Jodie Holmes, played by Hollywood pixie Ellen Page, is born with a bizarre spiritual attachment to a ghost named Aiden. Jodie can interact with Aiden and his ability to pass through walls, manipulate objects and possess people in the real world. Without delving into specifics, Jodie’s “talent” for working with Aiden the spirit causes her parents to eventually hand her off to the government for testing/containment, where she meets with Dr. Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Dafoe, who acts as her defacto guardian and works with her to get a handle over Aiden’s abilities. Eventually when Jodie is old enough, the CIA step in and take Jodie to utilize her special talents with Aiden to turn her supernatural talents for the government…and of course, this is where things start falling apart.
Do you see the way I told the story there? In the first sentence, I set up the premise. The second I explained her powers and the third, I talked about the point of conflict. The important point here is that it was all told in sequential order, something that Beyond Two Souls strives at every turn not to do. Quantic Dream gleefully shuffles Jodie’s story with every chapter. One chapter, Jodie is six years old, the next, she’s a CIA super spy, and the next, she’s homeless. Just when you’re getting used to the story that you’re being told, you’re whisked ahead a decade, or you’re back in time with a new cast of characters. You cannot enjoy the story you’re being told because it’s all over the map, literally. The story’s “Prologue” is introduced at the beginning of the game, but actually occurs at the end of the timeline (which is the exact opposite of what a prologue is)…right next to the game’s eventual “Epilogue”. There are entire portions of the game that could be outright removed because they are vignettes in and of themselves, doing nothing to advance the story. Despite some very well acted sections between Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the story is easily four hours too long. There doesn’t even seem to be a plot until the very end of the game.
In a game priding itself on telling a poignant story, this is a big problem. What I do know is about three quarters through the game when I thought things were drawing to a close, I was yelling at my screen, “Oh, come on, there’s more?”
But it’s not just the story telling that needs work, the “game” itself is a mess. The “gameplay” is based on series of quick time events with clunky stealth and point and click adventure sections. While a lot of people complained about Heavy Rain’s action sequences and how there were certain instances where you couldn’t fail event if you put the controller down, Beyond Two Souls doubles down on it. While the four main protagonists could live and die based on Heavy Rain’s quick time events, Beyond Two Souls makes it so you can not die. Sure, there may be some consequences to failing an action sequence, but they’re minor at best. Because the story is so disjointed and there doesn’t seem to be a plot, a lot of the time, it doesn’t appear to matter. Beyond Two Souls gets away from flooding the screen with controller prompts by making things a little more context friendly; if Jodie is attempting to duck under someone swinging a baseball bat at her head, the game will go into slow motion and give you the opportunity to push down on the thumbstick to duck the swing. However, its not always cut and dried, and they can be easy to screw up; if she’s dodging into the foreground, am I supposed to push down on the thumbstick, or to the right? There were times I felt I made a mistake, but the scene kept on playing out as if nothing mattered.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really matter.
Even switching back and forth between Jodie and Aiden as the main mechanic in the game isn’t all that great. Typically, Jodie will say something to the effect of, “Aiden, I can’t unlock this door, can you get it for me?”, at which time, Jodie will stand there like a boob and not progress until you take over as Aiden, fly through the wall and unlock the door from the other side. But even the all powerful Aiden is limited in his ability for seemingly no reason what so ever. Some sequences, Aiden can fly all over the map with no apparent connection to Jodie at all, other times, he’s locked into a very tight location. Sometimes, Aiden can possess a soldier and force him to commit suicide, other times, he just can’t. And while I understand how overpowered Aiden would be if everyone was able to be possessed to do your bidding, the uses for the ghost being as extremely limited…and repetitive. You’ll find yourself pushing the dual thumbsticks in and out over and over again for every situation, whether blowing a door off the hinges or dispelling a being from another world. Hey, here’s an idea: the controller has all kinds of buttons all over it, use all of them and make things a little more interesting.
While Beyond Two Souls is a beautiful game as far as graphics and does have some amazing story beats with some truly emotional moments, they are buried amidst piles of unnecessary exposition and repetitive gameplay that it makes recommending this “game” difficult. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of Redbox, this game can be rented for a few bucks. I wasn’t expecting Quantic Dream to take a step backwards from Heavy Rain, but Beyond Two Souls is exactly that.