Platform: Playstation 3 (reviewed) and Playstation 4
It’s a rare occasion that a game comes along and compels you to see it through to the end in as few sittings as possible. Having something create a world you want to continue to be lost in is a rare treat indeed. Beyond: Two Souls, tries really, really hard to do just that. Maybe a little too hard.
Jodie, the character you’ll be controlling, is trying to figure out how her life came to this moment. What that specific moment is is left unsaid at this point, as the rest of the game has you playing through pivotal moments in her life that flesh out her story. These moments don’t occur in a linear fashion. One moment you’re a teenager, then a young child, and the next you’re back to near present day Jodie. Jumping around can be an effective use of story-telling if used to make certain events more sensible, but the disjointed narrative suffers from having you try to remember what’s happened when for reasons that make little sense. The reason for the timeline jumping is explained in the end, but with the jumping around adding nothing but potential confusion, it’s hardly justifiable.
You’ll learn that Jodie has a spirit that follows her around everywhere, Aiden (pronounced ‘eye-den’). Aiden is able to communicate with Jodie, float through (some) walls and ceilings, force ghost thoughts into Jodie’s head, and interact with things in the world – knock over some books, slam open doors, and the like. On the bit more sinister side, he can also possess and even kill people. It sounds like an interesting idea, but the limitation of use effectively kills off any real sense of discovery or creative use. You’re limited to what you actually can interact with in the game. Walls suddenly become impassible for Aiden. You can only possess certain characters, an option that makes a fair amount of sense, but there are times when possessing a certain character would make for a more simple or elegant solution than the one you’re given.
Aiden also has a limited range he can travel from Jodie, keeping you from wandering off too far from her. The amount of range Aiden has varies greatly from situation to situation. Sometimes you seem to be able to float off for a couple of hundred yards; other times you get twenty feet and the ringing of ears and blurred vision lets you know you’re not supposed to be seeing anything around here. Towards the end of the game, you enter a hospital looking for someone. Send Aiden off into the rooms and you’ll be, well, stonewalled, unable to go through but a couple of them.
While it’s not unreasonable to have this sort of limitation, having no set rules for it never really lends itself to feeling natural. Whenever you’re floating about, you’ll be wondering what rooms you can pass through and when the invisible wall will kick in. Not being able to plan around it makes it feel more gimmicky than interesting.
When you control Jodie, things aren’t much better. Saying she moves like a tank would be unfair to the reliable controls of one. Sure, they’re not maneuverable, but at least they operate in a consistent manner. Moving the thumbstick in one direction doesn’t always translate to the direction you think it’s going to. You’ll be stopping and going to get her back on target more than I found acceptable. While movement is clunky, waiting for the proper quick-time event (QTE) to pop up isn’t any better. You’ll walk by something, see the telltale dot for you to move the right thumbstick to interact with it, and before you can react, the dot disappears. No big deal, turn yourself around have it appear again, right? I wouldn’t even say that’s the case in most instances. No, I had to readjust Jodie more than a couple times, taking five to ten seconds to find that sweet spot again. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but when you do it time and time again, the time, not to mention the frustration, adds up.
Really, Beyond’s gameplay boils down to little more than moving from spot to spot and waiting for a QTE to show up. Try though they may, there’s no hiding that they’re QTE’s. The fight QTE’s had a nice idea, slowing down time and trying to give visual cues as to which direction to push the thumbstick that would make sense with Jodie’s movement. When you’re being chased or running down an exploding corridor, it can be hard to anticipate how you should be avoiding flying debris. Even during some of the hand-to-hand sequences, it’s often tough to gauge which direction you’re supposed to be moving the thumbstick to enable the next sequence. “Hey, I’ll press down here because it looks like Jodie’s trying to duck under that punch.” Wrong choice. *WHAM* Fist right in the old moneymaker. It’s a great idea that doesn’t get implemented well enough to not just rather see a gigantic thumbstick pop onscreen telling me what to do.
Speaking of QTE’s, that’s just about how you go about communicating with people. You’ll be given up to four choice of dialogue corresponding to square, triangle, x, and circle buttons. You won’t be given any real indication as to how the choice is actually going to come out. This same setup is used for when you’re asking questions and letting you dig further down the rabbit hole of that corresponding button. The problem is there’s nothing cluing you in that you can only ask a certain amount of questions before the sequence is over and you’re moving on. It’s not like you’re moving on because of some interrupting action is taking place. No, it’s just time to wrap up that conversation and away you go. When it comes time to respond to what passes for an emotional moment, you’re given some rather vague emotions to respond with. Are those choices going to have any major ramifications further down the line if you select one over the others? Truth be told, I couldn’t bring myself to play the game through more than once to experiment.
If the American version of English is your first-use language (or if you’re even aware of some of the basic differences between it and “Queen’s English”), there are quite a few little oversights that might break your immersion. Taking place almost entirely in the United States (save for the unnamed African and Asian countries), little things like having the word “Lift” in huge font on a wall instead of “Elevator” or Jodie saying a “motorbike” is just what she needed stomps out the last little bit of genuinely being engaged in the story there is. Even Aiden’s name leaves you wondering if it was meant to be pronounced Ayden.
While it’s sometimes pretty to look at, the mouth movements and dead eyes aren’t exactly making that human connection that Quantic Dream has been trying for with realistic character models. The environments are largely bland with only one area that stands out (somewhere in the American Southwest) as memorable. While there are a lot of polygons in this game, the sound of your Playstation 3 whirring away trying desperately to render them is going to distract you a bit. Each play session had my PS3 whirring away so hard to keep cool, I worried that this game might be the death of the poor thing. That thought in your mind doesn’t do anything for immersion either. It would also be a rather lousy swan song for the poor thing to go out on.
There really isn’t much to left to say about Beyond: Two Souls. It’s boring to both play and watch. The hiring of some good actors was wasted on a poorly written script and the cast of supporting actors that range from kinda bad to really bad. With its barely-there gameplay only exacerbating the boring narrative, I can’t recommend you look elsewhere enough. There’s been other games this year that have pushed the envelope in terms of storytelling (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and The Last of Us, for instance) and still been enjoyable to play. Beyond: Two Souls, which does neither, shouldn’t even be on your radar as something to try when it becomes a cheaper option.