A wonderfully crafted tale that ties in both cinema and gaming into one, even if a bit flawed.
This is the most difficult game I’ve ever had to review. How do you classify it by genre when there’s not much to the actual “game” element? How do you classify a linear narrative that involves the input of the player in order to make difficult choices? These are the things I’m struggling with in Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s latest gaming effort. In the traditional sense, it barely feels like a fun, entertaining game that we’re used to wanting. However, that’s not the intention the creators were going for here. What we’re given is a story where we have the power to choose the path that Jodie Holmes, the protagonist, takes in life, even if that path has been laid out for her in some ways. It’s an engaging drama, yet a challenging puzzle at the same time. It’s a game by its very nature, and yet trying to review it only as a game would be counterintuitive. So instead, I’m forced to review it as both a film and a game. Here goes nothing.
The story here follows the life of Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page. She’s a girl who was born with a strange gift: the ability to see entities and spirits from the next life. Jodie herself is tied to an entity named Aiden, a rebellious entity whom acts as a guardian to Jodie, both to her benefit and detriment. She’s looked after by Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Defoe, a scientist who becomes like a surrogate father to Jodie while also researching how Jodie’s link to Aiden works, as well as what lies beyond in the world Aiden comes from.
The narrative meanders quite a bit into several different genres such as sci-fi, character study, horror, and action all in one. However, the central focus is a single character: Jodie, and her exploits on discovering why she has her gift and her struggles with Aiden’s lack of self-control. It follows her life from the age of nine to twenty-four, and right from the start, you can see in her eyes a great deal of pain brought on by her unique ability and the experiences she's endured because of them. You really feel for her and the ordeal she’s going through, which is helped greatly by Ellen Page’s spellbinding performance. She gives us a look into her life without inner monologue or excessive exposition as seen with characters from Heavy Rain, the previous Quantic Dream title. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t as dialogue heavy as its predecessor, instead relying on the incredible facial and body animation and detail to have us actually see each subtle eye movement, every small shrug, and every tear shed. These things and more also add to the rest of the performances, including a powerful turn from Willem Defoe.
The pacing of the story is difficult to pinpoint, as the plot is told in a non-linear format, something almost never seen in a video game narrative. At first glance, the structure would appear to muddle the story, blurring any sense of solid direction this game has. However, as with most non-linear narratives in films, the events are part of a larger whole, each chapter acting as one more piece of the puzzle. In this way, the presentation of each chapter provides sharp contrast with one another, leading from intense action-driven scenarios to more subtle, emotionally driven moments between characters.
As examples of this, I look to the chapters titled “Homeless” and “The Mission”. In the former, there’s a strong emphasis on developing Jodie and her relationships with the people she befriends. Listen to each word spoken, and pay close attention to the actions the player has a choice in performing. Each emotion is captured brilliantly within every single choice, and every performance ties in to the desperation that the title suggests. As a contrast, let’s look over “The Mission” without spoiling anything. My heart raced all throughout, my actions dictating how well this particular chapter went, regardless of where the path was headed. The decision to give the player more direct control in this chapter helps with establishing the atmosphere and mood of the setting. Every action taken has consequence by the end of the chapter, where revelations reveal the fragile nature of Jodie’s relationships as well as who she is as a character. Even in the action-heavy sequences, emotions run high and the weight of choices made resonate.
The entire game is an exercise in utilizing both aesthetic and fidelity to their fullest in equal measure. No setting is the same in each chapter, save for moments where we see Jodie in her lab-made room. In her travels, Jodie suffers through an unforgiving inner-city winter with incredibly detailed snow physics, runs through a wet mucky forest with the same great rainfall effects from Heavy Rain, and the scorching heat of the desert with environments that echo Red Dead Redemption and its sweeping landscapes. Each setting is crafted with care and attention to detail, only sometimes broken by the occasional texture pop-in. Interaction with the environments is also impressive, as the improved animations on the fingers help create a more realistic look to the game, even as some of the lip movements slip into the uncanny valley from time to time.
These animations can be used by the player as well, as there is still gameplay to make it feel like…well, a video game. As most games go, however, this is as basic as you can make it. Using the analog sticks, you move the character as well as the camera. However, the right analog stick also has a higher purpose, as you use it to interact with objects that have a white dot near them. Move it in the dot’s general direction, and Jodie interacts with the object. For some, there is a quick-time event involved, a gameplay concept that’s seen its fair share of controversy and disdain from the general gaming community. Seeing as how the game is styled and built around such events like in Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, it’s easy to forgive their limiting nature here. Success or failure in the event leads to the scene moving on, keeping the consequences of the actions taken in mind. Seeing as how you only control one main human character this time around, it would seem unnecessary to allow certain events to erase Jodie from existence early on in the game, so the game will move on even when Jodie suffers crushing defeats in some of the larger moments.
There’s also a combat system at play whenever Jodie needs to defend herself. Eschewing the traditional button system most other action games are accustomed to, the game uses the right analog stick in its place. Whenever something or someone is about to strike Jodie, the game will slow down and show Jodie moving in a particular direction. By moving the analog stick in that direction, Jodie performs the action successfully, resulting in a dodge or a counterattack. Most players will have an instinct to perceive the next move in a split-second and move accordingly, which can sometimes lead to a failure of that particular motion, as the game is meant to be more methodical and calculating in these sections. It can feel cumbersome due to this, and I admit to making these split-second decisions on more than one occasion as my action game senses kicked in when they weren’t supposed to. Wait for the game to slow down a few seconds, and then mimic the action seen. It requires a small amount of patience, but it also means fewer hits to the face.
In a lot of these moments, it’s Aiden coming to Jodie’s rescue. In a twist of luck, the most game-like aspects of Beyond: Two Souls come from controlling Aiden, Jodie’s entity. You hold direct control of Aiden in the first-person, as he has no true physical form, and is invisible to anyone who’s not Jodie. He maneuvers like a lost balloon in some ways, making him feel floaty and awkward to control at times. However, this doesn’t detract from the sheer amount of entertainment Aiden brings to the game. He can move objects around using a combination of the R1 and analog sticks. He can move, break, and push buttons, causing confusion and panic amongst those witnessing these objects moving seemingly without reason. Aiden can also possess other people to perform more complex actions like shooting or driving. He can even choke people to death if the situation is dire enough for this course of action. Being linked to Jodie, he feels a need to protect her when she calls for him, allowing him the chance to heal her, or create a shield around her to prevent injury. She can even call upon him to visit the memories of lost or dead souls to find clues to the next objective. Aiden is the answer to the complaints of Heavy Rain not feeling like a traditional game, and so he was made to be fun, even if his choices in entertainment result in Jodie’s day going from bad to worse.
As in any form of motion media—be it film or gaming—it becomes necessary to add in music to heighten the tension and emotion of any given scene, and thankfully Beyond: Two Souls has an expertly crafted score to assist the experience. Composed by Norman Corbeil and later by Lorne Balfe following the former’s passing, each track is unique to each chapter in the game, resulting in a diverse range of sounds that all add to the scene in different ways. Subtle strings and woodwinds accent the smaller character moments, while a heavier string and brass section demands that a scene be intense and threatening. As with most games, the music is dynamic as the scene changes, resulting in some unique twists in the overall composition and is a fine showing of how gaming music can sometimes be more impactful than of scores heard in film or television.
The ending gives you a few choices to make, each having significant emotional impact. The first ending I chose left me smiling like an idiot, and more excited about what the narrative could hold afterwards. Each ending is different, even if certain parts and events seem to lead to the same moment later on, just with a difference in context as opposed to consequence.
At the end of the day, I can only think of one question in regards to rating this game: does everything work as intended? My answer is yes. The reflex-heavy gameplay mechanics, the incredible graphical detail, the amazing and complex narrative with fantastic performances across the board, and getting to see an interpretation of the afterlife all ties together well here. Sure, the quick-time events aren’t something a lot of people like. Sure, Aiden might be a bit awkward as a ghost. Sure, the combat might be a bit unintuitive to some, requiring some re-education away from traditional systems. However, these are some of the least pressing matters when considering this game, as the whole of the product is beautiful overall.
David Cage intended this to be the story of a woman, not of the player’s increased sense of agency in how they want the story to go. Agency is left to deciding this woman’s fate and the fate of those who have deep connections to her, and the game built around this decision from the very beginning. Those who have played Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain will be hard-pressed not to enjoy this game and the story it presents. Those who are unsure might want to try the game out at least once before passing judgment, as most have never played a game such as this. Some will get frustrated with the limited sense of freedom, while others might find the story either confusing or scrambled due to its non-linear nature. But I assure you of this: the experience, however linear the plot, is never the same for two people, and that’s the true strength of this game.