Republished on Wednesday 25th April 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of May's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Time has been tough on Beyond: Two Souls, and we don't mean from a graphical perspective. Quantic Dream's divisive 2013 adventure game hasn't aged one bit from a presentational point of view, with the title's impressive rendering engine really flexing its muscles on the format that it was intended for. However, with the Parisian firm slipping up in the plot department, the title's provided the studio's sceptics with enough schadenfreude to keep them supplied for a lifetime – but is it really that bad?
Just over two years ago, we described Jodie Holmes' soul searching story as one worth experiencing, even though it was suffocated by the weight of its own ideas. And that remains true today: David Cage, the title's director, is clearly a conduit for fascinating concepts – but he needs an editor to keep him focused on the fiction at hand. It's something that the forward-thinking Frenchman has recognised himself, as he's hired a writing team to help him with forthcoming title Detroit: Become Human.
Beyond: Two Souls, though, is all Cage all of the time.
And that means that it's filled with high points and low points: a touching chapter in which you're forced to understand the plight of the homeless is contrasted by an espionage mission that's so camp that it's practically begging for a Roger Moore cameo; a psychological horror section in which you're haunted by the dead relatives of a key character is antithesised by an hour-long side story that leans heavily on Native American legend. A lot of the time, the game just doesn't know what it's trying to do.
Holding it all together is Ellen Page – a Hollywood star who, to her credit, gives the shaky script way more respect than it deserves. The plot plays out over the course of multiple years, and Page's vacant portrayal of Holmes almost makes up for the storytelling shortcomings. The narrative goes that Jodie is born spiritually linked to an entity named Aiden, an invisible otherbeing enabling her to do extraordinary things. Consequently, she's sent to a special government unit for investigation.
The chapters, by default, are muddled up, as the character tries to recall the various events that lead up to the prologue. It's a classic framing device that's been used to good effect by many movies and novels, but it can be a little cack-handed here. Perhaps recognising that, the developer has included the option to play the PlayStation 4 version in chronological order, but while it rectifies a key criticism, we can't help but feel that the pacing is better in the mixed up version. You'll have to pick your poison.
While the gameplay generally adopts the Telltale model of interactive story, the introduction of Aiden does facilitate some light puzzle sequences. For example, sometimes you'll need to use the spirit to possess another person in order to progress, while you may also need to interact with objects in order to get someone's attention or open doors. It's a neat concept, but the rules that govern the entity are far too rigid: sometimes you'll be able to move through walls, other times you won't.
As a result, the game's illusion of freedom falls apart; it's bizarre that in some chapters Aiden's seemingly able to travel enormous distances, while in other sequences he'll physically harm Jodie if he dares to peer into another room. The same criticism applies to the branching narrative: actions in Heavy Rain had real consequences as the cast could be killed at any moment, but the focus on a single protagonist here means that Holmes has plot armour throughout the entire campaign.
The introduction of percentage markers designed to underline the decisions made by other players only emphasise this issue further, as they largely serve to highlight the unimportance of your actions. Naturally there has to be boundaries in any game, but it kills the tension immensely when you feel that there's an insignificance to the life or death QTEs that you're facing. The fact that Until Dawn only recently proved how powerful cause and effect can be makes this all the more disappointing.
But if you can put up with the fact that you're merely colouring the story rather than shaping it, and you can cope with the ham-fisted plotting, there are things to like here. Cage is brilliant at placing you in scenarios that you may never have experienced before: attending a high-school party as a total social outcast, preparing for a date with a poltergeist trying to scupper your plans, bonding with a child soldier who speaks a different language – there's some good stuff here.
The problem is that it never settles on one idea long enough to properly develop it, and so everything ends up coming across uneven and underwritten. As a result, it's quite hard to classify what genre the story even belongs to – it flirts with action, sci-fi, horror, romance, and, perhaps unintentionally, comedy all at once. The developer needed to pick one of these, rather than attempt to divide its attention across all of them.
But if there are missteps in the writing and gameplay, then at least Quantic Dream can't be criticised for the presentation. The game looked extraordinary on the PlayStation 3, but running flawlessly in 1080p on new-gen hardware it's a real sight for sore eyes. There are some aliasing issues and the borders will infuriate forum goers, but the set design and lead character models are outrageous – and there's so much visual variety across the course of the campaign that the eye-candy never lets up.
Beyond: Two Souls is strange game that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. There are moments where the title pushes boundaries and attempts things that most developers wouldn't even think of, but the plotting is uneven and the more touching sequences are undone by prolonged periods of outright idiocy. Ellen Page is excellent throughout and the presentation is staggering on the PS4 – it's just best to know what you're getting into before venturing headfirst into the Infraworld.