Beyond: Two Souls is a game that you should play. It may not immediately endear itself to everyone, but Quantic Dream’s ambitious excursion into the otherworld is an experience that deserves to be sampled at least once. This is a daring adventure that’s not afraid to delve into the aspects of life that the medium is often eager to ignore, and while it falls short of its lofty aspirations on occasion, it very much makes the equally innovative Heavy Rain look like a dress rehearsal. As far as console swansongs go, director David Cage’s spiritual slice of interactive cinema could not be more unique, delivering a tense, often moving, and frequently flawed journey through a distressed mind.
Relayed through a series of fragmented memories, you assume the role of Jodie Holmes, a troubled individual linked to an entity known only as Aiden. This unearthly association forms the foundation of the narrative, as the uneasy alliance defines the protagonist’s life. Picked up by the Department of Paranormal Activities, the orphan bonds with a kindly scientist named Nathan Dawkins, and the plot goes on to detail the biography of the haunted heroine from adolescence through to adulthood. However, due to the unorthodox narrative technique, you’ll never truly understand the full extent of the story until the credits roll – and even then, your choices throughout mean that your conclusion may differ greatly to that of a friend’s.
Nevertheless, it’s this constant sense of mystery that will lock you into the plot from the baffling beginning right through to the enlightening ending. While the Parisian developer has been criticised for constructing poorly paced experiences in the past, it appears to have happened upon a much more agreeable balance here. Much like its predecessors, this is still a fairly lethargic affair in places, where you’ll find yourself spending large chunks of time merely interacting with inane objects in order to further the narrative, but these extended sequences of deliberate activity are often contrasted by enormous set pieces that would make even Sony Santa Monica smile. The game’s quest for action does come at the expense of its very personal focus in places, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the sheer spectacle of it all.
That the developer’s managed to pull off some of the game’s more extravagant scenes on hardware that’s nearing its seventh anniversary is nothing short of breathtaking at times. While it’s only been a handful of months since The Last of Us scooped up innumerable plaudits for its outstanding visual fidelity, Jodie Holmes’ global excursion comfortably removes the Naughty Dog release from its graphical perch. This feels like a next generation title, with character animation that is leagues ahead of anything else on the market. The game not only improves upon L.A. Noire’s staggering facial replication techniques, but it marries the technology with performance capture that makes the cast feel genuinely real. There may be a few clipping issues or sloppily tied cycles in places, but the overall achievement is so impressive that it’s easy to forgive a few minor mishaps.
The technology alone is not the only major achievement, though, as the performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe stand out in an industry that’s often ridiculed for its stilted and emotionless story sequences. Both actors pour their heart and souls into their respective alter egos, and the supporting cast is equally accomplished as well. It’s remarkable that we’ve reached a point where even the slightest inflexions on a character’s face can convey meaning, but Quantic Dream has managed to traverse that challenge with apparent ease; there are moments throughout the campaign where very few words are spoken, but the narrative is furthered nonetheless.
It’s unfortunate, then, that despite the technological achievements, the developer still couldn’t quite settle on a single theme to explore. If there’s a narrative flaw in the French outfit’s latest release it’s that it tries to do too much. The storyline awkwardly meanders between horror, sci-fi, romance, and more, never really lingering on a single genre long enough to make a meaningful impact. The plot particularly struggles when it attempts to step outside of Holmes’ personal tale, flirting with blockbuster brands such as James Bond as it clumsily depicts undercover military side stories and more. You will groan at some of the twists that Cage takes you on throughout the course of the title’s ten hour campaign – but somehow the luminary always manages to steer the story back to somewhere interesting before it fully falls off the rails.
The strongest moments come when the emphasis is on the lead character. There are a number of tender instances throughout the adventure that will give you goosebumps, as you interact with the game in a way that contrasts virtually everything that’s come before it. One scene, for example, sees you attending a condescending teenager’s birthday party, where the underage drinking takes an inevitable turn for the worse. Another lengthy sequence sees you preparing for a date, as you’re coaxed into cleaning your upmarket city apartment while Aiden attempts to scupper your plans. These slow passages are certain to prove divisive among impatient players, but the obsessively precise interactivity coupled with Ellen Page’s revealing monologues makes them infinitely more touching than the heavy-handed action encounters.
And it’s through the authority that the experience affords you that the narrative manages to resonate so profoundly. More often than not, this is little more than merely an illusion – the plot will branch before reconnecting at a pre-defined place – but there are pivotal points throughout the campaign where your actions will have a sizeable implication on the way the narrative proceeds. For example, one section sees you attempting to fend off an encroaching gaggle of government agents. Take them all out, and you’ll escape from your predicament without a problem, but get captured and the story will fork, taking you to an alternate scene where you’ll need to perform a new set of actions in order to progress. The end result is almost always the same, but you are in charge of getting there.
Considering the complexity of this approach, it’s impressive that the campaign manages to slot together with any sense of cohesion at all. Compared to Heavy Rain, however, the game feels much more tightly bound. There are still plot holes, contrivances, and moments that will make you raise an eyebrow in disbelief, but these are on the whole much less offensive than in the studio’s previous games. You will uncover the seams of the story if you specifically look for it, but accept a few leaps of logic and you’ll reach the conclusion of the adventure intellectually unscathed.
It’s these dubious developments that will prove a sticking point for some, though, and coupled with the general lack of familiar gameplay, the title is certain to split opinion. Quantic Dream has made a lot of commotion about the removal of quick time events from its latest title, but while the bluster isn’t entirely without merit, it’s a little overblown. The biggest change here compared to its PS3 exclusive predecessor is the removal of button prompts from the world. While you’ll still need to tap corresponding icons during speech segments, these overbearing options have been stripped from general play, replaced by a versatile white dot which rests upon items that you can interact with. Pushing the right analogue stick towards it triggers a contextual animation, allowing you to examine objects with swift and simple motions. But while this is a more tactile solution, it doesn’t really change the flow of the game, as you’ll still wander from one delicately detailed environment to the next, hunting for the right items to further the plot.
That doesn’t mean that the developer hasn’t invested significant effort into increasing the interactivity of the game, though. Not only are the locations now significantly larger – including a dreamy desert ranch that you’re free to explore at one point – but you also almost always have access to Aiden, the spiritual entity that’s linked to the protagonist throughout the entire campaign. The phantom can be accessed by tapping the triangle button, which transports you to a first-person viewpoint of the world. Using the ghoulish accomplice, you can target objects and people by holding down the L1 trigger and pushing and pulling the analogue sticks in different directions. This allows you to break various bits and pieces, possess non-playable characters, and relive memories.
The spectre is free to move through walls as well, though the tether between it and the heroine prevents you from staying too far away. In truth, the game limits your traversal quite a lot, outright blocking you from breaching some areas that appear within reach. While it does seem odd that Aiden is unable to explore some rooms and not others, it’s no less perplexing than the fact that 95 per cent of the buildings in Grand Theft Auto V cannot actually be entered. Unfortunately, this is merely a consequence of budget restrictions, and considering the amount of artistic attention that’s been poured into each and every environment, it’s not especially surprising here.
In fact, while the character animations are undoubtedly the highlight, the moment-to-moment visuals in Quantic Dream’s latest release are nothing short of staggering. Each of the locations feel lived in, with a tremendous amount of thought and attention devoted to each individual item and ornament. Impressively, because the game occurs over the course of a number of years, you actually see some of the environments evolve, as the infantile Jodie transforms into a teenage tearaway, and the inclusion of heavy metal posters in her room bolster the transition. All of the animations are completely contextual, too, meaning that the main character moves differently when she’s a stroppy youngster compared to a more mature adult. The little details help to sell the fiction, and while there’s never an enormous amount to do in a single sequence, you will still find yourself engrossed as you soak up as much of the scenery as possible.
Not that you’ll always have the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds, however, as there are a couple of chapters that demand your urgency. It’s in these sections that the game best resembles a more traditional affair, though it still very much maintains its own unique identity. One lengthy act, for example, takes you to Somalia, where you must infiltrate a well-guarded warlord’s base. To do this you must use a combination of stealth and offence, employing Aiden as an aide to help distract guards, possess them, or outright smother them in cases. This does provide the basis for some very straightforward puzzles, but the game often guides you through these conundrums. There’s a distinct lack of urgency throughout, as like in Heavy Rain, the game doesn’t end when you make a mistake. However, you’ll quickly realise that Jodie’s safety hinges on the plot coming to a satisfactory conclusion, and that means that you never really feel in danger like in the aforementioned game. In most cases, making a mistake will result in a fight sequence or the heroine decisively dashing back behind cover while she rues her own recklessness.
It’s a contrived solution, but arguably no more so than a misplaced game over screen. Nevertheless, the restricted repercussions are perhaps most prominent during the heavy action sequences, which also discard the divisive quick time events. Instead, the game frequently slows down during these occasions, providing you with a short window to mimic the protagonist’s momentum. For example, if she’s swinging a punch to the right, you must quickly copy that motion, or the set-piece will branch in a different direction. It works, but it’s not always clear what the game actually wants you to do, so you will make unexpected mistakes at times. Alas, a lot of the title’s appeal is making spur of the moment decisions that you may regret, and the release does do a great job of making you feel under pressure.
The overall presentation accentuates this sense of stress, employing excellent camera effects that make it difficult to grasp exactly what’s happening on screen in places, while the audio flits between heartfelt orchestral motifs and pacey, driving melodies. Despite the untimely passing of original composer Normand Corbeil – who the release is touchingly dedicated to – replacement Lorne Balfe has managed to construct a score fitting of the late musician’s legacy, and it’s undeniably one of the game’s strongest assets. In truth, the audio presentation is exceptional throughout, augmenting a great sense of atmosphere as you splash through puddles and click across tiled floors in daring high heels.
But in spite of the outrageously impressive production values, this is not a short lived experience. A single playthrough will last you at least ten hours, with multiple runs encouraged if you want to explore the various branching paths. There are also secret items to uncover which provide a little more background on the game’s production process, in addition to the possibility of downloadable expansions in the future. Elsewhere, an interesting addition allows you to play in co-op with a friend, with smartphones and tablets supported as basic input devices for those not familiar with the complexities of the DualShock 3.
Beyond: Two Souls’ imperfections don’t necessarily add to the title’s appeal, but this is still a game that you should experience irrespective of its flaws. While the plot takes a number of questionable turns, the outrageously ambitious subject matter, coupled with the release’s downright staggering technological achievements, make Quantic Dream’s current generation opus worth examining all the same.