It is damn near impossible to review Beyond: Two Souls in a vacuum.
The game comes to us from the good folks at Quantic Dream and director David Cage, who have become known for making games that are mostly cutscenes, but don’t tell especially well-reasoned stories. My dirty little secret is that I really enjoyed both 2005’s Indigo Prophecy (Farenheit), and 2010’s Heavy Rain —plot holes and all— because there were so few games of their kind out there. And, for me, even the most rote story becomes exciting when seen through the lens of a new medium. But just three short years later the bar for video game narratives is dramatically higher, due in no small part to Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, and the explosion of high quality independently developed games. Unfortunately, rather than focus on elevating the quality of writing, the studio decided to double down on their pretty visuals and motion capture.
Beyond: Two Souls revolves around Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) a girl who’s born with an inexplicable connection to the soul of a boy named Aiden. The two are tethered between worlds, making them completely inseparable, and although Aiden himself is ethereal and invisible to the human eye, he and Jodie converse freely which puts Jodie in the very awkward position of constantly talking to herself. Because of her ‘special abilities’ Jodie ends up being raised under government care by Nathan Dawkins, who’s played by William Dafoe. Both actors do a stellar job, especially given how goofy some of the game’s dialogue can be, but two performers alone can only do so much to fix a messy narrative.
If you haven’t already guessed this is science-fiction story, and although I appreciate that the sci-fi trimmings are revealed upfront, rather than being a big switcheroo at the end, Jodie’s ostensible magic powers are used primarily for gameplay purposes or real deus ex machina stuff. Even the way different people respond to her ‘gift’ is baffling, with only a handful of characters responding with the appropriate: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!” Which is to say Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t compete with high quality children's movies when it comes to its primary narrative device. What’s more, the narrative skips around throughout the timeline of her life in a non-linear fashion without much, if any, reason to do so… and it still manages to shoehorn in a tacky Rocky-style montage to explain her skills in ass-kickery.
The game never really zeros in on a theme. It tries really hard to be a game about loss, but between jumping out of trains and waging war overseas, none of Jodie’s relationships develop to a place where her life would be meaningfully impacted by losing one of them. As it is her romantic relationships are so hollow I just wound up going for the hottest guy I could find.
The game is also just overwrought with the most weighty scenarios imaginable; everything from rape and bullying, to poverty and war. At some point you’re cheapening the gravity of these situations by laying them down one after another — and guess what? The best scene in the game is about ghosts in the desert.
Most of the scenarios have specific gameplay moment), but the gist of it is that players will walk Jodie around, guiding the direction of her conversations, and then have to switch to Aiden to find objects he’s able to interact with. It’s nice to be able to explore the world as a ghost (if only to see all the hard work the designers put into creating it), but unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of environmental character development, so it ends up being little more than a means to break up the quick-time events — which, by the way, there are a lot of.
The story of a girl and her ghost is a much easier pill to swallow than some of the absurdities from Quantic Dream’s previous efforts, and it’s a much more cohesive experience overall, but in 2013 it’s way too hard to ignore how asinine the game’s writing is — even if the performances are stellar. It’s a fun game to play if you’re just looking to kick back and engage with a hollywood movie, but be warned: there’s very little meat on these bones, and the game’s most redeeming qualities are in its production, not story telling.
- Yes, I repeated typed Ellie while writing this review, despite having played the game.
- Aiden doesn't control so well. First-person ghost cam is way harder to control on consoles that it is on with a mouse and keyboard.
- I like that they put in some sort of 2-player mode (because I suspect lots of people --like me-- play these games in a group) but it's totally impractical compared to just passing the controller. Same goes for the iPad app business.
- This is probably the last game I'll review on current-gen hardware.
- I think it might be cool if Quantic Dream tried their hand at a 400 Days style short story thing. It's usually the 'grand' narrative they struggle with, not the individual moments. Although I'd hate to think how many of their mini-stories would be about rape; David Cage seems to think he can stop writing if he's tackling something universally understood as terrifying.
- Hot Jay -- 'nuff said
- I feel like all my review notes include: Holy Shit this game looks good (maybe it's time to stop talking about how good games look.)
- When I started writing I figured this would be a 3-star game, but as I struggled to find positive things to say it became clear I was just trying to promote a style of game I'm inclined to.