Quantic Dream have made a name for themselves on this generation of consoles despite only having delivered one title up to this point. The critically acclaimed Heavy Rain broke new ground for interactive story telling, presenting a narrative that didn’t die even if the cast did. It was a seismic shift for videogames in a way that so few could convincingly replicate, and as such there have been none that have tried. Instead it’s Beyond: Two Souls, the spiritual successor to Heavy Rain, that has been assigned the task of pushing further down this avenue, and that it does wholeheartedly.
The videogame begins with the briefest of introductions to the key characters and a taste of what is to come. Much like a science-fiction drama television series – far less related to Hollywood cinema than Heavy Rain – Beyond: Two Souls gives a present day cliffhanger before filling in the background story. After showing us the power of Jodie as an adult, played by Ellen Page, we are thrown back to her youth and given our first taste of gameplay. Raised in a military laboratory, we are already aware that there is something special about Jodie. The opening sequence told us as much, but now we learn that people – the right people – have known about it for many years. Beyond: Two Souls dishes out its information via subtle narrative twists in a similar fashion to film noir, but of course the interaction given to the player removes an additional barrier: you’re not just watching as Jodie becomes a victim to her telepathic abilities, you are Jodie.
The level of interaction in Beyond: Two Souls is similar to that of Heavy Rain, though it is controlled slightly differently. The player still takes direct control of the on-screen avatar with the left analog stick, but now actionable items or areas are identified by a simple white dot. The player pushes the right analog stick to commit actions or the X button to focus on objects. The move away from varied use of the face buttons is presumably to allow for easy conversion from control pad to touchscreen, but the experience isn’t hurt because of it. Of course, the sequences in which the player controls Jodie’s out-of-body experiences call for more complex control systems.
Pressing the Y button will call Aiden, Jodie’s captive inner being, into action. He travels from her body as an ethereal being forever tied to her, thus he cannot travel far. Controlled very similarly to the spectres in the GameCube’s underappreciated Giest, players can freely move through the environments and interact with objects in a similar manner to how they would with Jodie, however the key here is distraction techniques; as with previous Quantic Dream titles there are many ways to overcome most of the hurdles that the videogame presents and it’s up to the player to ensure that they find the easiest – or safest – way to progress. Sadly, many of the challenges in Beyond: Two Souls are far more binary than those of Heavy Rain or even Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy), with failed attempts simply reverting to the last point at which success was still an option.
Another flaw is in that of the surrounding characters. Jodie is amazingly well presented, believable in every action and emotion no matter how the player chooses to play her, but others may not behave so predictably. Changing tact midway through a sequence will often see key figures turn on a dime – where once they were friendly one change of pace will see them become a hate filled rival – even after only a minor incident. This is where the strings of Beyond: Two Souls can be seen being pulled, almost as if a points system is held in the background and that one action was enough to change your score from ‘category A’ to ‘category B’. It’s truly strange that so many black-and-white predicaments appear obvious in Beyond: Two Souls after Heavy Rain was so concerned with patching over them, but this may be because a greater good is now being strived for.
Non-continuity editing is a token of eccentric story telling. Some films have managed to perfect the art, famously with titles such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Momento, however videogames have been less successful in this regard. Without a shadow of a doubt this is Beyond: Two Souls raison d’etre: Quantic Dream has always aimed to prove that videogames can stand alongside cinema, and Beyond: Two Souls takes new strides in delivering a captivating story over the duration of Jodie’s life. From the day of her birth through into adulthood, we get a glimpse of each period of Jodie’s journey and piece together the puzzle as we go. One minute she’s a child at home having a snowball fight with the kids from her neighbourhood, the next she’s been spat out by society and is living on the streets. The only constant is Aiden, who remains by her side throughout.
While the story is engrossing there are numerous missteps that have been taken clearly due to the weakness of creator passion as opposed to developing for an uninformed audience. Beyond: Two Souls is cleverly pieced together by the end but the journey is a bit of a rough ride at times. The opening two hours chop-and-change far too much with no real explanation as to why and certain segments do outstay their welcome, but once the connection begins to be formed you’ll be glad you stuck around. Beyond: Two Souls may not be the revolution many were hoping for, but it is a progressive landmark for the videogame medium.
The production values of Beyond: Two Souls are second to none. The videogame bleeds cutting edge design out of its pores, from the selection of control method and difficulty during the mandatory installation process to the opportunity to control the videogame via its accompanying smartphone/tablet app; this is a videogame that is intended to make waves not just in its gameplay, but in terms of content delivery also. From a technical standpoint Beyond: Two Souls is simply one of the leading highlights of current-generation development. The visual quality is frequently astounding, with skin textures and animation far and above anything that has been seen before. There is the occasional blemish – a pan that stutters or a movement that appears less than human – but by-and-large Beyond: Two Souls is miles ahead of everything else on PlayStation 3. The sound design is similarly of a high standard, with the voice acting coming from fantastic talent and the soundtrack clearly having had far more attention paid to it than the average videogame title.
A videogame developed to the highest of standards, Beyond: Two Souls is an equally confusing and compelling experience. The gameplay has barely progressed from Heavy Rain – certainly not enough to warrant the three year gap between releases – but in terms of story delivery it’s light years ahead. This will prove to be an issue for some as the story won’t appeal to everyone, but any gamer worth their salt will be able to look beyond the surface presentation and into the finer detail of its delivery. Beyond: Two Souls is a flawed experience, far more so than its Quantic Dream brethren, and yet it remains so unique and enthralling that you can forgive it for the occasional misstep.