David Cage’s follow-up to the commercially successful Heavy Rain has a lot going for it in terms of raw production. Quantic Dream’s figurehead has had access to a full motion capture studio, billions of dollars of assets, a robust development cycle, and the talents of Hollywood actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe all for the express purpose of his latest opus. What is sad is that in spite of all of this talent and raw technological power at Mr. Cage’s hands, Beyond: Two Souls’ attempts at emotional engagement are ultimately crippled by some glaring fundamental flaws.
The game revolves around the life of Jodie, a young woman with a bizarre gift. Ever since the day she was born, she has been connected to some supernatural being who can manipulate the world around her. This gift leads her to be examined by scientists, being enlisted into the CIA, and facing a threat of dark entities from the other side.
The overall plot of Beyond: Two Souls should be quite compelling. However, its presentation is what kills it. The majority of the game is depicted as a massive flashback, which effectively neuters any and all tension about Jodie’s fate. She has to survive in order for the story to make sense afterall. Furthermore, the flashback is intentionally made non-linear, chopping the otherwise straightforward story into fragmented pieces. This storytelling technique isn’t brand new, talented filmmakers have been doing it for years in order to compress and focus a narrative. Unfortunately for Beyond, this technique is handled horribly, making the narrative needlessly convoluted and difficult to follow. Very early on in the game a sequence of Jodie’s as a child undergoing a lab experiment is immediately followed by her as a young woman half-way around the world working on an undercover mission with absolutely nothing connecting the two scenes together in either theme or set-up.
It also doesn’t help that some scenes in question are very badly written. At its core, Two Souls takes various inspiration from the likes of Poltergeist and Carrie, but doesn’t grasp the core of what made those elements work. Instead of any sense of nuanced interaction and three-dimensional characters, there are cliched cardboard cut-outs resembling people and character beats that land with the subtlety of a Gallagher act. The worst offenders are a scene at a party where Jodie is goaded into letting her spiritual friend loose, which handles teenage social circles the way a lioness handles a sleeping zebra, and a sequence at a Navajo ranch in the desert that throws around tired pseudo-spiritualistic tropes and calls it a day.
Gameplay, what little there is, should be familiar to those who have played Heavy Rain. There are dialogue sections, action sequences with Quick-Time Events, and sequences where you control Aiden, the entity bound to Jodie. What plagues these sections is arguably the most blatant example I have ever seen of the player’s input amounting to nothing. No matter what dialogue is chosen, the characters’ impressions of Jodie never change, no matter how many Quick-Time Events are failed, Jodie will survive and the game will continue as if you pressed nothing. As a matter of fact, if left long enough, the game will pick dialogue and actions for you, removing what little player agency there is in this mess of an experience.
The sequences with Aiden suffer from this as well. While controlling him, the game goes into first-person perspective and does an admirable job of making movement feel ethereal and wispy which makes an effort to mix up exposition dumps and enliven some light puzzle-solving. Aiden’s interaction with the world is quite diverse, being able to move objects, choke people to death and even temporarily possess them. The downside is the objects Aiden can interact with are tightly scripted and are done in a hackneyed attempt to develop artificial tension for scenes.
The character models in Beyond: Two Souls are alright. The detail found in the faces can be quite impressive, but the uncanny valley constantly shows up to break whatever illusion of realism there was. Textures and background details aren’t up to snuff however. There is a lot texture pop, framerate can chug at certain points, and the game did freeze several times in my playthrough.
Ellen Page is great in the role of Jodie. In spite of how rote and basic her character is, she brings in a performance that threatens to be moving. Complimenting this is a fantastic musical score that manages to keep the experience moving, even when the script’s IQ drops one hundred points. Willem Dafoe also brings in great work as supernatural scientist Nathan Dawkins but his lack of utilization is a shame. The entire support cast also brings their best, bringing in crisp and clear performances with no bizarre accents slipping in.
Despite the many flaws, Beyond: Two Souls has some merit to it. For all of the psychological buckshot being fired trying to hit an emotional chord, there are some smaller moments that work. Delivering a baby, being afraid of the dark, surviving as a transient in the middle of winter, etc., but they are almost all immediately undone by the way the story is told. The most damning of this is how very clear the game only seems to have gameplay to make sure its audience didn’t fall asleep as opposed to actually engaging them with coherent moral dilemmas and challenge to recognize.
Even taking into account the pretension that Beyond should be judged as an interactive movie than a typical videogame, there are still problems to be found. Most prominently is the fact that if you are going to force the player to give up any opinion or agency they should have in an interactive medium for the sake of the narrative, make the narrative worth telling. And taken as a whole, Beyond: Two Souls isn’t a tale worth telling. It jumps between being mildly interesting, confusing, boring, and hackneyed with the seeds of good ideas falling to the wayside. The story mode can be cleared in roughly seven or eight hours but there really is no reason for return visits once it is done.
For all of the tools at David Cage’s disposal, Beyond: Two Souls is a big misstep. All of the graphical fidelity and Hollywood actor performances in the world can’t save a production plagued with a bad script. Having an interactive experience be stripped of any agency on behalf of the player only exacerbates it. Add to it a needless and horribly used story structure and you have a jumbled inconsistent mess of a game. If you have a thing for Ellen Page or for some fleeting moments of novelty, this is worth a rental. Otherwise, stay away.
AAG SCORE: 6/10
- Ellen Page’s Performance
- Novel Gameplay Sequences
- Decent Soundtrack
- Terrible Story Structure and Script
- Screen freezing and Texture Pop
- Player’s Choices Do Not Matter