Beyond: Two Souls - Review
Beyond: Two Souls isn't really a game. Well, technically it is - you control a character and interact with a few objects, but something doesn't seem quite right. It certainly isn't all that interested in you playing it. On the other hand, if it was a film, it probably wouldn't be all that impressive.
Much like director David Cage's previous games, Beyond: Two Souls owes a hell of a lot to films. Like Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, there's plenty of David Fincher influence going on in every scene; from the neo-noir lighting to the psychological thriller subject matter. It might not borrow as much from Seven as Heavy Rain did, but the similarities are still there.
If that wasn't enough, the addition of two recognisable film actors in the form of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe cements the game's relationship with cinema. Page takes the leading role as Jodie Holmes, a woman who, from birth has had a connection to a ghost-like entity called Aiden. The game's plot hops back and forth to fill in her life story, starting at the end and then piecing everything together bit by bit.
While Jodie is the main character, Aiden doubles up as plot device and game mechanic. With the push of a button your control switches from Jodie to a first-person perspective as Aiden, who bobbing around as a ghost, can interact with various objects. Initially, this appears to be a pretty effective way of introducing greater player agency; as you gleefully tinker with things as Aiden and wait for the results. For example, an early scene during Jodie's teenage years gives you the option of getting some payback on a group of bullies, as you throw things around the room with the jab of the analogue sticks.
The freedom however, is short lived. Most scenes only offer a minimal degree of interactivity, with most characters spouting automated responses until you stop being creative and do what the game wants you to do. Aiden even fails to be used effectively for puzzles. Rather than give you something to figure out, the game will simply order you to switch over to Aiden and do something as uninspiring as blast a door open.
Jodie meanwhile, pretty much handles herself. There's very few moments to alter her reactions to events and, rather than have you choose from a selection of dialogue options, the game will just wait until you've gone through all of them. Without the threat of characters permanently dying, like in Heavy Rain, there's very little tension in the fight sequences, which are your typical array of quick-time events. In fact, I didn't "die" once throughout the game, even when I missed a prompt the scene would play out pretty much the same as if I'd gotten it right. Which makes your involvement in the game's events seem even less important.
This leaves a story which, throughout its five to six hour runtime, suffers from poor pacing and weak characterization. The hopping back and forth along the timeline of the story; with some parts set in Jodie's childhood and others after she has joined the CIA, remove of a lot of the impetus from certain scenes. Rather than feel like the game is telling a cohesive story it instead is comprised of little vignettes of varying quality that suffer from radical shifts in tone.
For every earnest stab at creating some emotional resonance, Cage ruins it by following it up ten minutes later with some ridiculous monster or silly science fiction contraption. Heavy Rain had some preposterous moments, particularly as it drew towards its finale, and Fahrenheit jumped the shark during its second half, but in Two Souls case, the nonsense crops up almost constantly. This ultimately, is all down to Cage's script, the dialogue at times is awful and many of the supporting cast are typical stock characters, the worst being the evil US military leader that suddenly crops up in the game's final few hours and...you guessed it, wants to use Jodie's powers for their military applications.
It's down to the actors to prevent the whole thing becoming insufferable to watch. Page's performance as Jodie is wonderful, making some truly clunky dialogue sound halfway plausible. Similarly, Kadeem Hardison puts in a good performance as mild-mannered researcher, Cole Freeman. Dafoe is great too, but is sadly underutilized and, despite his character being integral to the game's ending, he's not set-up well enough prior to that for us to care all that much.
Beyond: Two Souls fails for a lot of reasons, but the primary issue is with the writing. The Last of Us showed us that we can have great stories and still actually play a game, and The Walking Dead does what Cage purportedly set out to do in a much better fashion. Occasionally, the game will tap into Sixth Sense style horror, which Cage is much better at handling than he is writing realistic conversations. If anything, he should have amped up the horror aspect of Jodie's situation.
There's plenty to be impressed with in Beyond: Two Souls. The animation, which, at times manages to almost reach that awkward uncanny valley moment, threatens to top even what we've seen from Naughty Dog and L.A. Noire. Likewise, the score, which was composed by the late Normand Corbeil, alongside Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer, is great, and does more for the game's atmosphere and emotion than Cage's script ever does.
Quantic Dream's games get a lot of attention because they are different. However, different does necessarily mean good and in Beyond: Two Souls case, there's so little to play that it barely warrants being considered interactive. Beneath the big budget and glossy shine is a story that is muddled and confused, and frankly, dull to watch. A lot of effort has gone into Cage's game, sadly it was in the wrong parts.
Beyond: Two Souls was released, in the UK, on October 11th for the Playstation 3.