(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)
- The Game Itself
- 4.5 Stars
- The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
- 5 Stars
- The Audio: Rating the Sound
- 4 Stars
- Replay Factor
- 3.5 Stars
- Bonus Content
- 3 Stars
- Bottom Line
Beyond: Two Souls
- Street Date:
- October 8th, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- October 8th, 2013
- Game Release Year:
- Sony Computer Entertainment
- Quantic Dream
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
'Beyond: Two Souls' is a game that is much dependant on its story, and this review means to tread carefully with regard to spoilers great and small.
Last year, Sony and Quantic Dream announced 'Beyond: Two Souls' with all of the flourish of a Oscar hopeful. With Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe headlining, David Cage, the director, writer, and lead lightning rod at Quantic Dream, promised that 'Beyond: Two Souls' would break new ground for gameplay while revealing to players a meticulously produced sci-fi and character drama.
In broad strokes, Ellen Page would star in all possible mocapped glory as Jodie, a young woman, simultaneously gifted and afflicted with a direct connection to an invisible paranormal entity named "Aiden." The game would reveal not only Jodie and Aiden's relationship, but also the relationship of Jodie and the researcher charged with studying and thereby fostering her, Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Dafoe.
Contained within Cage's presentation of the project was a number of underlying promises, including the notion that while 'Beyond: Two Souls' would build upon the gameplay systems of 'Heavy Rain,' players should expect some dramatic differences.
'Heavy Rain' continues to be a polarizing game and is one game that could easily side track this review. Even more distracting is the viewpoint that Quantic Dream's games lack the correct amount of traditional gameplay and are thus not games.
What's paramount here though is how does 'Beyond: Two Souls' measure up as a PS3 a title or as just a video game in general.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
'Beyond: Two Souls' is a game with a consistently varied tempo. While the game breaks down into different episodes over a fifteen year span of Jodie's life, the length, gameplay and significance of those episodes varies greatly. An episode can be a short cutscene, a snippet of gameplay, and can even be as subtly mundane as packing a bag. Not only does the game also dish out the full opposite extreme with bombastic, combative action and life-and-death gravitas, but in some cases the difference in extremes may be the sole result of one seemingly simple action by the player.
Throughout these sometimes quiet and sometimes loud memories, there is one constant and that is the focus on Jodie. While there is much that makes 'Beyond: Two Souls' distinct from 'Heavy Rain,' the focus on one primary character, her viewpoint, and her experiences makes one thing rapidly clear. If you're not interested in Jodie's character, trials, and tribulations, there is little hope for enjoying the game.
In the broad view, this works well, but at an individual episode level there is cause for concern. Long before the player meets Jodie, her life had branched away from sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. The game is ripe with suicidal tendencies, futility, fatalism, and a fear of manipulation. No entity to entity relationship is safe from betrayal, and few good deeds go unpunished. This ongoing troubled existence is oftentimes frustrated by the disorderly sequences of the game.
There is a narrow margin between playing as Jodie in a flashback and reaching a new understanding of her character and the overall story and feeling sidetracked into past events whose outcome has already been made apparent.
Yet while the narrative can sometimes feel side-tracked, the gameplay does a good job engaging the player by being one good leap above an adventure game. Gone (for the most part) are the animation timed button presses of 'Heavy Rain.' The game instead uses the right stick in a manner deemed more intuitive for both simple actions and combat. At the core, the player needs to press the stick in the direction of the white on-screen dot for an environment interaction, or for the correct strike, block, or dodge direction of a slowed combat sequence.
The result is mostly fine. Environment actions (click this thing, something happens) are kept to a minimum. Combat ran very hot and cold in my playthrough. At times, I could direct Jodie's strikes flawlessly, and could move through the game's stealth sections with enjoyable, relative ease. Other times, the combat bogged down, and the slowed moments, when I needed to pick which direction to direct Jodie, felt like a crapshoot.
With the comparably diminished camera control of the right stick, just walking the character through a doorway can be an awkward affair. (In contrast, running to cover works well.) And the game's dynamic camera sometimes felt better at delivering cool camera shots than providing a solid frame to direct player moment, attacks, etc.
Being able to switch between Aiden and Jodie in many ways is what elevates the gameplay and helps to keep things fresh. Aiden can fly through walls, take possession or outright kill NPCs, distract enemies, find secrets (more on that later), heal friends, and more. Aiden can even deliver memories and messages from the beyond, and makes what I have considered a long history of boring paranormal notions compelling. That the game is so arbitrary about when and how all of these things can be used, just feels normal for this specific type of game.
Aiden's boundaries mimic Jodie's. An invisible barrier often redirects Jodie whenever she is faced with a larger than room-sized environment, and Aiden is linked to Jodie in manner convenient per level. That means that controlling the floating, invisible form of Aiden feels very distinct from Jodie, yet follows similar limitations.
That the player controls both Jodie and Aiden even as they struggle to compel one another towards certain courses of action, works well during much of the game. (Often times, Jodie will despair that Aiden does not obey her even though the player is controlling both characters within the confines of the level.) This success is achieved in part due to the game's shifting tempo. Most players should pick up on sequences where the game (much like in 'Heavy Rain') gives the player the freedom to, for instance, do three out of five possible things in a specific area. Even when the game speeds way up, such as in a chase sequence, the characters shy away from yammering at the player. (One example of how games insist on nagging players, is when Batman is tracking the tobacco trial in 'Arkham Asylum.') The helpful direction is still there, but the nagging is less severe and often times if the player elects to screw around, the sequence will end and leave the player feeling mistaken.
This all serves to allow the player to get to know Jodie, and her past, while shaping certain aspects of both. The story does have many moments that do not feel fresh or feel forced, or even invoke that sense of the movie 'Contact.' (e.g. Long awaited plot-points that either thematically forced, long overdue, or lacking in sufficient resolution.)
Likewise, the dynamic, no game over screen approach to gameplay was initially impressive, but could also be disorienting. Both different in-game decisions, or what seem to be pass-fail level objectives, like failing to evade an enemy, can still take the player to the same plot destination later in the story. This can feel like reading a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book, and finding radically different paths leading to the same place. I found that I needed to use the game's trophies to check my performance, and that in a few levels I would just quit before the game auto-saved to retry something. (Something like dying in 'Prince of Persia.')
Even with these qualms about the story and the occasionally disconnect with the character, it is hard to think of other games that are so committed to trying to flesh out a character of Jodie's experiences. Ultimately, playing through Jodie's story left me not thinking about the odd, boring parts or that the story was too convenient or convoluted, or that sometimes there does not feel like there is enough gameplay and other times that the gameplay offers unwanted choices while denying wanted ones, rather, I was left with a feeling of fascination, fascination for Jodie and for the game that is 'Beyond: Two Souls.'
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
While the environments can feel confined, and some memories are more cutscene than gameplay, there is no doubt that the game is a visual knock-out. There are some bad animation transitions (steering wheel snap!), occasional instances of obviously poor shadow depth, and other nit-pick level issues (rusted desert truck). Jodie is so meticulously detailed, especially as she gets older, that some (not all) lesser NPCs look lousy by comparison. Still, the game's art design and execution is top-notch. The pedestrian office spaces and streets out-detail and outclass 'Heavy Rain,' while some of the more fantastic areas that are tempting to spoil just blow the doors off of a lot of AAA games. Some silly details like the ever-present floor air conditioners just seem like the result of a long hardware cycle.
Again, while individual areas are small, what you see on-screen is impressive, and the variety of locations means not one but many visual treats. The game's many cutscenes are in-game and the transition between watching and playing is often seamless, which looks great even if it sometimes surprises.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Whether it's LPCM, Dolby Digital, or DTS, 'Beyond: Two Souls' reflects a near-demonstration worthy audio experience. This is mainly due to the wonderfully clear dialogue that is often exceptionally delivered. There are many lines that don't quite work, either due to a mistranslation or more often for this game a delivery that seems tweaked to match animation. (Dafoe/Dawkins has many lines line delivered too quickly.) Most of the awkward dialogue though is saved by the talent at work, and more than one of the lesser-known actors delivered endearing performances. There were a few lines from Ellen Page that came out almost mumbled, but those times just helped to illustrate how stellar the rest of the dialog is.
Aiden's sounds and other less grounded in reality sounds really deliver in the surround department, and help make up for the lack of ambient managed by other games that offer more player freedom.
Normand Corbeil scored with his dramatic character themes in 'Heavy Rain,' but while that suited the noir style, this game's soundtrack is more subtle and haunting, as suits its sci-fi leanings. Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe have delivered a score that compliments rather than distracts. At times though, if you stop to consider the soundtrack, you may notice how memorable various pieces are.
What hurts the game's replay factor is its relatively modest length. One playthrough is around 15 hours, and that's with many unskippable scenes. My playthrough yielded 44% of the Trophies, and while I don't hunt for trophies, the game's design uses trophies to inform the player of different possible avenues. In order to pursue one of the other endings for the game, I would need to either start over or pick a certain chapter and began playing from there to the end.
It's also possible just to replay individual levels to try to get different levels outcomes once those levels are unlocked. This is a good way to hunt for the bonuses, with one hidden per each level. They can be only found by Aiden, and unlock very nice character and environment concept art, as well as several of the game's trailers and behind the scenes videos, which have been on YouTube leading up to the game's release. Also unlockable in these bonuses are the Kara and Dark Sorcerer videos.
Revisiting the game in the future is a strong possibility as well, due in part to the Duo co-op mode.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
In addition to the unlockable bonus content mentioned above, there are a some extra Game Modes that should be thought of as bonus. The game offers a simplified difficulty mode, with simplified actions and navigation for Aiden. The game also offers Duo mode, where the first player controls Jodie, and the second player controls Aiden. This plays almost exactly like as if you were passing one controller back and forth, but with the convenience of two controllers, and the ability for the two players to select their individual difficulty, which may help to entice a second non-gamer player.
Then there is the optional touchscreen control. An iOS or Android device on the same wireless network as the PS3 can be used to control the game through an app. In theory this is intuitive for touchscreen users, but I found it distracting to have to look at my phone to see where buttons would appear. This mode also forces the simplified Aiden navigation which I hated. For those interested, this game controls so differently from 'Heavy Rain' that Move support would not have made as much sense as it did in that game.
The review copy from Sony lacks the many sweet bonuses of the GameStop exclusive version, most notably, the extra 30 minute level. The whole of that version, the soundtrack, dynamic theme, Steelbook, etc. might make the Bonus Content worth five stars.
Despite losing interest in some of Jodie's experiences and often times wishing for more freedom with both Jodie and Aiden, I was transfixed by the game's committed narrative. Not only do I want to pry out some of the variations in play that I may have missed thus far, but my fascination with the game as a whole has only grown since finishing my review playthrough. It's possible that the game's similarity to adventure games and Cage's obsession with being similar to films make for an acquired taste, but the level of production lead character depth, and overall product found in 'Beyond: Two Souls' are well worth the price of admission.
- Dolby Digital 5.1
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