It doesn’t seem like this point can be brought up enough in games journalism circles, but if David Cage wants to make movies, he should just go and make movies. It would certainly be cheaper, and then I wouldn’t have to review them.
Beyond: Two Souls is the latest of his Frankensteinian attempts to ram video games and films onto the same disc and create some kind of hybrid emotional experience combining the visual and narrative strengths of film with the interactivity and player choice you see with video games. It’s an admirable goal, which only has one minor flaw – it doesn’t bloody work.
That’s not for lack of trying. The control system from Heavy Rain, which mirrors physical actions with button presses and motion controls, normally feels quite natural and rarely will it actually frustrate your attempts to carry out the action commands.
There are also lots of interesting aspects to the plot – Ellen Page’s Jodie Holmes has spent her life accompanied by a sometimes malevolent, sometimes protective, sometimes helpful spirit from another dimension by the name of Aiden. The game charts her life in a non-linear fashion, from creepy little girl to moody teenager to completely off-the-rails adult.
Ellen Page was well cast in the role and Willem Dafoe as a fatherly scientist was an interesting choice, but it’s all let down by the spectacularly bad writing.
Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream’s first game to go mainstream (after the supremely weird Omikron: The Nomad Soul) famously took a lot of criticism for completely forgetting what its plot was about two thirds of the way through. Heavy Rain, by comparison, took a simple story, showed us four different perspectives and it worked, minus the occasional hanging plot thread.
With Beyond, though, we go right back to square one, keep right on going and crash into a wall. From the off, there’s little indication of what the plot is supposed to be about and that problem continues for the entire game. Every time something seems to be tying together (Jodie’s involvement as a CIA agent, her homelessness, her exile in the middle of the desert) it’s forgotten about and never mentioned again.
The desert incident deserves special mention as a particularly unedifying sequence. After a couple of hours of exposition regarding Jodie’s origins and her difficult childhood, plus some CIA training, we suddenly find her working on a Navajo ranch. That’s fine, David Cage, whatever you want to do, just as it links in some way – oh? It doesn’t?
Nope. After fetching some water and having a weird spiritual connection with a horse, there’s an inexplicable boss fight with a Navajo sand-demon who kills sheep every once in a while and is only driven off by careful use of Aiden’s ghost powers. Then you leave and skip ahead in time and do something completely unrelated.
I’m sorry, what? It’s all well and good to open new story threads, but this chapter takes up more time than pretty much any other and very little relevant happens. We’re introduced to characters we know very little about who then piss off for the rest of the game. Any writer with even an ounce of flair could do better. What was it, Quantic Dream? Did you write that on a particularly wine-heavy Bastille Day? Because frankly, it’s not retrievable in any way, and any editor worth their salt should have excised it completely.
The game, as did Heavy Rain, makes a big deal of your choices having an effect on how your game progresses, and to some degree they do – but there’s a fundamental problem with the system that means when it really matters – whether you kill a certain person, whether you do something immoral that they’ve produced a cutscene for – your choice suddenly counts for nothing.
Heavy Rain was able to play the moral choice aspect well, for one very simple reason – it had four protagonists. When you’re following four people through a story, it’s perfectly possible for one or more of them to fail, die, or become imprisoned and for the story to continue.
Jodie, on the other hand, does not have a failure state. As the only protagonist, the entire plot rides on her and without her being able to succeed in some form, the game cannot proceed. Thus, it’s entirely possible to glide through the game with the absolute minimum of effort and still finish the story.
At the point where any skill is excised to make room for useless following of instructions, any right to call Beyond a game disappears. It is simply a film that requires input. Maybe there’s interactivity to a degree in the very few choices you have, but ultimately it seems pointless to keep watching when, as a film, it’s very poor.
Enormous logical flaws are sprayed across every facet of the plot – for instance, why does Jodie, a CIA operative, not know that the guy she’s sent to kill is the Somalian president? Especially when even a cursory glance at Wikipedia could tell her as much? The story is supposed to be about how Jodie is exploited for her powers by both Aiden and the government almost from birth, but we never see any indication that she’s anything other than bowed and complicit in everything they want her to do.
We see in the opening cutscene that she (or at least Aiden) is strong enough to fight her way out of sticky situations, but she can’t seem to evade distinctly unpowered rural police forces or the antiquated militaries of barely-functioning nations.
It looks nice, but it always looks nice, because Quantic Dream make about one game every four years and in every case seem to spend more time on the graphics than actually making the things playable. Even the music isn’t as good as Heavy Rain, and that’s not excusable by things like the protagonist count.
Beyond: Two Souls is a profound disappointment from bewildering start to terrible ending. Players who want to feed banknotes to an already-overrated egotist are advised to do so with all haste, but those with any regard for quality in interactive storytelling and the narrative structure of video games should look elsewhere. As a personal suggestion, try Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable – by coincidence they both started as Half Life 2 mods, but the crucial connection between them is that they’re infinitely better than this overwritten, nonsensical, back-of-the-envelope disgrace. 15%.