(Originally published on SpawnFirst.com on 10 October 2013.)
Whatever else I say here, however critical, there’s one thing you should know up front: I played this game all the way through in what was, in essence, one sitting– of my own volition. This probably says as much about me as it does about Beyond: Two Souls, but whatever else, it’s a compelling, enthralling mess of a game.
You begin as Jodie Holmes, a young woman with a dubious gift: she has an entity named Aiden tethered to her by an otherworldly sparkling purple chain. Aiden can knock over things at her command (and his own) and can enter the bodies of the unsuspecting to control them for various purposes. This gains her the attraction of Nathan Dawkins and the Department of Paranormal Activities, a military-run organization dedicated to studying these entities and the world, well, beyond ours. It also attracts the attention of the CIA, because of course it does, and those around the world who are seeking to build a Condenser, a tool that will open the rift between our world and the other one. B:TS is about Jodie’s journey over fifteen years of her life, with Aiden, through the world she lives in in order to discover the world on the other side. She goes through some staggering highs and lows until she reaches that ultimate destination.
To talk about it more might spoil the whole thing– and it’d imply that B:TS is a game whose plot can be so condensed. It’s hard to even define a genre for the game: it is, by turns, survival horror, third-person shooter, tactical stealth, and interactive drama.
Get prepared for carpal tunnel. Playing a Quantic Dream game kind of comes down to your ability to play Simon Says: you follow a lot of button prompts for quicktime events. Where there aren’t button prompts, there’s a little white dot showing you that you should be moving your right stick in some direction or another (though what that direction was was occasionally opaque to me). Combat also comes down to button prompts or moving your right stick in the direction of Jodie’s arm/body/leg/head/??? when a slow-motion prompt is given. Maybe it was just me, but it was often nearly impossible to tell which direction I should be moving. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes stopped the game to turn it to easy in order to have the game show me exactly which direction I should move the stick in. That said, the game doesn’t want you to die, and won’t let you– and if you wander too far in a direction you’re not supposed to, it’ll helpfully turn you back around.
You also sometimes play as Aiden, a non-corporeal entity that can go out a short distance from Jodie and play with machinery, furniture, people, whatever. He defends Jodie against monsters, helps her get into rooms, and shoots Somalis in the head (really). The game will force you to play as Aiden a few times a chapter, and if his untied floating makes you nauseous, you can turn the game to easy, where he’ll sort of swing back and forth between bright orange dots.
You will also sometimes ride a horse, command a submarine, or swish along on skis, but those moments are so far and few between to be almost negligible to mention. You mostly walk, wiggle your right stick, walk some more, hit the X button, and then walk some more. The game is occasionally more movie than it is game, though that opens the floor for one of those “what makes a game a game anyway” conversations. Some of the so-called choices become more an issue of “Once I do this one thing, then I get to watch the result of my actions,” rather than actually playing through them.
Once you’ve completed the game, you do have the option of going back and replaying single chapters, which I took advantage of. Some of them you will never, ever want to see again, but some are worth a revisit.
Graphics & Sound
Well, the people certainly look and sound great. B:TS has an amazing cast of principals (Ellen Page as Jodie, Willem Dafoe as Nathan, Eric Winter as CIA officer Ryan Clayton) and secondaries who make the characters come to life. This is aided in large part by Quantic Dream’s use of the facial animation that’s bridging the gap on that whole uncanny valley thing. Nobody’s opening and closing their mouths, dead fish-like. All of the performances feel real and nuanced, and Page leads the charge.
The set pieces are often very beautiful, but the textures of exteriors often look too contrasted, too sharp, and the interior textures are too shiny and spotless, even when covered in blood. It’s hard to know where to look in a lot of the scenes, everyone’s so bright and sharp and contrasted. The sound was also problematic– though the music was gorgeous. (Of note, Normand Corbeil, who also did Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy did the score on this, and he unfortunately passed away of pancreatic cancer. Lorne Balfe took over, and Hans Zimmer joined him as a producer.)
So before I get into the big stuff, let’s get the little (or at least more straight forward) stuff out of the way: I occasionally had a hard time with B:TS for reasons that ranged from the lighting to the sound. Scenes would often become suddenly so dark that I found myself reaching for the remote and pausing the gameplay so I could adjust the brightness on my TV only to have to turn it back down again in the next scene. I also lost whole dialogue pieces because of sound volume issues (sound disappearing behind music, etc.) and occasionally struggled to figure out which dialogue button to press. (You know, like: “If I push yes here, am I agreeing to give this guy sexual favors behind the dumpster in exchange for food? Is that what he said?!”) As noted above, the combat was sometimes a huge pain, but this can be resolved by hitting the easy button and getting big distracting white arrows to show you which direction to swipe in.
The game is told anachronistically, jumping around in time to what are theoretically important moments in Jodie’s development, though some of them seem like throwaways. The pacing and placing of these scenes seems almost nonsensical at times, and you’re forced, as Jodie, to make decisions without understanding what the context for those decisions might be. When you end up on a Navajo ranch (don’t even get me started with this little tidbit in Jodie’s personal history), it’s hard to understand where Jodie came from, what her mindset might be, except that you know, generally, at some point in the past she was running from allegedly bad people and was homeless at some point in time or another. At some point, Jodie goes on a dinner date with CIA handler Ryan, and the only way you can tell that it’s a good thing is that Jodie giggles when he calls– because you’ve seen him all of 2 or 3 times before, and not always under the best circumstances. I began making romantic choices just based on the attractiveness levels of the male characters, not because of any narrative relevance (though maybe that’s a metaphor for life).
On the flip side, there are some scenes, such as a very early scene where Jodie is helping Ryan commit what seems to be a heist, that never offer any additional context at all. It becomes easy to look back on the memory strand that is the load screens between chapters and wonder why some of them were in there at all. The game does some clean-up at the end to try to explain why the story was told in leaps and bounds and backward motion, but it feels like exactly that: clean-up.
To have any chance of enjoying some of this means to put yourself in a total state of willing suspension of disbelief. Cursed Navajo ranch? Absolutely. Kazakh military base? Sure. Battle scenes on the streets of Mogadishu? Why not. Everyone seems to be doing it these days, right?
And that may be one of B:TS‘s bigger struggles: it’s not going to be able to escape the comparisons to the games it either knowingly or unknowingly has borrowed from. Some are internal to Quantic Dreams: a dinner scene, though less morose and with the addition of Aiden, is nearly identical in gameplay to the one in Heavy Rain when Ethan watches his son Shaun. Some are things people have been saying for months while the game has been in development– that Jodie is nearly identical to Ellie, the young protagonist of Naughty Dog’s superb Last of Us. If you saw and loved Last of Us, you will not be able to unsee Ellie in some of the scenes, particularly the ones where Jodie is running around in the snow. Jodie also seems to have borrowed Lara Croft’s costume in places and there are Resident Evil tones in other places.
It feels like a game that’s trying to be all games, and in some ways it is. It’s almost 20 different mini games: the weird love child of Uncharted and Remember Me and Resident Evil and Last of Us and Indigo Prophecy and whatever else was lying around on the floor to put on to an idea board.
Some of the chapters are a lot of fun and have internal consistency, even if everything else makes no sense around it. What this makes for is uneven gameplay, distorted pacing, and an inability to care about the characters the way you feel you’re supposed to. There’s a mild romantic subplot, and there’s no way to tell if one of the two guys of Jodie’s choosing is even a nice person because of the broken storyline– though, again, maybe this is true to life. It’s hard to care about Jodie’s unwillingness to steal a few quarters from a newspaper machine when you were just slaughtering a bunch of people, bad guys or otherwise. It also becomes laughable when a child confronts you about a crime you’ve just committed. You’re supposed to care, but the emotional resonance is cheap and almost insulting. Any sympathy we have for Jodie and her fate and her relationships with people comes either from the story within the chapter itself or from Ellen Page’s performance, which is a heavy burden for her to bear alone. This is even more challenging when playing as Aiden, whose motivations are projected upon him by Jodie. Do you, as Aiden, disturb Jodie’s date? Or do you, as the player, sit there and just watch it to try to figure out if you even like the guy or not?
Towards the end, even some of the stronger characters devolve into silliness, but you lose track of where they were, sanity-wise, four hours ago anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. And the game’s creator, David Cage, says that there are 23 different endings, though they seem to be variations on five primary ones– and the final choice, and indeed the final action of the game, comes jarringly down to a multiple-choice quiz of sorts. The choices you’ve made throughout the game have very little functional bearing on the actual ending: that choice comes down to which button you press.
I was invested in the ending, but it’s hard to escape the idea that that may just be because I’d just invested 10 straight hours in it and I felt like my wrist pain needed to be for something.
There is a two-player co-op mode where one player plays as Aiden, the other as Jodie, and you can switch back and forth between the two by pressing triangle. It’s hard to imagine this enhancing the gameplay, but it’s there.
You can play B:TS from your smartphone with a downloadable app that is just a touchscreen that you can swipe to make the characters move. The game does switch to easy mode if you play it this way, however.
I played it through in 10 straight hours because my brain kept saying, What new weirdness will I find around this corner? — and in that sense, I wasn’t disappointed. If you buy it cheap, you probably won’t regret it too much. If you really want to go play a fun Quantic Dream game, however, go find Indigo Prophecy (known in some places as Fahrenheit). It has its own insanity– but not at the detriment of the game.
All screenshots are copyright Quantic Dreams.