How does one even begin to describe a game like Beyond: Two Souls? Unique, unconventional and ambitious, certainly, but unlike Quantic Dream's previous title, Heavy Rain, Beyond takes on a gaming culture influence that adds flashier, action-oriented sequences likely designed to appeal to a broader audience. Yet the heart of Beyond remains focused on that emotional, narrative-driven experience that Quantic Dream lives for.
Emotional narrative, dozens of action sequences, paranormal themes and Willem Dafoe? What the hell is Beyond: Two Souls? I won't claim to understand the recipe with which Quantic Dreams has created Beyond: Two Souls, but I can say a word on the quality of the resulting product. Beyond: Two Souls in an entrancing journey into the unknown, a singular experience that left me dazzled, conflicted and begging for more.
Ghost in the Machine
What's worst about having finished with Beyond: Two Souls is I'm not even sure if playing the game was fun. Dialogue between characters could at times be fun, solving puzzles is inherently fun, but the actual playing of Beyond – the interaction between my hands, the controller and the game itself – not what I'd call fun. See, Beyond: Two Souls inherits its gameplay in large part from its Quantic Dream predecessor Heavy Rain. That is to say, prepare for lots of quick-time-events.
Opening a drawer, deflecting a punch, summoning a paranormal entity, it's all just the press of a button or a simple joystick movement in-game. A cynical gamer might say that's all any in-game action really is, but it's no joke that Beyond makes interaction into calculus -- breaking down each action into its simplest form. What does Beyond gain from this? It's as if they created an alphabet from which to create words. The sacrifice, however, is that gameplay turns into sentences of single letters, and even complicated actions never manage anything beyond two or three letter words. Thus, the challenge of Beyond isn't in the playing of it, but deciding how to give those actions meaning.
Conceptually, at least, Beyond's gameplay is quite brilliant, though perhaps not compelling from moment-to-moment. The fact is that Beyond would not be what it is, or even a shadow of itself, without Quantic Dream's minimalist approach. How they managed to draw players into each scene, searching and taking in every detail. We're allowed to perform complicated actions no other game could dream of managing. What in one scene may be four sequences of short button presses turns so quickly into a full game of complicated interactions. No, it may not be fun, but the experience it provides over hours of gameplay, the complicated story Beyond entwines players into with simply button presses, is astonishing.
Yet the gameplay doesn't begin and end with quick-time-events. Much like The Walking Dead, much of Beyond's strongest gameplay comes through dialogue choices. That constant awareness, or perhaps illusion, that the wrong line of discussion could have dramatic consequences gives weight to an otherwise light system of gameplay. To press X or to press O may seem a simple action, but the results? A simple button press may have profound effects.
Jodie and Aiden
Regarding story, let's not talk about Beyond's story. No really, I'd rather not spoil a single detail of the game's plot, though I suppose a brief introduction would be fair. Jodie Holmes is a young woman with a mysterious power. She's inextricably tied to an otherworldly entity named Aiden. Aiden can effect the world in various ways, some meager, some violent. It's this complicated and mysterious relationship that drives Beyond's rich and fantastic story. A story that spans 15 years of Jodie's lift in a non-linear fashion. The places Jodie's been, the people she's met, the challenges she must overcome, and all of it with Aiden at her side -- for better or worse.
Thematically Beyond is rather all over the place. Individual sequences differ wildly: paranormal horror stories, fast-paced motorcycle escapes, political intrigue and back to Quantic Dream's staple character driven and dialogue-heavy chapters that are deeply emotional. It's this diversity in subject-matter that proves Beyond's greatest strength and worst flaw. The constant shifts in tone ensure the player is never bored, but in order to keep things interesting, well, some details prove rather nonsensical. Suspension of disbelief is requisite to enjoying Beyond to any degree. Yet despite the extraordinary events therein, Beyond is a story about people. Even should the fantastical prove too much, the human narrative is where Beyond's true value lies.
Yes, Beyond's dialogue is some of the best written and voiced of the generation. Ellen Page provides a stellar performance as Jodie, matched by Quantic's face and body-tracking technology that brings her acting to life in-game. Considering just how Quantic uses each character in what must be dozens of custom animations throughout the game, Ellen-as-Jodie is outstanding. Between The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite earlier this year, gamers are spoiled by such talented individuals contributing some of their best work to our medium.
That's right, it's not just Ellen Page, as she's joined on the cast by Willem Dafoe, Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter. Each of them have moments in-game where reality and the game knock heads. Unfortunately, partially due to the limitations of technology in the PS3, the greatest detractor to the above actor's grand performances is that damned uncanny valley. Imagine moments of intense emotion torn asunder due to faces suddenly so obviously unreal. It can be... jarring, but perhaps those moments are also important to the experience in their own way. At the least, they rarely detract from the superb acting and voicework of the cast.
That Beyond: Two Souls exists at all is a testament to our industry's dedication to risk-taking. There's truly no other gaming experience like it in existence, beyond what's inherited from its predecessor Heavy Rain. Yes, that means that many players will approach Beyond with expectations that it will never achieve. For those who approach it with an open mind and an eagerness for something different, Beyond will provide an experience unlike any other.
Beyond is at separate times slow, weird, confusing, frustrating, depressing, nonsensical, and the list goes on. Beyond is without argument imperfect. Yet for its flaws, Beyond provides such a broad spectrum of experiences that even the negatives become positives in their own way. It's almost as if one side of the overall experience would be nothing without the other. By the time I finished Beyond I was exhausted, yet willingly I reloaded multiple chapters just to see them once more from a different angle.
Beyond: Two Souls truly is an experience unlike any other, and that makes all the difference.
If you are just starting the game, check out our complete Beyond: Two Souls Walkthrough here.