Beyond: Two Souls is a flawed game.
This assessment is hardly surprising, after all Heavy Rain was a flawed game and so was Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy in the States). Quantic Dream put out perhaps overambitious titles that shine brightly for some (in spite of their problems), but fall flat for others. The difference with Beyond though, especially in regard to Heavy Rain, is that it’s flaws are more notable and that it strengths aren’t as strong. In fact, the problems the game has stop it from pulling off the very things that could have made it so special. It’s still a great game, but its flaws are hard to overlook.
The key problem with the game lies in its controls. The complaint here is not that the title is a quick time event (QTE) fest that lacks any real gameplay, and therefore shouldn’t be classed as a game. This criticism just isn’t true. Much like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond utilises the interactivity of the video game medium to keep you invested in a story, and to make that story excel in ways it would not without your interaction. It makes you involved, and it takes advantage of being a game in a way that other more conventional titles do not – in regard to storytelling at least. Keeping the player interacting with the action throughout, and initiating every part of the protagonists journey, is a lot more involving and interactive than playing a level and then watching a short movie. The gameplay segments may be too simple or dull for some – but calling something that keeps its interactivity going all the way, less of a game than those that stop to become movies after interactive sections is ridiculous.
The issues with Beyond’s gameplay do lie in its simplicity, but that doesn’t mean this simple approach to gameplay is inherently bad. The problem is that the simple controls aren’t enough to involve you with the protagonists actions, and feel like a step down from the more complex approach Heavy Rain took. Heavy Rain was all QTEs, but these were very cleverly implemented. Which buttons you were pressing and how you were pressing them was something that was really well thought out. It made for a tactile sense of you pulling off what they are pulling off, and it put the onus on you to succeed if you wanted the character to succeed. Beyond simply doesn’t do this, you don’t feel involved in the action itself, you feel like a facilitator. You set an event into motion, but you don’t feel part of this event. The fact that you started it still keeps it interactive, and makes the player an important part, it simply isn’t as immersive or enjoyable as it could be.
The controls in Heavy Rain carried an importance that those in Beyond just don’t. They could use the controls themselves to convey struggle, and to create immersion, and this isn’t replicated in Beyond. If an action in Heavy Rain was complicated, the controls would grow in complexity. The tone of the game was carried over into your basic interaction with it, and this was a great achievement that really took advantage of what you can do with video games. This ended up as mere elaborate quick time events to the viewer, but it was a fine example of how watching a game can’t give you the whole experience.
There are the occasional elaborate QTEs in Beyond, but they never even get close to the complexity of those on offer in Heavy Rain, and they never give you the feel that what you are inputting into the controller could actually match what the player is doing. That is because of the new approach Beyond has taken, one which focuses on primarily using the right stick to make simple gestures. It does occasionally make you hold or tap buttons, but these moments are more akin to how QTEs are done in most games, rather than anything more well thought out or interesting.
In Beyond white dots appear when you can interact with something, and interaction just involves a flick of the right stick. This is reasonably involving, but for the most part it just creates a disconnected feeling with the actual action. It doesn’t try to replicate what you are doing yourself, it just gives you the ability to start an animation. The whole process ends up being rather passive, and creates more of a distance between player and protagonist. There are times when interactions take more advantage of what is on offer to you, but these are few and far between.
A further issue is how the game handles action and combat. When you have to fight, or engage in some high octane action, the gameplay devolves into an unsatisfying minigame. The way this plays out is that every time the character goes to attack (or pulls of a manoeuvre in an action scene), the game goes into slow motion and you are supposed to move the right stick in the way the character is moving. If the protagonist is throwing a punch to the right, you need to move the right stick to the right in order for the action to succeed. Unfortunately, it’s often frustratingly unclear what you have to do – and the end result is that when you mess up it doesn’t feel like your fault. This simple approach to combat and action just doesn’t work well enough; it gets in the way and leaves you guessing rather than feeling really involved in what is going on.
One way around this is to turn the game to the easy setting, or to play with a tablet device (or Smartphone) instead of a controller. When playing this way action scenes come with directional prompts, and work a lot better. What you have to do becomes clear, and illustrates the fact that some of the movements you have to pull off would have been pretty hard to discern. The issue here though, is that with guidance the sections aren’t much fun – as they just become very boring and un-inventive quick time events. It works better than before, but hammers home that this approach to action just wasn’t the best one to take. On top of this, camera and movement controls on the tablet devices work OK, but aren’t quite what you want. And controlling the secondary protagonist on easy mode is very limiting and moderately frustrating. This leaves the gameplay as problematic no matter what option you choose.
These issues stem from a core problem with the game, that of their being not enough player consequence. You actions have consequence in regard to story, and you can change certain scenes by how you play them out, but there is no fail state. The player can’t really mess up, the game just goes on. This means that the controls have to be simple. The point of Heavy Rain’s complex controls was to make things that would be a challenge to pull off a challenge for the player to pull off – to put the threat of failure into handling the game. Beyond doesn’t let you fail things like this, so it doesn’t give you a greater level of control that allows for mistakes. It makes things simple to limit consequence, and this just isn’t as interesting. This makes the game less exciting to play, and again makes you feel like you are enabling the story to happen rather than forging a path through, or truly interacting with it. Yes you can fail the directional minigame, but the end result is that you narrowly make it through something as opposed to easily making it through.
In some circumstances there is some meaningful consequence in Beyond though. Levels can play out in some really interesting ways due to what you do, and certain events have unexpected impacts on later levels. This is impressively handled, and is an example of how Beyond is still a pretty special game in places. But even with this being the case, the simple controls still feel too limiting too often. The gameplay is a step down from what they developer have done before, but it does still allow for interesting story telling.
Of course the main focus of Beyond is the story itself. The tale of Beyond is that of Jodie Holmes and Aiden, two souls that are linked together. Jodie is girl who has an extraordinary life, and Aiden is an entity that is bound to her. He is a spirit that exists in another realm, but one that can impact the world around him in a number of ways. The story itself chronicles (in a jumbled order) several years in Jodie’s life, and focuses on what living with an entity like Aiden is like. This enables QuanticDream to weave a narrative that is personal, philosophical and emotional – whilst also allowing for a large amount of action and lunacy. To a certain extent the lunacy can go a bit too far, the supernatural elements can get a bit overbearing but mostly the game keeps surprisingly grounded. There are times where the game notably ups the stakes too far though, and in a way that isn’t interesting. It turns the focus off Jodie and her struggles, and places it on world ending peril – and this becomes clichéd and ordinary (in regard to video game storylines). However, notably, twists on these set ups save these moments from bringing down the overall narrative, and ensure that it is high quality overall.
The out of order structure doesn’t always do the game any favours. As you get further on, and context is filled in, the intrigue and explanations created by this method of storytelling start to pay off. It begins to work really well, and eventually makes it more interesting than it would be otherwise. However, the early game comes off as jumbled and confusing. You pop from one seemingly random event to another with no real reason, and every level comes across as a random vignette that doesn’t really work on its own. After a few hours it starts to come together, but the early scenes falter. Also the early scenes aren’t as good as the later game content, some of them fall flat while others were clearly designed to be played one way – meaning that certain approaches make them come off as rather weird. As a whole though, Beyond’s narrative is really good, it has some real downsides and numerous cases of underdeveloped side characters, but the core of it (the Jodie story) is excellent.
A lot of the reason the Jodie story works is down to the acting. Jodie is played by Ellen Page, and she is exceptional in this role. She brings the character to life, and brings the game onto another level. Though a lot of the other characters aren’t as good, some of the main cast are almost her equal. Willem Dafoe puts in a decent performance as a scientist who works with Jodie, and these two actors do make the game somewhat innovative. They are delivering film quality performances in a video game, and the way the game lets you take control of these performances is really well done. Of course, as previously mentioned, it could be handled better – but Beyond is still an impressive title in this regard.
The interplay between Jodie and Aiden also helps the game to stand out. You even get to play as Aiden, and though it’s limited it is a lot of fun. You can interact with the environment in a lot of cool ways, and your supernatural powers make for some interesting scenarios. The powers are weirdly contrived though, in a way that is rather annoying. You can occasionally kill and possess people, but it’s never clear why you can only do it to certain people, and it only comes into effect when that person is needed for an objective. Aiden’s powers aren’t clear cut enough, and just serve the story as needed, which is rather disappointing.
Ultimately beyond is a really great game, and one that will stick with you. The narrative doesn’t always work, but some moments are completely exceptional – and worth trudging through some mediocrity. Though the controls hold it back, and the lack of consequence (one needed for this more linear story) makes it less compelling and interesting than Heavy Rain, Beyond still works. It could be improved in a number of ways, and its crazy premise does limit the game’s appeal, but there’s still something great here. Beyond: Two Souls is not a complete success, it is also not as good as Heavy Rain in a number of important ways – but it’s still one of the most interesting games of the year and well worth your time. It’s not QuanticDream at their best, and not all of their design decisions pay off, but it’s still something you should play.