Beyond: Two Souls has suffered at the hands of some reviewers for its game-play style. Many have argued that it is too passive, that the player is simply enabling a story that would unfold without their input anyway, rather than actually controlling the thrust of the story with their actions. But then, fans of Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit would know that Quantic Dream make playable movies, not cinematic video games. Beyond: Two Souls is the finest example of the brave genre you’re likely to get.
In the game you’ll take control of Jodie Holmes, a young woman – though, you’ll meet her at many points in her life – who has been connected since birth to an invisible entity known to her as Aiden, a separate soul with poltergeist-like abilities psychically tethered to Jodie for life. Aiden helps Jodie in many ways, often going too far for her, but she has a real love/hate relationship with her constant companion. The game, through these characters and a host of others Jodie meets along her journey, explores broadly the question of what happens after death.
Flicking between Jodie’s childhood, teen years and early 20’s (though rarely in order) Beyond is a truly epic story of… well, Two Souls. Experimented on as a child due to her “gift”, effectively adopted by paranormal researchers and, later, “recruited” by the CIA as a covert agent, Jodie struggles to lead a normal life, but you’ll help her try as she chooses what to wear on a date, participates awkwardly in a teenager’s birthday party and sneaks out of her government research “cell” as a seventeen-year-old to meet friends at a scuzzy bar at night.
The mundane is included not for padding but for contrast. Jodie wants a normal life and can’t have one. This message is hammered home when the CIA get their hands on her – she’s a weapon to be utilised in their eyes – when she’s just a teenager. Trained and shaped by the Agency’s best instructors you’ll help Jodie become the best covert agent there is, albeit reluctantly. The chapter set in Somalia (where the shit really hits the fan for Jodie) is spectacular; how on earth can anyone say the game is lacking in game-play?!
So – I won’t go into the details of the plot too much here – when Jodie becomes (shall we say…) disenchanted with her work with the CIA she decides to make a dramatic break on her own. This is when we will meet some of the most sympathetic characters in the game’s vast cast. Highlights include the brothers at the Navajo ranch (a terrifying chapter that takes the perceived plot to startling new heights) and a period of homelessness that offers maybe-too-real a portrayal of the psychology of those stuck on the streets.
What begins as an exploration of a young girl’s interesting, unusual predicament with sweet and unconventional game-play options shifts in tone and scale a number of times. From heart-pounding missions behind enemy lines, CIA training facilities and defiant revolution to soul-searching travel and contemplative study of the possibility of legend as afterlife to daring, break-neck escapes as Jodie goes on the run (with a little too much help, maybe, from the heavy-handed Aiden) this game offers a slice of everything.
But it’s the characters here that make an arguably unbelievable and far fetched plot with a (maybe) predictable conclusion something far, far more engaging. Jodie is modelled on and voiced by Hollywood actress Ellen Page and her doctor, Nathan, is modelled on and voiced by Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. That we know their faces and voices adds a far more cinematic hook to this already-essential game. Page’s portrayal of lonely, lost Jodie is outstanding while Nathan’s descent into ambitious madness is textbook Dafoe, though still amazing.
Utilising motion capture and physical sets, Beyond: Two Souls is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure movie rendered in a computer. The visuals are outstanding, the script is of the highest standard (if often repetitive, if you don’t do what you’re “supposed” to do) and the soundtrack is something I would gladly pay for and listen to in and of itself. The production values are top-drawer and if there’s anything I could pick on it would only be the… well, let’s look closer, before I moan.
Movement in Beyond is fairly standard: use the left thumb-stick to move and the right to look around. So far so ordinary. But the camera angles employed make the whole thing feel like you’re watching a film, almost like you aren’t in control at all – but you are. The angle changes, from close-up to wide-shot, while you’re wandering about, but you’re still in control. Pressing UP moves Jodie in the direction she’s facing, which can be a little disorientating when the angle change means she’s suddenly facing a different way.
Combat too, although there isn’t much, is important to get right. When you enter into a conflict the frame will slow down and turn sepia. To complete a punch, kick or block you need to move the thumb-stick in the direction that Jodie is moving, effectively following her action through. But it’s often difficult – again, due to the camera angles – to see which way Jodie is moving. This will result in her block failing and her taking a hit, maybe triggering further combat. There is no way – as far as I’m aware – to die outright in this game, despite being offered many ways to off yourself throughout the course of the story.
And Aiden, too, has his own set of controls. Press TRIANGLE and you’ll take the role of a formless entity with the power to float through walls and ceilings, possess enemies or even drain them of life altogether. However, you can only float through SOME walls and not others. You can possess SOME people, but not everyone. And you’re only able to kill the ones that have a red aura. Narratively, since Aiden and Jodie are linked – he can’t wander too far from her without seriously hurting them both – these restrictions can be explained, however: He can only possess the weak-willed, and may only kill those Jodie deems it necessary to harm. Maybe.
I found Beyond: Two Souls to be an emotionally heavy, exciting, dramatic and interesting game to experience. And it is a game you experience rather than just play. The decisions you make change the outcome of the game, albeit in fairly small ways, which means you can replay this game and get a different outcome. The main thrust of the game will remain, however, identical – you’ll be a lonely kid, a grumpy teenager, a CIA toy, a runaway, a criminal and eventually a hero, one way or another. But that’s okay!
The game is beautiful, its plot gripping. The characters feel real and fully-formed, even though the story they’re participating in is somewhat otherworldly (literally). Even though the plot is basically a search for information regarding a possible afterlife, it manages to do better exploring the loneliness and isolation of a young girl with an extraordinary burden, poked and prodded by researchers, governments and torturers. Jodie’s story is far more interesting than the overarching “threat” and the game knows so – which is why we’re given such a real, personal invite into her psyche.
I cannot think of another game that, on completion, has left me feeling so fulfilled on the plot-front. As long as you know that you’re not getting Call Of Duty or Skyrim levels of “pure game-play”, but a far more connective, story-driven mosaic of a game, then you’ll not be disappointed in Beyond: Two Souls. It is, I will confidently say, a masterpiece and a personal favourite. Spectacular visuals, incredible cinematic controls and a cast of characters given real, solid life by likeable, talented actors.
Buy this game!