Gaming

Beyond: Two Souls (PS3)

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.

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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.

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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.

260 (2)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?!

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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.

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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.

262But 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Beyond_-Two-Souls-GOTY-FOOTAGE_-Beyond_-Two-Souls-16The 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.

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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!

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Eminent Domain

Board games again, folks! This time I’m going to talk about one of my favourite strategic deck-building games, the wonderful Eminent Domain. I’m not feeling too good today so apologies in advance for the inevitable spelling errors, likely repetition and doubtlessly-lazy conclusion. Here goes:

If you’re a fan of games like Dominion (the grand-daddy of deck-builders) it will come as no surprise when I tell you that, often, deck building games lack real theme. Sure, the game play is usually top-notch – Dominion in particular is a bastard to master, but when you do there’s a real sense of achievement – but, for me at least, it doesn’t really matter what’s on the cards. The artwork and flavour on Dominion cards (I talk of Dominion only because it’s THE deck-builder, isn’t it?) is superb, but they may as well really be plain black cards with the title, cost and action typed on. Some may disagree.

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However, Eminent Domain is one deck building game where the theme really feels like it belongs. Your aim is to inhabit the galaxy as efficiently as possible using various cards representing methods of advancement. So, for example, on your turn you’d draw a card from one of five draw piles, each representing an action – you can survey (for planets to conquer), develop your warfare, colonize a planet, produce or trade goods or research new and improved technology. The card you choose allows you to perform the leader action printed on it, then in turn each other play may follow (perform a similar, slightly less effective action) or dissent (draw a card from their deck). Using an eventually-well-built deck you’ll either attack planets you’ve surveyed or colonise them peacefully, depending on your current hand’s leaning. Each action can be powered-up by playing more cards with matching symbols from your hand. Attacking is fun, since you do so with small plastic spaceships (which you may recognise from other games) gained through warfare advancements.

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When one particular method of advancement has been extinguished (when there are no cards left in that particular draw pile) the game ends and players score points based on their captured or colonised planets. The highest-scoring galactic empire wins.

What’s great about Eminent Domain is that you have an aim above “collect victory point cards” (or at least a more thematically acquirable means of the same). Improving your deck represents your society improving its technical prowess. Boosting a survey action with more survey cards from your hand increases the range of your scan, resulting in a higher number of available planets. Some planets are more resistant to attack than others and more susceptible to non-violent colonisation, or vice versa. Each type of planet produces a different type of resource, which can – through trade – be spent to gain extra advancement points throughout the game.

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Through research you’ll gain individual action cards that allow you to do some pretty amazing things, from improved and devastating military attacks to ahead-of-their-time technological progressions. There’s no way to master this game since your game truly depends on the tactical approach of your opponents. Whereas sometimes Dominion feels like the same game, over and over, but with different cards Eminent Domain gives you only six actions (including the politics wildcard) but a much wider scope for tactical play. Winning depends on choosing the right method of colonising the right types of planets, on producing and trading effectively and on balancing your research against the means your choose to apply when colonising.

I fear, in my shaky state, that I’ve failed to do the game justice. All I can say is this, really: It’s the best deck building game I’ve ever played. There’s so much more to do than most games of its type give you in the base set. There are expansions available, but I haven’t yet felt the need to get any in the year I’ve owned the game. Plus, the box is gorgeously understated. Eminent Domain is excellent. I love it.

SUSHI GO!

The other day Aimee and I found ourselves with an hour or two to spare between Christmas shopping and me having to go to work so I trotted over to our Friendly Local Game Store, Rules Of Play, to buy some pub-friendly card games while Aimee grabbed a table and bought us some hot chocolate at our favourite Cardiff watering hole, 33 Windsor Place.

I picked up two games. I got Elevenses (a neat little card game for 2-4 players, which sees players competing to lay out the best morning tea spread – sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, tea, milk, sugar, etc – before someone calls Elevenses and the spreads are scored. It’s a lovely game and very tricky. It’s also nowhere near as twee as it sounds. A true strategic beauty.

The other game I picked up was Sushi Go! Another wonderful card game which relies on points optimisation, but this time with a cleverly simple drafting mechanic. And nothing else. The artwork on the cards is quirky and and interesting, resembling something like a Japanese restaurant logo, which is to be expected.

Sushi-Go-HandIn the game each player is dealt a hand of cards featuring different types of sushi – nigiri, maki rolls, dumplings, tempura, etc. each worth a different points value at the end of the round. A player looks at her hand, chooses one card to keep, places it face down on the table in front of them, then passes their hand to the left. When everyone has passed their hand the cards on the table are revealed and the draft continues with the player choosing another card from the hand given to her by the player on her right.

At the end of the round, when all cards have been chosen, all sushi cards are scored and all pudding cards set to one side (whoever has the most puddings at the end of the game gets six points, whoever has the least loses six points). The game is played over three rounds and the winner is whoever has accumulated the most points by the end of round three.

It’s a simple game with difficult choices and can be played with 2-6 players, of any age (give or take). I recommend both! But especially Sushi Go. It’s great fun.