Beyond: Two Souls

There are three consistent things about Beyond: Two SoulsThe first is that the game looks absolutely gorgeous for most of its run-time and has characters that 80% of the time cross the Uncanny Valley flawlessly.  The second is that Ellen Page is great in the lead role with the material that she’s been given; valiantly giving her all in the frequently futile task of selling the holy hell out of it.  The third and final thing that is consistent about Beyond: Two Souls is that it is a total mess.  A haphazardly plotted, poorly scripted mish-mash of tones, genres and plot-threads that coalesce in a manner that I find hard to believe anyone could find satisfying.  What starts off as a frequently generic yet strangely compelling story eventually morphs into batshit-insanity that, unlike Quantic Dream’s other game that devolved into batshit-insanity (Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy), is just crushingly dull.

Said story revolves around Jodie Holmes who, at a young age, discovers that she is linked to some kind of supernatural entity.  She calls it Aiden (pronounced “ay-i-den” in a way that never ever stops being annoying) and the game chronicles the ensuing 15 years of their lives from being shunned by her parents to her growing closeness with her new carer, Dr Willem Dafoe – whose character does have a name, but he makes so little impact on the story and my memory that I’m going to just keep referring to him as Dr Willem Dafoe – to her stint at the CIA to unravelling a conspiracy regarding the spirit-world that Aiden is a part of, as well as the identity of Aiden himself.

If this all sounds too scattershot and unfocussed, a bunch of completely different plot-threads in both content and tone that could never come together in any completely satisfying way on paper…  well, that’s because you’re right, although you wouldn’t think so from the first few hours.  The story is told in a non-linear fashion, hopping back and forth between the various points of Jodie’s life with the player essentially being invited to figure out how the various strands piece together.  And, again for the first few hours, it is a mechanic that does kind of work, albeit by turning Beyond’s biggest weakness into a temporary strength.  The various segments are so barely connected to each other, and so poorly set-up in regards to how everybody got here and why you should care, that it created a desire in me to keep going to see what we’d be switching to next.  Were we going to end up in a backstory child Jodie segment, or an adult Jodie on-the-run segment, or a montage segment where Jodie goes through her CIA training that looks suspiciously ripped from every action movie ever?  I didn’t know and I’ll admit that kept me hooked, if at arm’s length, for the first 2 or 3 hours.

Unfortunately, after those first 2 or 3 hours, I started noticing things about the story.  Big, glaring things.  Like how the fragmented narrative actually adds absolutely nothing to the story and instead seems to exist purely so that the game’s writer, David Cage, can avoid having to craft characters or come up with reasons for anything that happens in the story.  Like how nobody in this story is in any way a three-dimensional character; hell, most barely class as one-dimensional.  Like how several segments, such as a tedious excursion into the Navajo desert to meet the most stereotypical and barely-defined Native American family to be featured in any form of entertainment media since Dances with Wolves, have next-to-no impact on the story at large, both in terms of plot and thematic link, and just seem designed to kill time for no particular reason.  Like how the quality between segments varies wildly, oftentimes within the same scene.  Like how several sequences, most glaringly being Jodie’s excursion into Unspecifiedistan, far outstay their welcome.  Like how the game is dreadfully paced and how, even at 70% of the way through, the whole point of the game was still unclear and uselessly muddled.

At least the writing of particular scenes has improved.  David Cage has had a knack for writing absolutely dreadful and on-the-nose dialogue that often causes more unintended laughter than it does pathos, but he has improved here.  It’s still nowhere near great, let alone the upper echelons of the industry, but it’s often good enough to avoid making the more generic or questionable scenes exercises in laughing yourself stupid.  For example, there is an early sequence where teenage Jodie attends a birthday party that is stuffed to the brim with every single “Teenagers are horrible little shits” cliché in the book – They like crappy pop music!  They’re unappreciative of culture!  They drink alcohol!  They smoke weed!  They’re manipulative, bullying tossbags! – and is plotted in a way that makes it seem like Cage read Carrie once and thought “I can do all of that in 1/10 of the time and without the puberty subtext!”  And yet, somehow, it worked.  I actually felt sorry for Jodie and relished the opportunity the game gave me to cut loose with Aiden in retaliation.

Another example of this oddly-compelling writing, in the early going, came from the game’s unquestionably best sequence, “Homeless.”  Lasting roughly an hour and scaling back significantly on both the OTT-Hollywood action movie setpieces and OTT-paranormal bullshit the game had indulged excessively in beforehand, the sequence benefits greatly from the slower pace, building a collection of characters who, even despite being one-dimensional, I grew to care for.  An optional action to busk for money marked a softer character beat with a well-chosen music cue.  A scene where Jodie goes around the camp fire using her link with Aiden to help each of them out of their various problems was the game’s emotional highpoint, being more subtle in writing, acting and score.  More melodramatic sections during the sequence, such as Jodie having to beat down a set of convenience store robbers or help deliver a baby or escape from a burning building, benefit from the better-paced extended time, feeling less like clunky action beats than they otherwise would have.  “Homeless” is more of a well-written character study than a decently-written Hollywood melodrama and Beyond would have benefitted greatly from sticking to this kind of tone throughout.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t and this yields some of the game’s worst sections.  Almost any section with kid Jodie is guaranteed to have at least one clunky and super on-the-nose piece of dialogue that will cause anybody familiar with half-decent writing to burst out laughing – after an experiment ends, Dr. Willem Dafoe races in to comfort a crying Jodie by saying “It’s over, Jodie,” to which kid Jodie responds “It will never be over.”  “Like Other Girls,” and I am not kidding here, gives us rebellious teenage Jodie, who has short hair with a purple streak, and dresses like a street-walker at a day-job, who screams about being kept a prisoner and, in the game’s single most unintentionally hysterical moment, angrily plays a heavy metal guitar solo at full blast to annoy her carers before smashing the guitar in a punk rocker fashion.  “The Condenser,” which incidentally comes before “Homeless” and signals the downward spiral the game is about to descend on, suddenly switches into being a paranormal horror by, you guessed it, turning all the lights down real dark and having things suddenly jump out at you (a.k.a. The Lazy Man’s Way to Creating Horror).

Starting from the aforementioned “Navajo” segment, however, the game’s story takes another turn: into flat-out dullness.  “Navajo,” with its zero-dimensional cast of Native Americans, languid pace and complete pointlessness, marks the point where the game starts turning into complete insanity (the only reason that said turn into insanity is postponed is because it’s followed by two CIA sequences) as Beyond starts grabbing its various barely-connected plot strands and attempts to stitch them together.  Said result ends up looking like Frankenstein’s Monster, and the game loses all grip on sanity by the time the final sequence comes around, but I didn’t care.  The game was losing its mind before my eyes and all I could do was sigh and wish for it to be over.  Prior Quantic Dream games that went cuckoo-bananas or just plain stupid in the final act did so in a way that managed to be entertaining, either intentionally (with Fahrenheit’s Dragon Ball Z/The Matrix battle to save mankind) or unintentionally (with Heavy Rain’s climactic battle on-top of a trash compactor conveyer belt).  But Beyond’s completely insane finale (which may even have bested Saints Row IV in the stakes of being unbelievably stupid) fell totally flat with me, never once managing to gain a reaction from me that didn’t amount to a dejected sigh.

Oh, hang on, there was one bit that managed to elicit a reaction from me: the final choice the game presents you, which (without spoiling) is the single stupidest moral choice I have ever experienced in a game; made even worse, and flat-out insulting, by giving you absolutely no good reason to pick the second option.  However you choose, the endings are similarly stupid, rushed and shitty and set a new benchmark for unsatisfying story climaxes in videogames.  If you’re one of the people who hated Mass Effect 3’s ending, Beyond’s will likely cause you to pop a blood vessel in anger.

And why does the game’s turn into flat-out insanity barely register anything with me, yet Fahrenheit’s did?  Simple, it’s because there are no characters in Beyond.  Nobody has any depth, nobody has any consistent motivation, nobody has any thoughts or feelings of their own.  They are ciphers; mouldy lumps of clay designed to be shaped into whatever the plot at this moment in time requires them to be.  One character is turned evil by a line of dialogue that in any other game would have caused me to laugh out loud, or been used as a parody of such one-dimensional stereotypes, but here just caused me sink my head into my hands.  One character sets the final action sequence in motion because the game suddenly decides to turn them insane for pretty much no reason.  Not even Jodie escapes from this treatment as at no point in the game does she do anything of her own volition.  All she ever does is react to events or situations that other people have stuck her in.  Despite Ellen Page’s best efforts, Jodie is not a character; she’s the avatar in a Call of Duty single-player campaign.

You may have noticed that I have now reached the end of my third A4 page without having yet mentioned the gameplay of Beyond: Two Souls.  This, after all, is a videogame, right?  The act of playing a videogame is essential in the task of reviewing it, so why haven’t I referred to it, yet?  Simple: there is next-to-no gameplay in Beyond: Two Souls.  Quantic Dream and David Cage’s commitment to the idea that Game Over screens “are a failure of game design” combined with the fragmented narrative (which is told in “in medias res” because of course it is) have actually managed to knee-cap any tension in any of Beyond’s action sequences.  After I finished the game, I went back to some of the game’s more complex action scenes to see what would change if I failed them.  Do you know what changed?  Sod all.  Sometimes the sequence would be slightly elongated by making me go through an additional escape section, but that’s it.  Jodie is a terminator made out of solid platinum and you will experience the end of this game regardless of whether you pass the Quick Time Events or not, and once I realised that I completely lost all positive thoughts I had towards some of the earlier action sequences.  And it’s not restricted to the QTEs, either, leave a conversation choice long enough and the game will pick one for you, the one it wants you to pick.  I am not kidding.

And speaking of terminators made out of solid platinum, controlling Jodie in all non-QTE segments is an exercise in wrestling the game into doing what you want.  I was going to use the phrase “tank-like controls” but, quite frankly, using such a phrase to describe the controls in Beyond is an insult to tanks.  In fact, let me list off some tanks that are better than Beyond at certain aspects of control.  The German Tiger E tank has a tighter turning circle than Jodie does in Beyond.  The S 2000 Scorpion Peacekeeper is faster at moving, due to Jodie permanently sauntering across levels regardless of the situation.  The K2 Black Panther is more responsive to changes in direction than Jodie is, and probably less likely to get confused by camera changes.  Beyond also has a cover system for its two stealth segments, and said system and segments work about as well as you’d expect them to work in a game with Heavy Rain’s movement system.  And whoever decided that interacting with objects and moving the camera should be on the same analog needs be shot.  By a bazooka.  That fires rampaging tigers.  Made out of napalm.

To the game’s credit, even though completing them turns out to be worth none of the effort – the only one that you can properly fail is the last one in the game, and that just gives you the worst ending – the QTEs are fine.  There’s less of the mandible claw crab-position button inputs that Heavy Rain asked for, but they still help make the mundane feel fantastic, like in Heavy Rain, although the novelty is dying fast.  The action sequences (that are “Bullet Time… not Quick Time Events” and David Cage would never misconstrue the truth) are, despite the swooping cameras, clear in their desired input direction 80% of the time, which is at least 50% more than I was expecting, so screwing up an action sequence can be more easily be blamed on you than the game.  Although screwing up is rather difficult, considering how long the game often gives you to input a direction.

Finally, and as much of an after-thought when it comes to playing as him in the game as he is when I come to talking about him in the review, there are sections where you have to switch to Aiden and perform various carefully ordered actions to progress.  As Aiden, you can fling objects, disrupt electronics and possess, choke or heal people, but you can only do these as the game tells you.  You can’t fling everything, you can’t interact with everything, you can’t choke everyone – which, oh yes, opens up some major plot-holes – and you can’t stray too far from Jodie.  There’s only one section, near the end of the game, that uses Aiden in a manner that’s actually unique and interesting and only one section, the aforementioned Carrie “homage,” that’s fun.  The rest are just slightly more complex versions of pressing a button to move the story onwards.  Aiden is a hugely missed opportunity to add depth to the gameplay of Beyond, instead amounting to someone who I only used when the game told me to.

The one unequivocally great aspect of Beyond: Two Souls comes from the game’s graphics, which are stunning.  Running on a modified PS4 engine, the game squeezes every last ounce of technical power from the PS3 to render the game’s lead characters and run its complex lighting system, and it shows.  Though they lack character, Beyond’s cast look phenomenal, with facial expressions that almost always cross the Uncanny Valley and are capable of showing a change in mood by a subtle eye flick or the slight raising of an eyebrow.  They’re some of the best looking and most natural faces I have ever seen in a game and, unlike L.A. Noire, they’re backed up by similarly smooth and natural body movements.  Unless a character is having to climb stairs or ride a horse, they look almost exactly like an actor in a movie, that’s how convincing the character animations are.  The money spent on using the mo-cap technology from Avatar paid off tremendously and I only wish that there were a better game to hang this technical feat off of.

There is a downside to this graphical prowess, though, and it’s a generally unstable performance when playing the game.  Frequently – not occasionally, not often, frequently – the game would hitch up for at least two seconds, sometimes stuttering its way through a scene, which instantly dragged me out of however invested I was with the game at the time.  Later on in the game, these slight hitch-ups grew to last four or five seconds at a time and even occasionally led to a full on crash.  Not helping these occasional restarts are extremely lengthy load times for each segment, sometimes a minute at a time, which did not help the poor pace of Beyond in general.

Quite honestly, my most damning criticism of Beyond: Two Souls comes from the simple fact that there is pretty much nothing that this game does that at least a hundred other pieces of media don’t do better.  You want an excellent Ellen Page performance?  Go and watch Hard Candy, or Juno, or Whip It.  You want a story-driven game whose primary method of interaction is dialogue choices and the occasional QTE with actually good moral choices?  Telltale Games just released The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead is still out there.  You want a game that pushes the PlayStation 3 to its limits graphically?  Though it’s slightly inferior in terms of looks, The Last Of Us is infinitely superior in terms of gameplay and storytelling.  You want an overly serious mess of a game that goes Glenn Beck in the second half?  Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy.  See!  Even Quantic Dream themselves have made a game that does what Beyond does better than Beyond!

Beyond: Two Souls, despite all of the movie stars and graphical prowess and tones and genres and plot threads and money thrown at it, is just a dull, dull mess.  A dull, dull mess that you should stay away from at all costs.  If you desperately want to experience the game, watch it on YouTube.  Just don’t spend any money on this.

Callum Petch don’t get no pay for the records he plays.

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