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Beyond: Two Souls Review: A Narrative Triumph
With the likes of Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, it’s no secret that David Cage and the developers at Quantic Dream are ambitious people who aren’t afraid to break the rules and test the boundaries of what we consider to be a video game. And with Beyond: Two Souls, they not only create a memorable and resonant experience, but also find fascinating ways in which to re-invent old story conventions we’ve seen a thousand times before.
Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a young woman who is inextricably attached to an otherworldly entity named Aiden. It’s because of her attachment to Aiden that Jodie often finds herself in the middle of dangerous situations that ultimately lead to her being placed under observation by the Department of Paranormal Activity and eventually lands her a job as an agent for the CIA.
In many ways, Beyond: Two Souls is a by-the-numbers story about a strange girl who wants so desperately to live a normal life that she knows she can never realistically achieve. It’s because of this that she is perpetually labeled as an outsider, a girl with a limited social circle who struggles to relate to other human beings. She’s misunderstood, abused, and used for purposes she never fully realizes until it’s too late.
The story of a special, yet misunderstood person is not a new one, and there are countless films, books, and games that have tackled this very subject in ways similar to Beyond: Two Souls. We’ll see her mocked in her adolescence, witness her angst-filled teen years, and sympathize with her awkwardness in adjusting to adult life, all while she struggles with her connection with Aiden and how she allows it to define her.
But despite the fact it’s re-treading old ground, Beyond never fails to find new ways to tell the story and connect us to Jodie’s character. Sure, we’ve all seen and been a part of the awkward early teen years that forced us to endure ridicule and shame, but having Aiden at her side allows Jodie to take some solace in the fact that she’s never truly alone. And while seeing her attempt to be social with other human beings is indeed awkward and at times difficult to watch, her relationship with Aiden and how the two sort out their boundaries is fascinating and compelling in its own right.
Relationships play a huge role in Beyond: Two Souls, and the care with which each of them is tackled is fantastic. Each of the characters are fully fleshed out and explored fairly well, and while no one is without their faults, there’s an endearing redeeming quality to each of them that gives them a real sense of humanity. This leads to especially touching interactions between Jodie and all of the people in her life that I found to be particularly resonant. There are also multiple opportunities to make game-impacting choices throughout the story that lead to varied playthroughs and experiences. Dialogue choices allow you to respond in different ways that play to your interpretation of Jodie’s character, and the fact that there are so many options and variations to end everything really serves to make the game feel like a unique experience to an individual player.
Not surprisingly, it was the actual gameplay that often left me frustrated and sometimes served to hurt the overall experience. Each of the chapters in Beyond take place as standalone vignettes jumping around in time, and the game is largely played using interaction prompts and quick time events. Basing core gameplay on quick time events is a bold choice indeed, and those who aren’t fans of timed button mashing will probably grow tired of Beyond very quickly. Interacting with the environment is a chore more often than it should be, combat is a confusing mess that I rarely pulled off with any bravado, and the game’s insistence on making you perform menial tasks sometimes crosses over from being immersive to absurd in how unnecessary it feels.
That being said, the same button prompts are used for a majority of tasks, and many of them actually make sense based on context. Playing the game consistently for some time will eventually allow you to get past the inherently awkward nature of quick time events, and once you learn what the game is looking for, Beyond becomes a much more enjoyable ride. Still, it’s disappointing that the learning curve has to be such a janky one.
The game’s flaws are certainly frustrating and will be off-putting to many, but when Beyond manages to reach its high points, it does so with such brilliance that it’s almost easy to overlook the times you wanted to break your controller over your knee. Performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are excellent, visuals are stunning, and while the soundtrack is at times generic, it accompanies the action well. It should be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, including occasional frame rate drops and some graphical pop-in. It’s unfortunate, but also understandable, considering the amount of technical demand placed on the PS3 due to the game’s graphical prowess and fantastic animations.
In an industry where we are constantly subjected to cash grab sequels and stale games lacking originality, Beyond: Two Souls is an amazing experiment that should be heralded simply for its boldness to be something more. It’s definitely not flawless, and it’s not necessarily a game that everyone will appreciate, but at its best moments, Beyond: Two Souls is a heartbreaking, moving, and powerful experience that deserves to stand as one of the biggest triumphs of the PlayStation 3’s exclusive library.