Beyond: Two Souls is an attempt by the French studio Quantic Dream to evolve video games beyond being just interactive versions of big dumb action movies, and into a true storytelling medium. Which is what they previously tried (and failed) to do with 2005’s Indigo Prophecy and 2010’s Heavy Rain. But while this PlayStation 3 exclusive, published by Sony, has some of the same flaws, those flaws aren’t fatal this time around, and if you’re willing to give yourself the time to get used to these shortcomings, you’ll be rewarded with a rather unique and engaging adventure.
Like many little girls,
Jodie has an invisible friend. Except hers is a ghost-like entity named Aiden who can go through walls and interact, in limited capacity, with the real world. So, of course, the military are turning the two of them into a weapon, one that uses stealth and Aiden’s abilities to, for instance, sneak past some guards, disable a security camera, unlock a safe, and then view some top secret documents, all while Jodie sits in a bathroom stall.
While most game developers would use this premise to create a supernatural stealth action game, Beyond: Two Souls isn’t Metal Gear Spiritual. Instead, it’s more like a biopic in game form, as it tells Jodie’s life story, and shows how her ability is both a blessing and a curse.
Because of this, Beyond: Two Souls feels like it wasn’t made like other games. Usually, developers come up with the action scenes, and then build a story around these set pieces. But this plays more like they came up with the story first, then added in the interactive parts later.
Except that the amount you actually control is often limited. In one early instance, a teenage Jodie goes to a party where she’s asked to dance by a young man. But while other games might’ve used this as an opportunity to insert a rhythm game into the proceedings, this just has you pushing the right thumbstick right and left once in a while.
The bigger problem, however,
is that the controls are often counter-intuitive. In theory, moving the right thumbstick down instead of hitting a button to sit might seem natural. But with most games just having you hit X to interact with something, even a chair you’d like to sit on, my natural instinct was to press the X button to sit down. Which is what I did. A lot. To no avail.
Even more annoying, there are times when the same button doesn’t do the same thing in the same scene. During one part when Jodie was being questioned by a military scientist, you hit the square button to shrug when asked the first question, but hit the circle button to shrug when asked the second one, the circle button for the third, the square for the fourth, and back to the circle for the fifth. Why? I have no idea.
Similarly, when you try to look around, you can sometimes only look as far as you’d be able to in real life, just slightly past your left or right shoulder. It doesn’t always automatically turn you around so you can look behind you, like you do in most games. And in real life.
There are also odd restrictions when you’re controlling Aiden. Instead of moving around with the left thumbstick like you do when you’re Jodie, you have to aim at a glowing spot (of which they’re aren’t many) and hit the L1 button, which automatically moves you there. It’s a limitation that seems rather odd for someone who can move through walls.
The irony is that while this game’s action would’ve been a lot more fun if the controls were more conventional, the game’s story is actually too conventional. Nothing that happens to Jodie will come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen any movies about people, especially teenagers, with supernatural powers. Somewhere there’s a marketing person working on the new Carrie remake who’s thinking to themselves, “Oh, we could totally turn this into a Carrie game.”
Despite all its problems, though,
Beyond: Two Souls still manages to be rather engaging, especially after you adapt to the odd controls and accept that, despite some scenes to the contrary, this isn’t Tom Clancy’s Splinter Ghost. Or should that be John Carpenter’s Spiritual Cell?
Though, ironically, it’s those Stephen King’s Spiritual Ghost moments that are this game’s best bits, since that’s when you actually get to do something. Not only do these parts actually challenge you to use what you’ve learned, but the stakes are higher since you can actually fail. Which is unlike the conversations, where not hitting a working button just results in Jodie just sitting there, doing nothing.
Admittedly, the action bits would’ve been more fun if this worked like they do in other games, but even with their control issues, they still manage to have a bit of challenge and tension. Especially since there are moments within them when they play like those parts of the God Of War games where you have to hit the right button at just the right time.
It also helps, given how story driven this is, that Beyond: Two Souls has real actors in the main roles. Not only is Jodie voiced by Juno and Inception star Ellen Page, who also served as the character model, but she also did the motion capture work. And because Page is so good in this, you end up feeling real tension when her character is threatened. Though it’s also cool to see her as a pint-sized ass kicker, even if she doesn’t kick as much ass here as faux Ellen Page did in The Last Of Us.
In the end…
Beyond: Two Souls is a flawed game. But while those flaws could’ve been avoided, they’re hardly fatal, and are easy enough to overcome, given enough playtime (even though I did keep hitting X to sit down and do other things deep into the game). Which is why — even though this is unlike anything you’ve played before, or probably will again anytime soon — it still, ironically, has the same important quality as those interactive versions of big dumb action movies it’s so trying to evolve beyond: it’s fun to play. Which, ultimately, is all we really need our games to be.