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Editor’s note: This review contains minor spoilers, marked by section.
We roll our eyes when Hollywood tries to imitate games. Most directors fail to capture the spirit of a series in a way that tells a good story. They get caught up in all the action and special effects.
Like Quantic Dream’s previous interactive drama Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls (out today on PlayStation 3) is a movie and game rolled into one, and David Cage is its director. Thanks to the motion-captured acting of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, both well-known Hollywood talent, Beyond comes even closer to film than we imagined possible years ago.
The inclusion of likeable and expressive actors makes all the difference.
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What you’ll like
Only one person teared up more than I did during my playthrough of Beyond, and that was Page’s character, Jodie Holmes. She has a lot to be upset about. She’s a lonely girl who smiles little, and at first what I perceived as aloofness is really her defense mechanism.
From birth, Jodie has found herself tied to an entity known as Aiden, and she’s endured a hard life because of it. The two are linked together with a chain of spiritual energy, and it’s through this bond that she can exert psychic powers. But Aiden is no puppet. Even without discernible language or a physical body, he demonstrates an amazing range of emotions. He’s prone to angry fits of violence. He can be jealous. He throws tantrums. But above all, he’s loyal and protective of Jodie.
Players act out these emotions like a poltergeist when they control Aiden, choosing how to behave — what to throw or interact with — and when to stop. This creates a believable dynamic as players engage as both characters, each reacting to the thoughts and motivations of the other. You understand what they’re each feeling at any given time, even when no words are spoken.
The exceptional acting helps. Page is kind, intelligent, and resilient as Jodie. You won’t think of her as a female protagonist — just a well-developed character — and that’s an important accomplishment in an industry that has yet to achieve such equality. The supporting characters, like Dafoe as Jodie’s compassionate mentor, Nathan Dawkins, and Kadeem Hardison as her caring overseer, Cole Freeman, are equally as memorable and compelling in their performances. This story has more than one heart.
Clear narrative purpose
Beyond consists of many chapters, some short and some long, that are tightly woven stories. It skips around through the years, going back and forth on a timeline of events. One moment, you’re a little girl playing with Barbies, wearing pink clothes and hugging a pink stuffed animal and fearing monsters in the dark. The next, you’re a young adult in the military, running and crawling through rain and mud and still clutching that toy rabbit at night. Each segment feels vastly different — transporting players from a Navajo ranch to Jodie’s childhood home — and holds at least one surprise, but they all serve the greater story and succeed in more deeply investing the player in the characters.
The disorder of these milestones in Jodie’s life is intentional. Each adds more context to the larger story so players can understand the characters and why these moments matter. These jumps in narrative also build suspense much like a movie switches from one scene to another and then back again. One hour will turn to five without players even noticing.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for this section.
Beyond involves two types of interaction: button presses, or physical movement, and choices that advance the story. The second is what makes it special.
The most affecting chapters are those that use realistic details and believable life situations to create empathy. We’ve all feared the dark, but that horror magnifies when you’re a little girl who can commune with spirits — not all of them friendly. My favorite part, a beautiful balance of highs and lows, lets players experience what it’s like to be homeless.
In “Homeless,” Jodie ends up on the streets and spends a day begging for change and food. Most of us have seen people like this in real life and have either given money out of sympathy or looked away, but playing as Jodie offers a different, more intimate perspective. Watching her endure hunger and cold instills shame for having so much when others struggle to survive with so little.
Out of desperation, Jodie puts herself in degrading or risky situations, and Beyond encourages players to explore these options, as awful as they may be. The details shape the experience. Shop owners turn her away, and people talk about food on the sidewalks in front of her, oblivious to her suffering and taking for granted their good fortune. The constant, bright lights of a supermarket are both insult and hope in the bleak of winter.
Another scene sends a teenage Jodie to a birthday party with other kids, and her social awkwardness becomes our own. That greater stake in her character compelled me to make choices that allowed Jodie to experience the full breadth of life — by making mistakes, learning from them, and rising to new opportunities. Few games accomplish such unity between player and protagonist.
Different ways to play
Players can engage with Beyond in multiple ways: alone, with the PlayStation 3 controller or a mobile device through the Beyond Touch app, or with a partner, either with two controllers or one controller and one smartphone/tablet. This is an important but flawed step forward in enabling people to play an interactive story together, like how they might watch a film.
What you won’t like
The methods for controlling Jodie and Aiden are arbitrary. You won’t mind, but Beyond finds an excuse to use just about every button to give players the impression of complexity.
What matters is how players use these buttons to perform sequences — hand-to-hand combat, running and avoiding various obstacles, controlling Aiden’s powers (like possessing bodies, killing enemies, and moving objects), and so on. For example, when Beyond introduces combat, it defines a key moment in Jodie’s past. And while the story never failed to impress, the ways of interacting with it did. You’ll tire of throwing punches and evading blows or rapidly hammering buttons. I could predict how I would resolve conflicts as Aiden to the point where they were mindless motions to complete.
Halfway through, the novelty wore off — hard. These scenarios influence how the story unfolds, but they turn into filler, a detriment and distraction rather than a means of immersion.
Sometimes, the controls fight you. Either the camera refuses to cooperate and reveal certain areas of a room or Jodie refuses to walk correctly in tight spaces. This is because the camera guides the experience and prevents Jodie from wandering too far off course, but it can constrict the player.
Unfortunately, however unhelpful it is at times, this feature is invaluable, as the user interface has no minimap or objective points to show players where to go next. Navigating is often intuitive and natural, but not always. One particular military mission makes traveling over the open, foreign terrain and finding specific locations a nightmare.
Beyond Touch, which is optional and accessible through Duo Mode (players download the app itself from the App Store or Google Play), complicates matters. The app is completely unintuitive without the instructions. It’s such a difference from using the controller. Certain actions — like tapping and swiping down to kill enemies or move objects — are less responsive on a mobile device and take a few seconds to show the effects onscreen. The game also started to stutter occasionally as soon as I connected my iPad Mini.
Playing as Aiden with the app is fine — if a simpler experience than using the controller’s dual sticks and buttons in tandem, which is more satisfying — but as Jodie, it’s a lot less challenging and fun. The device screen shows the exact direction you need to swipe in combat scenarios, for instance, and moving Jodie around by dragging your finger can be clumsy.
The option is nice to have, but the Beyond Touch app needs work, and it degrades the experience. Unless their partner is new to games and prefers easy taps and swipes and minimal engagement, players are better off using the controllers.
Minor length issues
Beyond meanders in its final third (the last few hours of a 10-hour game), losing momentum in both story and gameplay, and it would have benefited from a more concise length. But trust me: Beyond is worth playing all the way through, and it presents not so much good or bad endings but different outcomes — alternate paths through life (or death).
Beyond is hands-down one of the most emotionally accomplished experiences I have ever had in a video game, and it’s enjoyable from start to finish. The controls and gameplay are tiresome, and they can be difficult to manage (or boring), but they’re of little consequence compared to the well-written story, the depth of the characters, and the empathy you feel toward them.
Jodie and Aiden are such singular and profound video game characters because you don’t play them — you become them, sharing the same soul.
Beyond: Two Souls was released for the PlayStation 3 on October 8, 2013. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review.
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