Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Beyond: Two Souls video game review.

I usually start my reviews off with a little history and backstory, but much like the library of French developer Quantic Dream’s several games, writing this review has made me ponder over many choices.

Quantic Dream (owned by frequent game director David Cage) has made games that blend cinematic storytelling and character development with gameplay to serve as further immersion, which includes the spectacular, Fincher-esque thriller game Heavy Rain. One thing that sets QD apart is how they take gaming’s choice-based structure to its fullest potential, giving the player choices meant to make them think hard before deciding. On top of that, they accomplish something that’s practically impossible; they make quicktime events NOT SUCK. As their second project for the PS3, they took a more supernatural turn with Beyond: Two Souls. They went for some inspired decisions, including casting actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in major roles. Much like Heavy Rain, you might expect everyone to love this game, right?

Of course not! Not everyone has to like the same thing, but this game’s reception is especially mixed. Some people have issues with the story, some think the gameplay has hiccups, and there are many – including myself - who simply don’t like quicktime events. It’s not for everyone. However, in my opinion, it’s a more than worthy follow up to Heavy Rain. Beyond: Two Souls is an opus on its own level.

While technically a very point A to point B type of game, the story of the game is told in a very odd fashion. It goes through fifteen years of the life of Jodie Holmes (Page), who, ever since she was born, has been tied to a mysterious entity named Aiden. The story examines various portions of Jodie’s life out of chronological order, between the ages of eight and twenty-three, looking at her life in a foster house, living under the care of paranormal specialist Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe), becoming an agent of the CIA, and subsequently going on the run.

While this kind of structure may have normally sank as a theatrical film, here, the presentation surprisingly works. You can think of this game's presentation as a more frantic version of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. The information given makes enough sense, the exposition is well-balanced, and the pace of the game works surprisingly well. However, this doesn’t mean the story can’t be a bit confusing at times, or even a bit on the long side (including a sequence with a family of Native-Americans which doesn't quite work). However, this can be forgiven. While films like this would usually be allowed two-and-a-half hour running times max, the time of at least ten hours is justified in the game world. Yes, it is long, but it rarely becomes boring. It’s a game driven by emotional investment, and this one is quite an experience, and is topped up with some genuinely unexpected twists. If you’re familiar with Heavy Rain, it shouldn’t be surprising that Beyond… is a real downer. I mean it. There’s some depressing, tearjerking material in here, and it doesn’t feel forced. Shockingly, this game even got me to cry at a couple points.

Of course, while the story is great, the characters, and their development, are what make this game. In what has been an outstanding year for female characters in games, Jodie is one of the best, if not the best. So much of what makes the emotion of the game work is seeing the natural progression of Jodie, and the tragedy that befalls her. Knowing just as little about why Aiden is connected to her as the player does, and uncovering numerous truths both good and bad throughout truly immerse us, and firmly place us in the character’s mindset. She is constantly pushed to the point of breaking, which is part of what makes the character so gut-wrenching. Of course, while I adore the character, so much of the strength comes from the performance. Ellen Page is unbelievable in this game. This is up there with Stephen Merchant in Portal 2 and David Hayter in Metal Gear Solid as one of the best video game performances of all time. As good a character as Jodie is, she is nothing without the right performer to deliver those actions. Page conveys so much emotion, intensity, charm, and commands every single second of the game, and at no point does she hit a false note. This is most likely to be the year’s best performance in any film, game, or TV show. Period.

Not to be forgotten is her co-star Willem Dafoe as Dawkins, whose character acts as a fatherly figure to Jodie. Dawkins is believably warm, understanding, and comforting throughout the game, but much like Jodie, he has his own dark secrets. It’s a strong and sympathetic character that Dafoe makes the most of, and this is easily his best performance in years.

As a game, Beyond has just as many strengths and weaknesses. Much like Heavy Rain, the controls and gameplay serve as tools to enhance the immersion of the story. Controls are simple: move Jodie with the left thumbstick, and interact with the various objects (marked by context-sensitive white dots) with the right thumbstick. The quicktime events of Heavy Rain have been refined for this game. In combat, rather than pressing random button triggers, Jodie’s attacks in the game have been swapped for thumbstick prompts. When the screen is in slow-motion, you simply press the right thumbstick in the direction Jodie attacks. However, Jodie is not the only character you can control. Throughout the game, you can switch to Aiden’s perspective by pressing the triangle button, and he works well in solving many puzzle-like portions of the game. He can move and destroy objects, help Jodie read events that happened by the aura certain objects give off, protect Jodie from gunfire and various harms, and even possess other people to accomplish tasks. However, there is a certain lack of the choice that made Heavy Rain such a fascinating game. Whereas Heavy Rain had numerous, probably countless ways that the story could turn, Beyond’s choices are not always quite as heavily effective. You can make decisions like what Jodie can wear to a romantic dinner, but a lot of the major choices are reserved for much later parts of the game, and these smaller decisions don’t always make much of an impact on the game’s events anyways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s kind of a step down.

Technically, the game is exquisite. The motion capture models of the game’s many performers are terrific, and an improvement over the already fantastic models in Heavy Rain. The photography and production design are gorgeous, the sound is haunting and atmospheric, and even the music is very nice. Normand Corbeil, the composer who wrote the score for Heavy Rain, had signed on to work on Beyond, but died months before his work was finished. In his place, the score was worked on by Lorne Balfe, a longtime friend and colleague of Hans Zimmer, and while it’s not quite as memorable as what Corbeil had done previously on Heavy Rain, it gets the job done, and is quite beautiful at times.

All in all, what are my thoughts on the game? Throughout this review, you’ve probably noticed me mention Heavy Rain frequently. When comparing the two, Beyond does make improvements (such as the main character, and the motion capture), but overall, I tend to prefer Heavy Rain’s countless additional outcomes and choices. However, that doesn’t mean Beyond: Two Souls isn’t worth checking out. It’s a wonderful, emotionally powerful experience that needs to be experienced to be believed, but there will still be many who aren’t as won over by numerous elements, and I understand that. The game is not for everyone. Check it out, make up your own mind about it, and experience what lies Beyond…


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