The problem, as it was once so eloquently put, is choice. For Beyond: Two Souls, the latest epic from Heavy Rain maestro David Cage, the problem is not only choice, but consequence as well. In a world where we have so much choice and freedom in modern gaming, where does Beyond sit? The answer is that it sits somewhat awkwardly between linear narrative and fully interactive experience, where every choice should matter.
First, let’s back up a touch and start where most stories do, at the beginning. Beyond starts strongly, with a dominating performance from Ellen Page setting the stall out early. Page stars as Jodie Holmes (through the use of state of the art motion capture technology), a gifted youngster linked to a supernatural entity called Aiden. Throughout the game, which tells Jodie’s story via non-linear events in her life, your control switches from Jodie to Aiden. Aiden is a restless and possessive spirit, constantly tethered to Jodie, and it is when you play as him that Beyond is at its most free. Aiden can float through walls, invisible to others, interacting with objects and, most interestingly, with other characters. A mechanic for possessing characters is nicely integrated, although it is never explained why some characters are able to be possessed and others aren’t. Back as Jodie, the familiar ‘Heavy Rain style’ gameplay mechanics propel the story forward, with QTEs forming the bulk of your interaction. Combat, at certain points throughout the game, relies on a context sensitive push on the right analog stick. Follow Jodie’s movement correctly, and she’ll land a solid punch. Miss the prompt, and she’ll invariably end up taking a blow instead. The combat mechanics and context sensitive interactivity of Beyond is a step up from the QTE based Heavy Rain, although certainly not any form of challenge to seasoned gamers.
As with Heavy Rain before it, Beyond is a game far more concerned with its own narrative than mechanics. Whereas Heavy Rain had the tantalising hook of a mystery to solve (Choose Your Own Adventure with added child murder, essentially), Beyond struggles with the weight of a nonsensical yarn involving spirits and other dimensions. The cast are game (with Page in particular putting her all into a fantastic performance), but even they can only do so much with a cliché ridden script, and as the story descends further into sci-fi hokum the whole idea collapses in on itself.
The biggest issue with Beyond, however, is the almost total lack of consequences to any of your actions. Jodie is so obviously integral to the story that no matter the choice you make, she will always bounce back. Get her arrested while trying to flee, and you will simply be presented with another opportunity to escape. The story that Cage is trying to tell simply won’t allow it any other way, so your best bet is to just relax and let it take you on what is actually a fascinating journey.
Script aside, the story of Jodie herself is well worth your time, discounting the supernatural fluff that drowns the game in later stages. She is a riveting character, who both needs and detests the spiritual entity she has been twinned with since birth. Aiden, too, has his own layers. He is both protector and manipulator, and depending on how you play he can also be intimidating and dangerous. Their joint dynamic is what drives Beyond, and their journey is what makes the game worthwhile. It also looks absolutely stunning, with developers Quantic Dream surely pushing the PS3 to the absolute limit of its capacity. An honourable mention, too, for the great score from Inception composer Hans Zimmer.
All in all, however, Beyond: Two Souls feels rather like a disappointment, despite its gorgeous looks and intriguing story. Where Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us proved that narrative subtlety could really pay off in terms of player engagement, Beyond feels too forced, too structured, and just too desperate to engage in a similar way. It is trying too hard to hit the emotional motherload, and ends up missing the mark. Even so, Beyond: Two Souls is still a bold and exciting step for gaming, and one I hope Quantic Dream can build from as we move into the next generation.