Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beyond: Two Souls Review

It’s been three and a half years since the release of Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s murder mystery experience on PS3. Since then, the company has been a go-to source for the latest in emotional storytelling visuals, including last year’s tech demo Kara. It’s with much anticipation that the company’s next game, Beyond: Two Souls, is released. Is it truly the next evolution of interactive storytelling, or has Quantic Dream pushed the medium in an undesirable direction?

To get something out of the way right off the bat – yes, this is a game. The discussion about whether experiences like Heavy Rain are games is one that’s been done to death.  Games as a medium have been ever expanding in the roles they fill in our lives, their definitions being rewritten and resembling something more like board games in which the medium is no longer defined by the rules of its individual components. You can argue that the experience doesn’t have much player interaction or is bogged down with narrative, but that does not disqualify it as a game.

Story


Story is the main focus with this game, as it has been with other Quantic Dream titles. This time we follow Jodie Holmes, a girl gifted/cursed with the ever-looming presence of a spirit named Aiden. You relive her life story in disjointedly through time, slowly piecing together her sad life. Her journey from a little girl conflicted about what makes her different to a woman who’s accepted and embraces it is as compelling as it is interesting. Along the way, you find paternal figures in Dr. Nathan Dawkins and Dr. Cole Freeman, researchers investigating paranormal happenings. Through the course of your life, people come and go, but these two seem to be the pillars of stability most children have when growing up. As we follow Jodie through her disjointed life, piecing together the overwhelming tragedy and small victories that lead her down a road of self-discovery, you become attached to both her and her spirit partner Aiden.

And here we have Aiden killing a guy. Neato.
The story of Beyond: Two Souls is as wide reaching as it is interesting. Following Jodie’s interactions with the government, people she meets, and situations she finds herself in with her spirit to help her, the game explores the idea of what it means to be truly dissimilar to everyone else. The way Quantic Dream handled Aiden’s character was also impressive in that he has no lines of dialogue, but you really care about your unseen protector. By having Jodie interact with Aiden and seeing his motivations through his action, you’re able to piece together a rather detailed feeling about who this spirit is even if you’re not really sure what it is.

Why is she not sunburnt if she's been walking in the desert for days?
The story is engrossing a large portion of the time, but many moments exist in its storytelling in which I’m reminded less of a blockbuster film and more of a SciFi original movie. This steep decline in believability happens rarely, but it is enough to suck you out of the moments the game worked so hard to create. Some of these happen because of choices you have when exploring or the controls, but most of them are because the game felt like parts of it were removed or dots that weren’t connected needed to be out of necessity. For example, you get trained to be a covert agent, but only use the skill twice, once for a very small portion of time. Why even dedicate an hour to that in the game when you could get the same message across in less time? Also, certain characters make rather dramatic changes in their personality in the last bit of the game, seemingly out of nowhere. Almost as if the game had a number of endings, but they could not pick just one. Though Beyond: Two Souls’ story overall is interesting and more thought provoking that its spiritual predecessor, it doesn’t feel as high quality as Heavy Rain.

Narrative Choices


As with the previous title by Quantic Dream, your choices and actions have an effect on the story, outcome of situations, and characters’ lives. This feeling of permanence and the importance of thinking things through was pervasive in Heavy Rain and is even more pronounced here.  More characters have their lives and wellbeing put into your hands and just as in real life, though certain scenarios only seem to have one solution, creative thinking and patience present you with new options if you’re willing to explore. Though the perfectionist in me wants desperately to go back and change things, like life, you must live with the choices you’ve made.

You've got something on your face. Let me get it.
Two notably large names have been attached to this project – Ellen Paige and Willem Defoe. Hands down, these two deliver solid performances throughout the entirety of the game, and seeing them interact with one another adds richness to the story. Their relationship is one of the most human and believable ones of the game and seeing the characters brought to life through them is great. The only bad thing about this collaboration is that though performances this high quality are rare, they do exist, and when they do you believe the character more because you cannot put a face, backstory, or previous context to them. When I look at Booker DeWitt and Joel from The Last of Us, I have no idea what Troy Baker looks like and I didn’t even know he portrayed both until I looked it up. In contrast, anytime Jodie Holmes and Nathan Dawkins interact, somewhere in your mind, you can easily imagine Juno and Norman Osborne just based off of the visuals. This unfortunate disconnect isn’t nearly as distracting as this paragraph length may believe you to be, but it is something to note.

Gameplay


Homeless Jodie is my favorite. Her chapped lips are such a nice touch
The gameplay is almost identical to Heavy Rain with quick-time events driving high-intensity parts of the game and the right joystick lets you interact with things during the exploration parts.Interacting with your environment often worked well, but felt clunky at times. When walking around, getting around objects was often a chore because of camera angles and when bumping into walls or just wanting to turn around quickly, the immersion was broken by how sluggish the controls could feel when you wanted quick, precise movements. Sometimes, the game would even stop altogether for a second as if it hadn't quite loaded everything and needed just a second more to catch up, another annoyance that broke immersion. Another frustrating aspect of the controls came during quick time events. When time slowed down in a scene, it’s your cue to use the right joystick to make Jodie interact with her environment. Though the tutorial says to push the joystick in the direction Jodie’s body is moving, often times that direction isn’t clear and resulted in our protagonist getting in far more scrapes than she should have.  Also, there’s an incredibly tacked on 2 player mode in which one person controls Aiden, but you can only switch controls between people when pressing a button, resulting in a subpar, frustrating experience for both parties. Just keep it single player, Quantic Dream.

You'll make Ellen Page sad if you don't buy this game

Verdict: For all the critiques I’ve given the game, I still thoroughly enjoyed the ten hour experience and was gripped by the story all the way through. If you love story driven games, this one is for you. Even if the plot can get ridiculous at time, the controls can feel sluggish, and the immersion is broken, not unlike Aiden, Jodie’s always there to pull you back in.
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