This is the second mainstream game from developer Quantic Dream, who first hit the radar with their unique take on gaming with Heavy Rain (review here). Heavy Rain was unique in that it didn’t play like a traditional videogame and instead relied on what are called “quick time events” (or QTEs), which ask you to push certain buttons or do certain motions in time with the game. Heavy Rain was also unique that you couldn’t really lose the game. There were four main characters and the story could progress without any of them, so even if a character died, things still moved forward.
In their second mainstream outing Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream relies on the same two mechanisms but changes the scope, length, and the tone of the game considerably. The gist is that a young woman named Jodie (Ellen Page) was born connected to an entity known as Aiden. When the entity began to make itself known, in ways similar to a poltergeist, Jodie was moved into a research facility where she was cared for by Dr. Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe). The story covers like 20 years of Jodie’s life, though it jumps throughout the timeline out of order, revealing key events that lead up to our conclusion.
Let me start with the written page, where the game is first conceived. It’s a compelling story with some great characters. The trailers/reviews/etc give away very little, so much of the game was a surprise to me. There are about 20 “chapters” in Jodie’s story, each one feeling relatively unique. One, for instance, might be entirely character-driven, with very little action. In one of these, Jodie prepares for a date and you spend the chapter making dinner and cleaning your apartment. This is more engaging than it sounds, as Jodie is truly invested in this date and what it could mean. She’s been ostracized her entire life, so connecting with just one person her own age… could mean everything to her. The next chapter might be entirely combat-driven, such as a section where Jodie is working for the CIA and is on a mission to assassinate a Somalian warlord. You must stealthily cross a war-torn country and take out an entire army. These two experiences are vastly different but help to create a three-dimensional picture of Jodie and what makes her tick.
One of the most interesting segments is called “Navajo” and has Jodie meet a small family in the American southwest. At first, the story felt out of place and almost felt like a DLC or sequel, having very little to do with the core story. But after this strange side story, I understood more about the world that we’re dealing with. And I was even so impacted by this story, that it influenced my decisions in the final moments of the game (and therefore, what ending I witnessed). In retrospect, this chapter was one of my favorites (but also one of the most terrifying, in the greatest ways possible).
In terms of character, both Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give incredible performances. After watching a few behind-the-scenes specials, it’s crazy how much work went into capturing their faces, along with their voices. And it comes across beautifully. I was more invested in some of these scenes than with comparable live-action sequences. Even when Jodie is just a little girl, the facial recognition was incredible.
Now, the “make it or break it” factor for most people is the gameplay mechanism. Heavy Rain was divisive because it was essentially a mystery and you walked around and investigated crime scenes, with the occasional chase or fight. Well, rest assured that Beyond: Two Souls is heavy on action. Much heavier than I anticipated. But you can’t lose, really. If you fail the button prompts, it just sends you down a different path. But this didn’t impact the way I felt. I was on the edge of my seat for nearly the entire game, even knowing that I couldn’t lose. The story was so intense and the experience so immersive that I wanted to succeed. I am curious to watch all the different endings, based on how you choose and what spots you might’ve failed on.
What doesn’t work?
Very little. But some people may dislike the game because it slows down for a few chapters and it’s not quite the typical action game that we’ve become accustomed to. Making dinner and choosing an outfit for the night feels more like The Sims than an action adventure. Some people will get turned off by this. Likewise, people that enjoyed Heavy Rain‘s somewhat realistic story might be put-off once Beyond: Two Souls gets into its much heavier science-fiction aspect, which is about as far from reality as you can imagine. But if you’re okay with some intense science-fiction content balanced with some slow character-building moments, you might find a lot to like here.
The reviews I’ve read in the past few months on most of the popular websites don’t do this game justice. I understand their concerns but they don’t praise the positives highly enough. I also understand that I appreciate story above all else. And if you’ve ever dreamed of a “choose your own adventure” movie, where you’re in control of the action, Beyond: Two Souls is the closest technology has offered us. If you want an incredibly deep and intense story paired with perfect acting and state-of-the-art motion capture visuals, Beyond: Two Souls is an ideal choice. It bravely avoids common video game tropes and offers something that is more akin to an experience rather than a game. I’d highly recommend, just for the sake of enjoying something that is completely refreshing and completely unique.