Many game developers have a style. Shigeru Miyamoto tends to gravitate toward the whimsical, whereas American McGee likes to twist children’s tales. David Cage pushes heavily toward the cinematic. Like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond: Two Souls is more readily described as an interactive narrative than a video game, but that isn’t a bad thing. The vast majority of video games use heavily recycled tropes ad nauseum, and although David Cage’s work is never as fun to play as peers, it is every bit as compelling.
The latest release from David Cage’s studio, Quantic Dream, Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of two characters that are linked together by an ethereal cord. The first, Jodie, is a young woman. Aiden is her spirit companion, an entity of unknown origin that is bound to her. Though the two are always connected, neither controls the other. The player controls them both, toggling between them with a tap of a button.
The narrative of Beyond: Two Souls jumps around a lot, and sometimes it’s hard to explain why. Jumping around on a timeline can be a great way to add mystery and suspense to a story, but when done improperly, it’s just confusing. I would not say that Beyond ever reaches the point where things make no sense, but I don’t see a compelling reason to jump around beyond mixing things up to keep the story from going flat. Several chapters feel tacked-on and useless, doing nothing to push the story along and not even doing much to add flavor. One chapter in particular, while interesting, is a several-hours-long detour that adds next to nothing to the story. It could have easily been cut, and expanded upon for DLC further down the road, and I don’t think anyone would have noticed. Both the game and the chapter may even have been better for it.
Knowing what to cut is important. Pacing is a key part of storytelling, and it’s something Beyond: Two Souls struggles with. Some segments just feel long and drawn out. Others seem like they could be cut, or at least combined with others to be streamlined. Although Cage is obviously designing his games to have film-like narratives, he is using game-design logic to extend the experience.
Additionally, the romantic aspects of Beyond: Two Souls are inexplicable. As the game spans fifteen years of Jodie’s life, you’ll come across more than one love interest. Of the three, only one is in any way believable, and it’s the shortest, shallowest of them. The other two feel forced and tacked-on. David Cage also has a strange penchant for shower scenes, and the one in Beyond feels just as out of place as the one in Heavy Rain. I don’t know why it’s in there. Well, I do. But it doesn’t need to be there. The camera lingers in a way that can best be described as creepy.
Despite my harping on it, the story in Beyond: Two Souls is good, especially compared to most other games. The only place it really falters is the controls. Like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond relies very heavily on QTEs — Quick Time Events — to keep the player engaged in the action. For the uninitiated, QTEs are contextual button presses that appear on-screen the moment you should press them. There is no logic behind which buttons do what, so you need to have the controller buttons memorized in order to hit them on time. It is basically a more complex version of the classic Dragon’s Lair arcade game. QTEs aren’t always a bad thing, and in Beyond, missing a single one doesn’t result in complete failure. However, this also means they feel less critical. QTEs can easily become boring or frustrating, and this game has moments where they become both.
While we’re on controls, it is important to mention that Beyond: Two Souls does something very interesting: it lets you control the game via an iOS or Android device using the BEYOND Touch app. This greatly simplifies the controls, making it so pretty much anyone can play the game. All but the most beginner-level gamer will probably enjoy playing with a DualShock more than the app, but if you are trying to get a non-gaming friend/family member/significant other into Beyond, this app will make it a lot easier. I started playing using the app, but switched to a controller several chapters in.
I haven’t even touched on one of the biggest selling points of Beyond: Two Souls yet: it stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, and has a supporting cast that includes Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter. These actors went all out: they provided not only voice acting, but some of them provided an intense level of motion capture as well. The result is an engrossing performance that no game has matched yet; only 2011’s LA Noire comes close. The game is visually impressive, and its score, created by Hans Zimmer, is wonderful. Beyond story jumps from mysterious, to exciting, to touching, and neither the performances nor the music ever miss a beat. I don’t think Hollywood talent is required for this to happen, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Despite it’s flaws, I still recommend Beyond: Two Souls. It’s a summer blockbuster type of game. Flawed, sure, but entirely enjoyable. I don’t think it’s worth $60, though. It makes a compelling argument for more variety in game pricing, or taking the episodic approach Telltale has had so much success with.