Beyond: Two Souls Review — Perfectly Awful

beyond two souls

Congratulations, David Cage.

With Beyond: Two Souls, you have pretty much perfected how to present these works of “interactive fiction” you’ve been making for the the past decade. You’ve streamlined the mechanics so they became, to me, reflexive. You put the whole game inside a 2.35:1 frame and solidified your mastery of the performance capture techniques you designed for Heavy Rain. You created the best video game lighting of the year. You hired actual, legitimate actors to portray your characters, and for the first time out of three games I really have no gripes about the performances.

Ellen Page, it turns out, was an inspired choice for the lead role of Jodie, as she really brings it, delivering a performance that is unlike any other in a game. I’m not ready to throw out “best ever” declarations while it’s so fresh, but it does feel as if she demonstrates an unprecedented vulnerability. I very sincerely need her to be in more games.

And the mechanics, oh, the mechanics. The vast majority of moves you must make while you’re in control of Jodie or her ghost buddy Aiden don’t include button prompts. Beyond trains you early how to handle each “control scenario” (my term), and after an hour I didn’t have to think about what I was doing. Sure, there was the occasional battle with the cinematic camera, and maybe we could have used an indicator for where the player is supposed to go in some scenes, but you’ve about nailed it. A few refinements here and there will do it.

That Cage and Quantic Dream have finally put a game in what could be described as the ideal package for the types of experiences they have built previously means I can spend more time worrying about the thing I really want to worry about with games that are heavily built around a story: the story. I don’t have to feel sad about French actors being really bad at trying to play Americans, finally.

While Cage and co. have finally managed to deliver a solid, nearly complete framework, what they’ve put within that frame is outright hideous. Presented as a personal drama about a young woman who has an ethereal “entity” following her around at all times who grants her apparently superpowers, Beyond becomes something else entirely, just as Indigo Prophecy went from murder mystery to alien apocalypse. To add insult to that annoyed “here we go again” feeling, however, somebody decided it would be fun to arrange all the scenes out of order.

To be fair, placing the scenes in a nonsensical order for a while obscures just how stupid the plot is. When you don’t know that the context for a big exciting chase is completely moronic, you don’t have that fact lingering in the back of your mind hampering your enjoyment of the proceedings. You just go with it and have a good time.

But as the pieces start to fall into place, as you realize that the middle few hours of the game just represent a long tangent, as Cage dumps out-of-left-field characterizations on you right before he uses those new characterizations to make something weird happen and presents you with predictably dumb twists as if they mean something, you understand that this is all just horseshit.

Part of the problem is that the tale Cage envisions is far too sprawling to fit into a ten-hour package, and yet here it is. The story is so involved and escalates so severely in that window that it feels as if somebody took five seasons of a serial TV drama and crammed it into a single 13-episode run. Beyond’s plot still could have managed to be at least a little bit coherent, albeit still lacking in character development for everyone other than Jodie, had large chunks of what is there had been excised and replaced with dirt to fill in the myriad plot holes.

Off course, the story would have to be rearranged into an order that makes even a modicum of narrative sense. As it is now there is no real narrative throughline; there’s no central plot framed by flashbacks or flashforwards, but rather it hops around haphazardly seemingly at random. These self-contained, context-free vignettes are occasionally charming on their own — teenage Jodie going to a party populated by some real assholes comes to mind — but when you’re two thirds of the way through the game and still being presented with scenes that don’t have context it’s frustrating. See:  when Jodie has a date with her CIA handler who we’ve seen three times and know absolutely nothing about.

And then there’s Aiden.

First, he’s a complete non-entity (pun intended). Second, everyone pronounces his name incorrectly. Third, why he has a name at all is a mystery, because he/she/it cannot speak, or at least doesn’t. We can presume Jodie came up with the name, but as with so many things in Beyond that point isn’t so much glossed over as not even thought of.

Why am I nitpicking that? I was prepared to let his enigmatic nature be, but the game doesn’t want that, and is actually as concerned with Aiden’s origin as anything else as “his world” takes a prominent place in the plot. Despite being a sentient being, he is a blank and mostly just acts on Jodie’s orders.

There is a co-op mode, however, in which one player is Jodie and the other is Aiden, and that does demonstrate more concretely Aiden’s independent will. It does not, however, give him a personality.

While Heavy Rain did not in the end feature a good plot, Cage taking a more restrained approach to storytelling after the bizarre end-of-the-world scenario of Indigo Prophecy was a welcome change. It represented a legitimate improvement from one game to the next. Beyond, from a storytelling perspective, represents a gigantic regression, as Cage again builds a story that becomes far more epic than it has any right or need to be, and then presents you with a sequence of events that is arranged out of any sense of order, thematic or literal, for reasons I can only guess at.

And so Beyond is a game that proves quite firmly that Quantic Dream, now that they’ve put a real emphasis on acting, is a group of technical wizards who really know how to package a story game with a minimum of mechanics, and also that any story game they solely produce is an experience players should dread.

Final Verdict

3 out of 10

Addendum: Lest we forget, David Cage said earlier this year that “sequels kill creativity and innovation.” And while Beyond’s plot is utterly broken, it does have the decency to be self-contained. However, it concludes with a stinger that is perhaps the most shameless and absurd sequel setup in recent memory, and one which is completely unnecessary.