Beyond: Two Souls is the new "interactive drama" from David Cage, the French writer/director who brought you Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. Cage's studio Quantic Dream makes a very different kind of entertainment that's almost a hybrid of film and video game: it's all shot like a movie, while you steer characters through dramatic events, sometimes choosing what they say in conversations, sometimes walking around interacting with objects, and sometimes responding to on-screen events with quick button presses.
Beyond: Two Souls takes this idea even further than the dark detective drama Heavy Rain did. Quantic and its publisher Sony have forked out for two big-name screen actors to appear in the game: Ellen Page, as Jodie Holmes, a young woman with a connection to a disembodied spirit entity called Aiden; and Willem Dafoe as the kind scientist who runs experiments on her but also looks after her - and may have reasons of his own for being interested in the "infraworld" that Jodie has a connection to.
The two actors (and the entire cast) did extensive motion capture performances at Quantic's Paris studio, and the effect is extraordinary. Their likenesses in the game are impressively lifelike, right down to Page's distinctive walk, and the quality of acting in the game, while not quite flawless, is superb. Beyond is a technical powerhouse too, extracting impressive visuals from the PS3 that will have you checking you're still playing on the ageing console. With beautifully chosen camera angles and perfect lighting at all times, it really does look like a playable movie.
Spirit In The Night
The difference this time is that you can switch at any time (well, almost any time) between controlling Jodie or Aiden. Jodie's controls work much like Heavy Rain, although some of the interactions have been simplified from on-screen button prompts to simple gestures with the right stick. In action scenes, the camera will suddenly go slow-mo and then you'll need to move the right stick in the same direction as Jodie's body to complete an action. (You can't really fail these, though.)
Switch to the ethereal Aiden, however, and you can fly around the environments at will (although not too far from Jodie) and perform a very different range of actions: telekinesis, possession (useful for dealing with hostile characters), interfering with electronics and even channelling the memories of the dead. Between the two of them, there are quite a few different ways each scene can go, although you're still limited to performing actions that have been scripted in by Quantic's designers.
Sounds crazy, right? Well, this is a crazy game, especially its story. Covering 14 years of Jodie's life, from little girl to early 20s, and jumping around the timeline seemingly at random, Beyond is a rollercoaster ride - in both good and bad ways. There are a lot of action scenes, as well as more downbeat dramatic scenes, and Jodie even joins the CIA as a sort of super-powered Jason Bourne. You might be in a little girl's bedroom one minute and communing with ancient spirits in the Navajo desert the next.
Although each scene is quite self-contained, as a whole, Beyond doesn't really make a lot of sense. The paranormal and thriller elements of the plot seem over-the-top and contrived, and the action scenes can leave you wishing you were playing this as a 'normal' game. Then again, simpler dramatic scenes - like Jodie getting ready for a date with a hot CIA colleague while Aiden sulks jealously - often work really well, and are unlike anything else you can play in a video game.
A key part of Cage's interactive drama vision is that the storyline responds to your actions. Heavy Rain - not unlike last year's surprise hit, The Walking Dead - featured a number of big moments where you could dramatically change the course of events.
Beyond takes a subtler approach. Although there are loads of choices to make while playing the game, they're often much simpler than life-or-death - should Jodie kiss this guy, should Aiden knock over that table? Some scenes play out differently depending on your choices, but thanks to the way the plot works, it won't change what happens overall, at least until the very end of the game.
There are definite advantages to this approach - especially when it comes to building the character of Jodie - and it still makes the game interesting to play through again. But you won't feel like you're having a major impact on what you're seeing.
Rounding out the package are a two-player mode that works surprisingly well - one player controls Jodie and one Aiden - and a free smartphone app that allows you to control the game with your phone or tablet rather than a pad, a nice touch.
Like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls is a true original. It's true that its story and subject matter don't fit Quantic Dream's unique style as well as the more down-to-earth Heavy Rain did, and it rather overdoes its attempts to move you. But, despite some flaws, it's still a visually stunning and unique game that demands your time.
GAME's Verdict: 7/10
- Technically stunning graphics that really push the PS3 to the limit
- Lifelike acting, with a great central performance from Ellen Page
- You never know what's going to happen next
- The plot doesn't make a lot of sense and the fantastical elements are overdone
- The interactive drama format is better at quiet moments than action scenes
- There's a lack of really meaningful choices to make