Beyond Eyes has a unique hook, along the lines of a recent spate of empathy-based games that help players to understand life from another person's perspective. It uses a gorgeous and inventive visual metaphor to emulate the feeling of being blind, and that aspect alone makes it stand out. However, the high-concept idea fizzles as it fails to sustain interest throughout the short playtime.
It tells the story of Rae, a young girl who recently lost her sight. Rae retreated to her own garden, where the sounds and smells are familiar, and where she could be insulated from the outside world. Her only company was a cat named Nani, but when Nani leaves the garden she worries for its safety and goes to find it.
The metaphor relies on unfamiliarity and unreliable senses. Since Rae is blind, and we players are sighted, it uses visual language to show us what being blind may feel like. The world is stark white, with painterly splashes of watercolors appearing as she walks through the world. A section might be blank until she bumps into it, at which point a wall suddenly appears. A bird chirping in the distance shows up on-screen only for the moment or two that it's making sounds. Sometimes, Rae will hear something that seems familiar, and the player will see it appear as she interprets it--only to get closer and find out it's something else entirely. The portrayal of road traffic as an impassable, cacophonous black mist is especially poignant.
Those elements are engrossing, and I have to give the game a lot of credit so smartly portraying blindness in a visual medium. It seems like a contradictory idea but it really works beautifully. That's what makes Beyond Eyes disappointing, though. Ingenious as that idea may be, it's not enough to build the entire game around.
The entirety of the experience involves slowly walking to get a sense of the environment, or pressing simple button prompts to pass by gates. I don't hold anything against games that use exploration as their primary mechanic, but in this case it started to feel repetitive and dull after only a short while. There are moments that still surprised me, like the aforementioned traffic scene, but they're infrequent.
I was pulled through by the simple, fable-like story, but even that left me unsatisfied. It ended with a melancholy twist that felt nonsensical by the rules the world had set up. Even with a short post-credits coda that left Rae on a happier note, I was left with a mixture of apathy and annoyance. I had cared about the story, at least enough to keep me going, but the twist retroactively took that away from me.
Beyond Eyes has to be commended for expressing a complicated idea so well and in such a unique way. It's almost worth experiencing just for that aspect alone. Unfortunately, as a high-concept empathy game that overrelies on the concept, it doesn't manage to move past its own cleverness.
This review is based on a Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Beyond Eyes is available on the digital Xbox Store and on PC for $14.99. The game is rated E.