Beyond: Two Souls review: caged ambitions

Every aspect of Beyond: Two Souls is a generational leap over Heavy Rain. Too bad it's all wasted on a story that isn't worth telling.

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Some would argue that an artist is only as good as his tools. For Beyond: Two Souls, writer and director David Cage has been given resources that would make any director--Hollywood or not--jealous. Cage has at his disposal some of the best visual tech of the generation, a stunning motion capture suite, and two Academy Award-nominated actors. Sony has pulled out all the stops. The end result is a game that improves upon nearly every aspect of Quantic Dream's first PS3 effort, Heavy Rain. Beyond leaps over the uncanny valley thanks to its new engine and motion capture tech. Gone are the awkwardly-accented performances, only to be replaced by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Even the gameplay has been significantly improved, moving away from the QTE button-mashing that defined Heavy Rain. Every aspect of Beyond is a generational leap. Too bad it's all wasted on a story that isn't worth telling. Beyond: Two Souls spans the decades-long journey of Jodie and Aiden, an invisible spirit inexplicably tethered at birth. Taken under the care of a research program, Jodie ends up being recruited by the military as they try to understand the mysteries of the afterlife. Having the narrative span such a large amount of time lets players see Jodie grow from being a child to a teenager to an adult, and Ellen Page does a wonderful job of portraying the character across her life. Unfortunately, what should be a character study instead becomes an excuse to string together unoriginal tropes and Hollywood action cliches. With a deft touch, many of these scenes could be affecting. For example, one of Jodie's first interactions with other teens has her playing the awkward social outcast. But Cage stages the scene with the subtlety of an explosion. The gang's eventual betrayal of Jodie is so apparent, especially if you've ever seen any other movie involving teenagers. In fact, the game's heavy inspiration from film becomes a deterrent. Whether you're fighting atop a moving train, or having a spiritual encounter with a Native American family, the narrative rarely surprises, mostly because you've seen this stuff before.

Due to its non-linear presentation, it's difficult to fear for Jodie's life

While many of Cage's choices are uninspired, one in particular is baffling. Beyond is told non-chronologically, much to its detriment. There's no meaningful reason to frame the story in such a way, as scenes rarely flavor one another. Jumping between random sequences of being a child, military badass, and sexually frustrated young adult do little more than make the narrative feel disjointed. Even worse, it manages to undo one of the greatest aspects of Heavy Rain: the feeling of player agency. Heavy Rain made good on its promise of a narrative that adapts to your choices, even when main characters die. Knowing that every scenario could have repercussions augmented the tension of the game's knuckle-biting sequences. Beyond fails to replicate that sensation because you're aware that the entire game is a flashback. You know Jodie cannot die, and you know that your decisions won't have any meaningful impact on the story--because you're already aware of what will happen in the future. Simply telling the story in chronological order would not only make the story flow better, but it would be more effective at giving the illusion of player agency.

Beyond: Two Souls forces a rather unnatural romance option on players

Thinking even a little about the story will make it clear how absurd the narrative is. The end-game disaster is, like most other things in the game, so obviously going to happen. But why doesn't Jodie acknowledge that ever? Why does one character decide to so suddenly go insane? Is Cage familiar with the terms "character development" and "foreshadowing?" Given Quantic Dream's focus on narrative, it's a little bit surprising that Beyond is the best playing game they've created. Whereas Heavy Rain used Resident Evil-style tank controls, Beyond gives players direct control over Jodie and Aiden. Quantic Dream's interpretation of combat is the best so far, with players having to move the analog stick in tandem with Jodie's motion. The kung-fu fight sequences are just as thrilling as those of Indigo Prophecy, without turning into a frenetic game of Simon Says. Playing as Aiden is also interesting, as he introduces an interesting puzzle-solving element to the game. The best moments have you figuring out "who do I need to possess now?" as you manipulate NPCs to your advantage. However, all the gameplay ultimately exists to drive the narrative forward. Given how disappointing the story is, it's difficult to recommend Beyond as a game for play's sake. If David Cage was aspiring to be like a Hollywood director, he's succeeded with Beyond: Two Souls. Perhaps he can be best compared to George Lucas. Both are visionaries, with exciting views on the future of cinema and games. However, neither are particularly skilled storytellers. With Beyond, Cage shows us what the future of games could be--but ultimately fails to take us there. [5]
This review is based on early retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Beyond: Two Souls is now available on PS3 for $59.99. The game is rated M.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 8, 2013 8:00 AM

    Andrew Yoon posted a new article, Beyond: Two Souls review: caged ambitions.

    Every aspect of Beyond: Two Souls is a generational leap over Heavy Rain. Too bad it's all wasted on a story that isn't worth telling.

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      October 8, 2013 8:10 AM

      noooooooooooooooooo D:

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      October 8, 2013 8:23 AM

      I've been following impressions of this game from NeoGAF for the last week. It seems like this will be another classic David Cage love-it-or-fucking-hate-it deal, but it seems like if you are in any way interested in the stuff Quantic Dream makes you'll get your money's worth.

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        October 8, 2013 8:24 AM

        Reading warcrow's twitter review, I don't even know if that's true any more!

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        October 8, 2013 8:32 AM

        Their stuff is at least interesting. I hope they keep at it, even if its flawed.

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      October 8, 2013 8:24 AM

      The reviews coming out for this are really split. IGN's score is pretty similar while Revision Games gave it a perfect score. Guess it will be one of those games everyone needs to just try for themselves.

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        October 8, 2013 8:26 AM

        If you liked Heavy Rain, I'm guessing you're gonna enjoy this one as well.

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          October 8, 2013 8:40 AM

          FYI, I *loved* Heavy Rain. But, this... not so much. I feel like, in many ways, it's a huge step backwards for Quantic. They nailed the tech and the performances. The gameplay is a lot better too. But, the feeling of choice that you had in Heavy Rain is gone. The lack of variation in the different endings (the ones I've discovered so far anyway) also makes it quite upsetting.

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            October 8, 2013 9:08 AM

            Is lack of choice really so bad, though? When the acting and atmosphere is as strong as it appears to be in Beyond, I'm kind of on board for just being along for the ride and occasionally getting some agency.

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              October 8, 2013 9:37 AM

              It sounds like you're already sold on the game. if so, go for it! However, I don't think having great actors makes up for having poor writing and poor direction.

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                October 8, 2013 9:43 AM

                Fair enough. I am just so intensely curious. I don't have a PS3 so I'll probably never have the chance to check it out. It really just looks gorgeous and oozes production value.

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              October 8, 2013 10:24 AM

              Acting and atmosphere is great, it's the awful characters and terrible story is the problem.

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              October 8, 2013 10:26 AM

              I already have plenty of movies to watch that do story better

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            October 8, 2013 9:44 AM

            thats a bummer

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            October 8, 2013 12:14 PM

            How would you say it compares to The Walking Dead? That game really didn't give you a lot of choice when you looked at the story as a whole, but they way they sold you on the choices via the acting and character development made that not matter so much. If Beyond had characters as good as The Walking Dead, do you think it would work?

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            October 8, 2013 12:20 PM

            So we've come full circle. FMV games that are not FMV.

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            October 8, 2013 2:49 PM

            The demo had many different ways it could play out depending on your actions. Although all paths led to the same place but they changed the individual scenes significantly. Are you saying such variation is pretty much only possible in the two scenes from the demo or is it consistent throughout the entire game? Because I loved that stuff.

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            October 9, 2013 11:11 AM

            i.e. 6 - A flawed representation of its genre, failing to execute on new ideas

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      October 8, 2013 8:29 AM

      Official Shack Review: This game does NOT 0wn.

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      October 8, 2013 8:33 AM

      I knew it wasn't going to live up to expectations. Sometimes the review embargo tells you just as much as the reviews

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      October 8, 2013 10:03 AM

      rev3 5/5

      just sayin

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      October 8, 2013 10:07 AM

      David Cage seems to love supernatural stuff, thing is he sucks writing them. For a moment I thought Heavy Rain was going in that direction too, maybe even did for a while during production.

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        October 8, 2013 1:03 PM

        I enjoyed Indigo Prophecy. Haven't played Heavy Rain yet, though.

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          October 8, 2013 1:28 PM

          Me too, but the second half of the game was way too ridiculous for me. And I think it was incomplete too? I remember it jumping away month in the game.

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            October 8, 2013 2:10 PM

            It's been several years since I finished, and I only played through it once. I do remember preferring the first half to the second.

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          October 8, 2013 5:45 PM

          Indigo Prophecy was pretty much 'amazing' until the second half. Or really, maybe the last third.

          It didn't just jump the shark, it became a sentient AI version of a shark and proceeded to jump the original shark.

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        October 8, 2013 3:14 PM

        David Cage seems to want to be a movie writer/director but wouldn't ever cut it in that medium so he makes video games.

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          October 8, 2013 4:37 PM

          I'm glad he's doing it. He might not be great at the execution, but I'm glad someone is pushing videogames into new spaces and doing interesting things, even when they don't work.

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            October 8, 2013 4:53 PM

            Yeah, I do hope he gets someone else to do the writing or get help with it though.

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        October 10, 2013 6:58 AM

        "For all the things that can be said about Beyond: Two Souls,
        there’s really only one thing that’s indisputable:
        it’s the most unique big game of the year."

        Impossible, because TLOU came out this year!

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      October 8, 2013 10:30 AM

      The number score seems hidden. I completely missed it there at the end of the article.

      Is Shacknews intentionally downplaying scores, for example to diminish its effect on people's perceptions, or is that just a design decision?

      Sorry if this has been discussed before.

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        October 8, 2013 10:43 AM

        Nah, Shacknews is still working on implementing the 0wn score (basically instead of a number, they say if the game 0wns or not). The numbering system is just a placeholder.

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      October 8, 2013 11:22 AM

      Not quite sure I understand this review. It wasn't liked because you know the man character lives? Its not Heavy Rain, its its own game.
      This is a game with narrative? Whats wrong with that?
      Now if what you are saying is that the story (in this heavy narrative game) is weak and not worth seeing through then that's a different story. But I am not getting that from the review. So I am confused.

      I suppose its best to play the demo and make up your own mind.

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        October 8, 2013 11:40 AM

        The story is weak in a game that's all about the story.

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          October 8, 2013 11:44 AM

          "Every aspect of Beyond is a generational leap. Too bad it's all wasted on a story that isn't worth telling...

          what should be a character study instead becomes an excuse to string together unoriginal tropes and Hollywood action cliches...

          Jumping between random sequences of being a child, military badass, and sexually frustrated young adult do little more than make the narrative feel disjointed...

          Thinking even a little about the story will make it clear how absurd the narrative is...

          Given how disappointing the story is..."

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      October 8, 2013 11:48 AM

      If I thought the demo of Heavy Rain was awful and as such didn't bother to check out the full game, I take it I should skip this game right?

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      October 8, 2013 3:09 PM

      just got home and unwrapped it.. =[

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      October 8, 2013 3:13 PM

      It's definitely the best looking sega cd game I've ever played.

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        October 8, 2013 5:46 PM

        This is the best review. Somebody put this in the top-right corner of the Shack pronto.

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      October 8, 2013 4:35 PM

      i loved heavy rain but like two or three hours in it and it's kind of awful

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        October 8, 2013 4:35 PM

        at least i got it from redbox. RIP 2bux

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      October 8, 2013 5:33 PM

      she looks so much like Ellie from Last of Us

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      October 8, 2013 6:04 PM

      I am loving this so far! I am at The Condenser. Definitely got a nice x-files like vibe going on. It's interesting the route they're taking with this.. feels like half-life. I like it so far! :)

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      October 9, 2013 9:11 AM

      I played Beyond for seven hours straight last night and had a great time with it. I appreciate this review, but I disagree with things in it. The main thing that bugs me about the review is the part that questions why the story is told out of order. Jodie pretty much explains that with her first words in the game-she says something along the lines of ‘I’m trying to piece together my past…’
      For me I didn’t see the out of order sequencing as a strange method of storytelling. It was just Jodie recalling events from her past in the same way that I do-that is to say, not chronologically.
      If someone asked me to tell them about my past I might say ‘Well, for the past few years I did this. I played football in high school. Tennis in college. When I was a kid I never wet the bed…etc.’ I like the way the story is told-it keeps me on my toes as far as paying attention to what is taking place. I keep thinking ‘Ok, when does this fit into the timeline? Oh ok…got it.’

      There’s another thing I’d really like to share about my experience with Beyond last night. Don’t wan’t to spoil anything, but this game REALLY affected me during a part where I had to deal with some homeless people. When that part of the game ended I paused the game and just felt bad, and I thought about all the homeless people I’ve passed by when walking down the street, and how fortunate I am. Earlier yesterday I received an email at my job detailing our upcoming annual food drive to collect $$ so the poor can feast during the holidays. I always donate, but right now, after playing that part of Beyond, I’m feeling more than just generous- I feel obligated to give more, because (as stupid as this may sound) Beyond gave me this glimpse into the harsh lives of the destitute, so now giving has more meaning for me than just being able to wear jeans for a few days in my workplace.

      I haven’t finished the game, but I’m really enjoying it and I hope others take the time to play it. I want to say more in regard to the review (maybe I don’t watch enough movies, but I didn’t think the betrayal of Jodie by the teens was completely apparent- I kind of saw it coming, but I was carefully led astray from that line of thinking for awhile), but this comment is long enough.

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      October 9, 2013 11:09 AM

      According to Shacknews' weird scale, it should be a 6 at least. It's basically its own genre with Heavy Rain.

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      October 13, 2013 3:05 AM

      Another game that tries to be different and get knock down for it.

      Please bring us COD 15 and AC12 because you know we still give these game 9.5 out of 10.

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        October 13, 2013 4:24 PM

        Your cynicism would be funny if it were even remotely accurate.