(Contains mild spoilers)
Having played Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, I was looking forward to David Cage’s next masterpiece – Beyond: Two Souls (BTS). I already knew that the game, like Heavy Rain, has multiple endings based on the player choices throughout the game, so I was mindful of the choices that was made during certain events in the unchronological timeline of episodes.
You play as a gifted girl named Jodie Holmes, and witness her journey from childhood to adolescence. Jodie has a paranormal connection to a spirit, who became more than just an imaginary friend. Named ‘Aiden’, this supernatural entity is able to interact with objects and people within a reasonably wide spherical range. Aiden usually cannot wander too far because he’s ethereally corded to Jodie.
The episodes of Jodie’s adventure are played out in a non-linear fashion. You start off as Jodie in her pre-teen years in one; then brought forward to her time as a recruit in military; transported back to a birthday party celebration during her teenage years; darted back to a time where she attempted to pass a military exam; and so on. It demands you to pay attention or risk noticing the finer details. Some of them are not crucial but add depth to the plot, but there are others that could influence your choice on dialog options and possibly lead to a different branch of the story. I was initially unimpressed with the confusion of timeline but later on I realized that the episodes are played out in such order to keep the player and audience intrigued.
BTS is a heavily motion-captured game featuring the talents of many professional actors, but the likeness of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe as two of the main cast adds weight to the plot. Delivered convincingly, the bond between both nurtures over time.
While BTS is not made compatible with PlayStation Move like in Heavy Rain (probably not yet), the game offers a way to be played with a with a friend on the same couch. There is also an option to give the DualShock3 controller a rest and employ a flat screen instead. Named ‘Beyond Touch’, a free app downloadable from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, the app is easily synchronized by connecting it to the same wi-fi network as your PlayStation3. Utilising the large screen on smartphones and tablets, the app provides a simpler way to control and make choices in the game. I hope Quantic Dream and other developer will consider extending the compatibility of such apps on other mobile platforms in future (I’m a Windows Phone 8 user and I know how it feels).
In a way, I feel allowing the game to be controlled by a mobile device (something that we carry around closely every day) enhances a personal connection with the player, and that appears to be one of the objectives of David Cage and his team.
BTS is not a game about clocking experience points (XP) and levelling up, interacting with a virtual world of player/non-player characters or finding your bearings in a large map. It is a game about emotions and connecting with the parties within a given episode. In one scene, the player controls Ellen in her birthday party; in another, a younger pre-teen Ellen is asked to get a story book from another room. What transpires in each scene is then left to the player to react. It seems that the game is designed to be rather reactive than interactive, culminating into a sequence of drama series with minimal player interaction. That’s fine if David Cage and his team intend to carve a new genre in videogames, but if you have played Heavy Rain, the amount of interaction required of you in BTS is much lesser. This is probably because Heavy Rain alternates your control between four characters and the game is loaded with a certain degree of investigation work and evidence gathering. In BTS, it’s just switching between Jodie and Aiden.
The simplicity does not end there. In the beginning, a young Jodie started off with a guessing game against a lady in another room. The game introduces Aiden by asking you to move your thumbstick to float through and take a peek. Later on in the same scene, you are left with the option to create as much havoc as you wish as the poor lady begs to be allowed to leave the room.
As you progress, Aiden’s abilities is limited by the number of interactive items. Even in an open area, the limitation clamps down player’s creativity. Perhaps this is done to simplify for the player but this restriction of freedom is curiously applied in areas where I feel unnecessary. In a scene where Jodie is homeless and resorts to begging, my brother (who was playing as Jodie) chose not to take money from the automated cash dispenser machine and was then presented with a 2nd option to earn money. In my playthrough, I thought I could do both, but as soon I grabbed the money from the machine, the scene fast-forwarded to Jodie returning to her fellow beggar friend. This is probably because there’s no branching outcome (both in cutscene and audio) if I were to bring more money back to the group, but that strays away from the ‘freedom’ that was touted at the beginning.
Multi-touch button events appear but only at times when the game feels the player ought to oblige, such as when you desperately climb a slippery slope to run away from the police; carefully crossing over a broken glass wall panel and stepping on the pedal of a prized motorbike. During times of tension, the game alternates between rapid pressing of a button and flicking the thumbstick or your finger in the direction the game tells you to. If you fail, the effect is shown on screen momentarily in the form of static interference, but there is no penalty or consequence, hence there is little motivation to get it right.
The dialog tree could also be improved. When pressed for response, the player is presented with a one-word/two-word description of options to choose from, and a limited time to make a choice, upon which the game will decide for you. You are only allowed to respond with silence if the game allows you to. At times, I had no idea of the kind of response I will be giving based on the generic description. It appears that BTS encourages your undivided attention to notice keywords and facial expression from other parties. However, this is inconsistent when you’re required to interact with your surroundings because the game will quietly wait for your action before progressing (eg. Getting up from the chair; reaching out for a drink)
With all the various capabilities of Aiden introduced throughout the game, his functions are dictated in almost every scene. The player is merely tasked to perform the action. The game decides most of the time whether Aiden is going to break the wall, choke or possess someone, trigger a protective shield and so on. There are instances where you can choose which object to meddle with but those are few and far between.
Despite all this, what kept me going is the story. I was eager to know what happened to Jodie’s mother and more importantly, who Aiden is. There was a sense of closure and satisfaction when I eventually find out.
By then, apart from Willem Dafoe’s and Kadeem Hardison’s excellent in-game persona, I did not feel much connection with the other characters. When offered with an ultimatum, and then further choices to determine Jodie’s journey, I chose for her to go solo. Perhaps, there is a behavioural chart to line up all the choices I made in the game to deduce a rational explanation, but apart from a short epilogue, there is nothing beyond. Sure, there’s always an incentive to replay that last scene and make a different choice just to watch the different outcome.
Notwithstanding its debatable entertainment value and overall experience, Beyond: Two Souls remains iconic and deserves to be flagged as one of the hallmark titles of the PlayStation3. I’m still optimistic on possible downloadable content for this game, and with the advent of PlayStation 4 in the coming weeks, I look forward to David Cage and Quantic Dream’s collaboration on their project for the next-generation console.