If I had written this review a third of the way into Quantic Dream’s Beyond Two Souls, I would have poured my emotion onto the page, urging everyone to play it immediately or risk missing out on one of the most moving works of art to grace this console generation. Regrettably, my positive reaction has cooled some after finishing the game, which turned out to have a serious identity problem long before its final act. At some point Beyond Two Souls, which is at times a wonderful, human story full of great characters, falls into a mess of Hollywood pulp and convention, desperately trying to make sense of its own unnecessarily complex narrative.
Beyond Two Souls is about Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), a young girl who is born with a link to a spirit-like entity named Aiden, who is attached to her by a mystical cord and never leaves her side. As Jodie ages, her powers become stronger, attracting the attention of the Department of Paranormal Activity, a government agency that studies phenomena outside of this world. There, Jodie spends most of her young life, interacting with doctors Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe ) and Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison), both of whom seem to love Jodie as if she was their own daughter.
The story of Jodie growing to accept her link to Aiden, and trying to balance her unique gift with her desire to be a normal young girl, is an interesting one. My favorite scene had me at a party with some neighborhood kids, controlling Jodie as she tried her first beer, had her first slow dance, and kissed her first boy. It is in experiencing these normal rights of passage that the game really shines, making us love and empathize with Jodie, especially as her powers ruin her chance at a normal life.
But Jodie’s life takes some crazy turns. At some point, she is recruited by the CIA, where she begins working as an operative under a man named Ryan Clayton (Eric Winter), whom is far too attractive for Jodie and he not to develop a romantic relationship. As you may imagine, the thought of Jodie and Ryan dating stresses the hell out of Aiden, resulting in an amusing scene where players can choose to ruin one of their quiet dinners.
Since I’m sure you’ve seen a movie or two, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CIA eventually betrays Jodie, using her as a pawn in their efforts to topple governments and secure America’s right to the soul weaponization of the spirit world. It is with all this CIA nonsense that the story really falls apart, becoming a campy tale of government corruption and conspiracy, none of which works all that well when juxtaposed with the game’s softer, more effective coming-of-age story.
To make matters worse, the story is told out of order, jumping around through Jodie’s life almost randomly, unfolding like a series of flashes one would get when they’re facing death. It can be difficult to make sense of it all and even harder to put things in order for yourself, but I will admit that some self-contained areas of the story work extremely well on their own, as long as you remove them from the context of a greater timeline.
It is the script that’s weak here, which is sad because the performances by the main cast are perfect; their characters come to life thanks to talented voice acting and revolutionary motion capture. Regrettably, the supporting cast is a mixed bag, with some minor characters taking you out of the realism with their wooden dialogue and ho-hum acting. The good news is that Beyond Two Souls is a gorgeous game, sporting incredible character models, enhanced with lighting and direction appropriate for a cinematic style. So, overlooking the occasional bit of poor acting isn’t so difficult to do when the overall production values are so high.
It is strange to talk about a videogame as if it were a film, but Beyond Two Souls really walks a fine line. It transcends videogames and movies, becoming something that borrows from both mediums. We may need a new name to describe it. You can make choices and interact with the world around you, but you determine the outcome of the narrative only to a limited degree. Sadly, the game doesn’t trust the player with making any important ethical decisions, leaving what decisions you do have control over feeling rather superficial.
Beyond Two Souls is directed by David Cage, a developer known for his cinematic approach to videogame storytelling. If you’re not a fan of Cage’s earlier work, mainly Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, it’s a near guarantee that you won’t like Beyond Two Souls either. Admittedly, it’s even more linear than its spiritual predecessors, and far less interactive. You can only interact with certain objects in the environment, all of which are marked with a dot. Actions can then be cued with a simple push of the controlstick. Sometimes an additional rotation of the thumbstick may be required in order to complete more complex tasks, like cutting up a potato for dinner, but typically actions happen all on their own.
You can switch between Aiden and Jodie at any time with a press of the triangle button. As you can imagine Aiden, whom we always control from a first person perspective, is granted some ghostly abilities: he can pass through walls, kill or possess some enemies (but not all, for some unexplained reason), and connect Jodie to objects and the souls of the dead. Using some of Aiden’s powers requires precision, slowing down the game unnecessarily just to give the player a gimmicky excuse to control the spirit more often. I don’t like playing some boring mini-game where I have to move green ghost fumes to Jodie’s head every time she finds something valuable – why can’t this just happen automatically, like most everything else does?
The ability to switch between Jodie and Aiden seems like it should lend itself well to complex puzzle solving, but instead most puzzles are solved by Aiden moving to hit a switch or removing debris form a blocked object, both of which feel like they are, once again, simply creating a lame excuse for the player to feel engaged.
When you do get to control the action on screen, it typically comes in the form of QTEs. These have been greatly improved since Heavy Rain, feeling much faster and more natural. Combat is also intriguing, requiring players to move the thumbstick in the direction of an oncoming attack in order to block or dodge. Attacking works much in the same way, requiring you to move in the direction of Jodie’s strikes. Sadly, it’s often hard to tell where an attack is coming from, resulting in Jodie taking unnecessary damage. But don’t worry, failing a combat sequence is completely inconsequential. Nothing bad can happen to Jodie unless the script calls for it.
Honestly, I could have overlooked the flaws in the gameplay if the story in Beyond Two Souls remained consistently deep and interesting throughout. But it doesn’t. When the game is hitting all the right notes, Beyond Two Souls is wonderfully imperfect and will leave you mesmerized by its quality animation, beautiful soundtrack, and unique twist on the coming-of-age drama. But at times it’s a manic mess of random tonal sifts, combined with sinfully passive gameplay. This is a really hard game to wrap your mind around, and not just because the story is so damn convoluted.
In the end, I’m glad I played it; when it works, it works so well. I just wish the Quantic Dream was brave enough to keep the entire story of Jodie’s life grounded and quiet – those were the only scenes that really moved me.
Beyond Two Souls is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol.