The lights are on
Power Member - Level 10
Mention Quantic Dream in a conversation, and I’m sure even some "core" gamers may not know the developer to which you are referring. Bring up David Cage however, and I’ll bet you’ll see light bulbs of recognition and potential frustration shine over those same heads. For better or worse, Cage has become the face of QD. His auteur-like control and incessant talks about raising the bar for storytelling is, at the very least, admirable. However, there are many who feel Cage’s tightly-gripped possession over QD’s titles are responsible for the polarizing effect they’ve had as a game-making force. Beyond: Two Souls will more than likely be no different.
The game is about souls, or the beyond, or two of something. Right? Let's break it down. Oh, and get ready for a very minor spoiler. The only reason I include it, is to give you a solid example of how bad the writing can get.
Jodie, played by Ellen Page, is a young girl who has had a paranormal entity — named Aiden — following her since birth. Societal persecution is something Jodie has faced numerous times, mostly thanks to her spectral friend. There are of course your friendly neighborhood scientists, one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe, who befriend Jodie in hopes of understanding what's happening to her.
As I write, I struggle to mentally arrange these simple events because — in what might be Cage’s biggest mistake yet — Beyond tells its story in a nonlinear fashion. In one chapter you're playing in the snow as a young Jodie, and then the in the next the police are chasing you through the woods as fully grown adult. Now, this type of narrative isn’t inherently bad, but you’ve got to be one hell of a writer to pull it off. Unfortunately, Cage was not up to the task.
Throughout the entirety of the 11 hour playthrough, I was left in the cold. The jumpy plot bits and nearly non-existent character arcs are a schizophrenic experience. The player is constantly thrown into awkward situations where it’s clear they should be feeling some sort of emotion towards a character, but don’t, because said character’s personality isn’t shown until several chapters down the line, if at all.
It’s like Cage thinks by simply reading a novel’s chapters out of order, you’ll get some deep and thoughtful narrative. In actuality, the results are just as mind-numbingly confusing as the notion sounds. With such a bold stylistic choice, you’d think there would be some sort of payoff or big reveal at the end to warrant it all. Unfortunately, something so satisfying would be a bit too conventional for Cage.
Even if the chapters played out in chronological order, I have my doubts about how much the quality would improve. For every memorable moment or instance of smart writing, there are nearly a dozen disappointing, awkward, or awful ones, blitzkrieging anything resembling a well-told story. The game's beginning is relatively tame — even with an angry spirit following Jodie — but as the story progresses, I felt like I had accidentally turned on the SyFy channel. More and more, the combination of cringe-worthy voice-acting, a stilted script, and terribly clichéd writing would form a perfect storm of laugh-worthy proportions.
For example, during the chapter titled “Navajo”, Jodie stays on with a Native American family, helping them with their ranch. Surely enough, this is tied into the paranormal plot with strings of stereotypes and western cliches. The house is set upon at night by a strange entity, which turns out to be a spirit summoned by the family’s ancestors who desired revenge on the white men who destroyed their home. When I first set eyes on the giant sandstorm creature with its goofy jack-o-lantern face, I had nearly forgotten to run away because I was too busy laughing.
To make matters worse, Cage apparently unloaded a Thompson submachine gun of heinous story structure, riddling Beyond with countless plot holes. Aiden has the ability to posses, strangle, and cause havoc in an assortment of ways. Often times this allows him to aid Jodie at a moments’ notice. Oh, hello there, "Superman paradox." How do you create tension when the protagonist is nearly invincible? No need to fret, there are plenty of moments where Aiden inexplicably does nothing for the sake of drama. This is only made more baffling considering that, from the outset, he's shown as being highly protective and capable of defending Jodie.
WHY AFRICAN WARLORDS AND CHILD SOLDIERS? BECAUSE IT CLEARLY HASN'T BEEN COVERED ENOUGH IN FICTION.
Lo and behold, there are a few redeeming aspects. It may have nearly taken a third of the game, but eventually Jodie grew on me, due in part to the exceptional performance by Ellen Page. Jodie’s story of a girl fed-up with her superhuman protector hits the right notes on occasions, especially in times of frustration and failure. It was difficult not to sympathize with her desire to lead a normal life, coupled with her inability to do so. These subtle moments make it abundantly clear as to why the rest of the story doesn’t work. Beyond would have been far better off without the the big military conspiracies and Overly Flamboyant Entity Hoopla. Perhaps a more reserved and focused approach should have been taken. Toning things down, and making it all about Jodie’s struggle to feel human and be accepted could of made for a much more engaging experience. It actually seems possible that Cage was trying to tell that story. What’s with all the unneeded distractions?
You may now be wondering if I’m reviewing a movie or a game; I assure you, Beyond is indeed one of them silly vidja games. Many criticize QD’s releases by outright denying their gamely existences and referring to them as movies. While Cage certainly attempts to emulate Hollywood storytellers, the gameplay is certainly there. It's just non-traditional. If you are unfamiliar with QD’s previous work, there is a whole lot of simple button-pressing, QTEs, and use of the understandably-underused Sixaxis controller. I’m not against the style as a whole — I did enjoy it in Heavy Rain, after all — butBeyond’s gameplay is much like its story: oddly limiting and contrived. As I mentioned before, Aiden has a plethora of abilities, but you only get to use certain ones in certain situations and on particular foes. It’s an incredibly linear approach, almost completely devoid of player agency.
CLICK A BUTTON, SAY SOME WORDS.
When it's not being a control freak, Beyond can be rather clunky. Sure, when you're in the heat of the action, the controls perform well enough, but walking around — which there is plenty of — is a hassle. Camera angles randomly shift, and movement feels stiff while playing as Jodie. Aiden is no better. Being a specter sounds like you’d have plenty of free flowing movement, but simply adjusting your altitude becomes an ordeal. After the mixed feelings on Heavy Rain’s gameplay, one has to wonder why they decided to stick with this style. Yes, it’s unique. And yes, it once was innovative. But innovation for the sake of innovation and uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness are not something to embrace.
Another interesting facet of Beyond is how streamlined its mechanics are. There is zero possibility of failure, and in some instances Jodie will act even if you don't. While fail-states are not a must anymore, this only causes further questioning of Beyond's position in the world of entertainment. If the player has so little agency that they can often sit back and watch things play out, can we really blame some gamers for calling QD filmmakers?
EXCELLENT CHARACTER DESIGN, MEET MY FRIEND MR. ATROCIOUS WORLD DESIGN.
Graphically, it's all flash and no substance. Environments lack detail; texture pop-in and hiccups are common place. While the video game versions of Page and Dafoe look stunning, they’re jarring when placed within the underwhelming visuals of their surroundings. The aforementioned "Mojave" chapter is a prime example of the lackluster design. Up close, there are bushes, trees, rocks, and all other sort of environmental detail. Look out upon the landscape and it's a whole lot of flat dirt.
Beyond: Two Souls is a strange beast. There are times at which David Cage shows off that he isn’t completely inept as a writer. Sadly, the nonlinear story and generally messy writing dash the quality moments against the rocks. At the same time, I managed to play through the entirety of Beyond in one sitting which means it was interesting, if highly flawed.
I had once hoped that Cage and QD would one day perfect their work. The potential was there. Alas, I think Beyond:Two Souls proves my hopes to be nothing more than a pipe dream.
This review was originally posted on Plus10Damage.com.