The lights are on
I'm going to try not to talk about David Cage's or Quantic Dream's past or previous projects such as Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain. I know that in some ways- and in more ways than one, Beyond: Two Souls resembles these games- mostly Heavy Rain, but it is a completely new ballgame in other ways as well. Sure, I might use a few easy to grasp examples from Heavy Rain- but that'll be about it, as I do not wish to ruin that particular story for anyone who may or may not have played or finished it. However, I will say that I was not a particularly big fan of Heavy Rain, and I actually enjoyed Beyond a little bit more than that game- if not for its storytelling, then for its overarching story and minimal on-screen prompts during gameplay. While I did not so much like the classic Cage contextual prompts in Heavy Rain as much, despite enjoying that story more- the opposite was true here, as I didn't so much stick by the story as I did the better integrated prompts and controls. Despite their inherent lack of realism, I must admit that Cage/Quantic Dream games are quite good at what they do best- crafting a beautiful world and an engaging control scheme to explore it with.
I promise this is really the only direct line I'll say about Heavy Rain in relation to Beyond: Two Souls, but it really must be said in order to explain the themes of this game- so, sorry. There is a massive feeling of parental guidance and lack thereof in both games- from Ethan Mars and, in Beyond, Nathan Dawkins. While one deals directly with losing his son and then (possibly) recovering him later, the inverse happens throughout the plot of Beyond: Two Souls, and Dr. Dawkins serves almost as a mentoring and parental figure to Jodie for some time. Many of the same themes carry over from Heavy Rain into Beyond: Two Souls, however, Beyond also manages to stand on its own shaky feet as its own unique story which can have several different interpretations depending upon your choices throughout. The main, significant and stalwart theme of the game is one that follows (erratically, mind you) the life of Jodie Holmes and her paranormal companion Aiden. While some would argue that she is being held as a psychiatric and physical captive by Cole Freeman and Nathan Dawkins- her two doctors and later friends, I personally believe that their eagerness to learn of her communicative abilities with Aiden and obsession with the nether realm (for each their own reasons) serves as a more interesting tale than captivity.
Without (hopefully) spoiling too terribly much for you, Jodie's saga will take her from a child to a young woman, from the United States all the way to China, and from the deep sea to covert CIA deep cover facilities. In typical and slightly overbearing David Cage style, the story- or what there is cinematically told, I should say, is quite bizarre even for a paranormal, omnipresent, omniscient sidekick being in it- and is a globetrotting extravaganza that can be very confusing when taken out of order as it is. Then again, while I respect his ideas and games, I've never really enjoyed Cage's writing style so much- or his abilities rather at all. He would be a better film and cinematic director than he would be a true author, which is basically what he is currently anyway. While he often nails the tone throughout the plot, the overly dramatic conversations that don't need to be made so are often very awkwardly handled- although I can't say Page and Dafoe and the other seasoned vets didn't impress me, because that'd be a lie. The performances are solid, but some moments still fall through due mainly to the writing- especially the unbelievable ones. It's truly a moving game- in terms of the speed with which it jumps around the plot, and the places you'll go and people you'll see. For example, Jodie and Aiden go from being interned at the DPA (Department of Paranormal Activity) to covert missions with special operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency, to coexisting with local Native Americans and exploring the otherworld filled with malevolent and benevolent spirits. Oh the places you will go...
Sorry, but I'm going to make another quick little allusion to Heavy Rain again here- bear with me for a moment. The basic gameplay components are quite similar to Heavy Rain's analog presses and twists, quick-time button choices for decisions and actions, and worldly indicators as opposed to actual flashing prompts. While Beyond feels like more of a real experience than Heavy Rain due to its lack of on-screen HUD-like prompts, despite its less believable setting, it still has the occasional popup here and there as well, but covers most scenarios well enough by making players guess what to do. As usual, this provides somewhat of an incredibly challenging and semi-frustrating experience at times, but one I was ultimately, overall, pleased with by the finale. Don't worry yourself too much about the scattered action segments and your reactions to them, as the game will slow time just enough briefly to allow you the appropriate time to react. Still, it's a short window of opportunity, so take advantage of it before desperately lashing out or tackling your foes. All in all, that's a pretty scarily immersive experience.
The biggest gameplay and game changer is the fact that you also have the ability to control Aiden, Jodie's ghostly friend, at certain times throughout the story. Mind you, this isn't a free choice to switch like it is in Grand Theft Auto V, but rather a documented and scripted changeover. Which is fine, because the gameplay elements themselves make it all the more interesting to compare two drastically different control schemes between Jodie's and Aiden's. You can possess enemies, float seamlessly through objects and walls, throw objects, move things a la Poltergeist, and even peer into the past memories of those you encounter. Needless to say, Aiden is a busy little fella, and a pretty handy guy to have around helping. Despite these thrills however, your experiences are bound to be limited in some ways in terms of puzzles and learning how to perform new tasks as the entity. For example, you might not be able to choke every single enemy out or possess them all because the game wants you to experiment and try something new each time. Thus, annoyingly enough, some enemies are immune to your greatest advances. Still, it's a truly exciting experience even if it is flawed- kind of like the game.
Whereas it could have been truly artsy and not flawed in other ways, Beyond's greatest mistake lies in its design choice and narrative choice to try to compete with the biggest action titles out there. The fact that it's a paranormal adventure story gives it a leg up at first, but also serves as its greatest bar- holding the game back from ever reaching its true potential. Sadly, instead of relying- again, I'll mention it- on the mundane tasks that got Heavy Rain's points across, Beyond tries to hard to make you feel the tense action of covert attacks and assassinations instead of the simple things. The stereotypical CIA as the bad guy/good guy/can't decide idea comes into play, the infiltration of some secret underwater base comes into play, and much more. As interesting as these action-y sequences are, and as much fun as I had completing the more action-packed memories and moments, I always had to remember to take the with the customary grain of sand/salt- a very large one in this case. Throughout most action segments, the conversation we've come to believe shapes the story is essentially nonexistent, or lacks the creative punch I was expecting. Some things can drastically alter you story, but not as many factors as I would have thought would in such settings and scenarios as I encountered with Jodie and Aiden.
Overall, the story is what gets the most confusing for me, and probably for most people. When I broke it down, and also referred to Wikipedia for the chronology of events, it was a lot easier to stomach. However, as it was- muddled, jumbled, and otherwise penned sporadically as Cage imagined it, it lacks the punch it would otherwise have delivered. If we could cut out some of the truly extraneous and meaningless parts, then sure, it'd be a bit shorter- but it would've been so much more meaningful to me as a player and it would've let me experience things relatively unbroken alongside Jodie and Aiden. It's a really big shame, and weighs heavily on me, because the acting was superb in most cases, and there were some really tough moments to get through both emotionally and thoughtfully. I'll admit, I could feel Jodie's pain at times, and I actually enjoyed the two different endings I experienced- of the six or so main endings. There are some moments of power amidst the story, but as with a weaker gale, it just couldn't topple any sturdy structures of video game worth.
Despite it trying its hardest to cajole gamers into agreeing politically (although quite subconsciously at times) with what must be either Quantic or Cage's opinions on matters- such as the treatment of the homeless and natives, as well as the two-facedness of the CIA and intelligence agencies- Beyond was truly both an enlightening and enjoyable experience for me. As Matt said however, I'll always remember it as definitely brilliant, yet incredibly flawed in some important ways. It doesn't overall reflect too poorly upon it's score, as it was enjoyable enough- but it's still disappointing...
Concept: Tell the story of Jodie Holmes and her connection to the omnipresent and omniscient entity Aiden through a sporadic tale covering most of her life and bridging several worlds, uncovering some surprisingly deep revelations along the way. A true story of finding yourself as much as finding quality and acceptance in others.
Graphics: Excellently rendered animations and character models, only pulled down in some instances by weaker parallels in still models within the environments. The cinematic work is unparalleled in my opinion, for the most part.
Sound: Between the haunting and minimalistic melodies and the star studded cast, it's truly hard to find fault with what is present for sound quality.
Playability: The quick time contextual sequences work out much more fluidly than in previous Quanitc Dream games utilizing similar sequences of control, however the action moments can often make players lost and disoriented- which, while somewhat intended, can still be quite annoying at times when wrestling with control and chaos.
Entertainment: Despite falling down in the story and gameplay department at times, the game comes together well and has its genuinely impressive and deeply thought-provoking moments of fear, bravery, trust, and sadness.
Replay Value: High.
Overall Score: 8.5