Monday, November 4, 2013

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
WRITER'S NOTE: Sorry for the late post. Being without internet for a week is a real bummer. But I've managed to work on this review in the meantime. Enjoy.
Quantic Dream was on to something when developing Heavy Rain. It was a game about choice and consequence, splitting into separate written fibers running through an interwoven storyline that presented very different outcomes within each strand. It was a masterful demonstration of the consequential concept told through a strangely voice acted and often flawed thriller.
Given years to assumingly master their craft, Quantic Dream was hard at work on Beyond: Two Souls, bringing Hollywood talents Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, and Kadeem Hardison in a supernatural journey through the life of Jodie Holmes. It’s an interesting plot that delivers Jodie’s story through thematic vignettes which are scattered throughout the course of 15 years of her life.
We experience significant events from the perspective of a lost and displaced little girl gripping with her tethered relationship to the unseen supernatural entity: Aiden, to a desperate teenager whose attempts at social acceptance range from awkward to downright dangerous, to a determined adult running from the life created for her to uncover her mysterious past.
But what was expected to be a provocative and engaging experience ultimately turns out to be a disappointing and disastrous product.
Pretty visuals is one of the few things Beyond has going for it.
Beyond: Two Souls manages to get two things right. First, the game looks absolutely stunning. It frighteningly replicates the Hollywood talent it casted allowing me to often forget I was playing a video game. In turn, this compliments some of the very best animations I've ever seen (I spent three whole minutes walking Jodie back and forth watching her dashing red dress whip and furl). It also casts some amazing shots on screen rivaling some of the system’s best looking games – the canyon orange vistas of the Navajo Desert is Beyond at its visual best.
The second is Ellen Page herself. The actress’ demonstrable talent boasts a captivating range as Jodie Holmes. She’s frightening when threatening, she’s understandable when furious, and she shares her burden with the audience when in tears. It’s a performance that effortlessly holds your attention throughout the story’s entirety.
Beyond tries to get a third thing right by writing an actual story. But it only ends up to be a near catastrophic cave-in with bad writing, awful directing, armature dialogue, and questionable acting. The fourth is indeed a successful catastrophe; Beyond: Two Souls is ultimately a bad game.
Beyond presents a firm narrative base. Jodie Holmes’ connectedness to Aiden inadvertently sets her life adrift. She’s feared by her parents, studied and hunted by the CIA, and loved by passing strangers despite her supernatural essence. There’s a thematic overture that touches on how living with an unseen phenomena can impact one’s life, and the message illustrating on how some truly genuine characters can look past one’s abnormalities. It’s clear that Beyond is trying to say something, but it’s how this message is conveyed that creates crippling interference.
Jodie’s life is delivered in a disorganized mess. Ideally, Beyond could have been a collection of interrelated short stories adhering to a pattern of relevance. If Jodie suffered from a traumatic recall resurfaced by current triggers – say the gunshot-mimicking backfire of a muffler – a dive into her earlier years could have revealed the source of that trauma. If Jodie struggles with trusting others, especially authoritative figures, perhaps looking at her first betrayal will give insight into her mistrust. This manner of storytelling could have promoted a sense of agency, allowing the player to make those connections.
Sadly, this is rarely the case. The order in which these painfully self-contained vignettes are presented are completely random for the most part, contributing little to the overall plot outside of further demonstrating Jodie’s complex relationship with Aiden and the effects that has on her from childhood to young adulthood.
One of the few ways Beyond actually does manage to enable a sense of narrative agency through gameplay is with Aiden. Beyond presents uncommon control parity between Jodie and Aiden. The manner in which Jodie can navigate the world around her is expectedly limited. But jumping over to Aiden with just a tap of the Triangle button allows you to roam areas with guided freedom.
Controlling Aiden is sluggish, but adds a unique layer of interaction.
Though messing around with inanimate objects as a haunting poltergeist doesn’t always elicit the reactions you would like, you can listen in on isolated conversations in other rooms Jodie isn’t present in, and you can open up small glimpses of backstory by acting as a conduit and unlocking vividly revealing mementos for Jodie to see through. Being a fly on the wall and uncovering brief glances of history primarily serve the individual vignettes, yet hardly contribute much to the overall plot.
Randomized storytelling could have been a creative decision, and might have succeeded if the quality of the content was up to par. But while Beyond delivers moments that are interesting in concept and relatable in a way that most games aren't, it’s polluted by faults that mimic those of a struggling film writer and a performance and scene director, all in which nearly completely deflates the significance of the message Beyond is trying to sell.
Ellen Page’s talent may serve as an emotional link between the player and the story, however much of the surrounding cast delivers mediocre and unconvincing performances; even the more talented ones are brought down with a jarring script. Willem Dafeo is given a challenging supporting role as Dr. Nathan Dawkins, one of Jodie’s surrogate guardians. And though his acting chops are minimally questioned, it’s his written arch that’s the main culprit to his un-empathized character.
Kadeem Hardison is the real star supporting cast member here. Given a very convincing albeit one dimensional role as Cole Freeman, Hardison’s character as the kinder father figure paired next to Nathan is delivered naturally. However these recognizable three hardly carry the performance value in Beyond next to clichéd and sometimes over exaggerated acting that stand as little improvement over Heavy Rain.
Visuals couldn't do it, neither could the left three talented individuals.
When looking at some of the many wrong doings Beyond has committed, we can easily look at ‘The Party’, our first look into Jodie’s attempt to fit in with her teenage-peers, which presents itself as a thematic recreation of awkward adolescent encounters. The scene is riddled with meaningless choices outside of the final decision, but the cultish behavior – which is so unlike real world adolescent behavior – and terrible lines like, “Let’s like… do something to her” ultimately turn this sequence into a cartoonish affair, watering down nearly any sense of empathy.
Beyond takes you to many places at different levels of Jodie’s life. Fittingly, it just so happens that the lowest point of her life also happens to be Beyond amongst its very best. There’s a reason why ‘Homeless’, the chapter where we find Jodie battling winter as a beggar, was the scene showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival. Many of Beyond’s issues overlap here, but the dark, sometimes agonizing tone and the writers’ cohesive handle on the homeless exposition stands as one of the few instances where Beyond’s message is largely unscathed.
But where ‘Homeless’ rises above Beyond’s issues, ‘The Mission’ effortlessly exemplifies all of them. In Jodie’s assassination mission to Somalia, the character sequences here are sloppy, from Jodie’s unwarranted self-convincing of her questionable orders, to her love interests’ complete dickish blind-siding behavior.
The scenes here also don’t make any sense. You can rattle an oil drum to distract guards, but shattering glass next to them to make your escape causes no alarm; you can take full swings of a machete to the face and stagger through a crowd of hostile civilians shouting for blood, however Jodie will walk away with just a few scratches. Nothing you see here is at all convincing, but even that’s the least of ‘The Mission’s’ problems.
This chapter is also Beyond at its most gamey. But it’s a failed attempt in shoehorning stealth mechanics in a game with limited controls to begin with. Linearity is king here in a bizarre and appalling way with references to stealth action titles, all thanks to its disempowering cover system. The beauty of stealth action games is the element of choice and consequence, a concept that Beyond fails at miserably.
Jodie can blow her cover by simply walking up to an enemy, but the game quickly jumps to a combat sequence that, whether you succeed or not, will submit your opponent into unconsciousness or death. Other areas where Beyond simply can't figure out a way to emulate an encounter literally guides you covertly. I did my damnest to blow my cover just to see where the game will turn, but with the exception of a few instances, Beyond kept thrusting me in the direction it demanded that I go in.
This poorly designed chapter is one big metaphor for Beyond’s biggest flaw, your choices have a minimal impact on the story at large.
Here lies the worst gaming experience in my recent memory.
The element of consequence in Beyond is excruciatingly limited. On one hand, different scenes open and close based on your decisions, and the number of elicited outcomes from presented choices range from two to several. However regardless of the path taken, Beyond’s chapters nearly always meets at a common conclusion.
In my first playthrough of Beyond, I was actively invested in involving myself into the game as much as possible. Within my second playthrough, I was actively withdrawn, deliberately putting down the controller and forcing Jodie in making opposite decisions from what I chose during my first. And while there were nuanced reactions to the decisions, the bulk of the story remained the same which defeated almost any sense of purpose.
This lacking purpose is what leads the diminished enjoyment, ultimately exacerbating the boredom of the game itself. Controlling a sluggish Aiden becomes less meaningful once you notice that the SWAT team who’s supposedly hunting for Jodie is standing still as you possess and pick off the seat-warming gunmen. Fight sequences – which are inherently more intuitive than Heavy Rain’s combat with a prompt-less momentum identification system – are far less enjoyable once you find out that no matter how badly you fail, Aiden will bail Jodie out.
Beyond would easily get away with this lack of deviation if it played as a traditional game. Spec Ops: The Line and even the Mass Effect Trilogy were written to be more or less the same story (although Mass Effect had heavier and far more pronounced consequences than Spec Ops and certainly the game here in question). But in a game where there’s very little interaction with the, well… game itself, it’s worth little more than what is a haphazard 8 hour film.
It isn’t until the final act where Beyond begins becoming the game it should have been. The game’s out of order storytelling finally finds a purpose nearing the game's conclusion, mixing in a clever volley between moments just hours apart, and holds the only meaningful flashback that contributes to Jodie's later-in-life events.
It isn’t a complete accomplishment, as Beyond almost never is. The conclusion is marred by a painfully clichéd madman driven twist -with an inconsequential and jarring 180. But here, we finally see concrete repercussions for our decisions which directly alter the outcome of Beyond’s curtain call. Much like I’ve suggested in the case of Spec Ops, the final chapter is worth multiple playthroughs to view Beyond’s several endings.
The Bottom Line
Beyond Two Souls is in two part a crushing disappointment to fans of David Cage's work, and an absolute dysfunctional relationship between storytelling and game design. Accomplished studios like Telltale have demonstrated how games that are heavily reliant on story can lift their experiences to a master-class despite their mechanical flaws. But terribly unlike Heavy Rain – which is rightfully lauded as a pioneer in the interactive story sub-genre – Beyond: Two Souls shows how bad story telling can ruin a game completely; and that’s excluding the empty sense of player agency mixed with a pointless design philosophy. Even with Hollywood talent and a unique premise, Beyond is an interesting experience at best, and a drawn out catastrophe at its worst.
+ Gorgeous looking game
+ Interesting premise
+ Some Hollywood talent
-  Everything else

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