Video Games Review: Beyond: Two Souls (PS4, 2015)

The thing about Beyond: Two Souls is that, as a video game, it’s rather bad. That might seem like an especially harsh way open a review, but a game that puts as high a premium on storytelling Beyond does means actual gameplay isn’t given a lot of consideration if it doesn’t advance the plot. This kind of game has been referred to as an interactive movie in the past and that descriptor certainly applies here, but where this year’s Until Dawn found an interesting way to play with the genre, Beyond makes me wonder why anyone would pursue it at all.

Beyond: Two Souls has been revamped for the PS4 with some fresher, higher resolution graphics but it’s story remains the same. Jodie, played by Ellen Page, has had an invisible friend her entire life in the form of Aiden, a grumbly, jealous, invisible spirit that follows her around. Jodie isn’t sure what the hell Aiden actually is and there are a few moments in the story that suggest Aiden doesn’t know what he is either. You control them both at different points, Jodie in third person and Aiden in first person. Incorporeal as he is, Aiden can move through walls and interact with specific items.

The plot is told in a series of flashbacks, out of chronological order. The choppy order is a result of Jodie trying to catalogue her memories after the fact and they’re divided up into four clear periods – Jodie as a child in foster care and studied by Willem Dafoe’s scientist character, Jodie as a teenager, still being studied, her (incredibly weird) recruitment by the CIA as an assassin (no, really) and finally, a period spent fleeing from people she used to work with.

Without spoiling anything, hoo boy, the ending of this game is bananas. What seems like an interesting video game version of Carrie or Ginger Snaps to begin with ends up more like Ghostbusters by way of The Bourne Identity. The thing that really made the whole thing collapse for me was that, despite its resolutely insane story and character decisions that defy logic, Beyond takes itself as seriously as a heart attack.

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Players of developer Quantic Dream’s previous work Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain are used to this sort of thing by now. While I was no fan of Heavy Rain either, it must be said that Beyond does have far better dialogue and less of a reliance on cheap narrative sucker punches. That’s not to say it’s amazing, but it seems like writer/producer David Cage is a little more gun shy than he was last time around.

In truth, it may actually be cringier than you realise but thanks to an incredibly game performance from Page, it helps you buy into the more outlandish moments the plot throws at you. It’s a great example of the power of performance capture and it will help keep you dialed in well after you might have sworn the whole thing off otherwise. Page’s performance is aided by some really pretty visuals, visuals that ranked among the best the PS3 had to offer. The facial animation alone gives L.A. Noire a run for its money.

This new HD remaster for the PS4 provides a significant graphical boost, upping the res to 1080p and tweaking various effects and lighting. The effect is pronounced, as lovely to look at as many games that are built to run on next-gen hardware from the jump. There are the occasional “uncanny valley” moments that make you feel like you’re watching mannequins chat to each other and your appreciation of the visuals will likely depend on your ability to deal with these moments.

There are a few other changes in this remaster – you can now play through the game’s story in chronological order from the get-go and Quantic have added chapter bookends that show you how many players made the same decisions you did. You also get the game’s Enhanced Experiments DLC included for free.

That’s about where the changes end, however. The controls are the same as in the PS3 version which means they’re still a little clunky to move about but outside of these brief sections, you’re pretty much limited to quick time events. You’ll be asked to push the right stick around a lot and combat has a slow-mo mechanic that requires you move the stick in specific directions to ensure any hit connects.

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After that, if it isn’t specifically highlighted, you can’t interact with it. There’s nothing in the way of puzzles and a surprising lack of interactive dialogue for a game so scripted. Rather, Beyond is content to lead you around and only throws the odd prompt at you, probably make sure you’re still paying attention. Even the game’s anemic stealth mechanic doesn’t require any skill, you just wait until the game says you’re in range, hit the shoulder button and the person dies. You could quite literally have the same experience streaming your favourite TV show on Netflix and periodically picking the controller up and pressing a few buttons.

Alright, look, at this point you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m being pretty precious about a game that’s trying to do something different. That’s okay, but let me try to enunciate my point here: if you’re going to make a game, even if story and dialogue are core to the experience, then your story and dialogue and the way you interact with them have to be good enough to justify that focus. Telltale are great at this. Things you do and say in their games have consequences and you can choose how you interact with the world. Beyond doesn’t give you any of that.

I actually think that Beyond lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from Heavy Rain. Where that game had a great central idea sullied by a garbage script and underwhelming performances, Beyond features a truly insane story full of performances and features it doesn’t earn or deserve.

The fact is, there’s no reason for the stories that Quantic Dream are telling to be in game form. Nothing in Beyond is bettered by virtue of the fact that it can be interacted with. Aside from the ending, which offers a few paths for you to choose from, you don’t really have any sway over the way the story plays out.

Review Score: 4.5 out of 10
Highlights: Amazing visuals; Ellen Page rules
Lowlights: Barely a game; Story starts strong, becomes increasingly insane
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Released: December 1, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Digital Only)

Reviewed on PlayStation 4