The First Few Hours: Beyond: Two Souls

I am in a weird spot when it comes to David Cage.  On the one hand, I’ve grown tired of shooters and mindless violence and flashy, empty spectacle, and so I’m very appreciative of games with ambition; games that clearly meant something to their creators; games that actively try to do something different.  On the other hand, I’ve played his previous games (i.e., Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain) and have come away flummoxed and disinterested.  

Beyond: Two Souls arrives at an interesting time for me, then, as I’ve just spent 40 or so hours finishing up GTA V, a flashy, spectacle-filled (if not spectacular) game that features both mindless violence and crazy ambition.  While I think I can now say that I ultimately enjoyed GTA V in spite of its numerous flaws, I’m also well aware (and maybe a little sad) that my favorite game franchise is no longer intended for me, or someone my age.  The point is, I’m vulnerable.  I’m in yet another release calendar lull, I’m wanting something to really sink my teeth into, and I’m wanting to play something that doesn’t insult my intelligence.

And so, to that end, I find that I must commend David Cage, because Beyond: Two Souls is (for the most part) a success.  And unlike his previous two games, I have every intention of finishing it.  The game’s technological strengths are astounding – the facial animation in particular is probably the best of this console generation.  The acting is quite good (even if the script is occasionally hokey and/or overwritten), the non-linear storytelling is a novel approach to an already-strange story, and I’ll admit it – I really want to see how this story ends, even if it occasionally gets unintentionally silly at times.

But because I’m also a fan of clever wordplay, I cannot commend the game without also condemning it, because some of the game’s controls are the absolute worst.  The game is played almost entirely via Quick-Time Events, which is not necessarily the end of the world – it’s just that they’re woefully inconsistent in terms of responsiveness, or even necessity.  I mean, I get having to do it when I need to climb out of a window or ascend a rock wall, but do I really have to use them in order to draw a picture?  Moreover, there are some times when the game wants you to mash on a button.  But the cue to do so is inconsistent – it’s unclear if you need to mash it in a certain rhythm, or at a certain pace, and often you’ll fail the cue and have to do it again.  Even worse are the combat scenarios, which eschew on-screen prompts entirely – instead, you have to follow Ellen Page’s arm or leg movements, wait for the game to enter slow-motion, and then move the right thumbstick in the same direction as Ellen’s limbs.  That the game doesn’t tell you that it’s the right thumbstick is bad enough, but the ultimate problem is that even if you fail, it doesn’t seem to matter; you’ll take a few more punches than you should, but you’ll end up finishing the scene anyway.  So what the hell is the point?

The game is much better at immersing you in quieter moments.  A particularly brilliant example of this comes early in the game, when Ellen Page’s character Jodie is a teenager, attending her first party with a bunch of strangers.  I actually want to go back and re-play this particular chapter, because the first time I did it I found myself responding to questions and situations as I personally would have, which is to say – very awkwardly, and with disastrous and humiliating consequences.  There is an option to go back into the party and get revenge, and I opted to not do that; I know it’s a pussy move, but it’s what I honestly would’ve done, and it was neat that the game let me do it, and that Jodie responded in a very real, touching way.  (But believe me, I very much want to go back into that room and set everyone on fire.)

I’m glad that I’m not reviewing this game for any particular publication; it seems to be an impossible task to tell a potential consumer if this game is right for them or not.  (Judging from the reviews, it seems a lot of reviewers felt the same way, and the wide range of scores bears this out.)  I came in without any real expectations; like I said above, I appreciated what Heavy Rain was trying to do but found it exceedingly tedious and very much in love with itself, and I couldn’t finish it.  For whatever reason, I’m finding Beyond to be far more approachable than Heavy Rain.  The visual technology is strong enough to overcome my frustrations with the controls, and Ellen Page’s performance is more than strong enough to keep me involved in the story, despite the story’s goofier sci-fi ambitions, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it all winds up.  

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