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.  

belt tightening

Last night, the wife and I had a tough conversation about money.

Our 3-month old son (that’s him in the site’s header image, by the way) had his first “transition” daycare visit this morning, and he starts going in earnest in 2 weeks.  And for us to be able to afford daycare – and keep ourselves in baby supplies, and pay the rent and the rest of our bills, and also eat – well, we’re already cutting it pretty close, and there’s not a hell of a lot of wiggle room.  I’ve also got some rather sizable debt to pay off, too, and while I’ve made considerable progress on that front I’ve still got a ways to go, which makes this all the more anxiety-inducing.

Something’s got to give, basically.

And after some online banking and some soul-searching (and a little bit of drinking), I came to the realization that the only thing I really spend any extra money on these days is games.

This kinda sucks, as you might imagine – I am a self-professed consumer whore – but the more I think about it, this is not the worst time to be a broke gamer.   If I’m truly honest with myself, there’s really only one game coming out this year that I need in any sort of non-negotiable way.  Steam will have having its Summer Sale any minute now, too, and I could probably see myself picking up one or two things on my wishlist if they’re discounted enough – but let’s be honest here, after all the previous Steam Sales, there’s really not all that much that’s left for me to buy.  And I can certainly pare down my Gamefly account to one game at a time, as opposed to three, to be able to handle the rest of the to-do list.

Hell, let’s look at that to-do list (aka my GameQ) while we’re here, and I’ll take this opportunity to debut a new feature I’m calling Keep or Cut:

  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – I don’t even know what this is, to be honest – I’d just heard some positive word of mouth, and I wanted any excuse to keep my 3DS busy.  Will most likely CUT.
  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team (3DS) – if I can finish The Last of Us quickly enough, I should be able to rent this close to its release date.  Since Mario Golf: World Tour got pushed to 2014, this is the only must-have 3DS game I can see for the rest of 2013.  KEEP.
  • Saints Row 4 – I’m a big Saints Row fan, but I’ve had my doubts about this ever since they first announced it.  I do not expect high review scores, though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.  KEEP, but with reservations.
  • Splinter Cell: Blacklist – this was always only going to be a rental.  Chaos Theory was the high watermark for the series, and everything since then has been pretty disappointing.  Haven’t seen any indication that I should revise my expectations.  CUT.
  • Rayman Legends – Assuming this is as delightful as Origins was, this is an automatic KEEP.  Though I really ought to go back and finish Origins first.
  • GTA V – I’m not sure why this is still on my rental queue, as I’m probably going to pre-order it as soon as I finish this post.  (Still hoping for a PC release, though.)  KEEP.
  • Beyond: Two SoulsIs this the PS3’s final swan song?  More to the point – do I care?  While I remain in awe of David Cage’s wild ambition, I never finished Heavy Rain and didn’t really enjoy what I’d played, either.  Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, so this gets a KEEP.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins – as far as I can tell, this is the last “big” release of 2013 for current-gen consoles that I have any real interest in, since I don’t care about Call of Duty and I’ve lost all my faith in Assassin’s Creed.   But we all know this isn’t a Rocksteady joint, and this game is starting to smell like a cash-in.  CUT.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s no next-gen titles on this list.  That’s because I probably can’t afford a next-gen console this year; but even if I could, I still haven’t yet decided between the PS4 and the Xbox One.  I’m obviously leaning towards the PS4, but if Microsoft continues its backtracking ways and decides to play ball with indie developers by putting a less-restrictive self-publishing policy in place, well, that might keep the pendulum swinging the other way.  In any event, the only real “next-gen” game that speaks to me in any meaningful way is Watch Dogs, and that’s also coming to PC – which is a platform that already speaks to my current gaming habits anyway.

And speaking of the PC, the other clear upside to being on an austerity budget for the foreseeable future is that there’s really no excuse anymore for me to not finally tackle the GIGANTIC backlog of unfinished games I have in my Steam library.  Hell, even if I only stuck to seeing all the stuff in Skyrim that I never saw on the 360, that would be plenty.  (Now I just need to get over my seething Skyrim rage, which I’ve never quite managed to quell.)

I kinda don’t feel so terrible about this anymore.  I’ll call that a win.

>FF13: The first 2 hours

>The subtitle of this post should be: “or, Why I Didn’t Finish Heavy Rain.”

I didn’t finish Heavy Rain, nor am I sure I ever will. To be fair, though, it’s not entirely HR’s fault; I moved to Brooklyn last week, and even though we’ve been settled in for the better part of a week, I still haven’t really had that much free time. That said, the free time I did have was time I didn’t really feel like spending playing HR. HR kinda needs to be played in a long, uninterrupted stretch, or else it loses its rhythm, which is what happened to me. Also, it falls into the uncanny valley way too often, it needs an actual English-speaking voice cast, and the script very much needed to be touched up by an English-speaking writer. That’s really what hit the uncanny valley for me – not the graphics, but the stiff, stilted dialogue delivered by people who don’t quite know how to pronounce certain words. Also, it felt almost a little too derivative of “Se7en.”

Anyway. Final Fantasy 13 arrived in the mail yesterday, and God of War 3 will arrive next week, and so I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to finishing HR anytime soon.

As for FF13. I should probably start by saying that I’m not really all that familiar with the Final Fantasy series. I tried (and failed) to document my playtime with FF7 last year (1, 2, 3); I also downloaded FF8 from the Playstation Network, although I don’t think I’ve even installed it. And I played about an hour or two of FF3 (?) on the DS, and a little bit of FF7-Crisis Core on the PSP. But that’s really the extent of it.

I understand, though, that FF13 is somewhat of a radical departure from its previous versions, at least in terms of its combat system and how relentlessly linear it is. So there’s that.

Here’s what I can say about FF13, now that I’m a few hours in and the combat system is starting to get a bit more expansive:

1. It’s gorgeous. I’m playing the PS3 version, for whatever that’s worth.

2. People weren’t kidding around when they said it’s linear. It’s not just that you move in a straight line – it’s that the straight line you move along is very, very narrow. I can appreciate that this very conscious design choice might make the game a little less intimidating for the FF noob; but just because I’ve never really played a FF game doesn’t mean I’ve never played any game.

3. The combat system sounds a lot more complex than it actually is. At least at this stage.

4. Almost any Japanese-developed game has this weird idiosyncratic thing where every character has to be constantly voicing something, even if it’s just grunting. And almost every female character’s grunts and moans sound alarmingly sexual in nature, even if they aren’t at all sexual in context.

5. It is basically the polar opposite of Mass Effect 2, which I am holding up as the gold standard for Western RPGs. (Whether that’s true or not is not really the point; it’s an amazing game, and it’s still fresh in my mind.)

Most reviews have indicated that FF13 starts slow and doesn’t really get going until 12-15 hours in. Which is a lot of hours that I might not necessarily have before GOW3 arrives. But I must admit that I’m kinda enjoying it so far. I have almost zero idea what’s going on (and if I weren’t playing the game with subtitles, I’d have absolutely no idea what a “fal’Cie” or “l’Cie” is; at least I know how they’re spelled). But I’m intrigued. I think the last truly engrossing JRPG I played was Lost Odyssey; I’m hoping this will be somewhere near that ballpark.

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