I never played Beyond: Two Souls (2013) on Play Station 3 because, well, I did not own a Play Station 3. Though being familiar with David Cage’s previous work, having played Fahrenheit in 2005 when it first came out, I was curious to see how Beyond: Two Souls played out.
If you are unfamiliar with the output of Quantic Dream, Cage’s development studio, they produce narrative focused experiences with the only game play having you directing the character and using quick-time events for various actions.
In any case, I came to Beyond: Two Souls with a bit of trepidation. My experience with Fahrenheit was a bit sketchy. It started good enough but faltered in the middle and I didn’t go on to finish it because even when I was 16 years old, I knew when a writer had ‘jumped the shark.’
But back in 2013, the trailers for Beyond: Two Souls were intriguing. It was the first of Cage’s video games, (or interactive dramas, as he would like to brand them) to have real star power, featuring both Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in prominent roles, with Page taking the lead as a young woman called Jodie, who has lived her life with an ethereal spirit that is cosmically tied to her, whom she has named Aiden.
One of the first things I noticed was that the textures had been upgraded in line with the power of the Play Station 4. The facial animations pop and the environments look all the more realistic.
These aren’t the only improvements over the Play Station 3 version. The story, heavily panned for the non-linear presentation, is offered through a ‘remixed edition’ as an attempt by Quantic Dream to provide a greater sense of continuity throughout the story. Though this brings a new problem with it. Jodie’s story is told throughout her childhood into young adulthood, and is spread out through several chapters, which covers her childhood in a research facility, her attempts at making friends and fitting in as a teenager, and her forced recruitment by the CIA who recognise that her supernatural abilities can be weaponised.
Whilst the chapters play out in chronological order, there are too many scenes that are never referenced again later on in the story. One chapter that exemplifies this is in the game’s third act, you end up on a ranch helping a Native American family fend off a malevolent spirit that is haunting them. The problem here is that it is never referenced again until briefly at the end and felt like padding.
Cage does this often, especially in the final chapters, which are loaded with needless quick-time events and various twists and turns to prolong the ending. Just like Fahrenheit, what started off promising turned out to be tedious and pushing the boundaries of realism, and when you’ve suspended your disbelief for a story concerning a young woman who is tethered to a spirit, that is really saying something.
The largest problems with Cage’s games is that he wants to create interactive dramas but is not a strong enough writer to do this. He barely managed to keep a handle on documenting the coming of age story of Jodie, never mind the addition of the supernatural angle included.
If anything, it is a testament to Page’s skill as an actor that she managed to make the contrived dialogue and moments within the story work. Dafoe works well also but the rest of the cast are clearly lagging behind them in terms of talent. This also presents problems because no matter how adept Page and Dafoe are, they are unable to consistently engage the player with what are supposed to be key moments in the story.
It’s a shame because Beyond: Two Souls is well presented. The visuals are often outstanding and keep up with the expectations set by previous Play Station 4 titles, and the sound design works well. The score has moments that are fitting for both the games tensest and saddest moments. Even the quick time events have been upgraded over the previous version. Another feature that was negatively received was that during combat scenes, the player would be expected to move the right analogue scene in the direction Jodie’s body was moving, though it was often difficult to interpret what direction she would actually be moving in. Though this has been upgraded by simply including a directional prompt which gives these scenes a more fluid and cinematic flow. One scene that comes to mind takes place on top of a moving train where Jodie is fighting off several police officers, and this is the truest representation of Cage’s vision for a cinematic gaming experience.
Though for the improvements made with the implementation of quick-time events, they do more to remove you from the action than integrate you in the experience. Cage has a habit of including quick-time events for even the most tedious actions. Picking up a glass, rolling over in bed, cleaning up a room, it all feels like a passive experience. As though you are not an active participant but more are playing a passive role in Cage’s story, simply pressing the buttons when Cage wants you to and committing to choices that have already been made. Where gamers are demanding a greater feeling of immersion and interactivity, many will be sorely disappointed with Beyond: Two Souls.