Beyond: Two Souls review: an interactive experience you won’t want to miss

As a tear rolled down my cheek, it all began to make sense. The roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, presented via a mish-mash of out-of-sequence stages throughout the life of the vulnerable, yet incredibly strong, lead character, Jodie Holmes, had eventually led me to one of the finest video game endings of this generation. Though it was slow to get there (and I often questioned why I was forced to carry out seemingly meaningless Heavy Rain-like gestures, such as gathering hay for a horse at a ranch owned by ancestors of the Navajo tribe, cooking a romantic chicken curry in my lush city apartment for a work colleague, or dancing alone at a teenager’s party that I didn’t even want to be at), it turns out that it was all part of the master plan: Quantic Dream’s director David Cage was taking me on a journey; and what a journey it was.

The conclusion to Beyond: Two Souls just seems so fitting and poignant at this particular time, when we sit at the birth of the next generation of consoles and the impending decline of the PlayStation 3. Maybe, just maybe, part of that tear I shed was because Beyond: Two Souls is the last big blockbuster exclusive before my PS3 gets shoved away in a cupboard to make way for the PlayStation 4. Whatever the case, the twist, the reveal and the immersive storytelling, which eventually leads to one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever had to make in a video game, has made for a truly memorable interactive movie that will stay with me for a long time.

The main focus of Beyond is Jodie Holmes and a mysterious entity that floats and moves around while connected to her by an invisible cord. Jodie is a special child and through Aiden (who is also a controllable character via single player or co-op mode), she can perform a variety of supernatural tricks, such as flipping over tables, possessing people and communicating with the spirit world. The game follows Jodie through stages of her turbulent life, switching randomly between the ages of 8 and 23 as you see a re-enactment of important stages that have shaped her character, including the time she spent locked up in in a secure government facility where they monitored her supernatural abilities and the tough decisions she had to make during her career in the C.I.A.

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Jodie meets many people who have a great impact on her life, yet all is not always what it seems in this story of friendship, hardship, love and betrayal. The fact that you never really know what’s going to happen next, or where Cage is going to take you, makes it a fascinating journey that benefits greatly from some excellent twists and a satisfying climax. Playing the story out of sequence also serves to add to the experience, leaving you wondering and second-guessing as to how the relationship with Aiden is going to progress. Though relationships are built throughout Jodie’s life with various people, the most intriguing one is the bond with her supernatural entity. Aiden is possessive, scary and loving. He shields and protects her, yet you always get the feeling that he’s capable of something more sinister and could turn on Jodie at any second. The love/hate relationship that Jodie has with Aiden is what really draws you in, and right up to the conclusion, you still have no idea how things are going to pan out between them.

It helps immensely that actress Ellen Page does an incredible job playing Jodie and puts real emotion into the role. When she cries, you can almost feel her pain, when she talks, you can’t help but listen intently, and when she runs, you feel her fear. Other characters, such as Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and Ryan Clayton (Eric Winter), also play important roles and across the board the voice acting is superb. Indeed, Beyond is a stunning production throughout with great audio work that helps to create tension or set the scene for some of the more tender moments. Graphically, well, you really do have to see it to believe it.

The Last Of Us took graphics to a new level on PS3, but Beyond pushes the power of the PS3 even further: to the point where it’s impossible to tell what’s a cutscene and what’s in-game. The transition between the two is seamless and Cage has created a dreamy-looking game that has left me wondering just what his team could achieve on the next-generation of consoles if this is what they can do on PS3. Eyes have soul, subtle expressions say a thousand words, and weather systems and effects such as fire, water and smoke are incredibly realistic. The locations too are rendered in such detail that it all plays out like one huge interactive cutscene. Beyond is a cinematic showcase of Quantic Dream’s incredibly talented team.

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In terms of gameplay, Beyond isn’t always as impressive as its production and storyline, with the highlights coming from the faster-paced action sequences and controlling Aiden rather than the slower-paced scenes or moments when you’ll be plodding along with Jodie in monotonous daily-life tasks. Just like Cage’s previous games, Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, Beyond requires players to interact constantly with everything around them. It’s much more subtle this time, compared to Heavy Rain, but you’ll still be performing gestures for every little action, from picking up a cup to turning the page of a book.

Mostly, the interactions, which involve moving the right analog stick in a direction prompted onscreen, serve to draw you into the game world–in fact, you can’t keep your eyes off the screen due to the amount of interactions you’ll need to perform. Largely, this does ensure that you’re totally engrossed in the game, but there are moments when I saw no point at all in carrying out mundane actions, such as having to make dinner by performing the actions for chopping ingredients and adding spices.

Though it does seem there’s been some padding out done to perhaps flesh out the campaign’s length, many of the slower-paced sequences are necessary for character building and it’s the conversations you have rather than the actions you perform that make them so engrossing. Nevertheless, I found myself wanting to be involved in more of the action scenes, which have been produced incredibly well. Jodie’s C.I.A missions, the frenetic and fast-paced escape scenes and engaging close-quarter fights against enemies prove to be the highlights thanks to a mixture of impressive production values and meaningful interactions, such as having to dodge, punch, deliver a blow or leap out of the way of an obstacle by making a split-second decision with your right analog stick. If you play Beyond on the easiest difficulty setting, prompts appear on-screen so you know exactly which way to move the stick, but ramp the difficulty up and decisions are in your hands, which makes for a very realistic, immersive experience.

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The major change from Cage’s previous games is the fact that you also control Aiden and can switch to him at almost any time throughout the campaign to help you out. When I played the earlier Beyond: Two Souls preview code, controlling Aiden was much more of a non-linear experience where you could move around environments freely to explore and interact with objects. However, Beyond is now a much more linear experience than I expected. In first-person view, Aiden moves around attached to Jodie by a cord, and it’s simply a case of looking out for orange-coloured blobs. You tap the bumper and you immediately move to that position to get a different view of your surroundings. Then, you look out for blue markers, which indicate Aiden can interact with something.

It’s a lot of fun experimenting with Aiden’s powers, which include scaring people by knocking over objects, reading their minds to trigger a flashback, and totally possessing a character, which then allows you to walk around in their shoes. The latter is the most fun, as you can possess people in order to get past groups of guards, warp into the body of a sniper to take out enemies on the ground, or possess a government employee in order to bypass security and escape from a research facility. Aiden is often called on for help to heal Jodie and help her out of a situation, but you can also cause a bit of mischief with him just for the pure fun of it. Using both analog sticks to perform Aiden’s actions is extremely intuitive, too, and the rumbling of the DualShock controller as you interact with objects and people once again serves to draw you into the game by making a physical connection between Aiden’s powers and the game world.

Beyond is also about player choice, and though you physically follow a linear path throughout the game, only deviating with Aiden to search for bonus unlockables, you’ll be faced with a variety of decisions, some of which just affect the dialogue at that particular time and others that have a bigger impact. There are some choices you need to make purely for the fun of it, allowing you to shape Jodie’s personality by deciding, for example, whether to snog the guy who has just approached you at a party, but there’re also moments where choice really does matter. Will you leave your apartment in a mess prior to a dinner date? What dress will you wear? It’s this level of player choice that makes Beyond feel like a very personal experience that inevitably leads you to feeling some sort of bond and care for Jodie.

Beyond isn’t without its frustrating moments. A few technical hiccups where interactive spots can be hard to find, or disappear for a short while, have left me trapped in an area for much longer than I hoped, while interactions for the most mundane of things can be excessive. Nevertheless, come the final curtain, you’ll almost certainly be impressed by what’s been achieved. Beyond: Two Souls is as much an experience as it is a game with cinematic production to rival Hollywood movies, strong storytelling, solid characters and some brilliant interactive sequences. Without doubt, it’s up there with my favourite games of this console generation. Not only is Beyond: Two Souls the best-looking game to have ever graced PS3, but it’s also a very powerful and evocative drama that wouldn’t be out of place on the big screen. You need this game in your life.



The Final Word

Beyond: Two Souls is so unique, powerful and engaging that it's easy to forgive some of its gameplay flaws. Quite simply, a stunning production.