**Two minor spoilers - I’ll warn you before**
Here’s what you need to know about Beyond: Two Souls: It takes the idea of a game, then proceeds to dress it in beautiful visuals, coating it with layer after layer with magnificent audio and visual levels, then sews this up with dramatic concepts and some cringe-worthy storytelling.
It uses excellent acting, excellent graphics, excellent music to mask one of the least interactive experiences you’ll probably ever have, forcing you down well-trodden plot paths, long carved out by overused narrative tropes: special girl, father-figures, hidden past, evil old American men from governmental organisations wanting to open things, see things, prod things, that everyone can see these guys can’t control. And Native Americans living in the middle of nowhere, needing saving by a white person. And *spoiler* an attempted rape scene because she’s nothing if not a female protagonist in this, video game land. *end of spoiler*
Beyond tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a woman with a special connection to an invisible entity.
This entity, she calls Aiden, can affect the world through smashing, pulling, and possession of both people and things. Various people all want something from Jodie, she finds her life torn apart by betrayal and hardships, and we start the game with her on the run from authorities. The rest of the game is finding out why and dealing with those consequences.
One of the most important functions of any creative medium is to instil awe or wonder and Beyond: Two Souls does that as easily as FIFA does ball mechanics. The engine is superb, sucking you in easily with stunning lightning, magnificent textures, eerily realistic people with the most subtle facial and general body movement you’ve seen this side of everyday life.
The very talented, very beautiful, very brilliant Ellen Page dominates this game more than anything else. The graphics, while stunning – it is after all Quantic Dream – are not there for the pretty lights or sexy effects: It’s there to bring Page to life, to show her every motion, expression, sound.
If the game is sewn together by interesting concepts, beneath a thick layer of visual wonder that has the contours - but not depth - of “humanity”, then Page is the fairy that breathes life into it. However, we’re still left with a game that has deceived itself into thinking it’s more important, more “real”, than it actually is.
This is a game where the creators say, in the making-of videos on the disc, and with a straight face, that players can interact with nearly “everything”; where Page’s character’s motion and expression and walking change depending on her mood and environment.
But this is looking at things wrong.
It’s ignoring the strings that are themselves so numerous, they might as well be a closed curtain. You can’t interact with most things and her mood is predetermined by the scene, not by your input or decisions. It’s not saying much, then. Indeed, so little occurs in response, players will not feel they have an actual impact on the game until you are allowed to play as Aiden.
Aiden is the game’s other saving grace. A kind of godlike entity, he is invisible but can do incredible damage when directed correctly. Possession and choking, smashing and pulling. He aids Jodie where necessary, helps and cares for her. Of course, you can’t possess or smash or knock everything: The game tells you what you can do. It shows you where to go, it tells you what things to knock.
There’s no puzzle beyond pixel hunting – or rather dot hunting - as the indication where the game reluctantly allows player input: this is demarcated by a giant white dot, that you need only direct the trigger in the right direction. And that’s the major problem. The only thing the game seems to direct properly is the gamer. The game is left to fend for itself.
Poor handling of story, unbelievable scenarios, bizarre character reactions and justifications grate like ice against nails.
*spoiler* For example, she kills a man she’s told is a Somali warlord, but it turns out to be Somalia’s democratically-elected president. How does she not know who the president of the country she’s invading is? She’s not been restricted from the news.*end of spoiler*
We’re told what to do, where to go. This game is not trying to be a film, so much as its trying to be a novel. Films we sit back and watch; novels wait for you to turn the page so it can continue to tell the story.
Indeed, Beyond is essentially waiting for you to turn the Page. Move the trigger forward or down or up. And the story continues. The player is as worried about Jodie’s death as we would be of Harry Potter’s, if we just picked up the first book. We know survival is a certainty.Yet, Beyond unlike other recent games, is worth experiencing. It’s worth recommending. It’s filled with problems so large it will devour any enthusiasm you might have to actually play; instead, through mutual reluctance, you will recognise this for what it is: a true digital novel.
It is disappointing that so much of it is cringe-worthy and cliché; but performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe easily overcome that. There are moments of genuine depth and sadness, where you are stirred into reacting.
Smaller stories, of living on the street, of dealing with horrible teenagers, of being alone in a terrifying war-ravaged foreign country. These are wonderful, exciting, deep. However, when we step back and watch how these different pieces are sewn together, we get a picture that is in itself not pretty at all, but a smudge.
In the end, there is too much in the wrong areas and too little in the right; there is a lack of direction, yet a clear determination to get there. It’s sad to see the game where it is, as the game’s clearly a labour of love that I desperately wanted to love in return. Yet, even accepting it as a digital novel – barely a game – it suffers from many flaws. Despite this, it is worth experiencing since its visuals, its performances, its minor and moving stories, all serve to create truly incredible moments worth experiencing first-hand.
You can purchase Beyond: Two Souls from kalahari.com here
For another perspective, read "Review Beyond: Two Souls - An Interactive Drama" by James Wernich
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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd