Saturday, November 9, 2013

Beyond: Two Souls (PS3): My Sad Haunted Life Simulator 2013

It's easy to get taken in by some shiny graphics. I mean ultimately, that's really what the game industry has been pushing for the past twenty years or so. And no game truly tried to sell the point that you only need graphics to sell a game as much as Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain did. While the game was severely lacking in actual gameplay elements and just gave us quick time events, the story was still pretty good (although heart wrenchingly depressing). But now Quantic Dream has upped their game by making their graphics even shinier, and brought in actual actors to play their parts in....


The tale of Beyond: Two Souls follows tale of lonely girl Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), as we go through her life. Since the moment she was born, Jodie has been linked to some form of supernatural entity who she refers to as Aiden. We jump around in the story from various points of Jodie's life from her troubled upbringing, her troubled childhood, her troubled teen years, and her troubled young adulthood.

The jist, without spoiling too much, is that her adoptive foster family leaves her at a military research facility under the care of Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison) who make her live in a bit of a sheltered off life as they monitor Jodie and her connection with Aiden, and attempt to teach her how to control him. As she adapts to this lifestyle, she is eventually drafted into the CIA.

After being abandoned by her foster parents, Jodie is actually has a pretty
affectionate upbringing, its just incredibly sheltered.
Its hard to explain the story any further because they way the story is present and you jump around the timeline, different points of the plot are given away at different times. And since this game's whole bread and butter is based around the story, giving you a detailed synopsis would really defeat the entire purpose.

Now I should probably stress right off the bat, that if you are picking this game up you should probably alter your expectations for the game. If you have never played Heavy Rain or even Indigo Prophecy then you are in for a real change of pace. During the course of this review I will probably refer to this as a game, but that's probably not wholly accurate. Quanitc Dream's big focus has always been to produce "interactive storytelling experiences."

Willem Dafoe: For when monster design isn't quite scary enough.
Unfortunately, therein lies the inherent problem because that's an awfully flowery term to use instead of game, which by definition is an interactive storytelling experience. The original Mario has like zero correlating text and no cutscenes, and that still weaves a tale you control the narrative. Now, in Quantic Dream's defense they do paint a hell of a picture. Heavy Rain through all its depressive scenes was still a very gripping story, and their technical demo for KARA had more compelling story in just 7 minutes than some movies do.

The problem is the Playstation 3 is a GAME console and when I use a game console, I use it to PLAY GAMES. And on this front this is pretty much where Beyond: Two Souls falters and falters hard. Heavy Rain was a game that suffered from some of the worst movement controls I've played in a game, and all of the actions that take place happen with quick time events or extended button presses or controller waggles. The bar was set incredible low for their sequel.

The game cleverly fools you into thinking this might have some stealth opps involved. 
But when you set the bar incredibly low, you don't have to jump all that high to get over it. The most recent E3 trailer teased that there would be some war situations and some stealthing involved in the game to bring up the pace and tone somewhat. And while this does in fact happen in the game? The overall control scheme doesn't really change that much. There have been some minor improvements but ultimately they just put quicktime events in a fancy new dress.

Movement controls have been simplified the the normal 3rd person movement we've all come to know. Why this wasn't used in Heavy Rain was fuckin' beyond me. When we get into the action sequences in Beyond:Two Souls we don't have the "Press X to Jason" prompts. Rather, when a combat sequence is taking place, the animation will drop to a super slow motion scene where you have to see which way Jodie is moving, and you need to press the analog stick in the corresponding direction. If you are successful she will land her punch or dodge a blow, if you miss she takes a bit of a beating.

My first playthrough, Jodie took a bit of a beating till I understood the controls.
This is generally how a majority of the action takes place and like previously stated, there are quick time events and controller waggles mixed in. For the most part, it works, but there are always a handful of awkward animations taking place where you have to really stop and guess if its meant to be one way or another. There were a number of times I kept getting it wrong, but it never really impeded my progress.

The other big control aspect in this game is one of the buttons allows you to switch to and control the entity following Jodie, Aiden. When cruising as Aiden you will usually find little indicators that allow you move objects or destroy things. When enemies are afoot you can use Aiden to strangle them or possess them to infiltrate areas. The problem with these sequences is the controls to fly Aiden around are kind of wonky, and your freedom to attack is somewhat limited. Anytime there are enemies around your options are pretty linear and when playing as Aiden, Jodie will often coach you along. 

As Aiden, you usually will just knock shit over. But there are segments where you can
possess and ghost strangle people. You just don't often get to chose which you do.
There is also a "multiplayer" mode that I use as loosely as I use the term "game" in this sense. Basically, it allows a 2nd controller to control Aiden, but since you can only use one character at a time, there really is no reason for it. You can easily switch to Aiden and then hand off the controller for the exact same effect. There is no point to it being there, and really it just takes away the fun half of the game and leaves one player being a very sad Ellen Page for like 10 hours. Nope.

And as far as game play goes, that really is pretty much all there is to it. There are a handful of sequences that will require you to do a bit of stealthing and sneaking while using Aiden to dispatch enemies, but it doesn't happen nearly enough for it to feel enough like an actual narrative based action game.

No, we are here because we want to watch a really, really, really long movie. So the question I suppose is: Did I like it? Well, its hard to say. Graphically, It might be one of the most impressive games I've seen. Like If I considered something like Uncharted or The Last of Us to have some pretty top notch motion capture, then Beyond: Two Souls is definitely a step above that. All of the notable actors in this game are nearly picture perfect digital images of themselves, and because the majority of them are legitimate actors I feel the delivery of the lines were a cut above. Definitely better performed than Heavy Rain was.

I love watching Mo-cap footage side by side with the finished product.

But what I'm not sure I care for is the way the story jumps around the timeline. To use a literary example, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley delivers the story in what feels like two different story lines, where the big twist/climax appears where the stories timelines begin to intersect at a central point and fill in the gaps of each other's story.

This is kind of like how the Beyond story plays out. You find yourself constantly shifting between child Jodie and young adult Jodie. The constant jumps in timeline will often leave you thinking: "wait, what the fuck happened now?" and sometimes it can be exhausting to keep up with.

But nothing in this game is more exhausting than the relentlessly depressive tone. Literally NOTHING good happens to this chick. Any brief bit of happiness is overclouded by some kind of tragic event, or some haunting of her past, or some current haunting. Now granted, The game delivers a number of options for you on how you want to play things, but unlike Heavy Rain I don't think they appear to deviate how the story shakes out for the most part.

Ellen Page: Mall Goth Teen Angst edition.
There is an fairly early scene where Jodie goes to a birthday party and it turns into this uncomfortably heart wrenching disaster, and you are basically prompted with two solutions: Leave humiliated or commit unbridled vengeance. After (painfully) playing this scene two different ways, the game pretty much proceeded in the same fashion afterwards. Granted, one of the options was a billion times more satisfying to play out.

Through out all the scenes you have multiple ways to play out the conversations, so I guess there is a bit of replay value, and you basically get to choose your ending in the final scenes so I suppose there is reason to play more than once. Then again, you can easily jump to that scene and just pick the other options too.

Full Disclosure: I actually missed this option the first time because I was too busy
oggling digital Ellen Page in her shimmery red dress. DON'T JUDGE ME.
I find myself in the same position I was in for Heavy Rain. Did I enjoy my experience? I think I did. Do I think you should play it? Yeah, I'd say its worth your time. Is it worth 60 dollars? Ehhhhhrrrrnnnggg.... No.. it really isn't.

See Quantic Dream, here's where you have it backwards: You have some of the impressive graphics and some pretty good story writers, but the reviews to your game are mixed. You know who's game isn't getting reviews like that? Naughty Dog, because they take the good story writing and impressive motion capture, and slap that into a GAME. Into a game that is great and possibly game of the year, no less.

You however, after filming several hours of cinematic realized the player actually has to do something for it to count as a game. So the token effort is appreciated, but it really falls short. Beyond: Two Souls weaves a very interesting and engaging tale, and I will say there are marked improvements over the previous games. But it's too long to keep rewatching like a favorite movie, and there's too little interaction to keep the replay value high.

It is absolutely worth a sit through, but I couldn't blame you if passed on buying it.

A digital crying Willem Dafoe might be the most terrifying monster in a video game, ever.

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