I am a big fan of Heavy Rain, the last effort from David Cage and his crew at Quantic Dream. The developer’s latest lofty gaming experiment is the highly anticipated Beyond: Two Souls, and so far the critical reaction is mixed, though it seems to be trending toward the negative. How did I like it? Read on and find out…
The general internet consensus seems to be hitting the narrative of this game really hard, and, indeed, there are problems with the story. Cage’s stories have, in the past, explored the possibilities of player choice and repercussions spawned from those choices, presented in non-traditional, exquisitely cinematic quick-time events. That approach to gameplay and storytelling returns, but with a slight twist. The story of Jodie’s life is told in a series of mostly disjointed flashbacks that often leaves the player wondering why events are happening, what order they are happening in, and why any of it matters. By the end of the game, everything makes sense, but the road to clarity comes at the cost of consistency and coherence. For the record, I enjoyed the story and felt engaged by it throughout, however I recognized how flawed this approach is and understand why many gamers and critics would not like this very much.
Jodie and Aiden are quite a pair, but sadly, if you aren’t able to connect with the story because of it’s structure, the character building gets lost, muddled, and otherwise hampered. This is a shame because the entire cast is amazing. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe just nail every scene they’re in, especially Page, who clearly committed everything to making Cage’s admittedly creepy obsession over her justified. I don’t think Jodie would be as interesting as she is (or is supposed to be) without Page to bring her to life, quite literally through the amazing motion capture, animation, and rendering. There are a few graphical hiccups throughout the game, but it looks quite pretty and pushes the aging PS3 hardware well. The secondary characters are just that, secondary, fleeting in out of Jodie’s life over the 15 years you play. Their portrayals are great, but not much is ever fleshed out for them, and some characters are deemed important for story reasons rather abruptly.
Finally, player agency is severely limited. The Aiden controls are a little weird, but usable. Thing is, Aiden can’t do very much. There are many times when obvious solutions to situations turn out to be inaccessible either all together or until the game deems it the proper time to let you access it. That gets annoying, very quickly. However, the idea behind the mechanic is pretty neat, and when it works the way it’s supposed to (read: you feel like you solved the puzzle on your own) the experience is satisfying in the context of the scene. There have been talks about how directed these scenes are, and there is truth to that; there are definite resolutions to the scenes in question and few actions or choices you make will alter the course. This seems to be a by product of the method Cage chose to tell this story: the disjointed flashback sequence.
Overall, however, I did enjoy the story and the characters. I found that I was able to piece all the threads together very well by the end. The controls didn’t bother me so much, and the lack of interesting things to do with Aiden annoyed me, but didn’t break the experience too much for me. Heavy Rain shares many similar problems, but its linear narrative framework allows player actions to actually alter outcomes and be relevant, something I believe everyone was expecting from Beyond and are rightfully disappointed to have to a degree. If I had to score this game, I’d give it a 3/5 or 7.5/10.
Please, if you can, play this game. Buy it even. It really is worth it to support game development like this. Even if the results aren’t always top notch.
Images: Sony/Quantic Dream