Wednesday, April 24, 2024

First Play Review - Beyond: Two Souls [2020]

Continuing my exploration of Quantic Dream's former PlayStation exclusive interactive drama games, I find myself at 2013's Beyond: Two Souls which finally got a Steam release in 2020 Following up Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain was a tall enough order for writer producer David Cage whose games stand out for their cinematic presentation, emotional storytelling, and unique gameplay mechanics.

Beyond: Two Souls follows the life of Jodie Holmes, wonderfully portrayed by the talented Elliot Page (credited as Ellen Page), a young woman linked to an incorporeal entity named Aiden. Over 15 years of Jodie's life, we witness her struggles, triumphs, and the mysterious connection she shares with Aiden. It can be played in a chronological fashion but the original narrative is non-linear, jumping back and forth through different periods of Jodie's life, which adds more depth layers to the story and keeps one engaged. Willem Defoe also stars as Nathan Dawkins, a researcher in the Department of Paranormal Activity who studies Jodie and her connection to Aiden and is also her surrogate-father-figure.

While it will come across as a bit contrived and one might notice some plot threads not satisfactory concluded, it's the storytelling that is the hallmark of Quantic Dream's catalogue. Beyond: Two Souls is no different and not unlike the investigations of Cage's previous characters, the narrative here tackles themes of identity, love, loss, life and death, and the supernatural with both maturity and depth. You guide Jodie through pivotal moments in her life, and you are confronted with moral dilemmas that have far-reaching consequences, shaping the eventual outcome(s) of the story. The branching narrative does encourage multiple playthroughs to explore alternate paths and endings but I committed myself to explore one path and live with the consequences even if it meant only experiencing 80% of the game. I believe save-scumming would be much more disruptive to the narrative flow in this genre than in an RPG. The story suffers slightly from a pacing issue with some sequences being overly long while others too short and feel rushed, but this isn't enough to detract from the overall experience too much.

In a game that is telling a cinematic quality story, the visuals are just as important and graphically the game is stunning for a 2013 PS3 game representing a high point for the console. It did receive an update for the PS4 in 2015 and the PC version supports 4K 60FPS with HBAO making it the definitive experience, and what an experience it is. The motion capture performances, lifelike character models and detailed environments blur the line between cinema and gaming, lending a greater sense of immersion. 

Quantic Dream have always created unique control systems for their games and Beyond: Two Souls is no different. It might be more intuitive on the PS controller but there is a learning curve on the PC. You have the point, click and drag mechanics as in previous titles but it's a different system here that certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea. Quick Time Events remain at the forefront, and you have to press specific buttons or perform actions within a time limit to progress. It's more involved than clicking a choice or "next" in a visual novel but nowhere near the complexity of an action game. The gameplay here serves the purpose of driving the story forward while immersing you in the cinematic experience in a unique interactive way and not as significant an aspect as in most other games. New to this game is being able to switch the player character, here between Jodie and Aiden, where the entity can manipulate the environment with supernatural abilities to aid Jodie in her activity.

The performances by Page and Dafoe, both award winning actors are flawlessly captured, incredibly nuanced, and elevate the emotional depth of the narrative significantly. The script for the game was around 2,000 pages long (compared with an average screenplay between 95 and 125 pages where each page is approximately one minute of screen time). "We'd do 30, 40 pages a day. It's insane compared to a film," Page said in an interview. "Jodie goes through a lot". Scottish composer Lorne Balfe composed a haunting and evocative score for score producer Hans Zimmer following the death of Fahrenheit score supervisor and Heavy Rain composer Normand Corbeil for whom this game is dedicated to.

Final Verdict: Beyond: Two Souls was the second game ever to be premiered at the Tribecca Film Festival so deep rooted is Cage's commitment to blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries between gaming and cinema and to even appeal to non-gamers. With its stellar performances, stunning visuals, and emotionally resonant narrative, it stands as a testament to the potential of interactive storytelling. While it certainly won't appeal to more hard-core gamers who desire total control over their in-game actions I maintain it's a unique and memorable journey that deserves to be experienced.

Technicals: 11.1 hours playtime though Windows 11 with RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440/60.

Bugs: There was one sequence where I failed to manipulate the character's actions on screen. After a dozen attempts I gave up and continued on without issue without performing the action. I don't get the impression it was a significant branching choice in retrospect.

Beyond: Two Souls is available from Steam or GOG for €19.99 with significant sales occasionally. Reviewed copy purchased from Green Man Gaming in Dec 2020 for 7.96.

Quantic Dream releases (PS3/Console)[PC]

Parts of this review were generated by Chat GPT for time.

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