Quantic Dream painted a picture called Beyond: Two Souls. They did so on a pane of glass. When they'd finished creating their piece of art, they smashed it on the floor, and then began to rearrange the pieces, using the fragments to create another image, perhaps even more striking than the one they had started off with.
Here players assume the role of Jodie Holmes and her companion, Aiden. Aiden is an entity of unknown origin, who has been by Jodie's side since birth. Their story spans around fifteen years, from her childhood, through to her mid-twenties, and that passing of time is presented in non-sequential order, with levels - or scenes - arranged in a way that shuns chronology as we're used to seeing it.
The studio's previous game, Heavy Rain, was divisive. On the one hand, there were those who bemoaned the control scheme and the occasional plot hole, while others raved about the powerful, interweaving story and its accomplished delivery. With their next game, the French studio has created an equally powerful narrative, but the issues that polarised before are just as evident this time around. Perhaps even more so.
Scoring Beyond is impossible without also considering Heavy Rain, and to an extent, our expectations about what video games are at their fundamental base. Beyond: Two Souls owes as much to cinema as does to its interactive peers. Although it shuns tradition in many respects, there's still plenty of familiar ground covered in this supernatural thriller.
While the non-chronological pacing of Beyond is undoubtedly ambitious, brave and masterfully done, it's also done out of necessity. Once the final credits have rolled, and the bigger picture draws into focus, it's clear that the same story traditionally told simply wouldn't have been as exciting. Quantic Dream has broken up the narrative because they needed to. Without making that key design decision, we'd be here talking about how boring the first half of the game was. But now, because the studio decided to explore narrative and structure in the way it has, we can view the scenes that make up Jodie's childhood as momentary lulls, changes of pace, and as opportunities to deliver context to the story and explain the motivations of the characters, rather than as a dull as dishwater first act.
As we jump through time in the game's first scenes, we're introduced to the mechanics that'll keep us company throughout the game. There are two sets of disparate controls to master. Jodie's actions are controlled through inputs similar to those found in Heavy Rain; left stick to move, right stick to look around and initiate actions highlighted on screen. There are some scenes that resonate of the stealth sections you'll find in some action games; tapping X pulls Jodie into cover, and peering around the wall she's hidden behind reveals other places she can move to. At select times she can shoot at targets, but other than that there's not a lot of ways for her to interact with the world around her.
Entering into combat - something that happens frequently - brings on a shift of approach. Using the right stick, players must anticipate the momentum of an incoming attack and counter it with a blow in the appropriate direction. Frustratingly, some of the visual clues needed to successfully counter incoming attacks can be hard to read, their subtlety leading to missed opportunities. It took until near the end of the second play through before they felt truly comfortable.
The rest of the action - at least as far as Jodie is concerned - is consigned to QTEs and button mashing. Hitting combos of inputs in the right order, hammering the face buttons, and selecting the desired dialogue option from a choice of four is often the limit to the freedom afforded to Beyond's leading lady. It's all very prescribed, and if the inclusion of QTEs makes you feel sick to the stomach, this is most certainly not the game for you.
Aiden's controls are very different. Whereas Jodie is played from a third-person perspective, her accompanying entity is activated by a simple button tap and we switch to a first-person view. He's not always an available option, but when he can be selected, L1 and L2 control elevation, and analog sticks move him around. Interactive items are highlighted with a blue dot, and enemies that can be affected glow orange (those who aren't shimmer in blue). Aiden has a variety of tricks up his ethereal sleeve; by holding L1 and using the analog sticks to move two reticules in different directions for different actions, he can possess soldiers, strangle them via a Vader-esque throat grip, smash scenery, activate equipment, and in certain circumstances he can heal people, channel the spirits of the dead, and confer the history of inanimate objects unto his real-world partner.
The juxtaposition between these two perspectives is at the very heart of the matter. In one we're restricted to the movements of a bipedal being in a prescriptive story, in the other we're allowed more latitude to explore our surroundings and a new point of view. However, we're granted very little freedom in either form, and even with the more free-roaming Aiden, our actions are carefully directed, and paths are nearly always funnelled in the same direction. It could be said that these two contrasting viewpoints are reflective of the two mediums that informed Beyond's design - with Jodie harking back to cinema, the act of watching, emoting, and with Aiden representing action, and player-defined consequence. While this is certainly true to an extent, there is still something missing from the formula, something that holds Beyond back from greatness; freedom.
At numerous points in the campaign the lack of player autonomy becomes painfully obvious. There were moments where, had different options/paths been offered, it would've heightened involvement, encouraging a greater connection with the action, and an ownership of the story. In terms of branching paths, there is some flexibility, but during the more sandboxy moments, a little bit more freedom would've gone a long way. Instead of freedom all that we found was a series of missed opportunities, moments where our creativity was left undernourished, and all we could do was follow the scripted narrative laid down by the game's designers and writers.
Much of this was also true for Heavy Rain, but the key difference is that in that game there were several characters, and as the stories were interwoven, each set of actions had wider implications and yielded differing strands of the story. Here we're working solely with Jodie and Aiden, and their narrative - for all its fragmented presentation - runs straight and steady towards its conclusion. The path is linear, even if the chronology is eschewed. The scenes play out in the same order every time, and even when actions are changed during subsequent play throughs, very little alters when it comes to each scene's end. Outcomes that are seemingly cast in iron bookend each encounter, and no matter our actions in the game, the characters around us don't seem to veer away from their preordained opinion of us.
During some scenes, there is variety to be explored in repeat plays. Rather than story-changing events, there's little pockets of content waiting to be unearthed. These events, when activated, will add some longevity to those looking to squeeze more out of the experience, but there's nothing substantially different about a second pass. I played the whole thing through twice, choosing polar-opposite actions in each run to see what kind of difference it would make, but as far as I can tell the end game is not impacted in a meaningful way by the decisions that you make en route to the grand-slam finish. There are different endings, but these are informed more by the decisions made at the end, while successes and failures made earlier just trigger more cutscenes that give additional colour to the conclusion.
Having said all that, I should stress that the first playthrough was thoroughly enjoyable. The performances of the whole cast ranged from solid to exceptional. It was, at times, an emotional roller-coaster; wrenching the player between moments of heartwarming encouragement and heartbreaking sadness. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe both deliver accomplished performances, their delivery peppered with nuance and subtlety, with emotions bubbling under the surface and behind the eye.
The story itself is really enjoyable (if slightly predictable); a good thing considering so much weight hangs on its ability to entertain. There are twists and turns, and its non-chronological presentation allows Quantic Dream to play around with the delivery of the drama, giving heightened impact to revelation as the player's understanding of the characters unfolds. Heavy Rain was pure noir, whereas this is a supernatural thriller with a healthy dollop of science fiction, a factor that'll undoubtedly impact on the game's appeal in some quarters. The different scenes are, for the most part, contrasting and unique, and sit comfortably in their standalone isolation.
The controls will infuriate some, but I had no major issues with them. Some of the most nuanced actions - particularly in combat - can be tricky to pull off at first, but once sufficient time has been spent adapting to the systems, they start to feel more natural and fluency emerges from frustration. Whilst Quantic Dream is certainly moving people out of their comfort zones here, they're also offering a wonderfully kinetic alternative to the norm, and while you're shaking your control pad in desperation, or hammering buttons to avoid disaster, it's easy to be impressed with the way they've made this a tactile experience. There may not be much in the way of autonomy or genuine choice, but the way the control systems integrate with the story ensures you feel events in a distinctive way. My major concern with the implementation of QTEs comes down to failure. It's not easy to screw things up, and once this realisation sinks in, it robs the game of an element of drama. There's very little risk, and as such it cheapens the reward. Even playing on the harder setting, satisfaction must be taken from the effect, not the cause.
There's a Duo Mode, for those who want to enjoy the story together, but playing this way removes a level of involvement. Players hand each other control with a button tap, with one playing as Jodie and the other as Aiden. The cinematic leanings of the game make it well suited for sharing and watching, and this way two can be involved simultaneously, but those who prefer to be hands-on as much as possible will likely find themselves getting bored after a while. The other notable feature is the availability of an App that allows you to control Jodie and Aiden via the touch screen of your mobile device or tablet, even in Duo Mode if you'd prefer. In essence, it offers a new method for moving with Jodie, and turns controlling Aiden into something more akin to a point and click adventure.
On the whole, this is a good looking game. The environments, while nothing particularly special, are well crafted and distinctive. On certain sections where draw distance is reduced they border on spectacular. There's the occasional drop-in frame rate, but nothing too distracting. However, the game is at its most stunning in the depictions of the characters. It's clear from the outset that a lot of time has been spent on the motion capture, and ability of the developers coupled with the quality of the actors makes for an engaging experience. The soundtrack is suitably cinematic, and there can be no complaints in this direction.
For all of its limitations with regards to control and choice, the first play is engrossing and absorbing, and unlike nearly anything else out there. Though look beyond that first play and the veneer starts to come off, with cracks beginning to appear. Lines of dialogue start to jar when alternative, unnatural options are selected (it's like they had a story in mind, then expanded on it to create variety, but sometimes this variety doesn't sit quite right when they reel you back in to the established through-line), and the lack of consequence attached to many of your actions starts to give the game a hollow ring after a while. Our advice; own that first playthrough. Let yourself get immersed in it. Enjoy it. Put your heart and soul into it and make it yours. It's that first meeting that's so enticing, so involving, so unique. After that, if you must play it through again to see what you missed, give it months, not days, between your visits. The second bite is ne'er so sweet.