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Beyond: Two Souls tries to innovate it's genre of interactive fiction and makes two core mistakes straight from the outset.
The first is that Beyond Two Souls is told non-linearly. By itself, it doesn't affect the story too much. The non-linearity isn't too hard to follow, it adds some mild meaning to scenes by placing two different incidents in Jodie's life next to each other. I think it's meant to create a sense of mystery, but the timeline quickly became familiar and mundane enough that I didn't really feel it.
The big problem with non-linearity is the game comes from a genre which is makes you ask "What I hadn't done that thing?" In this game you know the answer is nothing, you've already played the scenes in the future, your choices can't affect them. If Beyond Two Souls has a branching narrative, it actively makes you believe that it doesn't.
The second thing this genre does is helping you empathise with the characters by making you simulate their actions. Heavy Rain, the previous game by this developer, was a world leader at this. You are pressing buttons to mime drinking orange juice and crawling over barbed wire and they help you feel that characters world.
In Beyond Two Souls all actions are handled by flicking a analogue stick at an "interaction point" in the game world, and the game does the rest. You're not inhabiting the character, you're pressing an "animation select" button on the remote as you press the film.
The whole game reflects these limitations. The story is okay and well-acted, but there are very few levels that give you space to explore a situation and place you in the situation. One of the rare good levels places you on a street and asks you to beg for money. Another level has you follow A FUCKING CHILD SOLDIER AROUND AS A NPC COMPANION.
FUCK YOU DAVID CAGE, YOU'RE NOT A GOOD ENOUGH WRITER TO EARN THIS.
Beyond is Quantic Dream and David Cage's third crack at cinematic adventure games, following on Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. I was hoping that experience earned from these two games would result in an improved product, and to an extent it is indeed a better game in some areas.
The positives of Beyond is mainly in the presentation. The graphics - particularly the human faces - are much improved from the Uncanny Valley effect faces in Heavy Rain suffered from. It is easily Quantic's best game yet in terms of visual depth. Praise also needs to be given to the smart casting of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. The acting talent of these two makes nearly any scene watchable if not interesting, and the rest of the cast are usually superior to the FakeAmericans seen in Quantic's earlier works. I'm relieved to see that the treatment of Ellen Page's character is not as exploitative as Madison in Heavy Rain, though it still feels the need to have some very uncomfortable scenes should the player make certain choices. I wish Quantic Dream would stop this obsession with putting its female leads through borderline fetishistic scenarios in every game.
Unfortunately, this game still has all the base writing issues that harmed Quantic's past games, not the least is a poorly done romance arc that can't decide if it is optional and a third act that flies completely off-rails into a Cliché Storm. Beyond further compounds its plot issues with a non-linear editing style that appears to be a Homage to Memento. This non-linear plotting in Memento worked because it had a clear explanation why this was done from the start, and provided anchor points that kept every scene in perspective. Beyond has no such anchors and the reason for this isn't given until the ending. This ordering of scenes makes it very easy to lose track of the plot, it harms the emotional impact of a number of otherwise well-done scenes, and muddles the choices that are meaningful. I have not been able to play the Playstation 4 version, which supposedly allows players to play through the game in chronological order, so I cannot say if the plot is stronger in that case.
In gameplay, the game's QTE controls end up rather clumsy in practice, with the motion controls being the biggest offender by far. While I understand the game wants to be as cinematic and immersive as possible, a more conventional control scheme might have helped. The ways the game bends to prevent game overs can be absurd. I personally think the reaction to Cage's "Game overs are a failure of the game designer" comment overblown, but finding that there are virtually no consequences for failure can kill the tension to many action scenes once you know you can't really fail them.
I hope that Quantic Dream's next game, Detroit: Become Human, can show the studio at its best.
I have yet to play Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy (at least until their PS4 release), but Beyond: Two Souls feels very similar to the descriptions people have of its predecessors. I found myself getting pulled into the story in a way few games have done, but I didn't like how the gameplay was handled.
I often misread the visual cues necessary to accurately do the quick time events, causing a variety of bad outcomes (and then when the chapter was over, I got tormented by the screen announcing I was in the ~20% of players that messed up the gameplay). Even outside the quick time events, the controls often felt awkward and I often didn't know what the game wanted me to do. Despite the aforementioned problems, the gameplay did help the game's immersion. Being able to make Jodie hug a stuffed animal, drink a soda, play the guitar, or look out a window made me feel very involved in the minutia of the story in a way few games can effectively pull off. Actions taken by Aiden not only affect the story, but Jodie herself, preventing moments of controlling Aiden from feeling like a mini-game. The one-take approach to the game made every mistake or bad decision I made feel even worse since I knew I was stuck with whatever wrong call I made. Much of the gameplay could have been done better, but it does a good job of making the player feel very involved in everything that happens.
I found all the characters interesting and compelling. Jodie's experiences with them were effectively framed so that the player can easily form relationships with them, greatly improving the last third of the story. I loved the plot initially, but eventually, the game stopped being about experiencing moments of Jodie's life and focused on moving the story forward. The cinematic design of the game makes it really immersive even if some events feel a little contrived. The PS4 graphics were excellent and I liked the voice acting.
I enjoyed Beyond: Two Souls, but I have a hard time recommending it without caveats. If you can't stand But Thou Must or bad controls, I'd recommend staying away. On the other hand, if you don't like the lack of immersion in many story-driven video games, consider giving this one a try. There aren't too many games quite like it.
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