Beyond: Two Souls Review

First time was the charm.

Ben Salter: As the PS4 celebrates smashing sales records and its second birthday, Sony seems intent on inundating us with last-gen reruns. Beyond: Two Souls is an interesting choice. We really liked it, as you can see below, but it wasn’t universally adored by PlayStation fans, and doesn’t benefit from a second playthrough; in fact, it’s a game best remembered, not replayed.

As a remaster, Beyond is very basic. It improves the lighting and increases the resolution to 1080p — the bare minimum to be considered more than a straight port. It packages the DLC, as it should for a pricy $60 compared to $80 for all three Uncharted games, and makes it easier to replay the story in chronological order. All no brainers.

As such, Beyond is for players that missed it on PS3 but remain intrigued, not existing fans driven by nostalgia, as so many re-releases reply upon. There just isn’t enough of an improvement to justify the high cost — especially when the re-release of Heavy Rain will essentially be sold as DLC for $15 to keep the entire package around $80. They’re being released together on disc next year, and it’s blatantly obvious Sony has sold Beyond separately now in a desperate attempt to fill the massive gaps in its lineup this year. Let’s be honest: this is a poor holiday period for PS4 exclusives and Sony needed to do something, but an expensive re-release of a niche PS3 experience light on gameplay isn’t the answer.

While it’s an odd choice, this is a slightly better version, and the DualShock 4 is much more comfortable. If you like the sound of Beyond, but never got around to playing it and don’t mind the high price (it’s $18 pre-owned on PS3 at EB Games at time of publishing), you’re the small market for this obscure, and ultimately unnecessary, re-release.

Leigh Harris: There is so much to love about Beyond: Two Souls – a game which pushes boundaries in no shortage of areas while being able to deliver a genuinely moving experience. But there’s a tension between this game and the players, which can largely be seen to come down to expectations, so allow this review to be an exercise in setting expectations for this stunning game straight, so you know what you’re getting into.

The push towards freedom has been a major selling point for games of the last twenty years, with countless arching their backs to give you more in one way or another. Sandbox games give you the ability to decide on the pace and timing of the core action sequences, RPGs let you create your own character and really inhabit that role, and even the precursor to Beyond: Two Souls, Heavy Rain, forged ahead in the multiple plot threads department by giving the player genuine control over how the story ended.

Along the way, games which aren’t considered free enough span the spectrum, and have been lampooned as being backwards or a missed opportunity. From The Warriors in 2005 to BioShock in 2007, Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 to pretty much any Call of Duty game of the last five years, titles continue to be beaten around the head with the ‘linear’ stick by critics and gamers alike as our hunger for ‘true’ freedom grows.

Page’s performance as Jodie is stunning, and the effort which has gone into the minutia of capturing the actors’ performances is easily setting the technological bar for this generation.

Freedom in a Quantic Dream game will always be limited to selecting one of multiple canned, scripted moments, but will aim to revel in the quantity of those moments rather than in using physics engines and freeform AI to create emergent chaos and hilarity (the definition of ‘true’ freedom in a game according to some).

So the question for any potential purchaser of Beyond is this: are the inherent limitations of the game something which will bother me?

Beyond begins at the end with our protagonist Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) in her early twenties, reminiscing about ‘how it all began’, then thrusting you back to some point mid-way through the story to a scene where she’s being hunted by a SWAT team.

The game constantly jumps back and forth in time throughout the 12-14 or so hours of gameplay, with Jodie a child at times, a teenager at others, and a grown woman at later points (and always rendered incredibly at each point). Director David Cage seems to be trying to reveal certain information at particular times so as to maximise tension. The end result is more a maximising of confusion as you quickly try and look at the timeline at the loading screen to figure out where the next level sits chronologically; a shame because the story is otherwise very compelling and binds you to Jodie’s plight in a way which is touching and genuine.

Jodie’s story is one of exclusion due her power of having been linked to an entity at birth named Aiden. You control Aiden (who can float through walls, possess people, knock shit over for funsies or force choke people to death) or Jodie intermittently throughout the game, and can play tag team co-op with two players each picking a respective character if you like.

On paper, the plot isn’t anything horribly new (an adolescent growing into their superpowers) but the delivery is something special. Page’s performance as Jodie is stunning, and the effort which has gone into the minutia of capturing the actors’ performances is easily setting the technological bar for this generation. No stone is unturned either, with meticulous attention to detail in the sets, the lighting and the animations believably bringing the whole world to life.

There are times when the game’s attempt at simulating genuine social experiences falls over (one party scene in particular being woeful regardless of how you choose to play it), and the number of times a fluid animation from a cutscene returns control to the player in a jarring standing-up-straight pose is staggering. Further, the puzzle-solving is often limited to roaming around finding the interactive objects in an environment (think the crime scenes investigations in LA Noire) but by and large you will grow to love Jodie as a character (and even the mute Aiden as well) by the time the credits roll.

This is perhaps Beyond’s strongest suit, and also arguably its least visible: Jodie is partly David Cage’s character and partly yours. Criticism of the game that you can’t dramatically alter the plot (as in Heavy Rain) is accurate – the choices you make seldom influence other chapters, and you will get to experience each and every chapter no matter what by the end of the game. Some will be less fleshed out than others, or things may go entirely different ways, but there’s a story to be had and you’ll be having it one way or another.

If you can live with that, however, (and there are several endings which help alleviate the pain) the ability to shape Jodie’s character by deciding whether she’s sincere, naïve, angry, reclusive or however else you want to play her is one of the game’s greatest strengths. She is yours, and the choices that she makes might not impact the story too heavily, but impact character development hugely.

Beyond has also weaved something closer to typical videogame action sequences than its predecessor in there. The quick-time event focused action sequences haven’t gone anywhere, and are still the game’s bread and butter, but there’s a stealth-action mechanic which, while somewhat bare bones, is a nice change from the prompt and press grind. The gameplay can feel arbitrary at times, particularly when controlling Aiden or when failure in a quick time event doesn’t lead to actual failure in an entire scene (as it did sometimes in Heavy Rain).

The question is: do you mind that the game is driven by rudimentary and simple gameplay?

I absolutely did not mind one bit (largely because I knew what to expect from Quantic Dream). A fast-paced twitch-gameplay core ‘fun loop’ as can be found in everything from Halo to Tetris isn’t the core promise of this game. This isn’t the sort of game where you ramp up the difficulty to challenge yourself and the gameplay is central to the experience. The gameplay is used in service of the narrative, and is able to shape the characters in a way which genuinely changes the way the game feels, but in a series of minute ways which are likely imperceptible on the first play through.

Cage has suggested that people ought to only play Beyond: Two Souls once, and that that version is their story. I couldn’t do this, and began the game again as soon as the credits ended. The reason was that I felt the need to find out what choices I’d made that changed the way the game turned out.

There are no massive deviating paths which change the order of the scenes or anything like that – this is a subtler, more nuanced approach to non-linearity.

By and large if you’re frustrated by being given the wheels to a bike, the controls of a submarine or a cool set of skis only to use said modes of transport to get from A to B without being able to rip-roar around the place and crash into stuff, you may not enjoy Beyond. But if you, like me, are content that giving you something in a game shouldn’t automatically breed the expectation of a new toy, that not every element of a game needs to be designed for pure fun, then you’ll find there’s a deeply engaging and masterfully executed game hiding underneath a myriad of small choices and admittedly simple gameplay.

The Final Verdict

If the problems and lack of gameplay don’t scare you off at the outset, Beyond: Two Souls is simply a must buy. It’s beautiful, fastidiously detailed and a focused vision with great performances to drive a touching and sobering story. Just figure out for yourself if you can deal with the story being marred by those gameplay foibles and the choice of whether or not to play Beyond becomes very simple.

The PS4 edition is undoubtedly the best, but it’s a minimal remaster and frankly an odd choice to be given the treatment. If it sells well, it’ll only further the case for Sony figuring out how to make PS3 games backwards compatible on PS4 — that’s basically what this is, except a much less consumer-friendly alternative. It seems extremely unlikely, but it wasn’t long ago Microsoft also said it was impossible.