Beyond: Two Souls Review

Quantic Dream's latest aims to take interactive storytelling to the next level, but it falters.

Review by Mike Williams, .

Mike Williams Primary Reviewer

Earlier this week, Beyond: Two Souls writer and director David Cage told the press that "no one should be allowed to define what a video game is or should be; no one has this power." Cage's frustration comes from the fact that some dismissed Beyond because it wasn't enough of a 'game' in their eyes. There's a couple of different names you can call something like Beyond, but 'interactive drama' and 'visual novel' seem to be the ones brought up most of the time. But when you strip all of the names away, is Beyond: Two Souls a successful experience? Unfortunately, not really. Cage was aiming for one thing, but the reality he achieved didn't reach that mark.

Let's get something out of the way: Beyond: Two Souls is a gorgeous game and a grand way to close out the PlayStation 3 era. It looks great in every scene, and every setting is as believable and real as it needs to be. Jodie and her invisible companion Aiden are on a journey and their experiences look stunning, even within the constraints of the game's letterbox format.

You'll believe in the father-daughter relationship between Page and Dafoe's characters... until it's just gone.

The big-name actors that were heavily emphasized in the game's early marketing pay off. Ellen Page is great as Jodie in her teenage and adult years; you will feel her love, rage, defiance, and weariness. She pulls off the role even when she has little to work with, and her performance capture is superb. Willem Dafoe also does a good job as Jodie's replacement father figure Nathan Dawkins. His performance is less successful, but that's because his story takes him through situations that don't necessarily feel right. Kadeem Hardison has a few moments as Dawkins' assistant Cole, but spends most of the game underutilized. The rest of the cast is hit or miss, but I feel a particular shout out should go to homeless man Stan, who you meet halfway through the game. Actor David Coburn - the voice of Captain Planet oddly enough - does a great job with his role.

Coburn does a great job as the sympathetic Stan.

Jodie is pulled through some impressive set pieces on her journey. Beyond is definitely the most action-packed of Quantic Dream's output: the chases are impressive to watch, the fights are well-choreographed, and certain scenes are pretty exciting. One scene that takes place in a lab is effective at showing the horror of man-made situation gone wrong. The endgame level looks absolutely amazing for its latter third, even if it felt reminiscent of the ending of a Dead Space game. Overall, though, Beyond proves that Cage is a pretty damn good director.

The 'game' of Beyond: Two Souls doesn't come off as well. What Cage and company are presenting here is an evolution of what they're done before. If you're played Heavy Rain or Telltale's The Walking Dead, you should have an idea of what to expect. If anything, Quantic Dream has removed some of the complexity compared to those two titles.

"I try to have as little mechanics as I can, because I don't like mechanics," Cage told CVG in an interview. "Mechanics are the opposite of life. Life is organic, it's chaotic. It's not like a set of rules, so this is what I try to do in my work. But we have a couple of rules, and one rule is that depending on the aura, the color of the aura, you know what you can do with people. Orange auras allow you to possess them and red auras allow you to shock them - so you can kill them. But all this is not like a set of rules, it's not set in stone - it's our mechanics."

That statement is borne out in the game. Beyond can be played with relatively few inputs at times. It's a misrepresentation to say you can go through the entire game without doing anything, but at times, your actions don't matter. Certain dialog scenes will automatically choose a decision for you if you linger too long. Action scenes will move on with or without you; if you fail a prompt Jodie may get slightly hurt, but she'll continue on in service of the plot. This removes some of the tension that's found in Heavy Rain and the Walking Dead. Once I realized there was a lack of failure states, my investment in the game decreased immensely.

You can kill this guy because the game said it's time to kill this guy.

There's also a distinct lack of real control. Aiden is Jodie's ghostly companion, who can float freely around within a certain distance of Jodie, move objects, and possess or kill people. Sometimes you can possess people, sometimes you can kill them. There's no rhyme or reason to determining which is which. No clear rules. Sometimes a character may have a blue aura, meaning you can't do much but listen to them, only for their aura to turn red or orange a few minutes later. No explain is given for the switch. This made me clearly cognizant of the fact that I was playing a game. I could possess guard A and not guard B because Quantic Dream wanted me to possess guard A. That's how they scripted the scene, even if possessing guard B might make more sense to me, the player.

Aiden is presented as an autonomous entity and there's a few situations in the game where his presence would've been helpful and logical, but you'll unable to switch to him because the game won't let you. It destroys the illusion of choice, which is important for a game like this. You're just going through the motions the developer decided you should go through.

There are a few meaningful choices in the game, but they don't drive fundamentally important parts of the plot. Instead, you'll spend a great deal of time walking around areas trying to figure out what the developer wants you to interact with in order to get to the next scene. Not all of the interactions you're given even add to the story being told; you're just going through the motions and at times, it's a definite slog. The game part of Beyond: Two Souls takes a backseat to the story. Quantic Dream has a tale it wants to tell, so the developer did its best to minimize you screwing that up.

Unfortunately, the writing in Beyond: Two Souls isn't great. Cage's writing doesn't always fully explain the relationships or situations presented in the game. He obviously wants you to care about certain characters, but doesn't give you ample reasons why. Character actions will whiplash you occasionally; a character will do one thing to establish themselves and then later - sometimes in the same scene - do something completely different.

Certain situations seem contrived just to get Jodie from point A to point B. The plot, as a whole, isn't ground-breaking; with some cutting and trimming there'd be a decent movie or television show here, on the same level as Source Code or Butterfly Effect. The story is told out of order and that may turn off and confuse some players, but once I understood all of the pieces, the full journey made sense. Jodie's adventure really feels like a slightly different version of the old Incredible Hulk TV show: Jodie gets into a situation, Aiden does the mojo, and Jodie has to leave again. But while Beyond uses some of the language of film and television, the fact that it's a game is one of the stumbling blocks.

Certain scenes are supposed to be big, but haven't been earned by the writing up until that point.

Storytelling in movies relies on cutting out scenes that do not directly add to the story being told. If nothing particularly noteworthy happens to a movie character flying from California to Japan, that part isn't shown. The problem with Beyond - and some of Cage's earlier work - is that some of those scenes are shown and experienced. You take control of Jodie as she ambles slowly from one place to another. Nothing's being said, nothing is added by those extra minutes of controlled movement, they just feel like they're there to justify being a game. The cinematic nature of Quantic Dream's games means things like that are thrown in sharp relief, in a way they wouldn't be in another less realistic adventure game.

Worse, these scenes throw off the pacing of the more movie-like scenes. They add padding where there doesn't need to be padded. The emotion of Jodie leaving the lab that she's called home for most of her life is lessened by the fact that you're wandering around her room around picking things up at random. One scene that takes place in the desert is made far too long due to the mechanics of moving Jodie from point-to-point to discover the next step in the story. I replayed parts of the game again to get other endings - there are reportedly 23 of them - but I dreaded replaying certain sections, which is never a good thing.

The 'game' and the 'movie' that make up Beyond don't mesh well together. I'd praise Quantic Dream for trying, but this isn't 2005 when Indigo Prophecy came out. This is their third go-around in the same genre and it's an evolution of Quantic's work. Other games are doing a similar thing now: Gone Home, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and The Walking Dead, are great examples of storytelling games. Telltale has Fables: The Wolf Among Us coming out today, and The Chinese Room has the PS4-exclusive Everybody's Gone to the Rapture coming soon. And most these games are delivering their experiences for a fraction of Beyond's $60 price tag. It's no longer innovative and ambitious, unless you count the fact that Quantic Dream is doing it on a budget and scale the others can't match. Cage and Quantic Dream are pioneers of this format and at this point, I expect more from them. Beyond doesn't live up to that expectation, even if it doesn't totally fail.

The Details

  • Visuals: Beyond pushes the PlayStation 3 to what must be its limit. The game looks great and action scenes are directed well.
  • Audio: The music is appropriately haunting and epic. It's not the best soundtrack, but it would fit in any feature film.
  • Interface: The interface is sparse and occasionally, it'll be unclear what direction you're supposed to tap the analog stick in order to interact with the game.
  • Lasting Appeal: The game is 10 to 15 hours, and there's a bit of replay in revisiting chapters to see the effect of other choices. Other than that, it's done in one.

Quantic Dream has come a long way since Indigo Prophecy, but some things haven't changed. The presentation has gotten much better, but Cage's writing is still not up to snuff. There are definite highs in Beyond, but not all of the elements of the game or the story work as a cohesive whole.

3 /5

Beyond: Two Souls Review Mike Williams Quantic Dream's latest aims to take interactive storytelling to the next level, but it falters. 2013-10-14T13:20:00-04:00 3 5

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I pretty much echo the sentiments in this review, and feel the score is fair, if maybe even a bit too high. There's nothing wrong with a "game" just aspiring to be interactive fiction, but if that's all it's gonna be then it better make damn sure the fiction part is well done. And David Cage just isn't a good writer.

    I think this game may have a particular problem in that the big name actors are really noticable, which tends to raise your expectations for the level of writing quality. And this game really just can't deliver on that promise.
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  • Avatar for #2 4 years ago
    I see this a lot at game sites, seems most reviewers got spoiled by Mass Effects choices and GTA/Skyrim's openness and every other game is put against them.
    I don't think choice is as important in this game. I think it's the journey. It's one of those games that comes down to personal preference more than the quality of the actual product.
    But I want to commend another well written review that comes off as showing the reviewers true feelings and experiences, as opposed to some sites who often read like either paid advertisements or purposely tearing apart with an unreasonable vengeance (did that company not pay them off so they attacked?).
    But here, I never question payolla going on. And I like seeing a game I like through other people's eyes when that view is honest.
    so again, good review. I find you guys far more trustworthy than many game sites.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #3 Ohoni 4 years ago I think choice is VITAL for something to be a game, but not necessarily the choice that you implied by referencing games like Mass Effect. You don't necessarily need a branching plot or multiple endings, but you do need the player to interact. If a game is just "press forward" or "hit the button we tell you, when we tell you," then there is no gameplay there, that is just a movie that is making you work for it.

    Even Super Mario Bros. involved a ton of player choice. Do you take the warp pipes to skip levels? Do you climb on top of some blocks to have an easier run through this section or go under so you can smash them for extra coins? Do you slow to bop the Goomba or just pass over him and keep moving?

    You can make a game with big choices that completely change how the story lays out, or you can make one with small choices that effect how each scenario plays out. It sounds like this one had too little of either, but really the small choices are much more important, because they give you instant gratification. You give a player enough small choices as to how to proceed and he'll enjoy the journey, but if the only resolutions are at the end of the game, and the whole trip there was just pressing A when told to press A, people tend to get bored of it.

    I think if he wanted to do right by the game this was trying to be, it would require less interaction with mundane, inconsequential things, and more interaction at the big stuff (not necessarily combat, but "outcome changing" situations). Any major scene should be a puzzle with several possible solutions, the outcome dictated not by the script, but by the player's interaction. A kill screen should be a potential outcome of some of those "solutions," to let you know that this would not actually work in your favor, and clever gameplay should teach you which actions to avoid because they will cause a kill screen.

    Any game should be able to survive without any story or characters. If you can't make the game out of stick figures and have it still be a fun game, then you've done something wrong. I'm not saying that a good story can't add a LOT to a completed game, but the core mechanics should be able to carry themselves, and who would play trough this game with no dialog or detailed animation?

    If Gage doesn't want to bother with actually making a game where the gameplay can hold its own, then he should just stick to non-interactive storytelling, like one of those . . . movies, I think they're called. That would provide the same experience, but you could be doing something else while it plays in the background rather than trying to match up prompts just to find the "continue" button. If he really does insist on sticking with interactive fiction, then maybe he needs to hire some people that really have interactivity down to design the actual gameplay elements of his games.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Ohoni I agree that this product stretches the definition of "game," but there's nothing wrong with interactive fiction. I happen to like visual novels, and that's basically what Cage's products are. I could respect that, if only the writing wasn't so poor...
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #5 Ohoni 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I just don't see the point. If all you do is press forward to continue, why not just put it on autopilot? If you're going to bother forcing people to interact with your fiction, make the interaction itself as entertaining as the fiction.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #6 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Ohoni So you don't see the point in media where you have to actively "press forward" to continue, and it would be better to put it on auto-pilot. Then, can I assume you are against books? Turning a page is a lot like pressing forward.

    Okay, maybe that's too cute an answer. Let me just ask you straight out, why do you insist that media either has to be very interactive or non-interactive? What's wrong with all the shades in between? It seems to me that you're creating arbitrary borders on media.

    And I don't even like this game. But I do have to stick up for story games a bit since I enjoy some of them.
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  • Avatar for shogunknight #7 shogunknight 4 years ago
    This game has a lot of conflicting reviews, its actually interesting seeing critics give conflicting opinions about a game. In the end its ones preference (or interest) that may judge the game. To me where there may be a problem is when the game is viewed based on other genres of games. For whatever category the game is impressive, needs polishing in some areas but still a good job
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #8 Ohoni 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I just don't see the positive value in it. I mean, to borrow your too cute example, with a book, reading has a certain pace, and turning the page allows you to read at the pace you can read, neither so fast you miss some, or so slow you finish the page well before it turns.

    With a movie, it sets its own pace, there is no reason to freeze the movie every minute or two and force you to jump through some hoops to continue the movie. Where is the value added in that? I mean, let people pause it when they like, but I don't see the value in pausing it automatically and forcing them to press the button to continue.

    With an interactive fiction game in which the player has no choices of any worth, what justifies it being interactive in the first place? Even a "choose your own adventure" book is more interactive than some products that classify themselves as "interactive fiction" video games.

    I'd like to know which story games you do enjoy, and why you enjoy them more than if they were just movies. Personally, I don't like movement in this direction because it incentivizes taking solid stories and making them a pain in the ass to actually get through, rather than an enjoyable experience. If the gameplay itself is not actually fun, then it's a chore, and you have to do your chores to get your story. I'd just rather not.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Ohoni You keep asking what justifies it, but art doesn't need any justification.

    I love Virtue's Last Reward. Now granted that has lots of gameplay in the form of puzzles, and story branches from choices you make, but you're still spending hours at a time just clicking forward to see the story unfold without any interaction. I also really like that Persona 4 starts with a few hours of cutscenes where you get no control over anything, because those cutscenes help set up the rest of the game. There are some visual novels where the only interaction is to make choices at key junctures.

    This is all okay. If a "game" leans more on story than on interactivity, that just means there's more pressure on the story to be better. Although perhaps in cases like Beyond Two Souls and stuff like The Walking Dead, "game" is not the most apt description. In that case just call them visual novels or interactive experiences.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #10 Ohoni 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I think every design choice needs to justify itself. "Why did you do this, and not that?" I haven't played Virtue's Last Reward, but tell me, did you enjoy the "clicking forward" element itself? You seemed to have enjoyed the puzzles, and presumably the story that played out as you were clicking forward, but would you have enjoyed the game any less if the story segments just played out at their own pace, rather than requiring you to keep clicking to continue? Why is it a net positive to have to click through those segments, rather than just sitting through them?

    Every design element in a game, or movie, or whatever is a design choice, it is the way it is because someone thought it was preferable to the alternatives. I just question whether those were the correct decisions in some cases. You say you enjoy a game that has "click-through" elements, but do you enjoy it because of those elements, or in spite of them, and if the latter, why not remove them and just keep the parts that are intrinsically enjoyable?
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #11 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Ohoni It's unrealistic to expect every design element to have an overt justification, and not only that... it runs counter to the whole idea of art. Art is self expression, and the only justification that art needs is that the artist wanted it that way.

    Virtue's Last Reward actually has an auto-play feature. Since it's story scenes are all fully voiced, you can just let it auto-play and it's almost like watching an anime. But even so I didn't always use this feature. Sometimes it was nice to just sit back and let it play, but other times I wanted to have manual control over the pace of the story. Maybe I wanted to let a piece of dialogue have more time to resonate in my head, for example.

    So yes, I think there is definitely value in clicking to continue. Is it "better than the alternatives"? Depends. You have to be careful not to look at media as "this is the best wayto do it, so all should all be done this way." Once you do that, you're one step closer to homogenization. I appreciate games/media with all different levels of interaction.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #12 Ohoni 4 years ago
    I think every design element is a choice. It's there for a reason. Why do you let a player stealth through a segment rather than shoot it out? Why let a player take an enemy down via dialog trees rather than punch him in the face? Every element of the game is a deliberate action on the part of the developers, they chose to allow something, or disallow it, chose to force players into it or give them a choice. Each time they do this, there needs to be a reason for it, even if it's only "because this was cheaper to execute and we spent the money elsewhere." ;)

    As for the "game is art" thing, that does have some validity, but not if the game designer also considers it a commercial product. A commercial product is designed to please customers, and it can be judged a success or failure based on whether it pleases those customers, rather than just on whether the artist feels his vision was fulfilled. I have a hard time believing that major game publishers have much interest in sponsoring multi-million dollar games that have their sole goal as "to meet the artistic goals of the designer."

    As for your example, would it have been worse if, rather than having to push forward to continue, it just had a button to pause the delivery when you felt like it? In any case giving players the option to skip over the trivialities is plenty of concession, and more games could benefit from that attitude.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #13 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Ohoni Pressing a button to advance dialog forward feels perfectly natural when the story is told through mainly through text, even if it is voiced. I think I'd prefer that to a "pause" button, whereas if the story is being told through cinematics a pause button makes more sense.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #14 Ohoni 4 years ago
    Well sure, if we're only talking about text, but this was not a text-based game, it was a movie.
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  • Avatar for alexb #15 alexb 4 years ago
    How many big budget games with the souls of particularly poor Syfy channel movies is it going to take before his boosters admit he's a bad writer and an even worse game maker? Ambition and talent are two different things. The sin is less that he makes software that barely has need of the player and more that his stories are poorly told and illogical and the few interactive parts are clunky and typified by arbitrary design decisions.Edited October 2013 by alexb
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  • Avatar for docexe #16 docexe 4 years ago
    I think David Cage makes some valid points in that we need more diversity in gaming, and that games should expand beyond being mere power fantasies or escapism and attempt to tell more mature stories. The overall problem: He is honestly not the man who should lead that change. He is not a very good game director neither writer, and given how uneven his works are (the reviews of this game being all over the place only add to this factor) and how controversial some of his declarations have been, is not surprise that he comes as overly pretentious and undesirable most of the time.
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  • Avatar for vincentgoodwin88 #17 vincentgoodwin88 4 years ago
    I agree with Ohoni. If the game plays itself, then why did the designer choose to make it a game instead of a movie. Every medium has its own values, perks, and benefits, be it books, movies, comics, plays, games, audio drama, or TV. You choose the medium that best serves the story you're trying to tell.

    Movies have a close-up intimacy for controlled short-form storytelling. Television has similar benefits, but the seasonal structure and once-a-week delivery method lend to a nice, open-ended narrative. Games are good if you want your consumer to interact with the plot, feel like they're playing a part in the narrative (instead of witnessing it), and explore different what-if scenarios.

    There's many other examples and these mediums don't necessarily fall into these boxes. But it confuses me that Cage's games wouldn't take advantage of the inherent benefits of the videogame medium. Even more than Kojima, it feels like Cage would rather be making movies, but nobody will let him. So he's making movies but as games (a lot of screenwriters "adapt" their failed screenplays into comic books too).

    Also, the writing is melodramatic and poorly paced. I remember the E3 2012 video was the absolute worst. It was like a minute and a half of boring scene before a big action sequence. It was like, "We want to layer the boredom on, so this action sequence seems more exciting." The whole scene could have been done in 3 lines and be much more efficient. The reviewer makes similar remarks about the scenes where he talks about skipping non-essential scenes and lines.
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