Let’s talk about resources, for a moment.
Don’t worry, you’ve arrived at the correct page – this is the review for Beyond: Two Souls, the PS3′s latest interactive adventure from creative genius David Cage. But in order to understand this game’s design, a bit has to be mentioned about resources.
Beyond: Two Souls – from here on referred to as Beyond or BTS – is not like other games. It comes from Quantic Dream, the studio headed up by David Cage, and follows that team’s acclaimed hit, Heavy Rain. It is beautiful to behold, and explores interesting concepts in storytelling, but it’s far from being an actual free-roaming game like, say, Grand Theft Auto 5.
See, the developers have resources to work with – in this case, the PlayStation 3, with its meagre amount of memory and Cell processor. The choice can be made to sacrifice some visual fidelity for the sake of having large, open-ended levels. Or there can be a more restrictive play area, which means more memory for pretty textures and intricately-detailed character models. It’s a sliding scale: have a gorgeous game that is detailed, but lose some freedom in the way the game plays. Or have something that is visually basic, but has no loading times and larger levels.
The fact that Beyond is almost as gorgeous as a CGI film should give a clue as to how much freedom you have in the game.
To be fair, though, the outdoor areas are big enough for the way the game tells its story. David Cage’s team has walked a fine line to make this game a reality. Although game is probably the wrong term to use, here. Beyond: Two Souls is more an interactive adventure; a movie where you get to decide the outcome of certain scenes – evidenced by the fact that it made an appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
BTS retains a lot of the things that featured in Heavy Rain. The slowed-down action sequences. The methodical button assignments in quick-time events. The analogue control stick gestures. Where those things were used extensively in Heavy Rain, and added to the immersion, their use in BTS can be seen almost as a lite implementation.
There are still quick-time events where you have to push buttons in the order the appear on screen, but they’re few and far in between. And you still use the analogue sticks to control certain things, but not with complex twirling gestures. Instead of the complex-controller gameplay in Heavy Rain, there’s a new game mechanic to use – and it’s central to the story.
Players take control of a girl named Jodie. Players also take control of Aiden – an entity that is intrinsically linked to Jodie. While it’s never mentioned outright – much like certain zombie films never mention the Z word – Aiden is a ghost. Being linked to Jodie’s consciousness, though, means that she can speak to him, see what he does, and sometimes control him.
She’s not completely helpless, though. Younger Jodie relies on Aiden for defense, but – predictably – the girl with a supernatural ability is soon recruited by the CIA, where she undergoes training. In these missions Jodie and Aiden work together. Her marksmanship and close-quarter-combat skills stand her in good stead, but cooperating with Aiden is often the easiest way to not get shot. BTS also lets two players enjoy the story unfold in cooperative play. One person controls Jodie, and another player can have arguably more fun playing as Aiden.
“Accessing” Aiden is done by tapping the triangle button on the PS3 controller. The screen shifts to Aiden’s view of Jodie, with the the spectral tether that links them also being visible. Aiden can roam the world, passing through walls and people. It’s possible to hide Jodie around a corner and send Aiden into the world to explore potential hazards. The scripting also calls for Aiden to be summoned when there are obstacles to be dealt with: despite being a ghost, he’s got the means to knock heavy objects about.
He can also be evil. And that’s where the player’s own morals dictate the action. When playing as Jodie, there are scenes where non-playable characters ask her questions and players are prompted to choose one of four responses. This affects the outcome of conversations. When playing as Aiden, the rules are not present at all, and it’s up to the gamer to determine how vengeful he wants to be.
In one uncomfortable scene – spoiler alert – Jodie has to deal with a drunken pub-crawler who foists himself on her. Sensing her fear, Aiden acts to defend his mortal companion. At first he starts flinging around chairs and rattling paintings on the wall. Then he starts throwing heavier things at the hapless drunk. In all this, a fellow pub-goer and the barman start running for their lives, but Aiden has gone full tilt. He possesses the now-shotgun-weilding barman, who then shoots the potential rapist and the other punter, before offing himself. It’s a bit shocking, too. Even though these are voluntary actions undertaken by the gamer, they still feel wrong.
It’s this interwoven good and evil that makes the story in BTS so appealing. That said, it does unfold in a somewhat haphazard way.
The game starts with Jodie on the run, but then flashes back to Jodie’s childhood, teen years, CIA training and covert missions – but not in chronological order. At the end it makes sense, but for the first two or three hours of play there’s little to help make sense of it all. A second play through, much like a good TV series or film, will make for a better appreciation of the details missed the first time around. Each chapter is also a very short section of the actual story, taking place in a very confined virtual set – either a house, or a lab, or a city street. Think of the chapters as scenes in a film, rather than restricted levels in a game – it convincingly creates the illusion that this is all taking place in a big, open world with many possibilities.
Ultimately, that’s what Beyond: Two Souls really is: a compelling story that unfolds at the player’s fingertips, one scene at a time. There are scary moments when Jodie makes her way through an underground lab with otherworldly foes, and there are moments where pure malice takes over while playing as Aiden. Everything is gorgeous, and the sound design is both effective and cinematic. Players control the pacing, aided by the segmented story and short scenes, and it’s all driven by a desire to discover the fate of the game’s eponymous two souls.