Beyond: Two Souls: The Kotaku Review

Beyond: Two Souls: The Kotaku Review

In Beyond: Two Souls, you’ll do some things you rarely get to do in video games. You’ll control a young, frightened girl as she hugs a stuffed animal and tries to fend off nightmares. You’ll decide whether to accept beer at an awkward high-school party, and you’ll try to pick music that’ll impress a group of older, cooler kids. You’ll clean up your apartment before a date and decide whether to go in for a kiss when the moment seems right.

Mainstream video games so rarely explore the mundane. More concerned with the exceptional and the exciting — unlikely adventures, brutal wars, daring escapes — they ignore the commonplace experiences that make up the bulk of their players’ lives. And yet placed against a backdrop of blockbuster histrionics, those smaller moments can feel fresh and even oddly exciting. Beyond: Two Souls succeeds, and fails, while vacillating between those two extremes.

Beyond, which comes out today for the PlayStation 3, is best described as a “cinematic adventure game.” It tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a young woman with an extraordinary gift, played by Juno and Hard Candy actress Ellen Page. Jodie possesses psychic abilities, which most directly manifest themselves through her tie to Aiden (pronounced EYE-den), a mysterious, invisible spirit connected to her by a mystical tether. Aiden has been with Jodie for as long as she can remember; he’s an unknowable and occasionally dangerous presence who follows her around and, with a few exceptions, does her bidding.

Beyond: Two Souls contains multitudes. As an experiment in minimally interactive storytelling, it’s unsuccessful at least as often as it is successful. It’s a game that a certain subset of open-minded, laid-back individuals will likely enjoy, but one that will almost certainly provoke passionate disdain from an equal number of players. I recommend it, but I don’t recommend it for everyone.

It’s rare that I’ve been so conflicted on giving a game a recommendation, or felt so specifically about who might enjoy a game and who might not. So, allow me to break down my recommendation:

You’ll probably like Beyond: Two Souls if:

  • You’re looking for something different, and don’t mind some clumsiness.
  • You want a low-stress game to share with a friend or significant other.
  • You’re down with the idea of playing as a teenage girl.
  • You don’t mind a game that’s basically a movie.
  • You love Ellen Page.
  • You can deal with a little (or a lot) of cheese.

You’ll probably dislike Beyond: Two Souls if:

  • You wish Heavy Rain had been more experimental, not less.
  • You want a game that’s challenging and makes you use your head.
  • You’re freaked out by the idea of playing as a teenage girl.
  • You hate quicktime events.
  • You don’t like Ellen Page.
  • You are Ellen Page, and get weirded out by looking at your own virtual doppelgänger.

The story leaps forward, backward and forward again across a 15-year span of Jodie’s life, from her early experiences as a 9-year-old to her adventures as a young woman of 24. One moment, you may be playing as 20-something Jodie, hiding out from the cops in a parched desert; the next, you’ll see her as a scared little girl living in a government research facility. Sometimes, a mysterious experience in the future will later be explained by a flashback to Jodie’s childhood, and vice-versa. It’s all very ambitious.

Beyond is, more or less, a SYFY original miniseries that occasionally asks for input from the viewer.

Beyond is the brainchild of French writer/director David Cage, a man known for past experimental games such as Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Indigo Prophecy and most recently, Heavy Rain. These days Cage is perhaps just as notorious for his well-documented, frustrated admiration of Hollywood and his belief that video games need to “grow up.”

Cage’s Hollywood-envy is in full effect in Beyond — this game is, more or less, a SYFY original miniseries that occasionally asks for input from the viewer. It removes player agency to such a degree that its success or failure rides entirely on its story, which, while by no means terrible, isn’t as strong as I’d hoped. The irony of Beyond is that while it often treats Jodie’s adolescence with grace and emotional nuance, as a game it can feel somewhat adolescent itself, trapped between the childish histrionics of the Call of Dutys of the world and the more refined work of the best video-game storytellers.

In addition to Aiden — who has no voice and communicates with Jodie through strange ghostly murmurs — the one constant in Jodie’s life is a government researcher named Nathan Dawkens. Dawkens, gamely played by Sgt. Elias himself, Willem Dafoe, has been studying and caring for Jodie for most of her life. Their relationship forms a crucial, if ultimately unsatisfying, corner of Beyond‘s narrative structure.

Page and Dafoe are given top billing on the front of the game’s cover, making the Beyond case look more like something you’d pick up at the local video store than at Gamestop. Both actors give strong performances, with Page going the furthest to elevate some occasionally lovely but just as often hackneyed material.

While I can’t blame Jodie for being bummed out — her life hasn’t exactly been all pony rides and slumber parties — it would’ve been nice if a bit more of Page’s natural charm could have shown through. This is in part the fault of the motion-capture technology Cage so ardently believes is the future of video game thespianism, but which unfortunately still hasn’t quite made it across the uncanny valley. Characters, Jodie included, often speak as though they’re performing ventriloquism, their lower lips moving while the rest of their faces remain frozen.

Beyond offers players occasional dialogue options, which work similarly to Cage’s past games. You won’t choose Jodie’s exact conversation responses, but rather select from a list: Lie/Evade/Truth, Angry/Reasonable/Threatening, that sort of thing. The game’s flashback-centric storytelling can make the conversations a bit confusing — I often felt, particularly in the early goings, as though I didn’t know what Jodie would do in a given situation. How could I? We’d only just met, and yet the scene was taking place at her story’s chronological midpoint.

The game has clearly been designed to be accessible to players who don’t normally play games, significantly streamlining the already streamlined types of input Cage implemented in Heavy Rain. Only a couple of buttons on each controller are required to play, and you can even opt to control the game via a smartphone touchscreen.

Every in-game action requires a minimum of input from the player. You’ll walk around in a room with the left thumbstick and flick the right thumbstick in the direction of any of a couple objects marked with a white dot. You almost never have to tell Jodie how to use the object — she’ll figure that out on her own. Maybe she’ll play a guitar, or read a document, or open a door; for the vast majority of the actions in the game, you’ll simply flick the stick and be done with it.

Over the course of the story, Jodie also becomes quite an arse-kicker. (One of the great, goofy joys of Beyond is watching pint-sized Ellen Page open up can after can of whoop-arse on guys twice her size.) When Jodie gets into a fight, time will slow down every time she’s about to land or dodge a blow; at that moment, you’ll have to flick the thumbstick in the direction she’s heading. If you miss your cue, she’ll whiff a punch or take a hit, but it won’t have too much of an effect on the battle’s outcome.

Compared to Jodie, Aiden has a more full range of motion — the benefits of being a non-corporeal entity, I suppose. With a press of the PS3’s triangle button, players can hop from Jodie into Aiden’s mind and start flying around through walls, exploring ahead, and pushing things around.

Despite the fact that it gives players mostly unfettered access to an intangible being who can fly around its levels, Beyond still manages to feel stifling and claustrophobic. That’s in part because the game and its attendant lore lack consistent rules. Sometimes Aiden can stray hundreds of yards from Jodie, other times — basically, when the story requires it — he’s limited to travelling mere feet. Most enemies are immune to Aiden’s powers but some can be possessed, and others can be killed outright. Most of the time players can take control of Aiden, but sometimes they can’t. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it; it’s entirely dictated by the requirements of the script. Those inconsistencies feel contrived and remove any lingering sense of agency that the player might have felt. By giving players the illusion of control and then inconsistently allowing them to use it, Beyond winds up feeling hemmed-in and strangely condescending.

To get a better sense of what it’s like in action, watch a (not particularly spoilery) sequence from the middle of the game here:

Beyond‘s lowest point is a prolonged stealth sequence set in Somalia in which Jodie, working for the CIA, is tasked with assassinating a Somali warlord. The writing is flat, the action is unexciting, and it’s all typically mired in cliché. On top of all that, it’s just so strangely designed. As soon as Jodie comes upon a new group of enemy soldiers, she’s given an obvious, scripted way to sneak around them. What is a stealth game if there are no rules and you can’t fail? This, apparently. It’s like if someone who’d never actually played Metal Gear Solid 4 had a dream about playing Metal Gear Solid 4.

It’s like if someone who’d never actually played Metal Gear Solid 4 had a dream about playing Metal Gear Solid 4.

Death, or any other type of failure, is entirely impossible. Leave Jodie hanging in a desperate moment and she’ll either save herself or the game will simply linger, eternally waiting for you to rescue her. In Heavy Rain, it was possible to accidentally let a main character die — the story would carry on, but the ending would be significantly different. Jodie can’t die in Beyond, and none of the choices you make over the course of the story have a discernible effect on the ending. The upside to this is that you’ll never feel too invested in a given choice — you can just make it and move on, content in the knowledge that the game’s going to play out the same no matter what.

Perhaps due in part to its piecemeal storytelling, the game often finds unexpected grace in small moments. After the sacrifices are made, the babies are rescued and the tears are shed, you’ll find yourself going through intimate, mundane moments in Jodie’s life that really do feel interesting and affecting. My favourite of these involved getting ready for an unexpected date: A young man Jodie’s interested in will be by in one hour. Her apartment’s a mess. Can you tidy up, cook some dinner, and take a shower, all before he arrives? And what about Aiden, who seems grumpy and jealous of this new potential suitor?

And what should Jodie wear?

As strangely fun as it is to hurry around getting ready, even more enjoyable is how the scene plays out after Jodie’s date arrives. The two characters make conversation with a believable awkwardness, their rapport loaded with the abrupt conversational shifts and hesitant questions that anyone who’s ever been on an exciting first date knows all too well. The cast is never more comfortable than when they’re playing casual, and the whole thing feels so welcomely different. David Cage says that video games need to grow up, to put aside the explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios, and in scenes like this one, he delivers.

So it’s all the more frustrating that he’s larded up so much of the rest of his game with explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios. Looked at in total, Beyond‘s story is generally pretty fun, but it’s often so unabashedly hacky that it’s hard to take it seriously. Worse than all that, though, is that it never actually manages to be about anything. For all its inspired moments, I can’t name a single unifying idea. Ghosts are scary, I guess?

The game often finds unexpected grace in small moments.

The script is a hodgepodge of The Sixth Sense, Ghost, some sort of off-brand X-Men movie and, of all things, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Cage rarely turns down the chance at a good cliché — at one point, a character punches his commanding officer and says, “Consider that my resignation!”

Other choice lines of dialogue include: A bad guy, terrorised by Aiden: “It’s like some spirit, come to punish us for our sins!” Willem Dafoe, with a straight face: “The infraworld will spread through our dimension!” Jodie, taking gracious leave of her co-workers: “I’m gonna go out. I’m desperate for a pee.” The Coen brothers, this ain’t.

Beyond: Two Souls is at its best when it’s telling a coming-of-age story about a strange young woman with an extraordinary gift. So many fascinating games, from Cart Life to Persona to Papers, Please, have embraced the mundanity of everyday life and in so doing, taken us to fascinating new places. That Beyond, like Heavy Rain before it, so often applies its no-doubt generous budget to genuine creative risks makes its too-frequent forays into clichéd action-movie chest-thumping all the more dispiriting.

And yet here I am, giving the game a recommendation anyway. When taken on its own merits as a strange sort of movie/game hybrid, Beyond: Two Souls can be a pretty good time. And the game shines in co-op — one player controls Jodie, and the other Aiden, which gives both players opportunities to mess around in the world, make important decisions, and share the story with one another. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a few nights with your significant other or spouse, you could do a lot worse.

Beyond: Two Souls is seemingly built of contradictions. It’s as goofy as it thinks it is profound, but remains enjoyable all the same. It has many small, wonderful things to say about its unusual main character, but next to nothing to tell us about life or death. It does some really cool things on a personal scale, but falls short every time it tries to widen its focus.

This flawed, interesting game’s greatest paradox may well be that it can succeed at things few big-budget video games have attempted, while failing so consistently at things less ambitious games accomplish regularly. If David Cage would simply put aside his fascination with the spangly charms of Hollywood and embrace the smaller, more intimate possibilities of interactive fiction, he might finally seize the masterpiece he’s been chasing all these years. Until then, we have Beyond: Two Souls: Quiet, compassionate and smart, when it isn’t busy being loud, brash and dumb.


  • Hmmm. Disappointing. Every single one of those “You’ll probably dislike” points applies to me. Every. Single. One. Might have to wait for this one to plummet in price.

    • A bad movie, that goes too long and has a substandard story line and costs six times as much, both to make and buy.

      David Cage should just make a game or go off and make an actual movie instead.

      • David Cage is a bad writer. If his games are anything to go by then any movies he tried to write would be critically destroyed.

        The quality of writing and story in games is generally so appalling that whenever someone tries something a little different they get celebrated.

        • Pretty much. But I would rather he failed in the movies industry so we didn’t have to put up with David Cage banging on about his bad games that he claims as being revolutionary (despite being slightly more advanced text adventure games with less freedom) and poorly executed, at a huge cost.

  • Obviously I haven’t played the game, but many of the reviews seem to imply that the quality of the narrative is the problem. I can’t speak to that. My main concern is that it sounds like a partially interactive movie. I’m not against that conceptually, but I feel that if David Cage wants to make a movie, he should charge price consistent with that media. I wouldn’t expect to pay $80 for a DVD or box set regardless of the quality of the animation. Telltale’s the Walking Dead had a much fairer price for the sort of ‘game’ it offered.

    • True, but there was a vast difference in art quality and the impact of choices on outcomes between Walking Dead and Heavy Rain.

      Those factors are mostly dependent on budget, and it’s difficult to justify a higher budget without a higher purchase price.

      • I agree with that. The thing is though, in the absence of any meaningful interaction, the most appropriate comparison is arguably an animated film (i.e. pixar) and that shouldn’t cost as much either.

  • Eh, I think I’m going to enjoy the experience of playing through this story even though most reviews seem to suggest it’s not much of a game or much of a story. It seems like the issues other reviewers have with the disjointed narrative is just how the game plods along, giving us snippets of the protagonist’s life. And that’s ok.

  • Eh, I’d still like to play this one day, I like experiencing games that try new things no matter their flaws.

  • I think that this is the best review I’ve ever read on Kotaku. Well done for taking what seemed like a difficult game to review and managing to convey enough information for someone to decide whether to buy it or not.
    People like to have a go at some of the writers here (rightly or wrongly) but I just have to say this is so well done. Kudos to your writing.

    • Yep. Rightly or wrongly this gives me a really good idea of the good and bad points of the game and whether or not I’d be interested (I won’t be, as it happens, for the same reason I wasn’t interested in Heavy Rain but moreso. That’s right, I’m Ellen Page).

  • Mainstream video games so rarely explore the mundane… they ignore the commonplace experiences that make up the bulk of their players’ lives… those smaller moments can feel fresh and even oddly exciting.

    I completely agree here.

    The only reason I played through all three Mass Effects was so I could talk to people and just do the ‘mundane.’ It’s funny how it works, we’ve lived through so much action in video games that mundane is exciting and exciting is mundane. I can shoot people in nearly any game I can pick up, but to go to a highschool social gathering? That’s nuts.

    Kinda gives you an interesting perspective on life; to an action hero who spends 95% of his life solving warlord conflict in Africa, to a super soldier who has to travel to an alien planet to gather intel, or to a gigantic paladin who spends his life in service to the heavens, talking shit around a water cooler or going to the pub after work is probably really exciting.

    • I think part of it could be that we want to relax. The average age of gamers is somewhere around 30 these days, and I don’t know about the rest of you but I like to relax after a day of work.
      A game that has me tense and fighting for “my” life can feel like a bit of a chore compared to one where I can just do “mundane” stuff. But if I wasn’t playing a game at that time, I’d probably want to just do mundane stuff anyway because I want to relax.

  • Ahh.. the negatives…
    I Love Ellen Page, soo that pretty much negates everything and BUY BUY BUY!!!

    • Yeah… but it’s a version of Ellen Page who was raised in the Uncanny Valley. Nice enough, but with a creepy stare…

  • …the game and its attendant lore lack consistent rules. Sometimes Aiden can stray hundreds of yards from Jodie, other times — basically, when the story requires it — he’s limited to travelling mere feet. Most enemies are immune to Aiden’s powers but some can be possessed, and others can be killed outright. Most of the time players can take control of Aiden, but sometimes they can’t. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it; it’s entirely dictated by the requirements of the script.

    Writing evolves. The early Dionysian plays explored new narrative ground that we consider basic and primitive today. We’ve come a long way. The number of pages on is testament to the staggering number of devices – tropes – we have available to choose from in crafting a narrative.

    Which is why there is no excuse for this bullshit in this day in age. It’s just plain lazy, shitty writing, or – more likely – someone who ISN’T a writer interfering with the writing.
    Verisimilitude. If you write? Learn it, live it.

  • Sounds like the same criticisms I levelled at Heavy Rain. I still enjoyed Heavy Rain and I’ll pick this up today since I expect to enjoy it, too. But it is a bit disappointing that they don’t seem to have addressed many of the shortcomings of that game (although hopefully the acting will at least be better here than in Heavy Rain).

  • That’s a bit disappointing, although not entirely unexpected given the incredibly VAGUE way this game has been marketed. Until i read this I still had no idea how the game actually played, which gave me the impression it wasn’t going to live up to the lofty idealised vision they had in mind.

    If you feel like you have to be vague and cagey about the game you’re making, hiding behind the appeal of the celebrities you’ve cajoled into appearing in it then you’re doing it wrong. Are they embarrassed of their dulled down, movie-hybrid? Are they hoping people will buy it by mistake?

  • I want to play this. I don’t want to pay $70 for it. I’ll wait until I can find it in a bargain bin.

  • who is not going to take the one beer?? I wonder what the consequences for drinking the beer will be??

    • She will probably become addicted to hard drugs just like when you try one beer in real life.

  • Poor writing for the main female lead? She’s running around, worried about cooking or making herself pretty?

    You’ve dropped the ball, Kotaku. Clearly this is misogyny and patriarchal propaganda.

  • Well.. firstly great review. Very informative and I’m glad a read this before buying it. I loved Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit here in Australia) David Cage is a brilliant game producer however This seems a little to mundane for my tastes I think I’ll wait till its a bit cheaper and then check it out.

  • I personally loved Heavy Rain. When I heard that Quantic’s next game was going to be similar I was excited, but it just doesnt look as good as HR. No where near as good… I still have no idea what the story is about. It sounds so confusing.

    • Yeah man I thoroughly agree with you.. Heavy Rain was awesome.. so was Fahrenheit (Indigo professy)

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