written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
What if you had the power to do things, unimaginable things that were hard to explain or even to find the words to explain them? Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe star in David Cage’s next game from Quantic Dream. If you’ve ever played Heavy Rain this game will feel immediately familiar. The gameplay is unique and the pedigrees of actors involved are so very high, but as a game how does it fare? That’s what I am here to discuss, to preface this I must add that while I did play some of Heavy Rain, I ultimately put it down and never picked it up again, adding that to my pile of shame, I may eventually try it again but that’s for another time.
The story centers around Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) blessed (or cursed) with a spirit permanently attached to her and able to communicate with her. She calls him Aiden and he’s just as instrumental to the overall narrative as Jodie. From a young age, Jodie has lived at the Department of Paranormal Activities. Most of Jodie’s life is spent studying her unique abilities. Never really experiencing what life would be like to be a regular kid, she is instead raised by Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison), a pair of researches at the DPA. The goal of the DPA is to study the infraworld, a plane of existence they believe to be where souls go after they leave the physical world, in some missions Jodie is forced to deal with the grave consequences of opening a gateway to the infraworld, basically enraged entities that attack the living.
The narrative is the strongest part of the entire Beyond Two Souls experience. The story is presented in a nonlinear fashion, jumping from various points in Jodie’s timeline. One segment she’s a little girl struggling with these powers, other segments she’s a CIA operative using Aiden to complete missions. Personally I was a bit turned off by the nonlinear approach, sparingly I can deal with but I found myself confused far too often thinking of where in the timeline the mission was taking place, especially if I turned away from the timeline screen before a new mission starts.
The writing is superb and a more concise story than the few moments I spent with Heavy Rain. There are consequences to the actions you take as Jodie but nothing is as grave a game ending death (like in Heavy Rain). If you don't like nonlinear narratives, then this game may not be the best fit for you, but if you pay close attention to the details while playing, the story can be very satisfying. While the setting is a supernatural-thriller with a dash of Carrie mixed in with The Fugitive, some of the best moments were the times when Jodie could connect with the people around her, primarily when she has to endure a Seattle winter with four homeless people. This brief point in her timeline was my favorite part of the entire experience, and no, that isn’t just because I’m from Seattle.
The story ties up pretty well, there are multiple endings to be had and none of them keep me really wanting more, while I played through and got one ending, I just YouTube’d the others. In a sense, most of them are slight variations of each other, alluding to the fact that the decisions Jodie had to make did not impact the ending too much. Personally I wished that the endings were more impacted by events and decisions, but many times those decisions can make the end game feel very confusing so I like how they literally held your hand through the game’s entire narrative.
The most polished element of the entire package has to be the visual presentation. Everything from character models to set pieces are meticulously crafted and look fantastic. The in-game models for Jodie and Nathan look exactly like the actors portraying them and even characters that are only seen briefly are beautifully rendered. I did not notice any considerable drop in detail when comparing Jodie to say “Random Soldier A” or “Lab Tech 7.”
The world around is just as beautiful, from a small house in the suburbs of “middle America” to a cold overpass in Seattle; the attention to detail is exceptional. Areas that are meant to be warm feel very warm while areas that instill fear or are in frigid climates send a chill down your spine.
The choice in music was very well thought out, big grandiose scores compliment more intense sequences with subtle ambient music playing during quieter times. Nothing was really memorable though, when I play other narrative heavy games, like Uncharted or Kingdom Hearts, I find myself humming the themes at random times throughout my day… none of that here, sad to say. Can’t say I didn’t like the music only that it wasn’t overly memorable.
The performances from every actor in the cast are hands down the most glittering aspect of this entire package. Ellen Page played Jodie quite well while Willem Dafoe stole the show with his portrayal of Nathan. One character that really stuck out to me though was Kadeem Hardison’s portrayal of Cole Freemen, the other DPA researcher who raised Jodie from a girl. Cole has played the stern disciplinarian and the loving surrogate father. Even when Jodie is a full-grown woman, Cole still calls her his little princess. While the dynamic I felt Jodie had with Nathan was more like a researcher and test subject (even when Nathan would show his concern for her well-being) I never second guessed Cole, I think it was the way he said princess that solidified how much he really loves this girl.
All that glitters is certainly not gold; sometimes it’s a glittering pile as shit. Okay, maybe that’s going too far? But seriously, the one element of this game I absolutely hated was the gameplay. I can’t even call it a game; it felt more like hours of quick-time-events and button mashing. If I wanted this kind of gameplay I’d just replay segments of God of War or Shenmue.
You control Jodie with the left stick and when a white dot shows up on screen you tilt the right stick toward it to interact, when engaging in hand to hand combat time slows and you tilt the right analog stick in the direction of Jodie’s movement. Throw in certain scenes like shaking the controller to get away from someone trying to grab you or a sequence of holding down several buttons to initiate climbing and that pretty much rounds out the controls.
When you control Aiden, you view the world in a first person perspective and Aiden can pretty much fly anywhere and through walls, this allows you to see impending threats or to manipulate certain items in the room. He employs a few core actions, he can physically hit something by holding down pulling back on the analog sticks and releasing, pull them towards each other to “posses” someone, pull them apart to kill someone, or create a link between Jodie and say a dead body or inanimate object to see visions. Aiden gameplay was honestly the part I enjoyed the most, but to be honest that isn’t saying much. At least we didn't have to "X" to "Jason" or any variation of it.
One part that really would grind my gears was the sneaking. Oh my god what a broken gameplay element, controlling Jodie felt like being drunk and not able to control what your body is doing. It was clunky at best and annoyingly unresponsive at worst, if it weren’t for my obsession with completing it and the fact that I wanted to share my thoughts with you guys, I would have just said “FUCK DAT NOISE, AIN’T NOBODY GOT NO TIME FO DAT!”
Regardless of my very critical opinion of the gameplay, the story was still worth it to finish. The ending I got was very satisfying and I feel that if I had picked any of the others I would be just as pleased with how the game ended. As much as I did enjoy the story and eye-gasmed over the visuals, that gameplay is so horrendous I can’t exclude it from the review. It’s not a long game, give it a quick weekend rental (Red Box baby!!) but I can’t recommend you to buy it, great story but that gameplay killed any want to replay for alternative outcomes. Though I may reserve judgement until the Michael Cera DLC.