Review: Beyond: Two Souls
Bad roommates really make your life difficult. They might leave the sink dirty, lock you out of the apartment, or keep you up at night. Beyond: Two Souls cranks this dynamic up to eleven, portraying what it's like to live with two souls in the same body. This time, I'm pulling another game out of the backlog, originally released in 2013 for the PS3.
Beyond: Two Souls is a heavily story based game about a girl that has to learn how to navigate her life while tethered to a paranatural entity named Aiden. You play through various moments of Jodie's life from early childhood to adulthood, all while discovering more about the mysterious entity that is always nearby. As you progress through the story, you learn more about Jodie and Aiden's link, and the greater implications for the world of Beyond: Two Souls.
I'm not going to mince words here. I do not like the game play of Beyond: Two Souls. I've played a few of these types of games (what the internet no-so-affectionately calls "walking-simulators") where the game play is little more than walking up to objects in the game and pressing the interaction button. Beyond: Two Souls adds a little to this by letting you take control of Aiden and flying around the area to interact with things, but the core concept remains the same.
About 70% of the game consists of walking around in the environment and interacting with things, but the game seems to try to make this experience as un-enjoyable as possible. Even the act of starting an interaction is clunky and needlessly different. Instead of just pressing a dedicated interaction button (eg, the X or A button), the game makes you move the right joystick in the direction of the object you wish to interact with. However, this almost never worked out the way I thought it should. If something was to Jodie's right, sometimes I needed to press right on the stick, but almost half the time nothing would happen. This led me to practically rolling the stick in a circle every time I wanted to interact with something, because I couldn't tell which way the game wanted me to push the stick. What made this even worse, is that for some reason, the game developers decided that the right stick should also serve as the camera control. This led to awkward moments where I was trying to move the camera to get a look around an area, but Jodie started opening a door, or pressing a button I didn't even know was there yet.
But the icing on top of the cake of all this right stick nonsense was the fact that I felt like I was in a constant battle with the terrible camera controls. Moving the camera around usually worked fine, but when I let go of the stick, the camera would often snap back to its neutral position directly behind Jodie. Other times, I would walk halfway across a room and the camera would all of a sudden switch vantage points, leading to confusion on which direction I should be pushing the movement stick as well. And in some scenes, moving the camera manually would cause the camera to move erratically, making it impossible to tell what was going on.
The other 30% of this game takes place in quick-time events (QTEs). These little interactable moments make you have to press, tap, or hold buttons in quick succession, often taking place in action segments. To put it bluntly, I believe that QTEs add nothing to a game. If you want to add action or excitement to your game, put in compelling game play. If you want a load of cutscenes in your game, let the player sit back and enjoy what you're putting on the screen. QTEs simply get in the way, and Beyond: Two Souls has more than its fair share of terrible ones. Often, the game did not make it clear if you were supposed to press, repeatedly tap, or hold a button. This led to me having to restart multiple animations until I figured out what the game was asking of me. Even when I did get it right, many of the QTEs simply felt awkward, or out of place. And these weren't limiting to pressing buttons either. No, sometimes I had to jerk my controller in different directions, shake it repeatedly, or tilt it in different ways. I can't help but feel like these actions were put in the game just to say it had motion controls.
All of these errors could possibly be forgiven if it weren't for the fact that sometimes they wound up affecting the story. Often the awkward controls or bad QTEs made me interact with something I didn't intend to, or miss an important input, and this would alter the course of the story I was trying to play. In my opinion, if your choices are supposed to matter so much in these types of games, then the game better not force you to make choices you didn't intend to choose.
Beyond: Two Souls goes for a realistic look with its graphics, and for the most part pulls it off. The textures in this game on PS4 make me forget that this game came out in 2013. Character models look great, and the main characters look almost real, with very nice facial expressions as well (thanks to motion capture). Where this game falls a little flat is in effects like fire, teardrops, or dust storms. These all look a little two-dimensional, and take away from an otherwise pretty good looking game. There's not much else to say about the graphics though, as I find it hard to comment on games that strive for realism, other than saying how close to real life the game looks.
Again, I don't have much to say here. As far as music goes, this one felt like another big budget Hollywood soundtrack. Not bad, but not interesting either. I feel like it had all the right sounds at the right time, but none of the soul you see in smaller games.
I have mixed feelings about the characters' acting in Beyond: Two Souls. On one hand, main characters, specifically Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, knock it out of the park with their performances (the motion capture really helps seal the deal here). On the other hand though, the performances by the minor characters range from okay to bad. It feels like the developer put a large amount of the budget towards the main characters but really underfunded all of the side characters.
The story of Beyond: Two Souls is upsetting to talk about. Unfortunately, this is not due to the content (although it does have some good emotional moments), but because I feel like it started off with something great that just got lost in the end. The game starts off with a very personal-feeling story about a girl that is struggling to learn to live with a strange spiritual connection to an other-worldly entity. The game explores Jodie's very human struggles with finding her way in life while also having to deal with the wants and needs of another soul living with her. We see times when Aiden is on Jodie's side, and times when the two couldn't have more different goals, which leads to conflict. Their relationship sometimes feels like an older brother / younger sister dynamic when Aiden is looking out for Jodie, sometimes it feels like two roommates struggling to find common ground on ultimately trivial issues, and sometimes it's like two friends looking out for each other, sometimes sacrificing what one wants for the other.
I wish Beyond: Two Souls would have kept its story on this more personal level. However, it seems like the game gets carried away with its idea of para-natural entities and works itself into a story with potentially world-ending consequences that force the characters into making ridiculous choices that don't make sense in the context of the story. There are times where characters don't know information that they really should know, which causes forced conflicts that feel very set up and not natural. Other characters will reveal nefarious ulterior motives, seem too far gone for redemption, and then all of a sudden have a change of heart that comes out of nowhere. And then there are certain parts of the story that seem like they were specifically included to make the player feel a certain way, and come off very forced. Sadly, the story of Beyond: Two Souls feels like it is trying to reach much wider than it should, and the game suffers for it.
All in all, Beyond: Two Souls is a game that tries to be so much more than it needs to be. There are many elements of the game that seem to be included just for the sake of being there, while adding very little to the overall experience. I appreciate what the game is trying to do, but I really felt like it got tangled up in itself. Ultimately, Beyond: Two Souls is a great premise held back by terrible controls and a story that tries to be too many things. I had high hopes in my first couple hours of playing, but my enthusiasm slowly drained over the last few hours until I was just waiting for the game to end.