It’s fitting that I should be the one to review Beyond: Two Souls. Like protagonist Jodie Holmes, I too have had an inescapable, mysterious entity bonded to me for my entire life. I’m 23 years old, and I have known my friend Brandon for 23 of those years. Right from the beginning, our bitter rivalry was evident. Legend has it that, when his mom would come into my parents’ retail store, she’d drop him in my crib and we’d engage in epic rounds of tug-of-war for dominance over my blanket. The funny thing was, apparently neither of us ever ceded any ground — we’d stand there at a deadlock, pulling to the point of exhaustion, trying (but never succeeding) at taking control and severing that connection between us.
Likewise, since birth, Jodie has been spiritually chained to an invisible entity called Aiden (literally — there’s a magic rope). Jodie views it as a curse, perpetually longing for a normal life, but reluctantly accepts his supernatural assistance when necessary. Aiden’s feelings are less immediately clear, as he’s just as likely to help her take revenge on birthday party bullies or fight off malevolent spirits as he is to attempt to choke the life out of someone she holds dear. Naturally, both the government and the scientific community take great interest in Jodie’s abilities, and so the bulk of the game centers on her life involved in experiments and engaging in covert ops.
When controlling Jodie, the game is immediately reminiscent of Quantic Dream’s last game, Heavy Rain, as you guide her around the environments, talking to people and fiddling with objects in the area. Not every interaction is strictly necessary, but they help to set the mood, like when you guide a young Jodie through playing with her dolls only for Aiden to suddenly start messing with them. Addressing a common complaint that Heavy Rain’s controls were too complex, movement is handled with the left stick while these interactions are mostly accomplished by one button or by slightly tilting the right stick.
Combat works a little differently. In close quarters, the action slows down for a moment when Jodie or her opponent goes for a strike. You’ll then have to flick the right stick in the appropriate direction to have her attack or dodge successfully. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which direction to push — such as when a punch comes from an angle and you can’t tell if you need to dodge downward or to the right. In its stealth-based shooting segments, the game features an awkward cover system and enemies that die when you press R2, no aiming required. Some of the tension is also removed when you realize that Jodie can't actually die in combat - if she gets injured enough, you can simply use Aiden to revive her.
Luckily, playing as him spices up even the dullest sections. Switching control to him allows you to float around the immediate area, usually to screw around with (or possess) enemies. It is gleeful to float around the battalion of soldiers advancing on Jodie’s position, tossing cars around, forcing them to shoot each other, and dropping helicopters on them.
It’s important to keep in mind that, while they reluctantly work together, Aiden and Jodie aren’t necessarily friends. They have different motivations, which makes the game fascinating to play in co-op. As befitting our natures, I played as Jodie and Brandon controlled Aiden. There’s one scene where Jodie is getting ready for a date, but Brandon decided that Aiden didn’t want it to go well. So, as I was helping her choose clothing and preparing dinner, he was banging around and threatening the unlucky guy. Once, while Brandon was in control, we had just finished a conversation with a morally-ambiguous character. He had a red aura around him, meaning he could be possessed. I told him not to, but, since only one person can be in control at a time, I couldn't do anything about it, and Brandon went right for the jugular. Most co-op games have carbon-copy characters doing carbon-copy things, so it’s a new idea for two players to be playing asynchronously and to have conflicting thoughts about what needs to be done.
As one of the PS3’s great swan songs, Beyond does some impressive things in the graphics department. Characters look so realistic that you sometimes forget you’re not watching a live-action movie featuring Ellen Page, who did the motion-capture for Jodie. Willem Dafoe’s trademark thinly-masked insanity comes across bright and clear as her surrogate father figure and the lead scientist studying her. The animation is incredibly lifelike, and there were times I couldn’t believe this game was running on a seven-year-old machine. The voice-acting is nuanced, and suspenseful or sorrowful music punctuates the generally-depressing atmosphere the game flaunts so much.
While an interesting character study that should appeal to sci-fi buffs like myself, Beyond’s general plot would be laughed right off most basic cable stations. It’s engaging, but cheesy. Essentially, it all boils down to Jodie’s desire to be rid of Aiden and her discontent with the way she’s been tossed around by the system her entire life. While there are touching parts, like when she’s homeless and out on the streets begging for enough cash for a sandwich, much of it is standard ‘trying to atone for past mistakes’ and ‘super-powered character running from the military’ popcorn fare. It gets hard to follow, too, as the story is constantly jumping back and forth throughout over a decade of her life. That said, everything is pretty neatly wrapped up by the end, and the multiple endings allow you to put Jodie on the path that you feel is right for her character.
Beyond is a longer game than its predecessor, with my first playthrough clocking in at around fifteen hours, and completionists have their work cut out for them considering its twenty-ish possible endings. It has a few parts that drag, but it generally moves along at a quick enough clip that starting from the beginning doesn’t feel like work.
In short, while the story is schlocky genre stuff and some of the combat sections aren’t that interesting, the performances and the unique form of co-op make Beyond a worthwhile experience anyway. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional highs that Heavy Rain did, but the conflicting motivations that Brandon and I constantly wrestled with made it feel like no game I’ve ever played. The fact that top-tier actors do some great work in selling their characters only makes it easier to recommend. Producer David Cage’s dream of making interactive dramas that rival the best of Hollywood hasn’t quite come to pass, but when taken as a whole, this is a digital narrative that should be experienced.
This review is based on a retail copy of Beyond: Two Souls for the PS3