- Developer - Quantic Dream
- Publisher - Sony Computer Entertainment
- Platform - PlayStation 3
- Release date - 11 October
- Price - TBA
Beyond: Two Souls
It's hard to know what to think about Quantic Dream's games. I can appreciate what the studio is trying to do but at the same time, the work it produces is clumsy and disinteresting. Both Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, the company's previous two games, tried to mix cinema and videogames to create some hybrid of the two. They failed. The interaction was marginal and the cinema was poor quality, ridden with network TV clichés.
Beyond: Two Souls, the studio's fourth game, comes from a better pedigree. It stars two proper actors, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, and gives players more gameplay to manipulate than either Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit. However, from what I've played, it's another mixed bag. Beyond is set to continue the Quantic Dream tradition of posing questions - of starting debate - but failing to produce good videogames at the same time.
You play as the Ellen Page character, Jodie Holmes, a young woman with supernatural abilities. By communicating with a spirit called Aiden, she's able to manipulate objects and either possess people or psychically choke them to death. I played two levels. The first saw Holmes on an assassination mission in Somalia, the second had her fighting cops in smalltown America.
Visually they were both impressive. Quantic Dream has always done graphics and animation well, and the great lengths taken by the studio to recreate actors' faces in-game have paid off dividends. Characters look and move believably, and though that might seem like a superficial thing, it's hugely to Beyond's benefit, endowing the action scenes and dialogue with a little more weight than your standard adventure game.
Aside from that technological flair, there is a little, at this preview stage at least, to praise. Quantic Dream has always struggled to map everyday actions like opening doors or picking up objects to the controller. In Beyond, the studio's still not cracked it, and Jodie is ungainly. She walks with an enormous, cumbersome turn circle, and rather than feel intuitive, or tactile, having her interact with sequences is either confusing, contrived or both.
If you've played Heavy Rain, the control style here is very much the same. Simple actions require simple inputs, while more difficult, stressful or physical actions are performed with more complicated button presses. But it never feels quite right. It's hard to think of a better solution, and kudos to Quantic Dream for even trying, but the problem in Beyond - and Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit - is that what are in reality thoughtless actions take thought in-game. If you want to open a door, you have to press R1 to grab the handle then flick the right stick to slide it open - picking up a cup means moving the stick down, then back up again.
And of course, there is only a limited number of buttons, so the action you use to open a window is the same one you use to throw a punch. It feels wrong. It's an interesting idea but, for now, it doesn't seem to be working.
That goes double for Beyond's combat, and the scenes where you control Aiden. During fight scenes, Jodie's movement becomes automatic, and instead of button inputs flashing on screen, you have to move the right stick to follow the directions she's going. If someone throws a punch, say, and Jodie starts leaning back to dodge it you have to flick the stick backwards, in the direction of her lean. If she goes to kick someone, you push the stick in the direction of her kick. Go in the wrong direction, and she'll miss; fluff it too many times, and you'll fail the scene.
Again, it feels off. It's hard to tell which way you're supposed to push. A guard might launch a punch at Jodie and you'll flick the stick back to avoid it, but because she was actually about to hit the guy back, and you were meant to press forward, you'll screw up the scene.
You're meant to follow her movement, but Jodie doesn't always move in a way which indicates what to do. It often comes down to guesswork, and guesswork's often wrong. You might think it's wise to move out the way of a punch, but Jodie has other ideas and by pushing back instead of forward, you'll get her lamped in the face.
Controlling Aiden, her spirit friend, is even more problematic. Actions like possess, choke or move object are all fine and done using the analogue sticks, but floating around is frustrating. Aiden sort of drifts, so if you tap the analogue stick just a little you lurch uncontrollably forward. He also has a large turn circle, and dips dramatically up and down when you move the right stick. You end up getting stuck in walls or the ground, all the while with Jodie yelling at you to help her out because she's in trouble. It's infuriating.
And David Cage is not a writer. Again, this is based only on Beyond's preview build, so there might be some overarching plot or nuance that comes together in the final game, but for now, Two Souls is lousy with bad dialogue. Emotional scenes are overplayed with dramatic pauses and music, and characters always say what they're thinking. Like Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, there's no room in Beyond for interpretation. It's all heavy-handed and obvious, and that makes it boring.
Most troubling of all, though, there are parts of Beyond that I'd call racist. The Somalia mission ends with Jodie running into a house, locking the door behind her and cowering in the corner with a gun while black militants bang on the windows and yell at her. "Do you know what they'll do if they catch me?" she asks Aiden.
Eventually she makes it to the roof, but is followed up by several Somalians. In a scene reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead, or Michael Jackson's Thriller video, they lurch slowly towards her like zombies - monsters. It's real Birth of a Nation stuff, with a young American white girl being terrorised by animalistic black men. It's very ugly and testament I think to Cage's total lack of self-awareness as a writer. Again, I can't say too much because we're still at the preview stage and I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but it struck me as grotesque. Watch the last few minutes of this video and see what you think:
I've not played Beyond in full yet, and I'm hopeful, as I am with every studio and every game, that Quantic Dream will nail it. But from what I've been shown, Beyond struggles to cross-pollenate films with games. Both halves of the hybrid are lacking, comprising clumsy mechanics and dreadful writing. Here's hoping I'm wrong.