Beyond: Two Souls Review
Diluting the line between fiction and reality.
It's something almost every developer tries at some point, but few do it with such force-and potentially so much flaw as Quantic Dream. Indigo Prophecy gave freedom to gamers, allowed them to make choices that would change the entire scope of what they saw, what their character was feeling. And as such, they were hailed for it. Heavy Rain forced players to do very mundane things-walking, climbing, opening doors-with precision and focus. The critics obliterated them.
If nothing else, Quantic Dream is perhaps the most subjective developer out there. Their games are either loved, or hated. Rarely in between.
Now, with their latest release Beyond: Two Souls, I see no change in that precedence.
In fact, I imagine it will only spiral it further. Souls carries with it many ideas that would make it appear as a blockbuster, set to be adored by all. The versatile, charming Ellen Page and captivating Willem Dafoe headlining as the main characters. A rich, enigmatic story of souls and partnership, told in a world that is so frighteningly lifelike you may forget you're playing a game.
On the surface, Souls looks very promising for all.
It was only in playing it that I began to see reasons for blaring separation between those who would praise it, and those who would pick it apart. Jodie (Ellen Page) appears to be a regular child playing a typical game of imaginary friend named Aiden. But what only she knows, and what others soon figure out, is that Aiden is very real. Though it's not obvious as to how it came about, Aiden is actually an invisible soul tethered to Jodie. Not bound by the laws of the corporeal he is free to do as he wishes--travel through walls, move objects, see into the minds of others and possess anyone it chooses. Very early in life, Jodie begins losing control--terrifies her adoptive parents, so much so that she is taken to a research facility to be examined as if she were nothing more than a guinea pig.
Souls, however, doesn't tell you that in the beginning. In fact it starts out with Jodie demonstrating her abilities in a room, monitored by Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe) and it seems she's done this before. On the opposite side, completely blocked off from Jodie's view is another woman, holding a card with a specific pattern on it. Jodie has the same cards in front of her, Dawkins asks you to choose one and the game introduces you to Aiden, walks you through how to switch to him, move him so that you are able to see what the woman opposite you is holding. After three different cards chosen correctly, Dawkins is convinced but wants another demonstration, having you move a set of building blocks, so the game can-again-tutor you on Aiden's abilities. After you fling enough objects around the room, you're free to return to a frightened, cryptic Jodie ignoring the comfort from Dawkins. The game plays on.
Then, without rhyme, reason or explanation, Souls hurls you forward many years later to a grown Jodie, now an agent in the C.I.A. Again, you'll take part in a tutorial, learn how the combat system works which is only a series of directions on the right analog stick, core and shoulder buttons corresponding to the motion of the enemy and Jodie, much like the mechanics of Heavy Rain.
Because of that, the rather bizarre time jump makes sense. You're not going to have a five year old girl with exquisite self-defense skills, are you? And had it ended there, I might carry a stronger thread of hope for how Souls will be received.
It doesn't. Souls entirety is a series of story leaps, reverting you back to Jodie as a child then the next scene you'll be completing missions for the C.I.A. Without knowing exactly why, she's escaping the agency she once risked her life for in the next chapter. One moment you're a kid with snowballs, the next you're a homeless woman on the street begging for cash, surrounded by demons only you can see. It's without question one of the most randomly insane, brazen gambles I've ever seen.
Had it been any other game, any other company, I would have turned it off. Called it quits. Hated it. I don't hate it. Make no mistake, it's an idea that is doomed to be hated. It will turn many off. Even saying such a thing exists will change the mind of many.
Don't let it.
Souls is not a wild jungle full of scary gibberish that skips around with no direction. It is a tactical, brilliant design unlike anything I've seen before. To say that, I know, is a stretch and you may think I'm implying it's the greatest story ever in a game. It's not. Great, not greatest. It is, however, the finest way a story has been told to date.
When escaping the police, with Aiden's powers, I felt like a god. He held bullets at bay, possessed snipers to make them turn on each other, drove me through a seemingly impenetrable barricade without a scratch and hurled a helicopter into the streets. Only moments later, I was a crying child being disowned by her parents, begging for understanding.
It was humbling.
Now, had that been told in traditional fashion, it would not nearly have the same effect. Memories fade over time. Emotions dwindle. Soften. Time changes everything. Makes prior pain easier to bear when faced with it again; rehashed moments of elation glitter less. Souls' never relents, and it digs at your core. It has a far greater impact to see Jodie finally begin to fit in, when the chapter prior had her afraid and alone. You can greater appreciate her abilities as an adult when only moments ago you were an awkward, confused child. Each and every jump formulated to carry nothing but sheer relevance of what has just occurred, or what is set to come after. In doing this, in structuring it in such a manner Quantic Dream provides a much deeper, complicated story that never truly lets up. It makes Jodie the most brilliantly flawed, complicated, relatable character I've seen a game have in a long time. Maybe ever. All of it perfected with an absolutely phenomenal performance by Page.
Beyond: Two Souls is not without its flaws, yes. Movements are weird and accuracy suffers when locking on an object. Some chapters drag on a bit too long and it's hard to decipher exactly where Aiden needs to be in certain surroundings. However, that's trivial in the grand scheme of things. Souls is the greatest title Quantic Dream has produced, and it cements my belief that they are an utterly magnificent-albeit obscure-group of artists with an undeniably powerful vision, one that unfortunately will be just as misunderstood as it will commended. Quantic Dream is one step closer to obliterating the line between cinema and games; Souls is no doubt doomed to be criticized for it.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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