Beyond: Two Souls is the second PS3 exclusive from David Cage’s Quantic Dream studio, and just like Heavy Rain it puts a heavy focus on character development and story over gameplay. This formula may not be for everyone, but for gamers looking to teeter on the line of gaming and cinema, there’s no better experience than Beyond. The foresight of Cage to cast Hollywood heavyweights Ellen Page (Jodie Holmes) and Willem Dafoe (Nathan Dawkins) definitely benefited his cause to create a video game art piece thanks to their brilliant portrayals of their characters.
Although, these two tinsel town stars got some serious help in their digitization and resulting performances thanks to the technical team at Quantic Dream. These wizards definitely deserve some credit for their ability to produce near life-like visuals on an aging console, and unlike many games that strive for graphical excellence, the digital characters of Beyond all had the ability to exude emotion through facial expressions. They felt alive, which definitely helped to overlook some of the game’s more prominent gameplay flaws, which could mostly be overlooked thanks to the compelling tale.
Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes in a non-linear fashion that bounces between three major periods in her life. Cage liberally uses flash-forwards and flashbacks to recount the extraordinary life of Holmes who has the uncanny ability to interact with entities from the infraworld (think ghosts) thanks to her connection to an entity named Aiden. Aiden has been tethered to Jodie since birth, and serves as an invisible bodyguard of sorts to keep her safe from both humans and other evil entities. Unfortunately for Jodie her ability causes people to be afraid of her thanks to Aiden getting slightly too aggressive in his defense. This ultimately leads to Jodie’s foster parents dumping her off at the DPA (Department of Paranormal Activity), which is where she meets Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe) and Cole, two scientist types that help her to control Aiden.
With time and a litany of tests Jodie eventually learns to master Aiden, which leads to a few awkward and dangerous situations during her teen years, but ultimately her abilities catch the eye of the CIA. What secretive government agency wouldn’t want to have an agent that could posses people, telepathically choke people, and interact with real world objects through the entity? It was a no brainer for the CIA to send in agent Ryan Clayton to forcefully enlist Jodie into the agency.
Over time she becomes a formidable agent, and is dispatched on high risk missions that only she and Aiden can successfully complete. One such mission leads to her killing the President of an African country under the guise of him being a terrorist. This deception infuriates Jodie causing her to go on the run from the CIA, which starts the third act of her life that is told in the non-linear narrative.
Exposing anymore plot details would run the risk of spoiling its secrets, so you’ll have to play Beyond for yourself to see how Jodie fares, and you should because she’s one of the most endearing video game characters ever presented. Every developer ultimately wants you as the gamer to develop some sort of an emotional tie to its game and characters. Rarely is this feat accomplished thanks to the limitations in technology to recreate lifelike performances. This is not the case in Beyond as it’s poignantly clear that Cage and his team poured every ounce of their souls into giving its main characters life.
The hiring of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe to voice and physically act out their characters lines and scenes is what enables this game to offer such a strong connection to its characters. Page’s portrayal of Jodie is one of the finest video game mo-cap and voiceover performances to date. The combination of the horrible things that happen to Jodie throughout the narrative, and Page’s acting chops will cause you to feel Jodie’s pain and desperation in your heart.
This is a character that has been used and abused her entire life. She’s been poked, prodded, treated like a lab experiment, and called a monster by her Step Dad. She’s forever burdened with the fact that she’s telepathically tethered to Aiden, who at times can be a real dick. He’s never allowed her to do her own thing, effectively poisoning any relationship she tries to have with men. He’s suffering from what many would consider to be boyfriend jealously, and his actions take their toll on Jodie dearly. So much so that in one part of the game Holmes is homeless, and on the brink of despair. She becomes so numb to her situation that the game presents you with disturbing options to end her own life. Yeah, Beyond gets pretty heavy, but that’s why it’s so endearing.
It’s moments like these where the brilliant acting of Page and Cage’s story shine. Seeing the emotional burden in Jodie’s eyes thanks to Page just makes her situation hit home harder than if Jodie were just another generic video game character voiced by a minor celebrity. She’s alive, she has emotions, and she gives every reason in the world to call a video game a piece of art. You’ll be left pondering the character of Jodie Holmes for days after completing the game, and there’s a good chance that you may even fire up a second playthrough to not only see the different endings, but also to spend more time with the compelling cast of Beyond: Two Souls.
Unfortunately, for all of the positive feelings that Beyond’s characters and narrative will give you, its gameplay may infuriate you. For the most part Beyond is a series of QTEs and doesn’t feature traditional gameplay. At times you’ll have to fight the camera to direct Jodie to the next objective, and while playing as Aiden you’ll struggle more often than not to keep him locked on to a target. Using a smartphone to control the game makes the Aiden portions more efficient, but the overall the control scheme still feels limited and at times a bit wonky.
This becomes even more evident in scripted action sequences that task you with avoiding obstacles, or deflecting incoming attacks. For some reason Quantic Dream decided to map all of these actions to the right thumbstick, which you would have to direct in the same motion as an incoming attack. Half the time it was never clear which direction you should take to avoid an attack or deliver one, which made the scripted action scenes feel clunky and effectively took you out of the immersive experience.
Beyond: Two Souls isn’t a game for everybody, but it’s an experience that gamers looking for a more cinematic narrative will surely appreciate. The non-linear progression of the story may confuse some, but it will make sense why Cage took that approach by the end of the game.
The true reason to play Beyond is to experience the character of Jodie Holmes. Dafoe did a fine job with Dawkins, but Page deserves some sort of new award for her portrayal of Holmes. The level of emotion she and the technical gurus at Quantic weaved into this character is awe inspiring, and if another Beyond is never made gamers will still remember the accomplishments of everyone involved in bringing Jodie Holmes to life. She’s proof that a video game character can indeed be just as strong and believable as one in the movies, and that’s a great sign for the future of video game design.
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