Pixel Enemy

Beyond: Two Souls review: Paranormal activity

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Beyond: Two Souls cracks under pressure.

The story in Quantic Dream’s latest attempt to create a moving blend of film and game lacks nuance in its most vital areas. There are moments that tease a level of brevity and precision that are eroded away with a disparate, hollow story. And when you piece it together, Beyond: Two Souls follows the addictive chase of bombast and thrill usually found in modern shooters. Were it not for the strength of the lead roles and the promising captures of mundanity, Beyond: Two Souls would crumble apart.

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Beyond: Two Souls strings together every significant moment of protagonists Jodie Holmes’ life — from birth, to her teens, to adulthood. All of them are presented in a dizzying, non-chronological order. Each scene rarely gets its natural conclusion or preclusion, leaving the structure of the game more akin to a highlight reel rather than a meaningful framing device. Where Christopher Nolan uses an atypical progression in his film Memento to disorient and draw in viewers, Beyond: Two Souls leaves them with nausea. Nolan trusts in the audience to find the throughline; while Quantic Dream tries to deflect that kind of scrutiny with blinding, artificial drama.

As a series of vignettes, I could forgive Beyond: Two Souls for its broken structure. But it’s desperate for connective tissue to grow its core set of characters. A shocking massacre in the Middle-East–that’s almost sickeningly relevant–at the hands of Holmes and her spectral friend Aiden tears her apart, but the consequences of those actions and her emotions are revealed several hours earlier, gutting the scene’s climax, which becomes an unfortunate pattern as the game plunges forward.

The tragedy of Beyond: Two Souls is how well it can find humanity in the mundane and lose it so quickly in the action. The twisting relationship between Aiden and Holmes is fascinating at times. It’s not as blunt as love and hate, it’s something deeper and malleable, something the game occasionally lets you define. Holmes’ banter with him while she prepares for an impromptu date, gathering discarded junk food containers and kicking the video games under the TV stand, had me smiling. Or exhausted, when Holmes finds herself living on the streets, cold, and looking for food. You feel for her until things eventually–make that always–go wrong, and the affective writing is subverted for interactive necessity.

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Whether it’s supernatural or natural, there’s always an absurd reason for conflict. Often, the game omits a motivating force beyond a simplistic instinct to beat or win the sequence of button prompts. And because of the game’s lack of difficulty, failure is never a worry. Holmes will perform actions that must be matched using either of the joysticks or the face buttons. Aiden, who can be optional or necessary, depending on the context of the scene, can zoom in, out, and through walls to possess and choke enemies, or to fling objects around. The prompts typically have no logic, so it’s impossible to guess what’s coming. The rare times your actions actually mimic the mood get incredibly close to the evocative power of independent games like Cart Life and Papers, Please. However, the game has other things on its schedule.

You are a gear in the system, keeping pace with almost zero agency. And even when the game lets you make Holmes honest or reserved to the people she meets, has you thinking maybe it’s listening, the character leaves you behind in her pre-determined path.

At least the performances and the facial detail can sell it. Ellen Page delivers a refreshing performance as Holmes where, unlike far too many games, it feels genuine and built by the character’s experiences. She handles the shifts in cadence well for a game that lets you choose how and what her character says. Willem Dafoe, who plays a father figure for Holmes, hits a similar level, despite being a character players have little influence over. The motion-captured facial expressions and body movements escape the uncanny valley and are responsible for some of the game’s most emotionally complex scenes.

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At times, Beyond: Two Souls looks like the games attached to the next-generation of consoles. There’s an immense amount of detail that’s easily missed. A desert setting in the middle of the game instantly brought to mind the rolling wild west of Red Dead Redemption, with its dust and waving foliage. And Beyond: Two Souls only spends a few hours there. The cinematic camera angles struggle to find a balance between a typical, third-person camera and the dramatic framing of a wide or macro shot. But when the two finally find a harmony, you’ll wish there was a way to capture the image forever.

It’s easy to get lost in Beyond: Two Souls. Between the stereotypical supporting cast and the list of action movie clichés, it manages to find a striking mixture of interactivity and performance work. It’s all the more upsetting that when removed from each segment, it fails to withstand any kind of scrutiny. Most of the time it’s biased toward being a game, with a story that’s presented with a jarring series of rises and falls that reflect the short attention span of a Call of Duty campaign. As a complete work, drawing heavy inspiration from both film and games, it’s not logical or artistic. It’s fragile.

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Pros: Excellent performances from Page and Dafoe, beautiful visuals, affecting, mundane moments

Cons: Confusing story structure, inconsistent characterization, false promise of player input

Final Verdict: 7/10 (Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t give you an entire story worth discussing long after playing it, but it does offer a few scenes far more moving than most big-budget games.)

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Sony sent us a copy of Beyond: Two Souls. I completed the game once, which took me roughly 11 hours. The game is available now for PlayStation 3.

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