Jodie Holmes is a survivor. Throughout her life she has survived abandonment, betrayal, imprisonment, rebellion, torture, all kinds of pain and danger both physical and emotional. In the pantheon of video game protagonists she stands alone; a resilient individual who does not allow her struggles to define her but rather is defined by how valiantly she overcomes them. She’s also vulnerable; a weak, cynical, coward weighed down by resentment for the life she feels she’s been denied. She’s defiant and she’s submissive. She’s haunted by the ghosts of her past but is determined to put them behind her. She is all these things and more because Jodie Holmes is whoever you, the player, want her to be.
Beyond: Two Souls is Jodie’s story of survival and the latest interactive storytelling experiment from David Cage and Quantic Dream; the team responsible for 2010s divisive Heavy Rain. Beyond is very different from its spiritual predecessor in some ways but, for better or worse, wears it’s lineage on it’s sleeve in others. Visually, Cage is up to his old tricks again using state of the art motion capture to re-create the performances of his actors in spectacular detail and good thing too. The cast, headlined by hollywood heavyweights Willem Dafoe and Ellen Paige, are excellent almost across the board. There are conversation sequences and Quick-Time-Events that fire the story in various tangents depending on your choices but unlike Heavy Rain, your decisions will almost always reach much further down the line than you’ll ever realize. Beyond takes just about all of Heavy Rain’s ideas and tries to run with them in all directions at once.
Naturally, it can’t help but occasionally trip over itself.
Beyond follows Jodie Holmes throughout her life, from the age of 8 to 23, as she learns to cope with a spiritual companion named Aiden who has been with her as long as she can remember. The game jumps back and forth along it’s timeline giving a disjointed account of the pivotal moments in Jodie’s life. During each sequence you’ll have the opportunity to shape her future and your own experience as certain choices will lock scenes away completely while others will effect her in ways that are a little more subtle. The twisted narrative helps to keep the consequences of your actions from being immediately apparent and it’s genuinely impressive how well a job it does of it. One sequence in Jodie’s teens came back to haunt her at a pretty inopportune moment during a scenario in her twenties. It was unsettling to see her shatter based on decisions that I’d made, especially seeing as her twenty-something persona is generally the stronger and more resilient of the three.
Jodie is a fantastic character. Even when she finds herself written into a cliché, Ellen Page and David Cage see to it that she reacts in a way that feels natural and realistic. Although her behaviour is almost always down to you, the player, in my play-throughs I found her to be a brilliantly developed, fully realized three-dimensional person. Cage takes a very strange risk invoking an attempted rape early into the games’ second act but, like much of Beyond, it’s presence is justified years later when it’s true effect on her becomes readily apparent. It’s worth pointing out that the sequence can be avoided altogether based on your choices and behaviour. The game gives Jodie the chance to avoid putting herself in danger but it doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of her bad decisions. Things start to get a little tricky when you realize that Jodie is developing based on your decisions and her character is mostly consistent with the choices you make on her behalf. Mostly.
While Beyond goes to great lengths to let you shape Jodie’s life (supposedly in the image of your own), there are a certain amount of pivotal story sequences that can occasionally cause conflicts in her character. Again, the disjointed narrative helps to ease these, admittedly infrequent, disconnects but their presence is indicative of a game that is still reaching slightly beyond it’s grasp. At the centre of this issue is an unfortunately muddy political agenda that becomes the crux of the games’ story. I’m going to try and keep this part spoiler free, but be aware that the next paragraph might have details you’d prefer not to know.
Jodie, as has been seen in trailers and promotional material, joins the CIA. These sections make up the action sequences that turned so many heads when they were first revealed. While there is some cover based shooting and opportunities to mix things up with some stealth, the option to play as Aiden (more on him later) at almost any time, undermines any sense of real danger. During these sequences Beyond takes us to various corners of the world, including an assassination mission in Somalia where Jodie can accept the assistance of a young child in navigating the war-torn city to find her target. Another mission later in the game takes you to another foreign land to destroy some proprietary technology the CIA doesn’t want them to have. Neither of these missions turn out to be what they initially seem and while Beyond ultimately uses them to make a good point I couldn’t help but feel it was a little ham-handed in its method. The Somalian mission in particular felt unclear in where it’s sympathy really lay until the very last moment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got a decent point to make, I’m just not entirely on board with how it makes it.
Much has been made of the fact Beyond has very little in the way of user interface. Objects that can be interacted with conjure a small white dot when approached and interaction is usually done by flicking the analog stick instead of using face buttons. It sounds gimmicky, but it works. Gameplay for the most part feels fluid and immersive and it’s easy to get distracted by the amount of stuff you can toy with in any given area. Adding to this distraction is the fact that you are free to switch between Jodie and Aiden pretty much whenever you want and as Aiden your exploration options are increased considerably. When playing as Aiden the perspective switches to first person. You can travel through walls, help Jodie see flashbacks and almost everything and everyone you see can be messed with in some way. Your freedom can come at a price though as Aidens behavior can also influence how Jodie’s story progresses. One sequence in particular, played entirely as Aiden, puts a pretty important decision completely in your hands and how you choose to behave will come back to haunt you in more ways than you’ll realize in your first run.
Where Beyond really shines is in it’s spectacle. Jodie has a massively eventful life and each of the age sections has moments that will stick with you long after the credits roll. As a child, Jodie’s world is frequently terrifying and not just because of Aiden. Her family life is quietly unstable and it’s no secret that Jodie is the cause. The use of light and shadow in these sequences is fantastically unnerving and it’s impossible to escape the air of suppressive, childlike terror created by her own self-loathing. Later, as well as the chaos of the Somalia mission, you’ll have the chance to save people from a burning building, escape capture from the roof of a moving train, break into military bases and experience a whole load of other hugely cinematic events. Where Beyond hits hardest of all though is in it’s quieter moments. During Jodie’s encounter with homelessness, one of the absolute standout portions of the game, you’ll meet and empathize with other homeless people, beg and busk for enough money to feed yourself and be given more than one option to quietly end it all as Jodie contemplates throwing herself off a bridge. It’s immersive, absorbing and genuinely haunting.
Unfortunately the story around these instances itself isn’t entirely without fault. In my interview with the games’ producer, Guillaume de Fondaumiere, I asked whether it’s supernatural themes would clash with the realism that Quantic Dream have become known for. He assured me that despite flirtations with the supernatural, the plot did indeed stay grounded in reality.
The moments of quiet contemplation and nail-biting tension work together to give Beyond a seriousness that for the most part, it deserves. Aiden’s existence is generally forgivable but there are some sections of the game that feel misjudged and threaten to break that seriousness with some proper absolute nonsense. The intrigue of the spirit world is pretty much killed dead by a staggeringly corny sequence on a ranch around halfway through. The game shows it’s hand in a way that’s as underwhelming as it is completely unnecessary. It has the potential to recover based on what decisions you make, but it’s a definite dent in the plot’s credibility.
Beyond is, as expected, an experience like nothing else. It’s similarities to what came before it are mostly cosmetic and fade almost into nothingness when it’s true depth becomes apparent. It deals with some complex themes of humanity in very respectful ways and at least attempts to take a political stand, even if it doesn’t completely get away with it. The strange thing is that for a game with such a strong narrative focus, it’s story is so open to both tinkering and interpretation that it’s next to impossible to know if anyone will have the same experience as you. My Jodie will be different from yours. Yours will be different from everyone else’s. There is no right or wrong way to play Beyond: Two Souls. It is your story as much as it is Jodie’s and it’s up to you how you live, or die, within it.
[easyreview title=”The Arcade Verdict” cat1title=”Gameplay” cat1detail=”Immersive, versatile and unique” cat1rating=”8″ cat2title=”Presentation” cat2detail=”Visually stunning, a new standard for motion capture and a fantastic score” cat2rating=” 9″ cat3title=”Story” cat3detail=”Occasionally silly but packed full of intense, cinematic moments that make it worth the price of admission” cat3rating=” 8″ overall=”true”]