David Cage is something of an enigma when it comes to making games. It's no overstatement to say that his creations are so very different from any of the run of the mill titles you find on the shelves. He strives to make something that'll stay with the player a long time after finishing the main story and the disc is taken out. In a way he's very much the video game equivalent of Christopher Nolan or perhaps even Charlie Kaufman, creating auteur pieces that challenge a person's preconceptions and bring a strong level of immersion in the material, even when the writing sometimes falters in the case of Nolan.
And so it is with Beyond: Two Souls. He and Quantic Dream take the formula established by Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) and Heavy Rain then build it on, polish it further to make it even more cinematic, the emotional connection to the characters and plot even stronger. I would say that this game represents his best work so far in places.
Let us start with what lets the game down here, if only slightly. First of all I would say that the non-linear timeline isn't a problem - I actually like this because it makes the piece more of an adventure and places some impetus on the player to fit it all together, as films like The Prestige (Nolan) and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino) did. What does hurt it are mostly technical issues similar to the previous two games. These being:
* The controls, though much improved from Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit, still come across as clunky in places. Thankfully the "hold R2 and then use the left analog stick to move" weirdness of Heavy Rain is gone, as are some of the finger-twisting "hold down seven buttons at once" sequences. But they could still stand improvement, for example more variety in the Aiden sequences and the ability to change camera angles as was possible before.
* The game engine is pushing the PS3 hardware to it's absolute limit, and this does lead to framerate drops, texture popping, fade to blacks that don't always fade fully, fast jerky spasms from characters when first changing scenes and times where it hangs completely for several seconds or just completely crashes the console. I have a DLC copy running from the hard drive and these problems were still there.
* The third act (i.e. the scenes at the end) does have a few examples of plot holes and characters doing downright stupid things. I won't say which in particular because I don't want to spoil the story but you'll know them when you see them.
* You can fail certain Quick Time Events and the story will still progress. This is at odds with Quantic Dream's previous two games, where it could lead to a game over or loss of a character. Makes it feel more linear than it needs to.
However, when you look past all this there are some things about Beyond: Two Souls that are quite remarkable.
Ellen Page, who I've seen in Inception and Juno and never thought much of as an actress, turns in some of the best work of her career here. Other than the odd tendency to mumble her lines both her physical acting, facial expressions and overall performance and delivery carry the story's emotional core to near-perfection on many occasions. She is ably supported by Willem Dafoe as her mentor/surrogate father, who as ever knows exactly how to balance the morality of the person he's playing, conveying a lot without ever being hammy. It's not just the abilities of the two leads which make this work - it's the groundbreaking motion capture Quantic Dream have managed, creating surprisingly lifelike and vivid animation throughout, odd glitches aside, so even minor characters are memorable.
I mentioned the game engine is hard on the PS3, and it is - for good reason. There are some gorgeous environments on display here, most noteworthy being the Nevajo desert chapter which manages to capture the sprawling locales of Red Dead Redemption just for a moment, but somehow more detailed and stunning. Every location Jodie is put in has had an above-average level of attention to detail paid, and it really shows. Even the more ethereal leaps of imagination jump out at you.
Now the story is definitely rooted in the supernatural and paranormal, but comes back to real life situations enough to keep things grounded. The dialogue is, for the most part, well-written and moves between heartwarming, shocking and on occasions genuinely funny as needed. As noted there are some problems with the third act, but I can say that about several games and movies that I enjoy too. It's not even close to the level where it ruins the overall effect but worth bearing in mind when playing.
I would cite the longest and most engrossing chapters in the game - Homeless and Nevajo - as two examples where the game reaches it's highest points in terms of all the elements (acting, storytelling, gameplay) coming together in a way that no other game has accomplished before. You really life through what the characters experience and the whole thing leaves an impression on you.
Which is what the game does best, in fact - connect you to the characters and make you think long and hard about the things in your life, what your motivations are, how you'd react if thrust into similar situations, what we all think about death and how we choose to deal with it, what that says about us. All the important questions that great art should stimulate in a person.
Now I might stop short of calling Beyond: Two Souls great art, but it's certainly a lot closer that almost every other game I've played has gotten, perhaps because it's more of an interactive movie. I definitely think David Cage should consider directing live action movies at some point on the strength of this. He's certainly honed his craft enough here.
So, in summary, minor glitches and shortcomings aside, this game is worthy of your time. Depending on how you play it you might range between 10 and 20 hours, I'd guess, which ranks it on the short side. There aren't side quests, barely any bonus collectibles, it's very linear but if this game speaks to you those will be memorable, gripping hours. As with Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain I could easily see myself playing through this again to enjoy the experience and choose a slightly different path for variety.
If you buy your consoles to play mainly CoD, FIFA or EA Sports titles, chances are this might not do much for you. But if you play games because you want to see something you never have before, Beyond: Two Souls might just be it. Even having played David Cage's previous efforts I was still pleasantly surprised at what I found in this unusual world, and was hooked right up until the end.
8/10 - A highly original and immersive experience marred only by some problems with the story, controls and game engine.