From the earliest experiments with FMV in the 80s and 90s to the latest motion capture technology, cinematic games seem like a great idea. In theory, if you like games and you like movies, you should love the seamless combination of both. In practice, you usually end up with a great game with poor acting or great acting in a poor game. I’d say Beyond: Two Souls is definitely the latter. The motion capture on display here is truly impressive, even for a six-year-old game. Ellen Page’s performance as Jodie Holmes is among the best acting I’ve ever seen in the gaming medium. Purely as a game, Beyond: Two Souls is severely flawed in terms of gameplay, structure, controls, and, especially, writing.
Jodie Holmes is a girl with a cursed gift. She was born with a ghost-like entity that’s permanently linked to her through a spiritual cord of sorts. She calls it Aiden, and it acts as her guardian angel as well as a haunting and sometimes vindictive daimon. We follow Jodie’s life from her early childhood through adolescence and adulthood. She becomes a CIA agent and special ops commando using Aiden’s special abilities. These abilities include moving objects with great force, jamming or triggering electrical signals, possessing people, and communicating with the dead.
Following my review of Heavy Rain, I went into Beyond: Two Souls mostly blind, having only read some praise for the motion capture and acting. I’d never tried it on PlayStation 3, but I expected an interactive drama with just a few action-adventure elements. Now, I get the impression that Quantic Dream couldn’t decide whether it should be one or the other. The game leans heavily on the emotional investment players make in Jodie Holmes. Sadly, there simply isn’t enough return on that investment. The acting helps, but the writing often gets in the way and spoils the experience when you look closer. It would be a much better game if it were a more refined interactive drama and less an action-adventure.
Camera, Controls, Action in Beyond: Two Souls
You can’t help but compare Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain in terms of controls. I still think Heavy Rain is a hot mess on both PC and console, with convoluted controls and often pointlessly elaborate interactions. Still, in retrospect, those controls gave you the exact information you needed. In Beyond: Two Souls, the controls seem to be more minimalistic and straightforward. The problem is that, at some points, the movement and the interactions lack precision. At least on this PC port, the mouse and keyboard controls sometimes don’t give you enough information apart from a round prompt.
At first, the camera seems intuitive enough, with movement animation that looks very lifelike. Halfway through the game, it became irritating, getting in the way of enjoyable gameplay. The third-person movement still has that infamous issue with the character model running into objects and walls. That can be a real nuisance in confined environments when you’re trying to get into that sweet spot for a particular interaction. There’s also a camera lock in several segments, which I really dislike in games like this. I guess it depends on how you feel about being put in that position as a player.
There’s also the problem of transitioning from cutscenes to action-adventure segments. The switch doesn’t feel seamless at all, and you sometimes can’t tell when you’re back in control. You should also expect a lot of QTEs along the way, making you feel like a trained monkey, just pressing the buttons you’re told to press. That’s why I say it would be a much better game if it focused more on its interactive drama. There should be much more to proper action gameplay than just triggering the right animation. It shouldn’t be boxed-in and scripted in a way the player feels like a rat in a maze. You need some element of improvisation and plasticity to make it compelling. Beyond: Two Souls fails monumentally in that sense.
Beyond: Two Souls and the Telltale Adventure Model
The original The Walking Dead by Telltale Games from 2012 had a compelling formula that revitalized adventure games. Anyone can see that Beyond: Two Souls tried to ride that wave by displaying your choices at the end of each chapter, and how they compare with the choices of other players. While it does add some replay value, I think it fell flat in the sense of pacing. Both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, which are the apex of Telltale adventures, had a linear five-act structure in five episodes. Beyond: Two Souls boasts a nonlinear and meandering narrative without a clear structure. Probably because of that, most of the choices feel meaningless, and I didn’t notice much in the way of significant consequences.
Instead, we follow Jodie’s odyssey through a chaotic and digressive narrative design that lacks focus and often fails to keep the player engaged. That’s not even going into the writing itself; it’s just a lack of focus in basic narrative structure. The game does give you the option to play it chronologically, but even then I don’t think the story arc structure would feel any more coherent. For instance, we follow Jodie through a whole vision quest of sorts in the desert with a Navajo family that just doesn’t really add anything to her story arc. Not to mention that it borders on disrespectful to Native American heritage and culture. There are other chapters that feel equally superfluous, and if not for Ellen Page’s superb acting, most chapters would look completely pointless.
Beyond: Two Souls and Beyond Ham-fisted Writing
I thought the writing in Heavy Rain was “hilariously ham-fisted,” and that it couldn’t get any worse. David Cage managed to prove me wrong. The first example of awful writing is when Jodie goes to a house party with some evil teenagers. It’s as if Cage intended to pack Carrie into a twenty-minute chapter with very minimal character development. There’s no nuance or even an attempt to give the teenagers some dimension. They just turn completely evil in the blink of an eye, so that Aiden has to step in and defend Jodie. And this follows for several other characters that foil Jodie throughout the game. No character development, just evil-laugh characters that you won’t even care to hate.
Worst of all, however, is the story arc for Willem Dafoe’s character, Nathan Dawkins, who acts as Jodie’s father figure and mentor. You can see Defoe tried very hard to give the character dimension and pathos, but he couldn’t carry the plot’s grotesque writing with his acting alone. Without getting into spoilers, the problem is that the character goes most of the game without any significant character development. Then, by the end, the writing tries to pack it all in to make sense of a ridiculous plot twist. It looks like it was all added in at the final stages of development, which would make sense in light of the awful narrative structure. It’s a great example of the conflict between directing and writing. It’s the difference between a creative vision in film and game direction and a writer’s sensibility for character development.
Beyond: Two Souls Review | A Missed Opportunity
Beyond: Two Souls does have interesting ideas that would benefit from a talented and sensitive writer. A complete overhaul of its interactive drama structure and the excision of its pointless and superficial action gameplay would have made it a great cinematic adventure propped by the acting caliber of Ellen Page and Willem Defoe. As it stands, even with its wealth of choices and endings to add replay value, the game simply doesn’t encourage me to keep playing it. I felt bored and unmotivated throughout my playthrough, continually scoffing at the writing. The PC port does a decent job of it, with no bugs and no issues apart from the wonky controls, but it just feels like a husk of a game.
Cinematic games deserve better than this. Ellen Page’s and Willem Defoe’s acting talent deserved better writing. Ironically, Beyond: Two Souls is soulless and hollow while it tries to embody the very opposite. It is spiritually devoid while trying to sell itself as some sort of transcendental journey through life and death. It tries to convey powerful emotion that even talented actors struggle to express because of its atrocious character development. This will take you a lot of patience and indulgence to go through it with a straight face. By the end, you’ll probably just feel empty and unfulfilled, no matter what ending you get.
TechRaptor reviewed Beyond: Two Souls on PC via Epic Games Store with a code provided by the developer.
Beyond: Two Souls is an interactive drama action-adventure with painfully inept writing. Ellen Page’s top-notch acting can only carry it so far until it falls apart in a terminally inane climax.
- Outstanding Acting
- Top-Tier Motion Capture
- Painfully Inept Writing
- Jumbled Narrative Structure
- Erratic Controls and Camera
- Poor Use of Interactive Drama
- Thematically Vacuous