It’s been a while since the release of Beyond: Two Souls – about 6 years in fact – but as the title of this review will indicate, this is how long it has taken for Quantic Dream’s supernatural adventure to release from PlayStation exclusivity and launch on PC. I suppose many will have either played the game already on console or lost interest entirely, but hopefully this review will serve as a good retrospective on the title – and as the most divisive of the three main Quantum Dream games (from Heavy Rain to Detroit: Become Human) it was certainly interesting for myself to play this after all those years, and honestly, I think the time has been good to it.
The game follows the story of Jodie, who has a supernatural gift. The way the story unfolds is in parts, flitting from past to future, and as a result the narrative is gradually revealed to you – hoping you make sense of it all by the end. But essentially, from the beginning we know that Jodie has an ‘entity’ (named Aiden) who follows her around and who she can use to interact with the environment. The game starts with her being interrogated by police before a SWAT team shows up to accost her, but then travels back in time to when Jodie is a child participating in experiments at a facility – studying her and this entity she is tied to. Throughout the game we switch to and from moments in her past – what happens to her as an adult (and how she ends up in that police station) and how she managed as a child and teenager with such an unusual power and upbringing.
The game is styled as you might expect from a Quantic Dream, post Heavy Rain title, with walking around in third person and inspecting objects in the environment by cursor/controller movement (and quick time events – QTEs) being the main order of the day. But where this one differs from Heavy Rain is in its use of Aiden. From helping her through experiments as a child, to protecting her from threats as an adult, Aiden is a constant presence in the game and for the most part can be switched to at any point – be that to explore or to have an impact on the scene you are playing. This could entail throwing objects around in order to spook people, or flicking switches to get Jodie in to another room. I wouldn’t exactly describe these moments as ‘puzzles’ as they are more or less simply interacting with things until the scene moves forward, however you are given some freedom to find your next objective that raises this beyond walking simulator/point and click territory.
In fact, I’d say that Beyond: Two Souls is more of an open game than the team’s previous Heavy Rain. The fact that you can switch to Aiden at will means that, not only do you have another perspective to explore the environments other than walking as Jodie, but also you can fly through the air and pass through walls, and even choose not to use Aiden at all in the sections of the game that don’t require you to do so in order to progress. There were moments where I had to remind myself to use Aiden, as I’m used to controlling just the one character. And it is worth doing so – not just for the sake of messing with the environment and seeing things a bit more close up, but as Aiden you can experience things that Jodie can’t, for example conversations happening in a different room, or actions taking place off camera.
You’ll know whether or not you’ve missed things, as just like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls likes to rate your actions in comparison with other gamers. Giving you a percentage of how many players performed particular actions (or didn’t, as the case may be) is displayed at the end of each chapter. Maybe you didn’t use Aiden to eavesdrop on a conversation and so missed the real intentions of another character, or maybe you failed on a quick time event causing mischief to you or another character, you can see these recorded as you progress (though of course missed actions are not described until you have already played them – the text will just read “hidden path”).
But this isn’t just a curiosity for the completionist, but also an indicator of the choices you are making throughout the game. There are a number of different endings you can experience (24 I believe), and each one is attributed to some of the choices you make. While I don’t believe this is as complex as it tries to make itself out to be (it’s clear that a lot of the ending choices are the real ones that matter – as they very literally ask you what you want to happen) it is possible to affect your relationships with characters, and for them to even die if you make certain mistakes. It’s not as severe as Heavy Rain, where effectively everyone could die, as Jodie is safe till the end, however you can end up with alternate scenes and other characters being affected as a result of the way you play.
Beyond: Two Souls takes you to a variety of places throughout its 12+ hours, and while there are some criticisms I can level at the narrative and its design (more on this later), being boring isn’t one of them. This is partly helped by the way you skip through time from chapter to chapter, not allowing you to get too used to Jodie in the various specific points in her life. You can be messing with things as Aiden during your experiments as a child, then training in the CIA as a young adult, then fleeing from the cops on top of a train, then back again to a child, throwing snowballs at the neighbours’ kids. While Heavy Rain stuck to very similar tones and locations, there’s an impressive variety to the scenes in Beyond: Two Souls, and it’s certainly a crazy ride getting through it.
Visually, the game is impressive enough. For its time it was certainly good looking, and as a slight remaster for PC, it holds up very well. The animations are a cause for serious mockery – if you’ve not seen the videos of these being exaggerated then look them up – but you can see the intent was there, and getting the likeness of its famous cast – Willem Defoe and Ellen Page – just right was a solid achievement indeed.
But as for the actual mechanics of “getting through it”, I’ve only partly explained what you do throughout these chapters. If you’ve played Heavy Rain you should mostly know what to expect, but there is the odd quirk that’s unique to this game. Generally speaking, interacting with objects is performed by motions with the mouse or controller. As you walk around as Jodie, or fly as Aiden, dots will appear over interactable items. You might swipe up with the mouse to pick something up as Jodie, who will then look at it, or do whatever it is the item does, or as Aiden, what is usually the case, is you will pull the mouse back and then release, causing the object to topple or crash.
Aiden’s interactions with the world are usually performed with the intent of malice – so if you want to scare a character or protect Jodie, his actions are likely to do this – but he can also be a source for innocent support by switching buttons, knocking items down from hard to reach places, and so on. But regardless of the intent, Aiden’s quick time events (if you can call them that) remain essentially the same. Where we have a difference is with Jodie in fight or chase sections. This is where the classic Quantic Dream quick time events come in to play – for better or for worse. Hammering buttons and pressing keys in sequence is how you can avoid injury or capture, but when it comes to fighting and defending yourself, Beyond: Two Souls goes a step further and brings anticipation into the mix. When in a confrontation, Jodie will dodge or attack in a specific direction, and your job as the player is to match this with your mouse/controller.
For example, in theory if Jodie punches to the right, you swipe right, if she jumps back, you swipe back, so on and so forth. These actions don’t appear on screen as other QTEs do, and so you must watch closely the animation for signs of your next move. I can appreciate in theory how this intends to make the game that bit more immersive, however as my first critical point thus far, ultimately it doesn’t work. The animations are good, there’s no doubt about that, but mixed with the dramatic camera angles, a moving screen, and frankly even the tension of most of these encounters, the combat system proves far too confusing in practice to be effective. I was constantly making mistakes when I thought I’d performed the right motion, and at other points just not having enough time to notice the particular limb that will indicate which direction Jodie is striking or defending – maybe Jodie moves back to dodge but ends up actually rolling over to one side, things like that which can make it difficult to predict. It’s overcomplicated, and the solution could have been as simple as attributing a limb to a direction – so for example, any action with your right arm or leg will require a right swipe, left arm or leg a left swipe, and so on. There’s no doubt that QTEs are a limiting way of designing your gameplay, but in the context of these narrative/scene focussed titles, they can work perfectly fine (as they did, generally speaking, in Heavy Rain), so in my mind this inclusion was unnecessary.
It’s not the end of the world though, and when it comes to making mistakes and the impact on your story, Beyond: Two Souls is at least fairly forgiving. There were many instances where I failed the combat QTEs and only one where I could really notice that it affected the subsequent scene – it’s still frustrating, but I suppose it could have been worse. But remaining on the subject of choices and narrative influence, my second criticism would be that, after all the stressing about doing things correctly and not messing up QTEs, the way the choices work and their importance on the narrative is actually to a degree misleading and, in some place, controlled.
I’m not saying that your actions don’t matter or that the variations on the narrative are meaningless, but the developers clearly wanted some actions to happen over others, and will encourage you towards doing them. Take the relationships in the game. You have essentially two potential love interests, both that provide you with a choice on how to interact with them (whether this ends up in romance or not). But regardless of how you treat them, the game will still ask you the same question at the end (which, for the sake of not spoiling I won’t go into further detail). And one character, who is clearly the main love interest in the story – you can spurn them at every turn, but they will still come back and still present you with opportunities to “redeem” yourself with them (a contrast when other decisions seem so definitive).
I suppose that Jodie is a character in her own right – while we make some decisions for her, she does some things in a way that would make sense for the character that is written, but the way it twists some of these decisions and paths around your own choices can end up seeming bizarre as a result if you’re playing the game by your own standards. For example, more specifically about this relationship with one of the characters, this guy has been cruel to you literally since you were a child, but in the writing they have clearly designed him to be a redeemable black horse of sorts. But for anyone who doesn’t find that convincing, you won’t be able to get away from it like you might think. It’s not just with regards to the romantic relationships that this occurs – this is just an aspect that stood out to me more personally – but you see this in other areas as well, for example characters who are clearly manipulating you, or who aren’t what they seem, you can call them out on this, but it won’t stop Jodie from helping them and ultimately being betrayed, despite you as the player knowing better. Perhaps this is more of a writing error than a game design one, but they intertwine to negative effect.
Returning to a previous point, the way in which the narrative is structured was the cause of some criticism on the game’s original release – to the point the developers updated the game with the inclusion of a chronological mode, where you can play the game through in a straight order – however I felt that this was actually an interesting and effective narrative device…for the most part. Fundamentally, the way the story is presented allows the game to switch between quiet and dramatic moments while also maintaining some of the mystery. To begin with, Jodie and Aiden are mysterious characters that we are thrust into controlling. We don’t really know what Aiden is, and we don’t know why Jodie’s life turns out the way it does in the opening scenes of the game, nor in some of the future actions sequences. But this is fun to experience as a surprise and then piece together – “how the hell did she end up here”, then a chapter later on offers you the scenes leading up to it. I can totally understand why this might seem unnecessary to some, and it is definitely a story telling gimmick designed to keep you guessing – there’s not much of a clever twist within the overall narrative that info from previous chapters should be omitted until later on – but, as I’ve already said, it certainly helps to keep you interested if you are the sort to switch off during longer periods of ‘down-time’.
The problem with this, however, lies within the game’s pacing. While it is interesting to flit back and forth between chapters, the narrative attempts to visit far too many places for the timeframe it is delivered. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t a short game, not for a single player adventure title, but landing at roughly 12 hours, even then some scenes and parts of Jodie’s life seem rushed, and as a result part of the narrative can feel, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. There are scenes involving Jodie joining the CIA, which might be cringey enough on their own, but they’re just shoved into the narrative in between traumatising childhood experiences, teenaged tantrums and end of the world scale disasters. We even have a CIA training montage which involves you completing quick time events in everything from running an obstacle course, to sparring, to completing equations (I’m not making up that last one).
We don’t need to have things painfully described to us when characters in games find themselves in new situations (sometimes the less said, the better), but there is a fine line between being dramatic and bat shit if you don’t leave enough space for exploration or elaboration of those more, let’s say, ‘interesting’ topics. What this feels like at the end of it all, unfortunately, is the writers thinking of cool things to happen to Jodie and leaving the figuring out of how to fit them all together until the end. I don’t want to sound too harsh, as overall I think that the narrative design does work and is enjoyable to experience as it is, but you can’t possibly do so with a straight face, and I really don’t know if this was the intention of the developers.
Thankfully, however, while those overly dramatic moments can be silly, there’s a lot to be said for the way the game makes us empathise with the main characters, and with the inclusion of some fantastic acting, I think they were very successful in this department. As I watched (or played) Jodie growing from child to adult I definitely grew attached to her character and wanted to the best outcomes for her, not just for the sake of beating the game. The dynamic between the scientists at your home research facility and Jodie is also interesting, with them going from stranger researchers to parental figures in place of your neglectful parents. These are things that make the twists at the end more emotional, even if they were implemented in a bit of a ham fisted way.
As I come to conclude, I realise the importance of playing the game years later in how it has affected my enjoyment. It doesn’t change anything objectively speaking, it is essentially the same game it always was, if a bit prettier, but sans any ‘post hype disappointment’ which was inevitable with the release of this game (the way they originally marketed it and the inevitable comparisons to the critically acclaimed Heavy Rain) I actually really enjoyed playing this, and think that if you can get past some of the niggles then this is a really solid, quirky adventure.
The first question to ask yourself is rather obvious – do you like Quantic Dream’s games? If the answer is no, this isn’t going to change your opinion of anything. There’s still the same QTE sections, the same narrative changing choices, and fundamentally the same idea that this is more about the story than the mechanics. But if you do like them, while this isn’t delivered with the same degree of finesse, nor offers the same sense of urgency, as Heavy Rain, Jodie and Aiden’s tale is certainly an intriguing and dramatic one. The inclusion of Aiden as a mechanic adds an unexpected layer to the gameplay (and, frankly, saves some scenes from tedium) and how the story and relationships evolve around this, while not perfect (far from it, as I’ve already explained) are interesting to see unfold. I don’t know if I’d recommend this to people who have already played the game, as there’s no defining new features in this version, but if you have held off for whatever reason for these past 6 years and you don’t find the idea of playing a Quantic Dream game truly obnoxious, then you could be pleasantly surprised, particularly with the lower expectations of hindsight.
+ Fun use of Aiden raises gameplay above the usual Quantic Dream fare
+ Great acting and some effective writing that makes you care about the main characters
+ Benefits from playing this years later with hindsight
- Some choices don't offer the agency you might expect