Beyond: Two Souls is the upcoming paranormal action-adventure game by Quantic Dream, the graphic wizards who gave us Heavy Rain for PS3 and Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) for PS2. It’s scheduled for an October 8th release date, and looks to maintain Quantic Dream’s unparalleled mastery of interactive storytelling.
It stars Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes, a troubled young girl whose imaginary friend, Aiden, may not be so imaginary. Picked up by the government at an early age to test her paranormal abilities and affinities, Jodie’s mentor throughout the game is Nathan Dawkins, played by fellow Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe. Dawkins is a scientist trying to help her understand her unique connection with the entity known as Aiden. He’ll provide a kind of tutorial character designed to help you learn the game and introduce you to its story as well as anchoring the narrative as you’ll be playing through 15 years of Jodie’s life.
This entire set up is designed to further the emotional connection the player has with Jodie and showcase a storyline based on player consequence and choice in a non-linear, new format. Anyone familiar with Quantic Dream should already expect a heavy focus on immersive interactive storytelling here. They will be pleased to know that while Beyond doesn’t have the same plethora of unique endings that Heavy Rain offered, it does feature a very in depth narrative focused on showcasing the effects of choice throughout Jodie’s life.
Major decisions may not dramatically alter one ending from another, but they will have a defining impact on Jodie’s character, independent of what she’s going through which is a whole new layer not often seen in choice-based gameplay. But don’t worry, if you’re all about more than three different color-coded endings, one official informed me that the game features a variety of unique endings designed to satiate players and demand multiple playthroughs.
One of the other neat things Beyond: Two Souls does with its narrative possibilities is give its characters a kind of meta-awareness of your actions in the game. During one sequence, Jodie (while in Somalia on a military assignment) is hiding in the back of a truck which is nearing an enemy checkpoint. She enlists Aiden (you, the player, in this case) to possess the body of the driver of the truck and help them successfully navigate the security without compromising her presence.
A group of soldiers begin checking the vehicle and chatting amongst themselves, all the while you have full control over Aiden’s possessed viewpoint, looking at the various objects you can interact with, like the gear shifter, the steering wheel, and the gas pedal. One the guards was about to spot Jodie. She whispered to me to do something. I did the only thing I figured I should do. I hit the gas.
This kicked the truck forward, trampling one soldier and crashing us through the gate and spurring a car chase action sequence that plays out rather smoothly, I was surprised to discover. But more importantly, it caused Jodie to scream out: “Aiden, what are you doing!? You’re gonna get us killed!” I had to think about that for a moment. This was a videogame character reacting to her fellow character’s actions, but at its heart, she was calling me out for making THAT decision at THAT time. It’s like if you were playing Mario and you jumped into one of those unbreakable blocks and Mario looked you dead in the eye and said “What’s up with that?”
There’s an element of unspoken brilliance in this tiny throwaway moment that I think will pepper many experiences with Aiden and Jodie in very unique ways. It makes you feel like perhaps you’re the unseen, “imaginary” presence that has been called upon in so many times of virtual need, and indeed, we are. Here’s to hoping the game really dives into this kind of metagaming experience more throughout its narrative, and knowing the kind of storytelling ambitions that have colored David Cage’s games in the past, I suspect he’s not totally unaware of this effect in his newest game.
But it’s not all about the storytelling, there’s still a game under all this photo-realistic looking pretty. Where Heavy Rain relied on a kaleidoscope of controls spat at you on-screen in varying patterns and varying speeds, Beyond has opted to streamline the experience with a minimalist structure so as not to interfere with the visuals and drama of any given moment.
In non-combat sections, interactive objects appear as white pips on screen hovering over the object in question. A simple flick of the right thumbstick in the direction of the pip causes Jodie to interact with it. Instead of a collection of controller buttons floating ominously over every little thing in every room, this new design (along with little touches like Jodie turning her head slightly or reacting contextually to various objects) makes the whole of gameplay far simpler and more natural.
Other control schemes have taken away some of Heavy Rain‘s more curious decisions, like using R2 to walk. Now your tried-and-true left thumbstick will be returning to perform all the basic walking maneuvers you could hope to control.
Combat sticks to this new (and much more natural by the feel of things) system, simplifying but not breaking action sequences. Whereas Heavy Rain relied on a kaleidoscope of controls spat at you on-screen in varying patterns and at varying speeds, Beyond simply asks that you pay attention to Jodie and react accordingly.
Brief moments of the battles slow for the barest of moments, and in that time, you read Jodie’s momentum (is she ducking AWAY from an enemy, kicking FORWARD, or UPPERcutting?) and flick your analog stick in that direction. Correct inputs land the blows or dodges. Incorrect inputs fail, and the battle progresses from that moment on until sufficient numbers of failure or success advances the encounter. At various times while your stick-flicking, other onscreen prompts may appear in the form of controller buttons and other stimuli.
There are times, though, when Jodie is outnumbered, outgunned, or simply can’t physically be in two places at once. In these moments it’s time for Aiden, and his distinct abilities, to shine.The player can switch between Jodie and Aiden at the push of a button, and using the two of them together intelligently is going to be one of the major gameplay focuses throughout the story.
First and foremost, Aiden is incorporeal, so he is not hindered by matter and can traverse through any solid objects around. This isn’t to say he’s completely useless when it comes to helping Jodie out of a pinch though. He can interact with the physical world in a number of ways, actually, including killing, possessing, and disrupting Jodie’s enemies. Enemies with a red aura can be choked by Aiden, requiring a pattern to be made with two thumbsticks simultaneously, and then holding them while the life is drained from the unlucky bastard you targeted. Yellow aura’d enemies can be possessed, providing anything from a saboteur behind enemy lines (like dropping a live grenade amongst their “friends”) or a living breathing disguise (like mentioned earlier in the car sequence.) and other people may be able to give Jodie visions about where they’ve been or where they’re going.
He can also telekinetically knock over certain objects, or walls, or even bring down entire sections of buildings to topple on unsuspecting enemies, though most of what he can interact with will be determined by the situation’s context and story, so don’t expect to go running around like a mad toddler in a LEGO city, just ripping reality apart. At least not in the early goings.
Aiden’s other limitation is that he can only move so far from Jodie. They share a psychic tether that limits his range, so Jodie must move around the physical world in order to get Aiden access to certain objects or personnel. This dynamic between the two will be a major element of how players navigate tricky puzzles, interactions, and locales.
The gameplay I got to sample was quick, intuitive for the most part (there were hiccups in interpreting what the little pips wanted me to do), and felt far more natural than anything in Heavy Rain. The only thing I couldn’t really experience or get a firm opinion on was the quality of the narrative itself; the story, the acting, the weight of the drama unfolding based on your choices. Based on previous outings by Cage and Quantic Dream, I think it will be a stellar experience, providing one of the most unique gaming experiences in recent memory.
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release: October 8, 2013
Written by R. Burke Kearney