Beyond: Two Souls – E3 Preview
|Release Date||8th October, 2013|
As someone who spends most of his time harping on about storytelling in videogames, the works of David Cage are an absolute goldmine for discussion, with his games often bringing compelling ideas but failing at critical stages. Fahrenheit – or Indigo Prophecy for those living in America – was an ingenious concept, with one of the most memorable openings ever: you’ve just been possessed and committed a murder, and you have to act quickly before the police come in and arrest you on the spot. Events then evolve into a multi-narrative story, with players taking on the role of the unwilling killer, trying to find out what’s going on, versus the cops assigned to hunt him down, only for the third act to destroy all of the previous goodwill with awful stealth segments, a war between the Mayans and Artificial Intelligence, and an apropos of nothing bout of necrophilia.
Next came Heavy Rain, a story that provided players with four protagonists with the conceit that one of them may be the elusive Origami Killer, who drowns children in rainwater, leaving a folding paper calling card. Unfortunately, it ended up being a hilariously overwrought mess with Grand Canyon-esque plot-holes, terrible scripting, a sledgehammer subtlety and that infamous scene where you have to hit X repeatedly to shout “Jason” for about three minutes.
So, when Beyond: Two Souls was revealed at last year’s expo, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what was to be a sure-fire disappointment. However, it soon piqued my interest thanks to the fact that Cage had revealed all the weird supernatural stuff up front, revealing a title that involved Ellen Page playing a girl called Jodie, who is followed around by a supernatural entity and seems to be constantly on the run from the authorities as a result. Though I wasn’t going to get my hopes up in the slightest, I was nonetheless curious to see what the wannabe auteur could do with such a concept, and the inclusion of Willem Dafoe to the cast didn’t hurt either.
I mentioned in my write-up of this year’s conferences that I was massively underwhelmed by the latest trailer, which focused exclusively on Page playing army and punching some dudes, especially as action is one of the things that Quantic Dream never found a perfect compromise for in their previous titles. As such, when I approached the demo for Beyond: Two Souls, I did so with a sense of morbid curiosity more than excitement, and hesitantly made my way through one of the PS3′s biggest releases this year.
The first sequence took place in Somalia, with Ellen Page working as a CIA Operative and teaming up with a child soldier called Salim. Immediately set upon by insurgents, she calls upon her spiritual partner Aiden – which she jarringly pronounces Aye-dun – for help, allowing players to then swap between the two characters. Armed with three moves in the form of blasting, possessing and choking, Aiden can interact with certain characters or objects in the environment, with their auras revealing whether they can be messed with by the mysterious spook. Objects highlighted in a blue aura can be blasted, providing a huge burst of energy that can knock things over or destroy them outright, while people with a red one can be choked unconscious. People with an orange aura provide a more interesting turn of events, as Aiden can possess them in order to perform tasks that Jodie can’t do herself, but for the most part throughout both sequences this mostly devolved into using them to shoot their comrades or hitting the accelerator in cars.
The use of Aiden is a really interesting mechanic, but the choices of who the spirit can and cannot mess with sometimes feels a bit arbitrary, while the objects that can be blasted always feel more intelligently thought out. While that can be forgiven, the floatiness of the controls when controlling the spectre makes them unresponsive, leaving it difficult to correct yourself if you make a mistake. Which you will. Repeatedly. Luckily, I’ve since been assured that Cage and co are working on making his controls a bit sharper, so expect that to be fixed by release.
The Somalia chapter apparently takes place at some point in the last third of Beyond, though I’m not sure when the “Hunted” sequence occurs, which starts with Jodie trying to get some sleep on the train for the first time in several days, much to Aiden’s chagrin. Progressing relies on successfully waking her up in order to escape the police once the train stops, but before then you’re able to explore the rest of the carriage and using the blast power to screw with the train’s other occupants. It’s a great touch, and may prove to be a brief respite in the action, as if both of the demo chapters are any indication, Two Souls may be a far more action-intense title than Quantic Dream’s previous works.
As the police investigate the train, Jodie is discovered and the chase begins anew, and it was throughout this chain of events that I realised how differently some of the on-screen prompts are shown in comparison to previous titles. While fare like Heavy Rain would show up with a button to push, quick actions are instead presented by a small white orb that shows up on-screen, with the movement completed by flicking the right stick in its direction. This is far more intuitive than it sounds, and it was a change that I immediately welcomed, as it allowed me to become more immersed in the action and made the events themselves feel far more frantic and fast-paced as I could react instantly and accurately. That’s not to say that the specific button commands are gone, but they’re used more sparingly and make sense in their application, rather than feeling occasionally superfluous and overused.
After successfully evading capture, Jodie made her way to the top of the train where she was forced to fight off several officers at once and remain outside of police custody. It was here that the frantic analogue-flicking felt slightly ill-suited because, rather than nudging towards a white dot, you’re instead expected to use your intuition to figure out the right way to move. As Jodie throws a punch or winds up a kick, everything will slow to a crawl, giving you only a second or two to follow-through with the movement if you want to land a blow. While on the offensive, this works well, as you can tell that as she swings her fist you have to hit the right analogue in the direction she’s punching in order to complete the move, but this isn’t necessarily the case when defending. I found that I was often getting pummelled, because when enemies were attacking I was attempting to tilt the stick away from them in order to make her dodge, when instead the right answer was apparently to push it against their action in order to get a hit first, so if their kick is moving to the left side of the screen, the correct response is to nudge the stick right. While I didn’t become frustrated with this in the course of the preview, it may prove to grate over a longer period if you can’t get to grips with it as quickly as you need to.
If I was to pick one thing that particularly stood out about Beyond: Two Souls, it would be that – like Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead – while the end destination at the end of every chapter is the same, failure during these quick-time events will change the journey of how you get from start to end. While in my attempt I managed to avoid capture, steal a motorbike, destroy a police blockade and use Aiden to take on the armed forces while Jodie attempted to barricade herself in the cinema, when discussing it with other people they revealed that their play-through couldn’t have been more different. One got caught while on the train, which led to a whole new sequence of events, while another managed to jump off the train, hide in the woods and chase off the police dogs, but got caught while climbing the rocks that led to the motorbike. Thrown into the back of a swat truck, they then employed Aiden to possess the driver and cause him to flip the vehicle, harming Jodie but incapacitating her captors and allowing her to escape once again, before reaching the same ending that I did.
With that one detail alone, excitement started to creep in. However, I’m still choosing to be cautious with Beyond: Two Souls; there wasn’t enough in terms of dialogue or script to tell if the writing has vastly improved from previous efforts, and while the QTEs are often more clever in their application, the correct solution can sometimes be unclear. Not only that but the Somali sequence seems really out of place in comparison to the Hunted one, and while it gives the impression that this is going to be a long, elaborate story with plenty of variety, I’m worried that it’s going to end up trying to do too much and suffering as a consequence.
Finally, though I can understand the imperative of showcasing some of the more action-intensive moments for previews, some of Cage’s smartest moments are when he’s not trying to make everybody go all kung fu on each other, and I’d have liked to have seen a scene or two where the pace was more subdued. Part of me can’t wait to see more of Beyond: Two Souls, but it’s mostly due to the fact that with only a few months until its October release date, there’s still so much left unanswered and unexplained to the point where I’m no longer sure if I’m more confused or curious. That, and there’s not been nearly enough Willem Dafoe yet.
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