David Cage is one of the more polarizing figures in the video game industry. The founder of Quantic Dream has been highly vocal in criticizing common game design, arguing that it creates artificial constraints that prevent the player from fully connecting with the world and its characters, and dismissing the majority of titles for constantly relying on the same story structures (primarily the battle of good against evil as an action-oriented quest for power.) Cage has stressed the potential games have as a narrative medium, stating that he wants to create engaging story-driven titles that break free from traditional premises, as well as giving players a deeper sense of investment with characters that evoke strong emotional responses, creating an experience comparable to great cinema. While his goals are ambitious, they haven’t been executed well. The studio’s previous two titles,Fahrenheit (aka. Indigo Prophecy) and Heavy Rain were marred by plot holes, ludicrous twists and revelations that made the story more confusing rather than adding drama, flat characters that failed to achieve the emotional resonance he desired, and an excessive use of timed button presses and quick-time events which made players feel they lacked control. The studio’s latest title, the Playstation 3 exclusive Beyond: Two Souls, still suffers from these flaws, but shows significant improvement in several areas.

Jodie Holmes has an incredible gift. Since she was a child, she’s been mentally linked to an entity she calls “Aiden”, an incorporeal being that obeys her instructions. Jodie’s power caught the attention of the United States government, which sought to use her abilities for their own purposes. Taken from her family at a young age, Jodie went through rigorous testing and training at the Department of Paranormal Activity and CIA, her control over Aiden honed to its full potential. After years of being exploited, used for covert espionage and assassination missions, she grew tired of being used as a weapon and fled. Without a home, family, or anyone she could call a friend, Jodie wanders in search of a place where she can live a normal, peaceful life. But her connection to Aiden will not make such a goal easy to obtain. She’s pursued by government agents who want to reclaim their weapon, as well as other entities which are far more hostile. Jodie’s journey will push her to her limits as she faces incredible odds, both human and supernatural, and the immense threats they pose.

The inspiration for Two Souls came after the death of someone close to Cage. The shock and depression led him to deep contemplation about death, the possibility of life after death, and what would be on the other side. It led to the finished game offering a unique look at the concepts of ghosts and the afterlife, offering an explanation that tries to stay rooted in scientific theory (though there’s never a concise explanation given) rather than relying on a religious or mythological basis. While there’s a strong paranormal aspect throughout the game, the story attempts to present itself as more of an introspective personal drama than a supernatural thriller, an exploration of the trials Jodie must endure and how they shape her. And it mostly succeeds, or at least it did for me. I felt incredibly strong sympathy for Jodie when she was betrayed and abused, and I was overjoyed when she pulled off a heroic feat. The mystery behind Aiden and the other entities, as well as the question of whether Jodie would find a place where she could be at peace, kept me intrigued through most of my time playing.

Unfortunately, Cage’s writing still suffers problems that keep his visions from being the fantastic experiences he desires. There are several glaring plot holes, such as: how Jodie can remain in a hospital for months without any means of paying for treatment, a hint that she isn’t the first to be connected to a spiritual entity that’s immediately forgotten about, the revelation of Aiden’s true nature coming without any clues to provide a clearer explanation, the motivations of the hostile entities are never explained, trained agents infiltrating a base in a foreign country without properly concealing their features to avoid recognition, and Jodie’s shock that the CIA manipulated her by providing false information before a mission when she should have easily been able to use other sources to verify the claims.

Awkward dialogue also drags the story down; a moment where Jodie should be showing outrageous indignation over being used appears forced and unnatural because she speaks with a restraint that doesn’t fit the situation, an otherwise somber death scene can’t be taken seriously when the victim’s name is over-dramatically shouted out like in The Wrath of Kahn, and several characters provide forced exposition that hardly resembles natural conversation. A tutorial chapter attempts to blend learning the controls into an even flow by cutting between various training exercises that demonstrate each of the movements, but it comes off like a clichéd montage from a 1980s action movie. It completely falls apart in the final chapter with characters suddenly acting irrationally malicious without any reason or foreshadowing, leading to a massive disaster that feels like it was put in simply to have a dramatic climax, ultimately negating Cage’s desire to break away from standard action game premises. It thankfully isn’t as absurd as the plot twists from the end of Fahrenheit, but it’s still disappointing. I was led to expect a contemplative, poignant resolution that would have some significant meaning, not a last-stand mission to avert the apocalypse that I could find in so many other titles.

While Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain had multiple characters to control and allow their interactions to influence the story, Two Souls is focused solely on Jodie. Each chapter is presented as a different point in her life, but in a non-linear order. The chapters jump between her childhood and adolescence to adulthood and the present day, playing out based on her emotional state rather than chronological progression. It can be a little confusing to follow at first, though the explanations during the end offer some clarity. The tone of these chapters tends to fluctuate between intense dramatic scenes, such as Jodie undertaking a mission for the CIA, or more serene, mundane events, like when she’s a teenager planning a night out. The length varies depending on what needs to be accomplished, with some chapters lasting only a few minutes and others going on for more than an hour. Two segments stood out for me as the best in the game. The first, Homeless, showed Jodie living on the streets after running from the government. She’s lost everything, has no one to turn to, and even considers killing herself. Yet she finds acceptance among a group of transients, using her powers to help them without being feared or exploited. It’s incredibly moving, and without a doubt the highlight of the entire game.

Navajo was the second most intriguing chapter, where Jodie assists a Navajo family in protecting their ranch from a demonic force. It plays out like a well-paced supernatural thriller, building tension at key moments while allowing for effective character development and dramatic revelations in the down time before the final stand against the evil that threatens them. Several tense and dramatic moments are also worked into the calmer scenes; grotesque spirits appear before Jodie when she’s a child coming to terms with her powers, leaving you to wonder if they’ll return and force you to fight them, teenagers that she thought would accept her suddenly turn on her because of her powers, even going so far as to threaten violence, and there’s a truly disturbing scene where a trio of bikers in a bar attempt to rape her. The frequent jumps do create some gaps in character development, though. For example, we never see what turns the teenage Jodie from a quiet, socially awkward introvert into a rebellious goth girl; we’re just expected to accept the sudden shift.

As with Quantic Dream’s prior works, player choice determines how the story unfolds, though not to any noticeably drastic extent. Several of Jodie’s actions in one chapter will have an impact in a future segment, influencing her appearance, behavior, or relationship with others. The decisions with the most weight on the plot typically involve a life-or-death situation; will Jodie help someone in danger, or leave them to die so she can save herself? While these events greatly affect the end of the game, Two Souls’ design makes it unnecessary to selfishly abandon those in need. Jodie can’t die, at least not until the ending; failing to get through a chapter successfully will simply make events play out in a different way (such as if Jodie manages to escape from a police pursuit on her first attempt, or if she is apprehended and must break free later). Getting injured in a battle or action scene will only result in physical injuries like a scar that will remain for every following chapter. So the only reason to let NPCs die is simply to see all the possible endings.

Many of the other choices, such as remaining at a dive bar or leaving before the patrons cause trouble, or preparing for a romantic dinner, influence Jodie’s personality and reactions to certain situations. But they seem insignificant when compared to the major plot points where you have no say in the matter: you can’t refuse to kill someone marked for assassination, you can’t do anything to prevent the catastrophe at the end from happening. Other characters’ reactions to Jodie can be affected by how Aiden behaves, mainly if it acts too aggressively or backs off on Jodie’s command. But again the game falters in this area by making several antagonists so unlikable that you’re eager to enact vengeance on them, manipulating you to go along the path the developers intended rather than offering greater freedom. There are several possible endings based on your actions, but they all culminate in a foreboding cliffhanger which implies that all of Jodie’s struggles were pointless, another feeling of being cheated because you learn that your decisions ultimately changed nothing in the end.

Two Souls suffers in many aspects of its plot, but it has its strengths, most notably the protagonist. Jodie Holmes is one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen in a game, brought to life through the stellar acting of Ellen Page, who manages to pull off an incredible performance in every scene, even when she’s hindered by weak dialogue. Some critics have been negative in their reception of Jodie, claiming that she’s too melancholy, that her personality is nothing but self-pity and sorrow. While she can be excessively depressed at times, her voice quavering to the point where you think she may start crying any second, and at one point she states that she’d prefer to die rather than stay in a world that has given her nothing but grief, it’s understandable given her circumstances. She was taken from her family at a young age, kept from growing up like a normal person so that the government could study her like a lab animal. She’s deprived of a childhood, deprived of a life, so that she can be used as a weapon. That would give anyone a grim outlook. Furthermore, she doesn’t remain this way throughout the story. We see significant developments in her character, from having hesitations about taking the life of another in combat to gaining the determination to kill in order to survive, her attempts to forge relationships with others in a search for normalcy. You also have some control over how she’ll behave in circumstances, choosing to make her kind and compassionate or selfish and vindictive. I played her like a version of Carrie White, generally friendly, willing to help out those in need, only becoming hostile when she was mistreated. Of the many individuals Jodie interacts with, the most significant relationship she has is with Aiden, the entity bonded to her. She compares him to a lion in a cage, lashing out over the anger of its imprisonment, frightening her with the possibilities of what harm it could do.

Aiden can be incredibly malicious and violent if the player chooses to make it behave that way, but he is strongly protective of Jodie, usually acting out whenever she’s in danger. Strangely, Aiden can be set off by relatively innocuous activities; when he learns Jodie has a date with a fellow agent, the spirit tries to sabotage their night together, as though he fears someone else coming between them. You’re left wondering why such a powerful being chooses to remain with her, though the reason for their bond is explained in the end to offer some clarity. Again, Aiden’s behavior can be influenced by the player; you can choose to have him be obedient to Jodie’s orders, or simply let him go wild with no concerns about who is hurt. The dynamic between Jodie and Aiden creates some truly incredible moments that make Two Souls shine, though not enough to overlook its other flaws.

Jodie is the star of the game and the most interesting character by far, but that’s ultimately because the other characters suffer from Cage’s weak writing. One of the worst offenders is Nathan Dawkins, the DPA scientist portrayed by Willem Dafoe. Despite the prominence Nathan was given in promotional material for the game, suggested to be the second most important member of the cast, he feels flat and poorly utilized. Nathan mostly speaks with a stoic, monotone voice, which is understandable given the characters Dafoe usually portrays, but it makes scenes where he tries to express strong emotions like anger or sympathy seem forced and awkward. When he learns of his family’s death in a car crash, he’s stunned and shaken, but never shows any grief. We never met his wife and daughter before, and only have his assistant Cole’s word that Nathan loved his family. This may reflect on his career as a scientist, highly analytical without being driven by emotion, an aspect further expanded on since no effort is made to make him seem like a surrogate father to Jodie – the relationship between them is clearly clinical. But his personality is completely derailed in the end, when he loses all composure, displays a previously unseen fanatic obsession in bringing his family back from the other side (referred to as The Infraworld), and causes a catastrophe that results in numerous deaths. Jodie’s final confrontation with Nathan can play out in various ways, and in the path I took, it led to him getting a happy ending that, by that point, he didn’t deserve considering he did nothing to atone for his actions.

Just about every secondary character is flat and uninteresting as well, with most of them lacking any moral ambiguity. They’re either purely virtuous (Cole, Stan, Tuesday, Walter, Jimmy), or so unspeakably reprehensible, even to the point of being cartoonishly villainous (Jodie’s father Philip, thugs who beat up on homeless people just for fun, and General McGrath, who deserves special mention because his constant pursuit of harnessing the power of the Infraworld for military use, despite all the death and destruction previous experiments have resulted in, plus his abuse of Jodie, the only person capable of stopping him, make him look like an incompetent fool simply to reinforce a negative portrayal of the military.) There are a few people that have more complexities, most notably fellow CIA agent Ryan Clayton and the Navajo family (Shimasani, Paul, Jay and Cory), but they never leave a lasting impression. They’re all fairly bland and one-dimensional, preventing you from forming any deep investment in the game world. The inability to interact with NPCs outside of pre-set scenes also ruins the sense of immersion.

As is the norm for Quantic Dream developed games, Two Souls is a heavily linear title with an excessive amount of quick-time events. Dialogue choices and several action sequences require a specific button to be pressed or held, rotating the control stick, or moving the controller. A new system has been incorporated into some action scenes where time will slow down and you have to follow Jodie’s body movements, pushing the right analog stick in the corresponding direction in order to succeed. The developers stated that they included this feature because they wanted a less obvious, more intuitive control system, where your focus is what’s happening on the screen rather than how you’re going to do it. They definitely succeeded; it takes some time to get used to, but once you understand the mechanics it flows very smoothly. Even if you fail to carry them out correctly, as mentioned earlier, there is no game ending penalty except for the final mission, so you don’t need to be too concerned if the control scheme gives you trouble. Outside of combat and action scenes, there’s very little to do in the world. The few objects that you can interact with are indicated by white circles, but you need to be in the exact position to use them or else it won’t register. Also, the control to use an object requires you to move the right analog stick in the direction of the circle, which is also used to move the camera, so if you’re not in the correct spot you’ll just end up switching the camera angle. You’ll know when you’re in the right position when the circle becomes a bright, opaque white. Even then, though, there’s an occasional delay for certain actions.

Thankfully, Two Souls  requires more player input than simply responding to command prompts, providing a greater sense of interactivity through the use of Aiden. At set points, you can directly control the apparition to carry out acts that will aid Jodie: manipulating objects around you, listening in on conversations by passing through walls, taking possession of enemies, or even directly killing people. Aiden can also be used to view residual memories left by others (living or deceased), which provides information on plot-crucial items or information needed to progress. But again, the freedom this mechanic could offer is hindered by the game’s restrictions. Aiden’s bond to Jodie limits how far he can travel, though the exact range is never specified and in some cases seems to fluctuate significantly. Additionally, there are certain times when you can’t switch over to controlling Aiden, or cases where you can use him but only to interact with only a select few people or objects. This can create some illogical situations where you can see an alternate solution that would be more practical or effective, but you can’t do so because the developers didn’t account for other options. It’s reminiscent of the problem old graphic adventure games had with limited solutions, made worse here since it works against player choice having an impact on the story. It can also be a bit difficult to control Aiden’s movement as it’s very loose, making it practically impossible to go in a straight line without deviating. Interestingly, Jodie’s movement controls have the opposite problem as they’re excessively stiff, making it difficult to turn in tight, enclosed areas.

Two Souls excels with its visuals, displaying the most impressive photorealism I’ve ever seen in a game. Character models have fluid motions and incredible facial designs that display even subtle expressions well. Environmental landscapes pop with well-detailed textures, the best example being a snowbound fishing village in a blizzard that appeared virtually lifelike. Small touches like water and sweat glistening on someone’s skin, realistic bodies of water, distortions caused by heat haze or fire, the wavy perspective of the world when controlling Aiden, and differences in shading through glass greatly add to the realism of the world. We even see the effects of paranormal manipulation, such as when the eyes of someone Aiden’s possessing roll upwards to show nothing but blank whites, or when Jodie pushes her limits by having Aiden travel too far her eyes will glaze over, nose start to bleed, and her movements become noticeably more fatigued. It’s far from perfect, though. The appearance of many hostile entities are rather lackluster, most of them appearing as clouds of black haze with glowing orbs hovering inside them. Interior scenes like homes and offices don’t have the same attention to detail as natural shots, making them look more artificial. I didn’t find the sound design to be that interesting. There were several good moments, like the use of traditional Native American instruments like drums and woodwinds to build atmosphere in the Navajo chapter, the muffled, ethereal change to sound effects when playing as Aiden, and a somber song performed by Jodie titled Lost Cause that makes you feel for her plight when she’s living on the streets. The rest of the music, though, was rather forgettable.

Beyond: Two Souls is a flawed game, another sad example of an intriguing premise hampered by poor execution. In spite of its problems, though, I still recommend checking it out, even if only as a rental. As I said in myKiller is Dead review, we need to support titles that explore what more can be done with the medium, that break out from the generic restraints the industry have constructed, even if the end result isn’t perfect. David Cage’s vision shows a promising future for video games. While he still stumbles in carrying out that vision, Two Souls is a sign that he’s learning from his mistakes. If for his next title, he simply looks for outside support in writing the script to reduce the problems in the plot, and refines the gameplay so players have a greater feel of interactivity, he may finally achieve the masterpiece he’s long sought.

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