There are few games that really manage to tug on the heart strings. Sure, you may cringe a bit when poor old Pikachu faints in Pokemon, or feel a bit guilty when one of your party dies in a role playing game, but being afraid of even moving forward, because you know what's about to happen, is a feeling we haven't come across before. Telling the tale of Jodie Holmes, a little girl with a large weight on her shoulders, Beyond: Two Souls has turned tugging on your heart strings into to a fine art. Set to spend the best years of her young life stuck in a hospital, under the watchful eye of a paranormal research facility, Jodie is connected to what can only be described as an “entity”, known as Aiden. Serving as a junction between our world, and another dimension, known as the Infraworld, Jodie is as much a source of scientific fascination as she is a normal person, thanks to the powers it grants her - and the risks it brings with it. With demons breaking through from the Infraworld - and attacking poor old Jodie when they do - night times have become something of a terrifying time for the young child - and with good reason.
The latest game from French studio Quantic Dream, Beyond sets out to blurr the line between cinema and games like Heavy Rain, and Fahrenheit before it. Often playing out more like an interactive film than a traditional point-and-click style adventure, you'll often have a fairly limited input into each scene, beyond pushing a stick in the right direction at the right time. Much like a more graphically impressive version of a visual novel (999, Virtue’s Last Reward, or even Phoenix Wright), only this time with A list Hollywood stars like Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page taking the lead roles, you'll spend your time switching between passively watching the story unfold, and choosing options in branching storylines, before taking control of the main character, and her special powers, in order to solve puzzles.
Although it has a special emphasis on its storyline, Beyond takes a somewhat non-traditional approach to telling it. Rather than weaving a chronological yarn, the tale instead jumps from one section of Jodie’s life to another, raising and answering questions as it goes. One minute, you’ll be in control of Jodie behind enemy lines on a mission for the CIA; the next, you’ll be a terrified six(ish) year old, alone in a hospital, separated from her parents for the first time. Although it may sound like a confusing way of doing things, it’s actually surprisingly easy to keep track of the plot, despite the game's best efforts, as you slowly put the pieces together and figure out exactly what it is that you've just seen. Serving to disguise the large jumps over chunks of Jodie's life we see nothing of, it serves its purpose well, even if it does take a bit of getting used to.
Starting as it means to go on, the game actually opens with a scene that happens somewhere towards the middle of Jodie’s story. Finding herself in police custody, after being found at the side of the road in a torrential downpour, drenched and alone, you're sat in front of a police chief as he tries to figure out the details – asking you where you're from, who you are, or if you have any relatives he could contact to try and get you home. But then, the chief notices a scar on the back of Jodie’s head. Reaching out to touch it, suddenly, a coffee cup on the table in front of them flies into the air and smashes against a wall. Needless to say, Jodie doesn't exactly trust strangers. But then, nor does Aiden.
Although the two are attached, Aiden is both a blessing and a curse. By making use of her special connection, Jodie has what would appear to the casual observer to be incredible psychic powers. The second scene in the game introduces you to young Jodie, whose life treads the line between being a test subject and a normal child. Led through the hospital, you’re taken to a room where you have to sit down, and “guess” what card a woman in an adjacent room is holding. Only you don’t guess it – you use Aiden to see. By pressing triangle at any point, you can switch out and take control of Aiden, the floating entity who can move freely through walls, floors, and windows – but only so far as his bond with Jodie will let him. Tied together by a glowing purple string of energy, Aiden and Jodie can never stray too far away from each other.
Of course, Aiden has plenty more uses that just seeing what card someone’s holding. In some scenes, switching to Aiden and changing room lets you in on little secrets. You’ll hear a couple having an argument (about you), hear people discussing you when they think you can’t hear, or see all sorts of things happen that’ll further the story and fill in the gaps. Although you can’t stray that far, exploring as Aiden is well worth it – and that’s before he even gets physical.
Although he’s an “entity”, and as such is pretty much a ghost, Aiden can interact with objects in the real world as well as his. See something that has a glowing blue dot on it, and that’s your cue to hold a button, and pull the sticks back to “punch” it and send it flying. When in Aiden’s world, everything you can interact with will be highlighted – objects have blue dots, while the people you meet glow in either blue, orange, or red. People in blue you can't interact with in any meaningful way - but those in orange, you can temporarily possess, taking control of them to gain access to areas you don't have clearance to visit, or turning them on your enemies. Those in red, meanwhile, are even more susceptible to influence, as you can strangle them to either temporarily disable them, or kill them.
Once the experiment’s completed, and you've learnt how to control both Jodie and Aiden, the plot starts to get thicker, as the story turns into a rollercoaster of emotion and pace. One minute, you’ll be enjoying Christmas at home with your parents as young Jodie, taking your time as you explore her house, the next, you’ll be storming an enemy base, in the closest Beyond ever comes to be a “traditional” game. While some sections do feature guns, this is as far away from a shooter as it’s possible to get – if you ever do need to shoot someone, they’ll be automatically targeted, and all you’ll have to do is press R1, as indicated.
If anything, it’s the sections that have the most action in that show Beyond’s weaknesses. The storytelling’s fine, and the slower sections work well, but as soon as you have to get in a fight, or do anything that involves moving faster than walking, things start to come apart at the seams. Never is this more obvious than during the "quick time events", which are so incredibly illogical, they put quite a downer on the game - at least, until you change difficulty in frustration (more on that later).
The way it's supposed to work is like this: when you get into physical combat with an enemy, the screen will turn a shade of sepia, and the game will go into a bullet time-style slowdown every time your enemy tries to make a move. The idea here is that you need to push the right analogue stick in the direction Jodie needs to move – if she needs to block a punch coming in from the right hand side of the screen, you push the stick to the right - but in an incredible mistake, they didn’t bother telling you which direction you're supposed to push in. Instead, you’re left simply guessing whether the game wants you to imagine you’re controlling Jodie’s limb or Jodie’s body, as you either punch, duck, or roll away. The number of times we pushed the wrong direction, because it simply wasn't clear which direction Jodie trying to go, was unbelievable. Although these segments aren’t the most frequent part of the game, they are a major part of it – and they’re genuinely terrible. A quick time event needs prompts.
Far better, however, are the scenes with young Jodie. These are segments that put you in control of a vulnerable child, as she struggles to come to terms with what’s happening to her, and learns to control (or even get on with) Aiden – all while being a “normal” little girl. Whether it’s her mother tucking her into bed, telling her there’s “no such thing as monsters”, only for her to be torn out of the bed and thrown around her room by a mysterious force as soon as her mom leaves; or the horrible paradox of the hospital, where everyone tries their best to be friendly and cheery around Jodie, in that incredibly forced way that always seems to make children even more nervous, the scariest moments are arguably when you’re in control of young Jodie, as you’re so desperate to keep her safe. You don’t want anything bad to happen to her, not least at your doing. Any parent playing this will have a lump in their throat more than once, as you end up feeling so helpless.
Another interesting point is that the game’s actually fully playable in co-op - although again, it isn't the most traditional of co-op modes. With one player taking control of Jodie, while the other handles Aiden, it does mean that one player will sit simply watching the other for a long period of time, but in a game with such a slow pace, it works surprisingly well, as you find yourself suggesting the other player go somewhere, or look for something, or discuss what you should do next. As the flow of the game constantly switches between either Jodie or Aiden as you solve puzzles, or try to figure out what to do next, you never get to both be in control at the same time, but it never feels like a problem.
Another interesting twist is the game's two difficulty levels - something you wouldn't really expect from a game that you can't really fail at to begin with. When you start playing the game, you’re asked to choose from two options, to indicate your level of experience with games. Playing as Aiden, if you say you're experienced, you’ll be given free range over his movement, using the dual analogue sticks to move him around - and if you're playing as Jodie, you'll actually have prompts in the combat sections. If you say you’re less experienced, the game will adapt to suit, letting you instead hop from point to point by pressing the shoulder button, leaving you to only worry about moving the right analogue stick to look around. It’s an interesting way of lowering the entry requirements for games – and a nice nod to getting more people playing.
And perhaps that’s the most interesting thing about Beyond. While the hardcore may decry it for not being enough of a “game”, and the hardcore critics are equally divided over its merit, Beyond is a game that will hold a much higher appeal to a wider audience than most shooters. As a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, that takes in believable characters, and plenty of twists and turns along the way, Beyond is the Playstation 3’s swansong, and it’s bowing out in style.