Monday, October 14, 2013

REVIEW - Beyond : Two Souls.

Beyond: Two Souls is the latest attempt by Quantic Dream to deliver a purely story-driven, cinematic video game experience that plumbs emotional, spiritual and intellectual depths unheard of in the rest of video game development.

Just as ambitious as Heavy Rain, their last crack at said bat, Beyond is a big, gorgeous triple-A game with production values far beyond what you'd usually associate with such unusual, "artsy" fare.

Does it succeed?

When Heavy Rain happened in early 2010, gaming was starved for such story-heavy fare, and it was easier to accept its flaws.  No other game in the previous half-decade had been so brazenly dedicated to narrative at the expense of all else, and after years of shooting monsters and men, hacking and slashing and diving headlong into action-centric games, Heavy Rain was a breath of fresh air.  Its beautiful differences from the mainstream made it special, despite its shortcomings.

Thanks to the remarkable story-driven games we've enjoyed in the past few years, Beyond: Two Souls is not positioned as favorably as its predecessor, which was arguably more of a classic adventure than a pure narrative - and Beyond is a purely narrative experience.  The adventure gaming tropes of Heavy Rain are all but gone, showing up here as the rare choice in what item to pick up or dinner to cook, or what answer to give when provided with a few options (if you pick nothing, the game will choose for you).

The game is completely linear, with your choices mattering for very little right up until the end, at which point you can literally pick the ending you want.  In terms of actual involvement on behalf of the player, Beyond requires you to flick the right stick at various items hero Jodie Holmes can interact with, nudge the left one in the direction you want her to walk and mash buttons when prompted.

Yes, this game is one long quicktime event - when it's not a downright tedious affair of slowly pushing Jodie through an environment in search of the object she can interact with to make the story get on with it.

Jodie, played quite capably by Hollywood heavyweight Ellen Page, is a girl who's been mysteriously tethered to an invisible "entity" named Aiden since birth - and Aiden often has a bit of a temper, particularly where protecting Jodie is concerned.

Here as in Alice: Madness Returns, Remember Me, Lollipop Chainsaw and Tomb Raider, it's refreshing to play a game headlined by a lady (even though it occasionally feels more than a bit exploitive, and awkwardly so) - and interesting to span over a decade of a character's life - but I'm sorry to report that (Tomb Raider aside), Beyond: Two Souls represents by far the most amateurish narrative of the bunch.

It's like the work of a baker who believes their cakes are the best in the world, but for the life of them, cannot actually bake.  They can ice beautifully - their confections are gorgeous - but take a bite, and... hm, no.  Something's really off about this.

It has all the ingredients of something delicious.  It's got chocolate and vanilla and sugar, milk, eggs and flour - but the amount of each part is so warped in proportion to the rest that it simply doesn't taste good.  Too much vanilla - and with it, a strange bitterness.  Too much sweetness besides, and no salt to make the flavors pop - and once you swallow, beyond the pulling pang of buyer's remorse, there is no aftertaste.

It's forgotten as soon as you dump the wrapper in the trash.  So it is, with Beyond: Two Souls. For a game that takes telling its story so seriously, it's pretty bad at it.

David Coburn is a standout as Stan the homeless man.

Nearly every scene in the game is tediously over-written, spoiling any sense of genuine discovery or connection with the cast via an abundance of details and dialogue that ring false far more often than they do true.  Beyond ping-pongs back and forth between small, gentle, slice-of-life moments (Jodie as a young woman prepares for her first date, Jodie as a teenager throws a tantrum, Jodie as a child wanders around the house, bored, as her mother prepares supper), and big, silly action moments (Jodie as an elite CIA operative is inserted into an unstable African country to assassinate a warlord, Jodie staying with some nice Navajo ranchers must banish an ancient curse, Jodie as a member of a quintet of desperate homeless folks must rescue everyone from a burning building), all of which tend to end on some sort of tragic down-note - and I'm sorry to say none of it ever feels quite honest, or elegant.

Beyond being horrendously over-written, the narrative regularly dips into self-importance - and while Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe and the rest of the cast do their best with what they're given - not even the surprisingly subtle, accomplished performance of David Coburn as Stan the homeless man can save the 'Homeless' sequence from feeling preachy and indulgent.

The game regularly attempts to tug at your heartstrings, but its pulls are the immature, blunt swats of a child attempting to prove how sensitive and deep they are - not genuine reflections, genuine humanity, genuine revelations.  Whenever the plot swerves into heavy drama territory, it relies on set-ups so blunt and payoffs so silly that one can be forgiven for feeling a bit insulted by it.

Beyond bills itself (on the box) as "powerfully emotional," but it feels more like the writer/director is smacking you in the face with a bunch of awkward clichés, shouting "look!  Look how deep I am!"

Its core - what the game sells itself on - is totally flawed.

Oddly, despite its profoundly pretentious pretensions, sometimes it works.  A little bit.  When Jodie, a closeted teen who's spent all her life on a military base under strict supervision, attends her first party with several other youths, we want her to succeed in her attempts to impress the cool kids and fit in.  We feel her elation when she (if you so choose) experiences her first kiss with a cute British boy - but of course, things go understandably awry.  Not because of her understandable awkwardness or a demonstration of the supernatural Aiden's powers, of course - that would make sense, and fit with reality.

It's because the gift her handler gave her to provide the birthday girl does not satisfy.  Which feels just totally stupid and not at all in step with a functional reality - I've never met anyone who would actually start complaining the moment they open an unusual gift - but it gives all the kids an excuse to totally over-react, gang up on Jodie, carry her from the room while shouting invectives like "witch" and "slut" and shut her up in the closet under the stairs, a'la Carrie.

Once Aiden uses his magic powers to open the closet door, you're presented with an option via two floating lines of text.  Circle sits next to "leave" while the X button hovers beside "revenge."

Revenge feels correct.  Despite the totally amateurish, over-indulgent and self-important writing, we do regularly feel empathy for Jodie.

Its successes are painfully rare, but they do exist.  I telekinetically tossed so many chairs at those little bastards.

While its central feature - the story, the writing, the plot - is often boring, clichéd and terribly disappointing, Beyond is uniformly successful in one regard.  Its presentation is nearly immaculate.

My better half points out that she doesn't feel the same - that the animations stutter a bit, and on the whole it doesn't impress - but I'm in the opposite camp.  The game's textures are astonishingly sharp, well into Sony Santa Monica or Naughty Dog territory, and the game relishes close-ups of its characters so you can revel in every imperfection in the skin, every pore, every scar.

Environments are thickly detailed and go from a suburban home to a wrecked military installation, from an endless desert to a white-out blizzard.

The game is gorgeous.

A gorgeous narrative-driven game that's not particularly good at storytelling was acceptable back in 2010, when no other games were really going after that ambition.  Heavy Rain was new.  It was fresh.  It was cool by virtue of its uniqueness alone - but it's 2013, and Quantic Dream's ambition is no longer unique.

Storytelling can be (and has been) done so much better than this. 

In the last three years we've seen the ridiculously artsy Journey and the hilarious Portal 2.  We've seen the thoughtful, weird Catherine and the subtly building emotional punch of Alice: Madness Returns.  The past year alone has given us Telltale's humble, successful, heartbreaking The Walking Dead and the brilliantly subtle writing and deeply beautiful humanity of Naughty Dog's proudly triple-A The Last of Us.

Beyond cannot distinguish itself in that space.  There is absolutely room in the gaming pantheon for a big, ambitious, triple-A experience focused entirely on narrative - but if you're going to set out to tell a story, first ensure you know how.

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