Beyond: Two Souls is a sort of spiritual successor to Heavy Rain, the brainchild of writer and “director” David Cage. Two Souls keeps the heavily narrative-driven style of Heavy Rain, so much so that it’s arguably more an “interactive drama” than a video game as such. Originally released for PS3 in late 2013, it was remastered along with Heavy Rain for the PS4 last year. The critical reception for Two Souls was somewhat harsher than for Heavy Rain: although, for me, it’s a superior experience overall, by the time it came out the novelty value of these kinds of games had started to wear off. Moreover, Two Souls came out a few months after The Last of Us: another PlayStation exclusive, and one which not only matched Two Souls for graphics, but surpassed it in story and gameplay.
It probably didn’t help that Ellie in The Last of Us strongly brought to mind Ellen Page – a point seemingly not lost on the actress herself. Still, played now out of its original context, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty worthwhile experience. The story is told in the form of episodes from main character Jodie’s life: when she was a young girl, a teenager, and a young woman. Jodie was born tethered to an “entity” she refers to as Aiden. Aiden is invisible and can float and shift through walls and objects, but can only move a short distance from Jodie. He can interact with the physical world, and though quasi-autonomous is bound to Jodie and generally co-operates with her. As you’d expect, Jodie’s relationship with Aiden causes all kinds of social and developmental problems for her and she is entrusted to the “care” of the military while still a small child. As she gets older, Jodie tries to assert some level of independence in the face of the military’s demands, while managing her relationship with Aiden, and also navigating the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. She has a tough time of it and you can’t help but feel very sympathetic towards her, even if the character never really shows the kind of growth you would like and expect.
Two Souls showcases sophisticated motion capture, and excellent facial animations, which allow it to do justice to strong performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the latter portraying government doctor/researcher Nathan Dawkins. The young Jodie is also really adorable. However, the game proves that actors and technology can only take you so far without a good script. Although the plot is for the most part compelling, the dialogue and characterization is lackluster. The main characters lack depth, and scenes which should resonate often fall flat. Jodie endures some terrible ordeals over the course of the game, but it is only right at the end that the script really allows her to respond to her experiences in an emotionally convincing way. The game regularly provides you with options about how to react in various situations – such as being honest, evasive, or lying – but when you realize that “honest” and “evasive” answers can be virtually indistinguishable, it tests your investment in the story.
While Two Souls rarely plumbs the depths of bathos seen in Heavy Rain, it still relies too heavily on socially unrealistic situations and behaviour. There are long passages in the second half which see Jodie amid a homeless community, and then staying with a Native American family. These seem to have been included just to remind us what a good person she is, but they’re shallow, unconvincing and superfluous to the plot. Throughout the story, people swing from one emotional extreme to another at a moment’s notice, and are willing to go along with ludicrous plans without hesitation. That includes Jodie, and the contrived way that the narrative tends to lurch forwards is irritating in a game which likes to pretend you have a degree of control over what happens.
On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the action scenes so much. Two Souls has some really well-directed cinematic sequences which reminded me of James Cameron films like The Abyss and Aliens (no doubt in part due to the blue-heavy colour scheme), which was a pleasant surprise. These sequences are especially good when you’re controlling Aiden. Jodie can hold her own in combat, too – thanks to her CIA training – and is often called upon to defend herself in various situations. There is actually a fairly robust third-person stealth system which is, disappointingly, only used in one or two very effective sequences. Otherwise, the gameplay in these sections mainly involves moving the right analogue stick in a certain direction, in line with Jodie’s limb movements. In theory, it’s an intuitive system, but in practice it can be frustrating as it’s not clear until too late which body part you are supposed to be following. It’s hard to fail these sequences outright (I don’t think I got a game over at any point) but messing up too many times might result in an outcome you’d rather avoid.
Two Souls is longer than I expected, clocking in at between ten and twelve hours depending on how leisurely your play style is. Replay value is limited but, while it may have been hard to justify a full-price purchase when it first came out, it’s fairly well discounted now and a decent pickup for a tenner or so. I really enjoyed Two Souls’ first few hours, and although the second half contains some overlong sequences that really should have been cut, things come together in time for a dramatically satisfying and quite moving conclusion. As much as I found Heavy Rain to have been overhyped and undeserving of much of the acclaim it received, Two Souls is probably an underrated experience that most fans of narrative gaming and sci-fi would appreciate.