In and effort to both cover as many games as possible and save my hard earned dollars, I embarked to scour through my entire collection of Video Games from today and times before over the course of an entire month in what I like to call a Review Marathon. So far, my pace hasn’t seemed to earn that title justly. While I did write two reviews over the course of one day this week, the days since my last review stacked higher then I like to admit. Maybe because I heard from various sources that this game wasn’t exactly stellar. Maybe it was because I am not used to cranking out writings at such a hectic pace. Or maybe I was just feeling lazy these last couple days, and now I finally want something to show for it. Either way, the marathon continues, as does my reviews. Round 2; FIGHT!!!
Video games have been trying to cross over into the movie business since the inception of the Sega CD back in the 90s. The fact of the matter was that it was less then successful, as the fact that movies had tricks, tropes, and entertainment strategies that just didn’t work once you applied them to games. One of the poor unfortunate souls to try an make the “interactive movie” dream come true was a man named David Cage, who now is founder and president of a studio known as Quantic Dream. The studio only produced three titles including this one, and they all had mixed reviews overall. Some like the idea of a story based game while others think all of David Cage’s work can be compared to fecal matter. I try not to read review of games before I can review them (for obvious reasons involving objectivity) and I couldn’t help but notice the headlines of other reviews. They weren’t positive. I tried to give this game the benefit of a doubt, but I can at least see where my fellow review monkeys are coming from. I was hoping Beyond Two Souls would surprise me with something, and so far it hasn’t.
But before we get to my take on it, let me once again remind any new readers out there how I review games. Mainly with the Seven Word Synopsis. It’s basically my answer to the usual 1 through 10 scale of most review sites. Its only a seven word review of the game compressed to dileniate
And The Summary
With the exact same number of words that you see above. Let’s begin, shall we?
As in the game is both pretty to look at and its a breed of its own. One thing Cage manages to get right with his games is to craft a story that’s pretty original. His first game called Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy here in the US) was about a guy who is possessed by a shaman to take the fall for a murder. The second game called “Heavy Rain” was about the investigation of an abductor that leaves origami as his calling card. This one is basically about a girl named Jodie whose soul is tethered to a supernatural being that acts like your typical ghost.You know… is invisible to people, passes through walls, possesses people and controls their actions. Basically the same things that can be done by either a psychic character in a video game(Psy Ops, anyone?) or Casper the Ghost. Neither are the best reference for making a movie. Only true difference between the thing she calls “Aiden” is that it’s connected to a little girl who looks like Ellen Page and can see through its eyes.
Fortunately, they seem to be aware of how corny this is, and work hard to define this thing as anything but. Fairly early in the game, she is placed into a meeting with a doctor who will serve as a father figure to her throughout the game. He asks her about Aiden, and through his inquiries we learn about how her powers work. He asks if its a ghost, to which she replies no. It is just a creature from beyond (as the title suggests), and apparently not the only one Jodie encountered. This is what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing”, and in this scene in particular, Cage does his job and does his job well. Only thing is, I only used the words “fairly early” as the game takes a very long time to get going. More on that when we get to the bad stuff.
Another thing that makes David Cage’s work stand out, despite their lackluster results, is the sheer graphical quality inserted into each game. When it was first being “previewed” by review sites whose budget and spare time dwarf my own, it was nick named as project Kara, many reviewers were amazed at how “awesome” the graphics looked. I’m not that surprised myself, given the technology they had available at the time, but I must admit they couldn’t have tried hard to make things look more realistic. The models rival reality, the textures are smooth and detailed, and the color is spot on, even in dark shading. The lighting needs a bit more work, especially when the main character is working through dark places without a flashlight; something that happens a little too frequently. The first among many shortcomings this game and others like it have to offer.
Beside being seeped in darkness at some points, Beyond Two Souls tends to fall into a trap both movies and video games fall into when they focus too much on “story”. I put that in quotations only because there is a big difference between focusing on “story” and actually delivering an enticing narrative. The high concept by itself is pretty solid; little girl is born with unusual imaginary friend that is both menacing but also helpful. She seeks help in controlling it and winds up becoming a secret agent. Now she must run from that agency before they kill her. Okay. Good enough plot in and of itself. Few holes pop up though; why are they trying to kill her? Did she run away? Why did she run away? Such things are missing from the game story thus far, and are kinda important to the story. While there is nothing wrong with keeping things mysterious, this once again falls into M. Night Shyamalan and JJ Abrams “Mystery Box” territory in the sense that mystery serves no purpose but to excite an audience before they enter the theatre. They usually wind up disappointed. While I cannot say that I was dissapointed, I did play the game for three hours and still can’t answer the questions above. The origin of “Aiden” is also a mystery, but I almost expect that to be the case only because the supernatural is a mysterious thing in and of itself. Why you became a secret agent and then desert is something that people don’t normally do without a good reason, and thus need some explaining. That and the fact that the intro to the game has NO interactivity and the game as a whole features cutscenes outnumber those of Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid creator; infamous for having way to many cutscenes). I could easily forgive this if the game had a sense of coherency in its plot. But the only things consistent are the heroine’s misery and the writing’s blandness. Nothing much to say on that.
I call it Sloppy for much the same reasons listed above, plus the issues I see with the modeling and with the cutscene execution. Cage makes it clear that he wants to make an interactive movie, and Beyond Two Souls has the Dual Star-power of Ellen Page as Jodie and William Defoe as the doctor who studies and befriends her. In case you don’t know who those people are by name, Ellen Page was the female lead in the movie Inception and William Defoe was the Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man movie. Chances are good that you have at least seen them and their stellar work, and the talent does shine through the voice acting. Simply hearing it sounds like a professional movie star being given a lackluster script, and the models themselves bear a striking resemblance to say the least. But the thing that doesn’t come through the game to the eyes of the viewer tends to be that thing most actors are known for. You know… what some people would call acting?! The animation of the models do nothing for the character’s expression, to the point where I almost mistaken Ellen Page for that crappy actress who played the female role in Twilight. Yeah. Her. Grand Theft Auto used little more then super-detailed cartoon characters and still made movements less stiff and more realistic. If these guys used the same motion capture technology that was used in LA Noire for recording faces, this game would have very easily gotten a better review. I guess David doesn’t talk to those guys.
Beyond Two Souls fails to deliver on the promise of interactive storytelling, proving once again that it takes way more then just mashing the rules of movie making was a slap dash game. Here’s what I mean.
Interactive B Movie
There was once a game known as “Dragon’s Lair” that frequented arcades at one point but then quickly fell into obscurity. To sum it up, it was a Disney cartoon where you had to press the right button to keep the main character from getting killed. On the whole, it was a pretty neat concept and probably seemed revolutionary to the team that was working on it. But in the end, it was merely a well drawn, poorly written cartoon that restarted itself every time you didn’t press the exact button. If real Disney cartoons did this, they wouldn’t survive to make the Little Mermaid, let alone fund Toy Story.
It did give rise to the often called “Quick Time Event” which basically does that same exact thing but with 3D model cutscenes. Beyond Two Souls is flooded with these, almost to the point where you wonder why. You often have to do pointless actions like getting up or sitting down or make choices in the game that are completely useless in determining anything that happens; and unlike The Walking Dead, Beyond Two Souls kinda makes it obvious. The game doesn’t punish you half as seriously as “Dragon’s Lair” did-thank the lord-but when it seems like you succeed even when you fail, the button pressing seems even more pointless. I’m sure that if you fail enough times, something bad happens, but we never seem to get a chance to fail too badly. I was driving on a motorcycle while being chased by a police helicopter (like we never saw that before) and not only were the turning controls unwieldily, but the game seemed to compensate by making it impossible to crash. C’mon! That’s like finding out the gutters are way to wide at your bowling alley and then fixing it by putting in permanent bumpers. If a interactive element doesn’t work, and you don’t have time to fix it, remove it! Game Design 101.
And speaking of design decisions, let me flex my own game design muscles that I have been working out since Global Game Jam and give you my two cents on what Cage should have done to prevent this thing from bombing; take out the parts where you play as Jodie. I’m serious. Between doing things as thrilling as sitting down and preventing a boy from touching her butt, it seems like my actions are completely unnecessary. The thing that carried the game barely halfway was the fact that it had high production values and you could control an angry ghost that can take revenge on evil teenagers. Stick with that. You could have easily dissected the game between me watch a movie played by the character models and me watching the same movie play out in 3D while I wandered around bound to the main character. Press Y; see Ellen Page act. Press Y again, go back to possessing people and blowing stuff up. That would have been a good experience, especially if you put the same effort you did in those “Quick Time Events” to improve the script and take better advantage of your star power. I seen both their work; Ellen Page and William Defoe are both stars actors that deserve to be stars. But you got Ellen Page saying nothing half the time between being awkward and being a badass, and you got William Defoe in the background more often then not. Lets have the stars shine in this picture, shall we?
Although to be perfectly honest, even Aiden’s controls were wonky, as I often had trouble finding something to click on and even looking at a card in someone’s hand. I’m sure if you spent less time and manpower on Jodie’s button prompts, you could have used the same programmers to develop a better control scheme for Aiden, and maybe add some new features. Or work with the animators for better acting.
That wraps up my review. I am sorry this review is so late; I really need to get into the flow of things here. Let’s finish off with a brief update on the Synopsis, and a quick link to where games are sold if you weren’t scared away from my review.
Beyond Two Souls
Interactive B Movie
Tommorow I will be reviewing