Beyond: Two Souls Review: Phantom Pain

Beyond: Two Souls is bad at telling stories.

The promotional descriptions for this game all seem to echo a similar sentiment: control protagonist Jodie Holmes through a non-linear series of events so emotionally devastating, so incredibly audacious, that no video game has dared to explore them. David Cage’s (and developer Quantic Dream’s) strengths lie in the benign and the quiet. Those moments, in all of their games, live up to their reputation. They really are unlike pretty much anything else out there.

Let’s add that to the list of problems concerning Beyond: it’s bad at telling stories, and about half of the stories it has to tell are big, loud, and dumb.

The other side of that coin is obvious, though. A good chunk of Beyond is really worth seeing, almost in spite of itself. This is a fascinating game, one propelled by flaw, and its own (sometimes earned) sense of self-importance. It’s easy to be frustrated, indignant even, at this finished product, especially when contrasted with the stated ambition prior to its release. I’m not too upset, though, because for every faulty piece of this puzzle, Cage and Co. remain sincere in their efforts to cure a problem video games cured themselves a good while ago. And Beyond is nothing if not sincere.

The game consists of a roughly linear story all jumbled up, taking place over twenty-odd years in the life of Jodie Holmes. Jodie was born with a special gift (or is it a cuuuuuuuuuurse?!) that connects her to another, unseen world. She’s tethered to an entity named Aiden, a fact that ostracizes her from most of her peers, just as it grabs the attention of the government-funded paranormal investigator Nathan Dawkins. Ideally, these discrete sequences, told out of order, should lend insight and clarity into her difficult life. Kinda like (500) Days of Summer with more ghost magic?

That structure, the thing that should uniquely bind Beyond’s emotional beats, is ultimately what sends the game flying apart in all directions. It might be one of the more egregious offenders of the storytelling rule to never tell, but show; we’re left with so many gaps where the game instructs us to feel about something in a certain way, without justifying it in the slightest. Oh, that guy you thought was an asshole a couple missions ago? He’s a good guy in this part of the timeline. Why? Beyond doesn’t seem to find that question particularly important.

In fact, the whole conceit feels less like an exercise in narrative experimentation, and more like a lazy way to excuse plotting gaps in a tonal mess of a story. Beyond would probably like you to believe that this device lends greater insight into Jodie’s fractured mental state. It doesn’t. I left feeling vaguely patronized.

Beyond’s saving grace, if it truly has one, is all about production. It just looks staggeringly pretty, with well-rendered faces, gorgeously distinct environments, and impressively fluid animations. It also helps that the acting is so uniformly strong: Ellen Page knocks it out of the park as Jodie, in a performance far too good for most of the material she’s given. Willem Dafoe is similarly strong as Nathan, but his character is perhaps the greatest victim of Beyond’s non-linear messiness. He enters and exits the story inelegantly, so much so that his final dramatic arc falls incredibly flat.

A lot of Beyond’s drama falls incredibly flat, actually. The ending chapters wander so far off the story’s thread that I spent a shocking amount of time with my mouth literally agape. That is how jarring this game can be in its worst moments. One late-game segment, the worst by a shocking margin, throws Jodie into a half-baked X-Files plot involving Navajo mysticism. It’s one of the longest chapters Beyond offers.

The best moments are almost all chronologically front-loaded. Jodie’s struggles as a child and teenager are endlessly fascinating, and nail the meticulous attention to detail that Quantic Dream does so well. Some of my favorite chapters were over in ten to twenty minutes, and often involved a single location: an early highlight finds pre-teen Jodie at a birthday party. It wonderfully evokes the feeling of being trapped in a room with people you don’t like, and people who don’t like you, either.

It’s the kind of subdued moment I wish Beyond had more of. The methodical pace, choice-making, and branching dialogue trees of Cage’s previous, superior game, Heavy Rain, are all but sacrificed at the altar of overblown action set-pieces. These section last for much, much longer than the parts I like, and their cynicism (especially in the face of Cage’s claim that he’s playing fewer and fewer video games because he finds them boring) is nauseating.

There’s the chapter where Beyond tries to be a dour Uncharted, with a fight taking place on and around a train. There’s the chapter where Beyond tries to be Metal Gear Solid 4, with an interminable and heavy-handed stealth segment set in the Middle East. There’s the chapter where Beyond tries to be Dino Crisis, with a cheesy flashback-driven descent into a survival horror-esque compound (less dinosaur, more keycard). There’s the chapter, mentioned above, where Beyond tries to be… Red Dead Redemption? You ride a horse and do farm chores, that’s for sure.

All of this energy is wasted on trying to run away from what Beyond is, when it could have been spent polishing what Beyond wants to be: a sincerely emotional, adaptive adventure game for the modern era. A lot of gameplay holdovers from Heavy Rain don’t make a ton of sense in this context. The jumbled way the story’s presented kills any sense that your choices are impacting the broader narrative. By that same token, Jodie couldn’t possibly die like the four protagonists of Heavy Rain could. That, coupled with the lack of any sort of fail state, makes the QTE-driven gameplay insultingly inconsequential. At best, failing an action segment will result in a slight branch that connects back to the pre-determined thread in a chapter. At worst, Jodie just wins her fight without your help.

There’s a good game buried deep within Beyond. One that’s tonally consistent, engaging, and confident in what it wants to be. Enough of it shines through that I don’t regret my time with the game in the slightest. I might even recommend people play it. Not because it’s good, mind you, but because it’s a hands-on exercise in narrative implosion. There’s a part of me that remembers the third or so of Beyond I found so compelling, and that part feels bad about the rest of me. The rest that knows how deeply, structurally, unsalvageably broken it is. It undermines its best qualities near constantly, and doesn’t seem to understand what’s good about itself. In that way, Beyond might be the most insecure video game I’ve every played; it seems so deathly afraid of committing to any one location, any one time, or any one feeling. It’s so schizophrenic that I honestly can’t tell how anyone thought it could provoke a coherent or consistent reaction. The bad parts seem accidental, and the good parts do too. Quantic Dream seems so caught up in their own crusade that they can’t establish an identity, let alone establish a status quo that they need to rail against.

In Beyond: Two Souls, the quiet is overshadowed by the big, loud, and dumb. That’s not just a bad way to tell a story, that’s a bad way to tell a video game story.  And we’ve been telling good ones for as long as I’ve been playing them.

2 Star Rating