maanantai 24. helmikuuta 2014

REVIEW - Beyond: Two Souls | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Interactive drama / Action
RELEASED: October 8, 2013
DEVELOPER(S): Quantic Dream
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment

The Parisian David Cage (born David De Gruttola) founded Quantic Dream in 1997. The studio's big break came with a 2005 cult game called Fahrenheit (a.k.a. The Indigo Prophecy), an interactive drama which developed according to the player's decisions. Five years later, Quantic Dream hit the jackpot with an intricate murder mystery entitled Heavy Rain, which followed the same basic rules as Fahrenheit and sported life-like graphics, seamless dynamics and an amazing effort to appeal to one's emotions. There were four playable characters, any or all of whom could die if you made one mistake, or if they survived that mistake, chances were that their lives were ruined forever because you fucked up, or didn't care. Or was going for a specific Trophy. Or whatever. Whichever their fate was, it was PERMANENT. There was no coming back for that character. If they all died, you had beaten the game... but not in the most graceful way, I'm afraid. Heavy Rain made you feel bad... and it felt good. It was such an amazing experience, and it still is, in case you're wondering and haven't taken that first step, so amazing that it went on to win several awards from under the noses of the most obvious big wigs of the business, leaving the whole world to wonder what was so damn great about a playable movie. Then they tried it, they loved it, and they stuck around for seconds. In the summer of 2012, David Cage finally announced the long-anticipated next chapter in Quantic Dream's amazing tales - a supernatural thriller called Beyond: Two Souls, which was to star the equally amazing pairing of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. This ambitious and extremely well advertised product was to be the most amazing thing ever seen on the PS3, and it did have everything going for it just fine. Now I wanna know...

...Have you ever seen the "Rain"?

Ellen Page : Jodie Holmes
Willem Dafoe : Nathan Dawkins
Eric Winter : Ryan Clayton
Kadeem Hardison : Cole Freeman
Robert Burns : Philip Holmes / Possessed Scientist
Nancy Tate : Susan Holmes
David Coburn : Stan / Nicky
Maud Laedermann : Tuesday
David Gasman : Officer Sherman
Caroline Wolfson : Jodie Holmes (Age 9)

Sometimes you've got to take a look into the
mirror and ask yourself: "why am I this damn
perfect...?" (I'm well aware she's into girls.)
Jodie Holmes has lived an interesting, yet miserable life. Ever since she was a small child, she's been hounded by entities from another dimension beyond life and death. However, she has a guardian, another one of those same entities, named Aiden. It is mostly because of him Jodie's still alive and he's also the source of her remarkable psychic powers, but the downside to having him along is, that he goes to amazing, primal extremes in protecting Jodie from any slight threat and usually ends up destroying everything around her without the ability to think how his actions affect Jodie, and her social status at the very least. After spending most of her childhood and teenage years in heavily-guarded isolation from the outside world, Jodie is approached by the CIA and hired as a special agent. Something goes very wrong during her tenure in the CIA and Jodie ends up on the run from the law in a world that she isn't ready for, and which sure is not ready for her, or her "special friend".

Might as well get the obvious issue out of the way first. The moment I heard something about this game besides its name, which was that (the FAN-TASTIC) Ellen Page stars as a girl with psychic powers who has a spirit watching her back and gets in trouble, not just with the cops but the whole damn government, I decided I'd do my absolute best to not compare this game to Heavy Rain once it came out. It might be a very similar game in terms of gameplay, but thematically and I'm sure, emotionally, so different that there's no point in comparing it to what was, I'd rather see it for what it is. Then I read the first reviews... contrary to just about all my expectations, the game was seriously put down. TRASHED. For everything they did with it. But, again, almost every negative comment about the game was followed by what went something like "Heavy Rain was so much better." OK, after two or three similar total ratings I decided I was going to wait 'til the price came down, but I never had any doubts about wanting this game. Those comments about how much better Heavy Rain was, didn't do shit to my conviction, and though the critics did mention a lot of plausible details that annoyed them, it still seemed like the worst thing about Beyond: Two Souls was that it's no Heavy Rain. It sure as hell isn't, that's true. In no sense. But it is an amazingly performed interactive film, with a (mostly) exciting story. That's what I expected from it, nothing more.

Weird science.
However, what I realized after the game, was that I needed more, and that I needed another Heavy Rain, as much as the thought appalled me. And after I restarted the game, I realized that there was not much more to it. There are no sudden deaths here; things do stir if you make a wrong move, and events do present themselves differently if you decide to approach a certain situation differently, but the core end result is the same for Jodie. You're not playing as Jodie, Nathan, Ryan AND Cole, you're playing as JUST Jodie and her spiritual companion Aiden. This is Jodie's story, and you're not in as much control as you'd like or expect to. You're about to die, Aiden comes along and saves your ass at the last moment. If you get caught, you get a chance to escape without a time limit. There's no fear for your character's well-being involved, whatsoever. Sure, people die - you don't. Accidents happen - you survive. It's not any kind of a game anymore, it's a movie that just goes on, no matter what the hell you do. OK, so at least at one point of the game Jodie contemplates killing herself. You're given the choice in classic Heavy Rain fashion, with those shaky "Yes"/"No" button prompts swirling across the screen while Jodie prepares, but drag your dramatic decision out for too long and the game chooses "No" for you. Press "Yes" immediately when you get the chance, Jodie backs out anyway through one loophole or another. Again, no ending 'til the game says so... the "game". If you thought Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead were playable movies (I remember when Metal Gear Solid 4 got heat for being considered one, oh how the tides turn), take a gander at Beyond: Two Souls. I think "playable" is a strong term here... you can take part in it, all right? Fair enough?

We're through talking about Beyond: Two Souls the game, although I do have a couple of things I want to mention later. For now, let's just talk about Beyond: Two Souls, the movie. As such, it is amazing. Especially if you make all the right (read: sensical) choices, you're in for one of the best ending sequences in video game history. Too bad it takes too long to present itself; Beyond: Two Souls is a really long journey, and for the wrong reason of certain scenes being dragged on for way too long. You're stuck in a wide open area with the closest - and perhaps only - hotspot quarter of a mile away, and you'll not only have to deal with the distance, you might have to deal with bad controls. There are so many different schematics for movement, you see; all chapters in the game are different, and you'll be playing as Jodie in several different points of her life. Which reminds me, some people have also been thrown off by the unchronological order of events, but trust me, at least one of the endings offers a solid explanation to it, and besides, certain plot elements are best left unknown 'til towards the end. Anyway, if the needlessly stretched out sequences, and perhaps the world itself, were trimmed a little, you would easily be able to see that Beyond: Two Souls is one of the most awesome stories ever told in a media product marketed as a game. It's also the one thing that Beyond: Two Souls does better than Heavy Rain; sure, the story has some weak spots, and for a while it seems like we're never going to know what Aiden's purpose is, like they forgot all about him halfway through the script. However, the revelation does finally come, and it's stunning. During the ending sequence, I forgot all about how mediocre Beyond: Two Souls was as a game. I put the controller down for applause. It is a masterful movie. Yet, once again, in Heavy Rain you could restart the game from a certain chapter which might've changed everything, including everything that happened in the ending. I'm not replaying one single chapter just to get a different ending - they're way too lengthy and boring to play for that. This opus has got to be one of the most conflicted things I've ever seen, and I know now I'm not going to reach any sort of conclusion talking about it. I'll just mention some things before I (try to) nail down a ranking.

No official boob this time around. Semi-officials
are placed on the net for you stubborn bastards.
The game follows Jodie's life from infant to age 24, Ellen Page's age during the development of the game. There are two time periods under extensive focus; when Jodie was taken away from her parents and placed in the care of the kind doctor Nathan Dawkins (a psychologist and expert of paranormal events, played brilliantly by none other than Willem Dafoe), and the couple of years she spent on the run from the CIA. In the present day, as seen in the very beginning of the game, Jodie is in a neutral state from which we can't really determine her situation or surroundings. Through the shallow decisions we make throughout the game and the theme for the ending we choose with the press of a button, the intro sort of replays, now by our chosen rules. It's kinda cool. Anyway, like I said it's been much criticized (for nothing), that the scenes play out in an unchronological order. First of all, I like it as a dramatic decision - and secondly, the game absolutely needs those changes in pace. Which is proven by the turning point, the one when the game finally sets on one straight track and leads to the present day. It's weak and dull, but once again the ending is worth the pain.

There's very little need to even go into the graphics and sound. This game was made to drive all other games of the seventh generation off the table, tied together in a neat kamikaze bundle. That, it does - the makers learned a lot about the pros and cons of motion capture and video game cinematics during the three years down, and the game is a huge step up from Heavy Rain, which was (and is, even this far into the eighth generation) already one of the greatest-looking games of the high-definition era. The two lead actors are billed on the box of the game for a reason; they're not just voicing their characters, and the bonus material is really interesting to watch, as they really do act all these scenes, there's no CGI or outsourced stunt work involved. It's amazing, and of course, great voiceover work comes with it - and here we're talking about one of Heavy Rain's weaknesses. It's a definite step up, although there are some inconsistencies which stick out like sore thumbs for an extremely demanding listener, such as the pronounciation of "Aiden". Half of the amazing soundtrack's written by Norman Corbeil of Heavy Rain fame, who died of pancreatic cancer (a disease painfully familiar to me) during the development of the game and passed the torch to Lorne Balfe, most known for his work on the most recent Assassin's Creed games. No inconsistencies there - it's full-on blockbuster material all the way.

She has something Snake didn't...
Most of the game (let's just call it that, we know the truth) is played in casual Heavy Rain fashion. You can interact with different objects with the right analog stick; there are no specifics for direction, movement or its speed this time around, though. There are just a few extra button presses from time to time, and very few QTE's. It's like a simplified version of the already extremely simple Heavy Rain. However, in turn we get direct combat and stealth action. Heavy Rain had a few combat scenes (to potentially kill off a main character at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way), but they were largely based on QTE. The combat in Beyond: Two Souls is different; when an enemy attacks, the screen goes to a brief moment of slow motion, during which you have to watch the direction of Jodie's movement and move the right analog stick accordingly. It's a pretty cool system in theory, but that direction is sometimes extremely hard to determine, since it can be any part of Jodie's body visible on the screen which you have to follow. For example, she might be completely still otherwise, but her shoulder moves slightly and you need to match that. No matter, though - if you get your ass kicked, you always have Aiden. Never leave home without him - as if you had a choice.

During almost any controllable scene, and even a few choice cutscenes, you can switch to Aiden's perspective, and you can also play a two-player game with your friend playing Aiden (doesn't sound very interesting if you ask me). Aiden can travel as far from Jodie as the game contextually allows him to, and he can make the story even more interesting than it already is on a few choice occasions, leading to some semblance of replay value. For example, while the 9-year old Jodie is sleeping, getting her nightmares monitored, you can actually switch to Aiden and go to the next room, where the doctors are sharing their views on the poor girl's condition. You can wreak havoc as much as the game allows you to by breaking electrical equipment, simply throwing objects around like a regular poltergeist, and even attack people that you think deserve it; one of my favourite scenes in the game allowed me to grab Jodie's bastard of a dad by the throat and choke him all the way to the very threshold of hell. What made the scene even more powerful was a Trophy associated with it! That guy was made to be hated. Just as Jodie and Aiden were made to be loved; even if Aiden is formless, he has more personality (disorders) than any average video game character.

Aiden is also key when it comes to the few stealth missions. He can distract enemies by producing noises, strangle certain enemies and even possess certain enemies to kill their comrades. Why not all of them, there's no real explanation for that, I'm afraid. If and when Jodie is fatally wounded, he can concentrate his energy to heal the wound on the spot. He also allows Jodie to examine dead bodies and certain items' relevance to the mission at hand by channeling a flashback straight into her brain. Finally, when you just fly around as Aiden, especially during scenes in which his presence is otherwise irrelevant, you might bump into these hidden dots of spiritual light. Tampering with those unlocks bonuses to the main menu, just like managing certain hidden criteria in Heavy Rain unlocked some bonuses between missions. At least the video documentaries are really quite interesting, you should keep an eye out for those bonuses.

The game takes those breaks into everyday
niceties, such as what to cook for an important date.
The Trophies are of the exact same nature as Heavy Rain's; the problem is that Beyond: Two Souls is a much less replayable experience. OK, so Heavy Rain had a few Trophies tied to each chapter in the game, and they didn't unlock before the ending of the chapter, regardless of the point you nailed the criteria in. But, the chapters in Heavy Rain were also very brief, and they were fun to replay because of that, over and over again on the hunt for those one or two trinkets. In Beyond: Two Souls, one chapter might seriously last for hours, and just like in Heavy Rain, the Trophies always unlock during the loading sequence between that chapter and the next one. Hunting for Trophies is not a valid reason to play Beyond: Two Souls; I quit the second playthrough somewhere at the third or fourth chapter, whereas Heavy Rain, well I'm playing it right now. I have beaten it eight times, and I'm missing TWO Trophies. I'm still on a very eager hunt for those, even if the game has long since given me all it has to give. I have beaten Beyond: Two Souls only once, and that's perfectly enough until I'm ready to experience the movie again. So, I'm definitely replaying the game eventually, just not for the reason I would expect from this type of media.

You can get better GAMES of the same genre for better prices. Heavy Rain goes for pennies nowadays, The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are cheap considering their emotional charges especially if you're paying chapter by chapter. However, if you're content with a MOVIE that looks and sounds amazing, and features stellar performances by a couple of A-list actors and a few that are sooner or later joining that very same list, and still one of the greatest stories ever experienced in this format, Beyond: Two Souls is a keeper even at its current price.

+ The best visuals of the generation
+ Mostly magnificent story - with a great ending for once! - and fabulous characters...
+ ...With even more fabulous performances by the actors...

- ...All of it somewhat dragged down by pacing from hell
- Personal choices that ironically don't directly concern your character, or the ending all that much either since you can rethink a lot of things then and there; immortality makes you care less for what happens and how the story progresses
- Although features such as Trophies, decision-making (as shallow as it often is) and Aiden's free-roaming presence help a little, there's no escaping the fact that the game lacks a considerable amount of replay value in comparison to Quantic Dream's previous effort

< 7.0 >

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