BEYOND: Two Souls Hands-On Preview – No Guardian Angel

by on September 10, 2013

It would be nice to get through this article without repeatedly comparing BEYOND: Two Souls to Heavy Rain, but such is the singular nature of Quantic Dreams’ development style that Heavy Rain is the only thing you can compare it to. That said, despite a similar control scheme and art style, BEYOND is as far removed from Heavy Rain as it’s possible to be.

If Heavy Rain channels Fincher, BEYOND channels Abrams. It’s big budget sci-fi thriller rather than psychological chiller, and believe me when I tell you that a lot of BEYOND will surprise you. It’s not only the tone that’s often unexpected, but where the game takes you – narratively and emotionally.

It’s the story of Jodie Holmes (Ellen Paige), a young woman who has spent her entire life linked to a malevolent entity from another world named Aiden (pronounced I-Dan). Although many of the trailers portray Jodie as a runaway teen, she’s more than that – she’s a CIA agent trained in weapons, tactics and hand-to-hand combat. And, despite his instinctual protection of Jodie, Aiden is no guardian angel. As Jodie herself describes him, he’s a “caged lion”, always raging against the unexplainable tether that binds him to our world.

The preview code allowed me to play a sizeable portion of the game (around a third), and to call it impressive would be an understatement. Those who argue that Heavy Rain is not a game in the true sense will bang the same drum over BEYOND, but there are a lot more gameplay elements in Jodie’s story. The narrative bounces back and forth along the timeline of her life, flitting between present day Jodie on the run from the CIA and various stages of her youth: at home with her beleaguered foster parents, at school in the CIA base where she is studied under the caring eye of Professor Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe), at her first party with other teenagers, and during her CIA field training.

The narrative makes its own rules, and it’s a testament to Quantic Dreams’ ability as storytellers that it all makes sense. More than that, it grabs you, really grabs you, teasing you with second-long flashes and ambiguous mentions of “monsters”, whose influence leaves Jodie terrified and covered in scratches and bruises. It’s not a horror game, at least by today’s standards, but BEYOND: Two Souls doesn’t shy away from jump scares and moments of horrific violence.

You’ll spend most of your time in control of Jodie, but the action will switch to Aiden at a second’s notice, sometimes via a tap of Triangle and sometimes seamlessly at scripted moments. It’s while you’re in control of Aiden that BEYOND shows you what kind of person you are. He is not of our world and never was, and he knows the power he wields. He is malicious, and to him we are playthings, as insignificant as vermin. He can terrify and torment us, possess us and punish us, harm us and destroy us – and it’s easy for him and, by extension, you to do so when you’re in control.

An early example is when Prof. Dawkins is testing the abilities of a very young Jodie. She’s in one room, and an innocent middle aged woman sits beyond covered glass in the room opposite. As the woman touches a card, you fly Aiden through the wall and identify it, giving Jodie the appearance of a psychic. It’s only when Dawkins asks Aiden to demonstrate his abilities that things take a turn for the mortifying. As Aiden, you’ll see tiny blue dots appear on certain objects to specify what you can interact with, and holding L1 brings up two purple orbs, effectively Aiden’s “hands”. Physical objects can be moved by pulling back on both analogue sticks, while electrical equipment – and living things – are affected by pushing both sticks towards, or away from, one another.

As you fly Aiden into the test room and begin to manipulate simple things like coffee mugs and stacks of paper, other blue dots appear. Suddenly you hear the sounds of panic as you hit every one, smashing the glass windows, flipping the table, blowing out the lights. The security can’t get into you, Jodie can’t control you, and the poor woman whose throat you find yourself crushing with otherworldly strength can only struggle and gargle as the music rises to a crescendo, flooding you with a feeling of malevolent power that I’ve never experienced in such magnitude in a game before.

It’s frightening and horrific, and only fills you with undeniable dread when, later, Jodie is dropped at the house of another teenager to party with a bunch of kids who turn out to be bullies. You know it’s only a matter of time before she calls on Aiden for help, and you fear what he will do to Jodie’s tormentors. You have the option to walk away and leave them or order Aiden to seek revenge. You will choose the latter option.

Make no mistake, BEYOND is a violent and action-packed blockbuster. Fighting off a SWAT team as Aiden, then thrown into a midnight chase atop a speeding train as Jodie, followed by a race through shadowed woods punctuated by a battle with a pack of police dogs – this is not subdued storytelling, and even the quieter moments are cloaked in dread as you wait to see what will ignite Aiden’s rage next, or what horrors will befall the adolescent Jodie.

The preview culminated in a survival horror-esque descent into a blood-drenched, burning research lab where the Government have succeeded in opening a gate – a “Passage” – into Aiden’s world and unleashed dozens of “entities”. The science and rescue teams have been slaughtered mercilessly, and only Jodie and Aiden stand a chance of ending the nightmare. It’s powerful and compelling, as Jodie (prior to her CIA training) proceeds, terrified, into the lab, shown the final moments of the corpses she finds via a telepathic link with Aiden, and eventually closes the Passage during a cinematic set-piece that would put Uncharted to shame. As the logo splashed against the screen to signal the end of the preview code, I could only sit quietly and take in everything I’d just seen. I was affected by BEYOND, and I was hungering for more, for resolution, for closure, for answers to a multitude of questions.

Like Heavy Rain before it, BEYOND: Two Souls is an adventure game heavily interspersed with QTEs and single button commands. You do control Jodie freely, and at times you’ll even run around using cover and activating stealth takedowns like a third person shooter, but it’s more akin to TellTale’s The Walking Dead than Gears of War: you’re often given scant seconds to react to an attack or make a narrative decision, and hesitation is never rewarded.

Is BEYOND set to be the best game of 2013? That largely depends on your definition of “game”. As an interactive cinematic experience, I have never seen anything like BEYOND: Two Souls in 25 years as a gamer. It makes you care for Jodie more than you cared for Lara in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, and echoes with the same sense of character involvement as you experienced while playing The Last of Us.

No matter how you feel about Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream or David Cage, one thing is certain: you have never played a game like this.