Nathan Grayson casts a critical eye over Quantic Dream’s latest jawdropper, Beyond: Two Souls, looking for an emotional connection beneath all the cinematic Ellen-Page-kung-fu-explosion-possession action.
Beyond’s demo was intense. Really intense, in its best moments. It was also – at times – silly, quirky, nonsensical, and tellingly in love with kung-fu. So basically, it had all the hallmarks of A Quantic Dream Game. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get to see any moments of real downtime or intimacy. The only emotion on display was explosion.
To hear David Cage (repeatedly) tell it, Ellen Page is the perfect person to play Beyond main character Jodie Holmes. And so, given how rare it is to see gaming’s truly creative stars align with film’s best and brightest, the Juno and Inception show-stealer has pretty much dominated any conversation surrounding Beyond: Two Souls. While I’m all for watching Page – donned in attire incredibly reminiscent of Juno – kung-fu battling, like, eight police officers at once, I must admit that I find the whole situation pretty humorous. Much like the big press conference unveiling, Beyond’s behind-closed-doors demo wasn’t exactly an Oscar-worthy tour de force of the dramatic arts – at least, for Page. Her ghastly companion Aiden, you see, kind of steals the show. And though I’m sure he’s been just as meticulously mo-capped as everybody else, he’s quite, well, invisible – given that whole ghost thing he’s got going on and all.
The demo I saw began with Jodie – at this point age 23 and decently far into Beyond’s 15-year span – asleep on a train. She’d been branded a fugitive and forced to flee from police, explained Cage, and – as you might expect of someone running for their life – she was exhausted. So Cage kicked things off by taking first-person control of Aiden, whose ethereal floating was powered by Sixaxis Technology™. As long as Aiden didn’t stray too far from Jodie, the environment was his playground. And while he’s no connoisseur of fine China who also happens to be a bull, he was still impressively capable of breaking everything he not-touched. For instance, Cage knocked over someone’s coffee, gave someone else ghostly chills, and spilled a water bottle on Jodie in an attempt to wake her up. So basically, he’s a bit of a jerk.
However, before Aiden could give someone a wedgie and terrify them by writing “You’re dumb and have a dumb face” on their notebook, the train got stopped by police. After briefly taking the train’s special ghost exit – also known as a solid steel wall – out into the pouring rain to investigate, Aiden returned just in time to see police officers checking everybody’s IDs. With two rapidly closing in on Jodie, Aiden frantically woke her again, more or less firing the starting gun on a foot-car-helicopter-motorcycle-dog-ghost chase for the ages.
And, well, it was sort of just like Heavy Rain. Don’t get me wrong: the cinematography looked damn impressive. Even so, it was still mostly a matter of timing button presses as Jodie stumble-sprinted through a moving train. Things did, however, get interesting when Jodie got cornered in a bathroom stall and found herself unable to bust a roof hatch directly above her. Cage then leaped back to Aiden – whose unknowable, death-transcending powers include opening doors – and cleared the way for Jodie to climb out. And then, well, remember when I talked about Ellen Page kung-fu fighting cops? Yeah, I forgot to mention that it took place atop a rain-slick bullet train in the dead of night. It was trademark Quantic Dream silliness, but I’ll be damned if all the slipping, sliding chop sockey wasn’t fun to watch.
Eventually, however, Jodie’s martial prowess came up short against sheer numbers, so she made a running leap toward a nearby forest and deployed a ghost shield. I am only just now realizing how truly silly some of this sounds when written. But it happened, and it gave Jodie brief reprieve, during which time Cage pointed out the fluidity of motion Quantic Dream’s been able to achieve by using the same motion capture tech as Avatar. Jodie hobbled – soaked in sludgy mud and banged up from the impact – while hesitantly glancing all around. It was damn impressive, too. If I squinted, I probably wouldn’t have known it wasn’t just a video of a real human being.
Then police dogs started barking, and it was time for the only thing that ever happens in rainy forests at night: another chase scene. After Jodie clomped through ankle-deep mud and a waist-deep river, the dogs managed to surround her. They did not, however, expect canine kind’s most fetching friend – a stick – to be turned against them. What ensued was very intense, but still basically Heavy Rain control-wise. Jodie caught a dog clean on the jaw, wrestled another with its teeth inches away from her throat, and ultimately scared them away. Then she scrambled up a cliff and hid barely out of sight – just in time for the police to arrive and, perplexingly, almost immediately give up. Sure, she can leap off a train with powers from beyond the grave, but eight whole feet of climbing? Madness. It simply can’t be done.
At this point, Aiden once again stole the show. Jodie crouched behind bushes the moment she noticed a bunch of police cars blocking off a nearby road, but laid eyes on a motorcycle and immediately hatched a plan. Cage then piloted Aiden toward an officer with an orange aura surrounding him, which meant he could be possessed. After that, it was a simple matter of making the cop repeatedly careen his car into the same guard rail over and over and over. His friends, of course, ran to investigate the carnage, and Jodie swiped the bike amidst all the confusion.
What ensued was worrying. It looked really awkward in motion. The bike’s movement seemed rigid and janky – like even the incredibly well-rehearsed presenter was having trouble keeping it under control. Similarly, the earlier forest scene featured a camera that – while creepily claustrophobic – constantly tripped over its own two feet, sending Jodie into the wrong area a couple times. Quantic Dream’s clearly shooting for a very ambitious presentation, but – and obviously, this could change with more polish – it seems to be over-extending itself a bit.
What ensued was worrying. Predictably, the police gave chase, and Jodie rocketed down a winding road, rain slicing sideways like a hail of daggers. It looked really awkward in motion, though. The bike’s movement seemed rigid and janky – like even the incredibly well-rehearsed presenter was having trouble keeping it under control. Similarly, the earlier forest scene featured a camera that – while creepily claustrophobic – constantly tripped over its own two feet, sending Jodie into the wrong area a couple times. Quantic Dream’s clearly shooting for a very ambitious presentation, but – and obviously, this could change with more polish – it seems to be over-extending itself a bit. That in mind, it was all at once encouraging and eyebrow raising to hear Cage claim that no two areas will play the same way. Beyond absolutely will not, he noted, be 20 levels of chase scenes.
This one, however, continued. The police had erected a full-on blockade at the end of a bridge, and with a freaking helicopter hot on her heels, Jodie had only one choice: ghost shield. Gunfire pattered off thick chunks of ectoplasm as the bike charged through, leaving all manner of twisted metal in its wake. Amazingly, however, the police weren’t ready to give up yet. The second Jodie pulled into a nearby town called, er, Bakertown, a gunshot sent her flying off her bike. On hands and knees, she scrambled behind a car. And then, well, Beyond transformed into Aiden: A Game About Aiden Starring Aiden. Control once again shifted into free-roaming ghost playground mode, except with cars, helicopters, and all the police as brittle, easily crushed toys.
Among other things, Cage made the vengeful spirit flip over cars, choke red-aura-ed people to death, possess a sniper to shoot his friends, run a truck through a building, blow up a gas station (causing nearby SWAT team members to writhe around on fire and screaming), knock down a clock tower, and – as is his mighty, unbelievably powerful ghostly wont – open another door. With Jodie safely inside, Aiden then blew up a helicopter, because seriously everyone, don’t fuck with ghosts, or friends of ghosts, or probably even friendly ghosts. Disappointingly, however, the police hardly moved during all of this. They sort of just stood around or – in the case of the helicopter – hovered. I never really got a tangible feeling of high-stakes danger. I mean, I’m all for the option to freely experiment with a scenario, but there’s a time and a place.
With the better portion of an entire city block burned to the ground, Jodie then emerged, took the SWAT leader by the throat, and – in a tone that could frighten an entire clown convention – told him to “leave me the fuck alone, because next time, I’ll kill everyone.” Which would’ve been a far more effective threat if she hadn’t, you know, pretty much already done it.
So yeah, Beyond’s demo was intense. Really intense, in its best moments. It was also – at times – silly, quirky, nonsensical, and tellingly in love with kung-fu. So basically, it had all the hallmarks of A Quantic Dream Game – well, sans entirely unneeded gratuitous nudity, but there’s still time for that, I’m sure. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get to see any moments of real downtime or intimacy. The only emotion on display was explosion. OK, fear and anger also grabbed the spotlight, but any decently executed action game can pull those off without too much trouble. So, as is, I can’t really tell you whether or not Beyond’s spooky conceit can lend itself to interesting story or relationship dynamics, because Quantic Dream opted to go big and loud instead of low-key yet strikingly powerful.
Encouragingly, Cage closed out the session by explaining how that scene could’ve branched in an entirely different direction – for instance, Jodie could’ve been arrested by the police and taken in – which bodes well for Quantic Dream’s trademark wildly ambitious narrative style. Sure, Jodie probably won’t outright die (she is, after all, the only main character in this one), but here’s hoping that focus will give Beyond a chance to branch more significantly than Heavy Rain’s rather transparent array of smoke and mirrors.
And if not, well – at the very least – I don’t imagine anything that features an Ellen Page train rooftop kung-fu scene could turn out to be boring.
Beyond is a PlayStation 3 exclusive expected in 2013.