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Beyond: Two Souls is a beautiful paradox

Beyond: Two Souls undoubtedly deserves credit for its great story and unique take on interactive software, even if it conflicts with what many believe constitutes a video game.

Jeff Bakalar
Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

6 min read

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Jeff Bakalar:
Beyond: Two Souls is a great story that requires the viewer to hold a PS3 controller the entire time. It's the only way to advance the scenes and find out where this supernatural thriller is going next.

Far be it for me to declare what is or isn't a game. That's a whole other philosophical debate for another day. So when it comes to a title like Beyond, all I can really do is tell you whether it's fun to experience.

Quantic Dream

Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe star in this "movie-game" about a girl who has a lifetime connection to a spiritual life force known only as Aiden. Page plays Jodie Holmes, a girl who discovers this special relationship with the other side at a very young age. Jodie is forced into full-time observation under the care of government scientist Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe) after Jodie's parents surrender her.

Like its spiritual predecessor, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls isn't a game in the traditional sense. It really isn't a conventional movie, either, regardless of the way in which Sony had marketed the ambitious project earlier in the year.

Instead, Beyond plays like a $60 season pass to a series that is consumed through the binging of the game's chapters, not that dissimilar to blasting through a series on Netflix.

Behind the scenes again is Quantic Dream founder David Cage, a man extraordinarily passionate about shaping a compelling narrative first and foremost, even if that hubris turns traditional gaming on its head in the process.

Quantic Dream

His latest creation furthers the philosophical paradox, where games and storytelling don't necessarily collide, but run parallel. There's no doubt you'll enjoy Beyond, but for the majority of the time, you really aren't playing anything. In reality, you're witnessing a story being told with what feels like arbitrarily chosen interactive elements to create the illusion that you are in fact "playing the movie."

The problem with doing that is it doesn't make the gameplay all that compelling or challenging, primarily because the input required consists mostly of mindless button mashing, flicking, shaking, twisting, and other controller gestures I'd rather not have to perform.

Cage has said there are 23 different endings in Beyond, but the game struggles with making you aware of the weight of the decisions you make, thus making it difficult to discern what consequences or advantages your actions have rendered.

I embrace great storytelling in games that rival those in film and TV, and there's no doubt Beyond achieves that. However, it's only accomplished by fudging the gameplay because no game can deliver a movie-watching experience without it feeling like it's on autopilot. If the thought of escorting a story peppered with quick-time events excites you, you'll most likely enjoy Beyond.

Quantic Dream

I've seen similar ambitions in games like Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, a title that leaned heavily on an emotional narrative. However, The Walking Dead was able to simultaneously encourage exploration and problem-solving, even if its decision-making promises fell a little flat. Unlike The Walking Dead, Beyond never abandons the player for too long, as it would likely break up the cinematic flow.

From a technical standpoint, Beyond is simply on a different level. Professional actors are motion captured and rendered nearly identically to their real-life presences. Astonishingly enough, Page and Dafoe's recognizable acting quirks sporadically shine through their digital representations.

For the most part, the acting is great and it's easily one of the best-looking PS3 games ever made. Page and Dafoe deliver compelling performances with a particularly excellent job done by the young actress who plays Jodie as a 9-year-old girl.

Unlike Heavy Rain, Beyond occasionally displays shades of classic cinematic horror, tipping its hat to exorcism flicks and staples like "Carrie." It's chock-full of frightening moments and legitimate thrills, and keeps an evenly balanced pacing throughout.

Quantic Dream

So while I harp on the shortcomings regarding any semblance of concrete "gameplay" in Beyond, the times you are in charge of the action aren't always a technically pleasurable experience. Beyond's camera is usually difficult to wrangle, and most of the character movement feels clunky. Some fighting scenes require the player to react to motions onscreen which aren't always completely obvious. Sometimes I found myself guessing in the direction I needed to flick the right stick.

There's really not much sense of immersion in Beyond, thanks to the game's overly generous hand-holding. The camera work bumps you in the right direction so only rarely are you ever confused about which way to proceed.

The most compelling gameplay mechanic within has to be the parts where you'll take over as Aiden. Beyond does an impressive job at creating a fluid spectral movement, unlike anything I've ever played. Plainly put, the times you control Aiden you feel like some kind of otherworldly ghost that can pass through walls, objects, and even people. It's here you'll be doing the majority of Beyond's gameplay by solving the occasional puzzle or using a bit of strategy.

With all the criticism I maintain about Beyond: Two Souls, it doesn't change the fact that I genuinely enjoyed it and appreciate the obviously painstaking effort put forth by the game's actors and crew. For me, though, Beyond is a perfect example of what can happen when there isn't an even enough balance of story and gameplay. The result is a piece of art that's floating in limbo, unsure of where it really belongs. When it's all said and done, I wonder if I would have enjoyed Beyond more as TV series rather than the interactive "experience" it became on PlayStation 3. It's not necessarily right or wrong, it's just different.

Beyond absolutely goes against the grain of traditional gaming, but hopefully opens up another level of accessibility in the process. It's a title you can show someone who would never even think of holding a controller. Not many games can say that.

Quantic Dream

Scott Stein:
I remember the feeling of Heavy Rain, a game that made me love the PlayStation 3 and how cinematic it could truly be. Unlike an Uncharted, Heavy Rain was slow-paced; it dripped with atmosphere; it felt like the best of David Fincher wrapped in something interactive and new. And, even though a story was being told, it felt like you were subtly but unpredictably affecting the outcome.

David Cage’s follow-up, Beyond: Two Souls, has even more impressive production technique, and performances by AAA actors that are film-worthy. Some scenes even made me cry. Some scenes are unafraid to be cryptic or weirdly stretched-out and silent; Beyond defies the action-first instincts of many console games.

But, Beyond has characters and performances that made me, the player, feel more passive. Yes, there’s a spirit you can use to explore the world around you, to impressive effect, but there’s only so much you can do. I kept playing Beyond for its nonlinear storytelling, but it’s really a linear story told out of order.

I wanted to be an Everyman, to sink into the invisible world of the game: I guess Aiden, the ghost, is that conduit, but Ellen Page’s Jodie Holmes is too powerful to ignore. She’s so good, you just sink back and watch. And the game’s pacing, in an attempt to create choice, creates odd leaps at times. If this were a film, I wouldn’t buy into the sudden shifts.

I’d gladly play a game like Beyond: Two Souls over most games, but it feels more like a high-production interactive HBO series than a game. Maybe it should cost $40, not $60. It’s a hard game to recommend for its replay value. It’s an experience, and an expensive one.

For even more in-depth coverage of Beyond: Two Souls, visit our sister site, GameSpot.

CNET verdict: Something new worth checking out

Beyond: Two Souls undoubtedly deserves credit for its great story and unique take on interactive software, even if it conflicts with what many believe constitutes a video game. It's probably unlike anything you've ever played, and that kind of uniqueness is absolutely worth checking out.

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