Posted on March 21, 2013 AT 07:00am
After an E3 showing that was more intriguing than informative, Beyond: Two Souls just sort of dropped off the radar. With such an intriguing concept—Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream working with A-list Hollywood talent to craft an interactive paranormal thriller—it was a shame that the game disappeared without revealing too many concrete details.
Almost a year later, I finally got the chance to go hands-on and tackle some of those lingering questions firsthand—and a lot of what I found surprised me. Here’s a rundown of the moments and features that stood out to me the most.
If you played Heavy Rain, you probably noticed the characters that populated Quantic Dream’s vision of Philadelphia would’ve sounded more at home in Provence than in Pennsylvania. This go around, I was pretty sure that Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe could pull off convincing American accents, but I was considerably less optimistic when it came to Beyond‘s supporting cast. After seeing the game firsthand, I’m happy to report that I’ve been proven wrong—at least for now. While there were still a few stilted performances, the average caliber of talent was noticeably higher across the board—and there wasn’t a Parisian drawl to be heard.
If you were one of the folks who thought of Heavy Rain as a ten-hour Quick Time Event, you should be thrilled to know that Beyond does away with long, uninterrupted streams of arbitrary onscreen button prompts (though button and six-axis prompts do make isolated appearances here and there). Combat and basic world interactions now rely on pushing the right stick in the direction that seems most natural for the action you need to perform. Want to press a button? Press up on the stick to reach your hand out. About to be punched in the side of the head? Flick the stick to the right to throw up a block. It’s an interesting idea, provided the game can ensure that every required gesture is simple and immediately intuitive. If not, fights could quickly be reduced to painful guessing games, which could be more annoying than the QTEs were.
Even on the most basic level, Beyond represents a huge step for Quantic Dream in terms of gameplay. Being able to swap between Jodie and Aiden is the closest the studio has come to delivering a conventional game mechanic, and it’s already clear that it’ll pave the way for much deeper puzzles than anything we saw in Heavy Rain. But from the look of things, the game will take things a step further with bigger, more action-oriented moments. I saw snippets of Jodie galloping through the desert on horseback, sniffing around for clues at a supernatural crime scene, and riding a motorcycle down a rainy highway on the run from the cops. I even saw one shot that looked a bit like it’d been plucked out of a third-person shooter, with Jodie taking cover behind rubble in an abandoned desert town. I doubt she’ll actually be getting into any gunfights, but what I saw hinted at a surprising amount of action nevertheless.
One of the biggest frustrations in adventure games is when you can’t figure out the esoteric action you need to do so you can continue. Quantic Dream’s games have always done a decent job avoiding that by creating solutions that are rooted in the logic of everyday life, but Beyond seems to take it even further by sometimes offering multiple choice. Say you need to get through a pane of glass. You can have Jodie chuck a chair through it or you can swap to Aiden and have him smash it with his ghostly powers. I’m quite interested in seeing just how pervasive this approach to design will be in the final game.
I know, the fact that a Quantic Dream game looks good shouldn’t be surprising, but Beyond really steps things up. If you showed me a video of the game and told me it was a launch title for the PS4, I probably wouldn’t be that surprised. Some of the effects look straight out of next-gen, especially what they’ve accomplished with bokeh and depth of field. In fact, according to director David Cage, many of the game’s graphical tricks only came about after the team started working for Sony’s next gen system and then realized they might be able to apply some of the same techniques to the PS3.
Part of what makes Beyond look so gorgeous is the insane attention that’s been paid towards ensuring that characters’ movements are as lifelike as possible. Whereas most games rely on a single set of animations for basic interactions, Beyond features around 23,000 unique animations, each tailored to fit a specific scenario. Jodie’s walking animation, for instance, varies wildly depending on her age, her surroundings, and her current state of mind, which allows body language to play a major role in setting the scene. When Jodie’s a terrified 16-year-old girl, she’ll walk exactly like a terrified 16-year-old girl. It might sound silly, but when you see it in action, it’s disarmingly convincing.
When I heard that Beyond would take place across 15 years of Jodie’s life, I assumed that meant a few isolated vignettes set three or four years apart. Apparently that’s not the case, as Cage mentioned that Jodie has around 40 unique looks to represent her at different points in time. Unless 30 of those are dedicated to a Pretty Woman–style dressing room montage, that means we’re going to experience dozens of moments throughout her life. And assuming most of those are as meaty as the handful of segments I saw and played, we should be in for a fairly lengthy experience, too.
Rather than presenting the events of Jodie’s life as a straightforward narrative thread, Beyond will jump around in time and leave it up to the player to fit together all of the pieces. Cage cited the Christopher Nolan film Memento as one of his inspirations, so it should be interesting to see how the disordered nature of the story is used to set up twists and turns.
This was by far the most shocking revelation for me. Seriously, it’s Willem Dafoe. That guy is the very definition of sinister. His last name sounds like “the foe.” If he shows up in a movie, there’s at least a 90% chance he’s going to turn out to be evil. Well, not in Beyond. The relationship between his character, Nathan Dawkins, and Ellen Page’s Jodie Holmes seems complex, nuanced, and tender. Plus, not once did he try to stab her with his Goblin Glider. I suppose there’s still plenty of time for that, though.
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