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Different, unconventional... but frustrating.
on March 16, 2015
Add a story if you're a fan of Quantic Dream's work.
I've been a fan of QD for a while. I didn't play their first game on the PS1, but I quite enjoyed Indigo Prophecy, which was a flawed but magnificent monster of a game that started out strong but fell apart in the last third. And of course I loved Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain was actually the first game I played on the PS3, and is probably my favorite overall, or at least in the top 5. You are probably going to see a lot of comparisons to Heavy Rain in my review, as well as in any review of Beyond: Two Souls - and rightfully so since it is a huge step backwards.
B:TS is a quasi-interactive game that focuses on a young lady, a tragic protagonist who has the unique gift/curse of being tethered to a ghost, to which see is psychically and spiritually linked. That tethering allows her to see things no one else can see, and to cajole her ghost to do things that no one else can do.
I say "quasi-interactive" because, while you have the opportunity to make choices, those choices really do not have consequences. Which is what distinguishes this game from Heavy Rain. In Heavy Rain, you played several different characters, and their individual choices could lead to markedly different story outcomes - whether they live or die, whether they save the kidnapped boy or not, whether the bad guy is stopped or lives to kidnap another day. Here, you are only playing one character (two, if you count Aiden). Your choices are limited to whether you go right or go left in a fight, whether you say one thing or another, whether you pick up an object and look at it or not. But there are no lingering differences. You survive no matter what, and the story unfolds in precisely the same manner either way. Even one of the bigger choices of the game, whether you get revenge on a half dozen bullying kids at a birthday party, has no additional impact beyond the end of that scene.
Given that lack of choice, whether one likes the game really turns on whether the story is good. So... is the story good? The answer is... yeah, it's good. Not necessarily good enough to passively watch most of the time, but good. The acting is extraordinary, and here is where I credit Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, the other actors, and anyone behind the motion capture. They really nail the characters in this game. Page herself delivers what might be the best video game performance I've seen in a video game that was not Last of Us. If it was ever thought that voice and motion capture acting in video games was not an art form, QD puts that to rest right here.
The problem is that the story is not necessarily as immersive as it seems to want to be. The story is presented out of chronological order at different parts of Jodie's life. And by that, I don't mean flashbacks; flashbacks generally involve a sequence of past events running concurrently with the present events. No, B:TS presents the protagonist's life completely out of order. So you may start at the end when Jodie is 32, then jump back to when she is 16, then back to when she is 8, then forward to when she is 12, and so on. The reason for this is apparently to allow the player to feel like Jodie: disconnected from people, always on her own, ill at ease, a stranger in her own life. But the problem is that it serves as a stark reminder that nothing you do in this game affects anything that happens at any other time. Where you will be, and in what condition, when you are an adult is not even slightly modified by the choices you made as a child or teenager or young adult.
Mind you, one can say the same about a number of video games, which is why video games have action, and challenge, and the possibility of death.
And yet, there are moments of near-greatness in this game. For instance, there was one chapter where you find a Navajo ranch and you live with them for a few days. There is a genuinely creepy mystery that only you can solve. The dramatic weight of the story mixed with the solitude of the location and the relative silence of the Navajo family sets an eerie tone. Ironically, the game tends to shine during the chapters that aren't pushing the central plot forward: like at the afore-mentioned birthday party, or where Jodie helps a homeless girl deliver a baby. But during the more integral chapters, like when you are investigating the scene of a botched government experiment, or are evading the feds, the feeling of being on a set, predetermined path is more evident, and thus more frustrating.
This may seem like I'm down on the game. And I guess I am, sorta. The truth is I quite enjoyed it - but I enjoyed it more because it was different from the norm than because of the game's own merits. Most of the time, I just wished I was playing Heavy Rain.