Given the extent to which games lean on the language of Hollywood, it’s a surprise that the ’80s action montage sequence isn’t borrowed more often. Quantic Dream leans on cinematic underpinnings more heavily than most – something that’s made abundantly clear again in Beyond: Two Souls, which is displayed not in 16:9 format but a bordered, filmic 2.35:1. But amid the QTE prompts and stick flicks, it’s pleasing to see the montage used creatively as a training element in the tutorial.
Here, protagonist Jodie Holmes, played by Ellen Page, is put through CIA training that introduces you to the game’s mechanics. That’s right: mechanics. While this is clearly a Quantic Dream production, there’s evidence that the studio no longer wants to be working in another medium.
To a relative extent, anyway. In her CIA getup, Holmes can move from cover to cover, but only between preordained points, and movement is automatic. She can fire a gun, but there’s no aiming involved, just a prompted button tap to draw a pistol and another to fire. We traverse monkey bars by holding up on the left stick, press a button for a midway chin-up, then yank the DualShock downwards to return to terra firma. And when we cut to Holmes in classroom, we press and hold buttons to solve a complex equation. An unseen teacher offers praise and the student protagonist sits back, smiling with satisfaction. We don’t.
As in ’80s action movies, things improve once the punching starts. There are no button prompts at all here. The action slows down and the screen turns black-and-white as you flick the right stick in the direction of Holmes’ movement. This retains the QTE’s input method yet fixes its oldest problem: success requires you to pay attention to the action onscreen, rather than ignore it and focus on button prompts. Quick camera cuts turn what would have been a leftward kick into a rightward one, meaning Quantic Dream’s directorial ambition becomes a gameplay mechanic in itself.
There are traditional QTEs aplenty, of course, but there are further improvements elsewhere. Simple interactions – getting up from a chair, say, or opening a door – are signalled with a small white blob, and you then flick the right stick in the right direction relative to Holmes’ position. And as Aiden, the ghostlike entity to which she has been bound since birth, you have full control, moving around the environment in firstperson perspective using both sticks. Interactive objects are denoted by a blue sphere; press and hold L1 to lock on and two purple blobs appear onscreen. If they’re close together, pull them apart; if they’re far apart, push them together. These interactions form the core of Aiden’s moveset, blasting blockages out of the way, opening closed doors, and knocking objects over to distract NPCs. Enemies surrounded in a red glow can be killed; orange ones can be possessed and moved around.
Our ghostly aide can also heal wounds, a mechanic introduced late in the training montage when Holmes pulls a muscle. And by guiding a wispy trail from a body or object to her head, Aiden can help Holmes see into the past, discovering a cause of death, perhaps, or why a rusty sword lies amid the rubble of a Navajo settlement.
Aiden may be the source of greater agency and freedom of movement than we’ve come to expect from a Quantic Dream game, but this unseen entity is far from the star of the show. David Cage’s ambition is to increase emotion in games, and the weight of that sits squarely on Holmes’ shoulders. Ellen Page gives a fine and, yes, emotive performance. As LA Noire proved, the trick to wringing believable in-game portrayals from big-name talent is to stop sticking actors in a voiceover booth with a script and start performance capturing the whole thing. Facial animation here is perhaps even better than in Team Bondi’s police procedural: every wrinkled nose and furrowed brow is believable, bordering on photorealistic.
The most common facial tic, however, is a trembling bottom lip. There’s certainly narrative justification for all of Holmes’ blubbing – every use of Aiden leaves her with involuntary tears running down her cheeks, and her path to CIA stardom proves far from pleasant – but we suspect technical achievement may also have been a factor. Beyond’s engine sets a new standard for moist eyes, and Quantic Dream has no qualms about using it to the fullest. Performance capture has also resulted in some excellent animation, with every new environment and mental state bringing a new walk cycle. A bored toddler kicking her heels, an elegant grown-up sashaying around a cocktail party, a scared young woman gingerly stepping over shards of shattered glass: it’s remarkable stuff until you break the spell by doing something the animation system doesn’t want you to. Holmes, like her Heavy Rain forebears, sports the turning circle of a Routemaster bus.
It’s the chapters that focus on Holmes’ younger years that come closest to achieving the developer’s ambitions. She’s shackled to Aiden from birth, snatched from her mother’s arms and passed on to foster parents who drop her when the paranormal activity becomes too much to bear. As a puffy-faced child, she’s handed off to a government facility and watched over by Nathan Dawkins, played by Willem Dafoe. Adjusting to life on the wrong side of a two-way mirror is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a six-year-old with a mischievous paranormal partner. Later she’ll struggle to fit in at a birthday party, and react with impotent teenage fury after Dawkins refuses to let her go out with her friends. The game’s action may come when she’s enlisted by the CIA and her burden becomes a military asset, but her early days are the most emotional.
This poses a pacing problem, the supposed solution to which is a warped chronology. The game’s loading screen displays a timeline, the opening prologue positioned all the way to the right and the bulk of the game jumping around Holmes’ past. And it’s been quite a life, taking her from moonlit woodland to suburban idyll, and from Navajo desert to snowbound city streets. Yet while the shuffled timeline makes for a satisfying flow of action beats and sensitive drama, there’s little narrative justification for such skittish regard for chronology, and some transitions feel arbitrary. The payoff to one action sequence, in which you escape from a burning building, sees you transported back to Holmes’ first night in Dawkins’ care, which doesn’t break up the pace so much as bring it to a shuddering halt. Yet even this is preferable to when chronological service is resumed, and Beyond turns into the lukewarm sci-fi hokum you’ve spent the preceding six or so hours dreading. The cast’s true intentions are revealed with few surprises, and you must make one of the few truly important choices that affect the game’s ending.
Choice is, as in Heavy Rain, arguably Beyond’s core mechanic, but your decisions are seldom meaningful. At the aforementioned birthday party, you’ll decide whether or not to kiss a boy, and whether to exact revenge after your fellow guests turn on you with childish malevolence. Later you’ll decide whether Aiden will ruin a date or play ghostly Cupid. Dialogue options are simple roleplay, with none of the repercussions, genuine or implied, of The Walking Dead.
Heavy Rain made up for its teeth-brushing and rape-escaping stick flicks with a central mystery and the knowledge that a botched QTE could have fatal ramifications. Beyond, by contrast, is a game that is almost impossible to fail. Mess up most combat QTEs and Holmes will take the hit before putting a foe down automatically. Lose a fight and your assailants will be scared off by a police siren. Sometimes failure means capture, and a brief interlude before you escape and are put back on the narrative track. Some of the bigger action sequences will simply end early, and failure may affect the story – there are two dozen endings this time, the branches better hidden by simple virtue of there being no threat of protagonist death. Deliberately fluffing your inputs in the hope of triggering a narrative shift that may not become apparent for several hours doesn’t, however, make for much of a videogame.
What a shame given the extent to which Beyond reflects its developer’s recognition of its past mistakes. This is a far more systemically diverse game than Heavy Rain, and its story is certainly more believably told through Holmes, Dafoe and a fine supporting cast. Yet this is a game almost entirely bereft of tension, one in which failure goes largely unpunished and is almost always inconsequential. There is emotion here, but it’s felt passively, as spectator instead of player. And at the game’s climax, when Quantic Dream falls back on old habits and has you guide Holmes through a supernatural storm by mashing buttons on demand, it’s hard to feel anything at all. The studio’s commendable dream – of a marriage of mechanics and storytelling that takes videogames to new emotional heights – remains out of reach, and the rivers of photorealistic tears aren’t quite enough to make up for it.