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Critical Consensus: Beyond puts gameplay in the backseat

Quantic Dream's latest refines the studio's focus on storytelling above all else, and critics seem torn on what that means

When Sony Computer Entertainment took a chance on Quantic Dream, it produced the critically-acclaimed Heavy Rain. So it's no surprise that the publisher and developer have teamed up again for another PlayStation 3 exclusive project, Beyond: Two Souls. The supernatural thriller launched in North America today, with a European launch coming this Friday.

The scores on Beyond are all across the board, hovering in the middle range with a few high peaks and low valleys. Digital Spy and Gamespot are on the high-end, with a perfect 5 out of 5 and 9 out of 10, respectively. Destructoid brings up the rear with a 5 out of 10 and Gameranx is at the very bottom with a 3 out of 10. All told, 49 critic reviews add up to a Metascore of 74 as of this writing.

A number of reviewers peg Beyond as an interactive narrative instead of a game, including Digital Spy's Mark Langshaw, who gave the game a perfect score.

"Beyond: Two Souls feels more like an interactive movie than a video game in its own right, but the story it has to tell is thoroughly gripping, and will take players from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other," says Langshaw.

Eurogamer's Oli Welsh, who gave the game a 6 out of 10, agrees that Cage was aiming to create an interactive film.

"Beyond: Two Souls has been formatted for screens it will never appear on. The entirety of this expansive, expensive paranormal thriller from French studio Quantic Dream is presented in the super-widescreen 'scope' film format, and shows between thick black bars on your TV set. Just like a movie," he explains. "Beyond is all story, and what you are experiencing is tacitly held to be bigger, grander, more epic and encompassing, than how you're experiencing it."

This is a feeling many had with Heavy Rain, but Destructoid's Jim Sterling - who have the game a 5 out of 10 - has an issue with the fact that Beyond doesn't allow you to fail. When you miss or screw up, the game adjusts and keeps on going. Sterling believes this takes away from the importance of your personal actions.

"Essentially following in Heavy Rain's footsteps, Beyond is another spiritual successor to Dragon's Lair, with even less agency and some awkward controls thrown in for good measure," says Sterling. "As Jodie, interactions are restricted mostly to walking around, opening doors, engaging in restrictive conversations, and indulging in the occasional quick-time-event sequence. For much of this, the player's input is almost entirely optional. QTE action sequences can be completed without needing to even pick up the controller, as Jodie will survive all encounters if you fail every single button prompt."

I simply didn't care about the bland, superficial plot vehicle whose lifeless idea of life was in my hands

Destructoid's Jim Sterling

"Once you cotton on to the fact that your personal input is almost meaningless, and the impact of your inaction is frivolous, your only real incentive for 'playing' is to humor the game, and it does indeed feel like you're patronizing it when you decide to play along with the fantasy of player agency," he continues. "Nowhere is this more typified than one sequence in which I could choose to speak up in order to stop something bad happening to another character ... and I didn't say a word. It didn't really matter if the bad thing happened (there was only a cosmetic change) and I simply didn't care about the bland, superficial plot vehicle whose lifeless idea of life was in my hands."

"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," concurs Edge Online, who awarded Beyond with a 5 out of 10. "Mess up most combat QTEs and Holmes will take the hit before putting a foe down automatically. 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."

With game mechanics taking a backseat, much of Beyond's presentation depends on the movie star cast and the story. Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe lead the cast, with both actors having gone through extensive voice and facial capture for the game. Polygon's Justin McElroy calls the game "vastly improved" over its predecessor when it comes to presentation and gave Beyond an 8 out of 10.


"Despite that frustration, Beyond: Two Souls often succeeds where predecessor Heavy Rain failed because the storytelling is so much better," he says. "The performances are vastly improved - thanks in no small part to better actors - and the motion capture is staggeringly great. The detail of animations, both in faces and bodies, manages to leap right over the uncanny valley and into the realm of believability. In a few moments, like when I watched Jodie struggle gamely carrying a bale of hay into a barn, I would have sworn I was watching a real person. The environments are absolutely stunning, which helps the verisimilitude."

"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," adds Edge. "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."

Unfortunately, when you strip away game mechanics, all that remains is the story being told. Hollywood actors and beautiful graphics can't hide a plot that isn't completely up to snuff, and Sterling took Cage to task for it.

"The auteur theory is all well and good, but it only really works out for a piece of art if the auteur in question is good enough to actually be an auteur. I've believed for years that Cage, while an undoubtedly talented man, is simply not a strong enough creator to be an unchallenged writer and director. If Beyond: Two Souls does anything right, it's prove that belief," says Sterling. "It demonstrates, beyond doubt, that Hollywood actors, cutting edge-visual technology, and a decent budget mean nothing, if it's all being piled onto a ship with an unsuitable captain."

Polygon's McElroy agrees that the mechanics have been stripped away to focus players' on the game's story, but that Beyond's story isn't all its cracked up to be.

"With Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream has smoothed away nearly all the rough edges in how it presents its stories," he says. "The other edge of that sword is that it lays the stories themselves bare to be judged entirely on their own. With so many of the traditional elements of gameplay stripped away, like challenge and exploration, a tremendous amount of weight is put on Beyond's story to carry the day. While it's exhilarating to see a team that has worked so hard to perfect a new way of telling stories, I couldn't help wishing they had a perfect one to tell."

This seems to be where the difference in review scores stems from, with those on the high-end of the review scale enjoying the game's story immensely.

"Beyond: Two Souls is one of the most poignant and enthralling stories we have encountered in a video game, capable of stirring up the same depth of emotion as great works from the mediums of film and literature," says Langshaw.

Gamespot's Tom McShea, who gave Beyond a 9.0, called the game a "gripping adventure" and found himself sympathizing with lead character Jodie Holmes, played by Page.

"It's Jodie's transformation from scared child to confident adult that's so mesmerizing, and you grow to care for her as you become invested in her plight," says McShea. "Top-notch acting makes the characters you interact with sound believable, and their faces are expressive enough that you understand their thoughts even when they remain silent. Beyond: Two Souls so easily melds story and mechanics that you become enamored with this young woman and her extraordinary life."

It would be one of the worst movies you've ever seen, even though Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe give fine performances

New York Times' Chris Suellentrop

In the end, there's a contingent of reviewers out there who believe that just because Quantic Dream's Beyond isn't perfect, doesn't mean it's not important. The New York Times' Chris Suellentrop, one of the few mainstream outlets to review the game as of this writing, praised the simple fact that Cage and company reached for something different. Suellentrop did admit that the difference - a pure focus on directed interactive narrative - isn't as rare as it once was.

"The point of the choices in Beyond is not to make the game replayable but to make you emotionally invested in the story. Yet other recent games have done this more successfully. If you are curious about video games that treat you as an adult and are emotionally cathartic, play Journey, Papo & Yo, The Walking Dead and Gone Home, to name a few," says Suellentrop.

"Beyond: Two Souls is a misstep for Mr. Cage and Quantic Dream, but its failings are not the result of the limitations of Mr. Cage's preferred medium. That it is interesting at all hinges on its interactive nature. It would be one of the worst movies you've ever seen, even though Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe give fine performances," he continues. "There's still something mesmerizing about what Mr. Cage is trying to achieve, even if the gumbo endemic to his work is seasoned with too much awful and not enough wonderful this time around. I can't help but look forward to playing whatever he makes next."

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Latest comments (13)

Justin Shuard J - E translator 7 years ago
Not really surprising that this game has divided critics. I'm not really sure who this game is aimed at. Gamers are going to want something with a greater focus on gameplay, while the average movie buff isn't going to pay $60 for a plodding 12-hour movie.
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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 7 years ago
I think it's simply of a matter of definition.
Beyond falls more into the category of "visual novel" rather than actual "game". I'm sure there is an audience for this genre but, if it's sold as "game", people are likely to expect something different than what it actually is. So it might fail to grab the interest of people who'd like this kind of entertainment experience or disappoint the more Gamer crowd.
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 7 years ago
I disagree that this is a matter of whether you like interactive stories or prefer more gamey games. It's really more a matter of if you're going to focus on telling a story, make it a good one and do it well. Walking Dead has a lot of false choices, smoke and mirrors, yet few people minded because it had good writing. Cage has good intentions, but he would do his vision a favour if he just let somebody else write the scripts.

From the kotaku review (which makes some good points, as does eurogamer's)
"The cast is never more comfortable than when they're playing casual, and the whole thing feels so welcomely different. David Cage says that video games need to grow up, to put aside the explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios, and in scenes like this one, he delivers. So it's all the more frustrating that he’s larded up so much of the rest of his game with explosions, violence, and ridiculous action-movie scenarios. Looked at in total, Beyond's story is generally pretty fun, but it's often so unabashedly hacky that it's hard to take it seriously. Worse than all that, though, is that it never actually manages to be about anything. For all its inspired moments, I can’t name a single unifying idea. Ghosts are scary, I guess?"

Wll try the demo, but for me this sounds like a wait-for-price-drop purchase.
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Show all comments (13)
James Prendergast Process Specialist 7 years ago
Hmmm. This is disappointing. I'll probably pick it up on sale then. I had been planning on getting it at release but what made Heavy Rain for me was the innovative fail states that allowed continuing on in a less than perfect manner.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes7 years ago
I loved Heavy Rain, but I can't help thinking in 2013 that I'd rather pick this up episodically on the App Store for $5 an episode, $20 the season, a la Walking Dead and frankly that's where they need to go. Hats off to Sony for continuing to fund Mr Cage and Quantic Dream though, I love what they're aiming to do but no matter how well they do it this stuff is going to churn at Gamestop and not make a dime for anybody,
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Steven Hodgson Programmer, Code in Progress Ltd7 years ago
I was kind of hoping they'd move beyond QTE, most of Fahrenheit playtime was wasted playing them while interesting stuff was happening elsewhere. I'm a fan of Quantic Dream since Nomad Soul, so I'll still pick it up in the hope that I'm like those who rated it highly.
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Ralph Tricoche Studying MA, CUNY7 years ago
If its interactive its a game. Look at game pf the year Walking Dead. Not much difference. If you like focused narrative, where you get to play the protagonist. Then Heavy Rain and Beyond are yours. If by gameplay the average gamer means twitch gaming, then that's a different kind of gaming.

For as much as GTA V sold I found that game to be lifeless, humorless and not very fun to play. So you get to dable in a fictitious stock market? you play golf? These are game mechanics? Open world with little to do that wasn't tedious. If the medium is to grow, all forms of games must not only be represented, but the must be successful. Otherwise keep churning out the same old stuff.

Wait that already happens.
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 7 years ago
Ralph, the problem is that Beyond:TS isn't interactive. It's not. You can just leave your controller on the coffee table and sit there. The game doesn't need you to do anything but put it in the disc tray. That's simply not a game. Heavy Rain was a game (a good one, though quality isn't my point), but Beyond just takes all player interaction and kills it.

And I understand that it's your opinion, but GTA V has been well-loved by 99% of its player base. People don't talk about GTA V because it sold well; it's because it tells a great satire of modern society in a fun setting (in the opinion of most people).
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
As a gamer i like to play games. Beyond 2 souls stands somewhere inbetween. But its so perfectly in the middle that it fails to satisfy both. Im just thinking it lost its focus. And alot of times you gotta decided to focus more on one area rather than multiple areas, because you spread your self thin and become incompetent in all areas, instead of being really great at one. "Bruce lee said he fears more a guy who practices 1 kick 1000 times, more than, a guy who practices 1000 kicks one time.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Oh, just buy or rent it at LEAST and judge for yourself, I say. The funny thing here is I was having a conversation with a friend on the fence about Beyond who happens to LOVE Japanese visual novel games such as 999, Zero Escape: Last Reward and a few others that are basically doing the same thing but in a 2D anime style (which turns off some hardcore gamers and folks who don't like that art style or gameplay) and with less action. As soon as I pointed that out to him (and reminded him that both 999 and Zero Escape are basically SAW experiences with slightly more likable characters, he nearly keeled over laughing because that's how the clerk at a game shop described ZE when he was picking up his reserve.

That said, methinks Cage needs a script doctor or at least a bigger canvas to paint his ideas on. Faherenheit had me until it went off the rails, Heavy Rain was wonderfully tight, warts and all and while I'm not picking up Beyond until next week or so, I'm going in with NO expectations at all, as this helps me enjoy any game I play even more.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 7 years ago
I still have a hard time accepting the premise of this game, as iit seems to lack a consistent logical buildup. You get to choose between A, B and C when it comes to cooking, but in the next moment you've got no say when your character decides to kill someone. And why even give the player different food choices, when you won't actually be able to taste the food? This game wants to be epic and emotional kitchen drama at the same time, and I think that's one of the problems here. Either trust the drama in the small things, or go for the explosions.

What also struck me is that this doesn't really look much better than motion scan. The advantage of the performance capture here is that you capture the full body performance. But it still doesn't manage to capture subtle facial expressions like the ones in L.A. Noire. That said, at the very least it makes it obvious to me that there's no going back. Allowing actors to actually act in games is important for the medium to develop it's storytelling.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Petter Solberg on 10th October 2013 3:01am

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
I plan to pick up Beyond eventually. I havent played it, but based on reviews and forums, Its not really fun to play. Its more like an interactive 8-12 hour movie. Which is fine. I get my kicks out of DS games like 999 and Virtues last Reward which are more like interactive comic books. However I just think that if your designing a game you have to choose to focus. And for a game to be a game I think gameplay is the most important aspect, if not it becomes more like an interactive movie. Which is fine, but after all ive read, Im not going into this thinking its really a game. And Im not paying 60$ either. Ill just wait for a price drop and then pick it up. I find that paying 60$ is worth it when the game offers exceptionally good gameplay or replay value. I want to pick up the controller and have fun, not be bored to death. So yeah Ill pick this up, its just not as something Im dying to get my hands on either. You can have the flashiest graphics in the world, but if game play faulters thats an automatic game killer for me.
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Emily Rose Artist 7 years ago
I think it was wonderful, I hate movies because they are too short, so this is just right, plenty of time for character development and the analog stick interaction feels really intense. Just have to immerse yourself :) I thought the plot was great.
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