Beyond: Two Souls puts players in the control of two unconventional video-game characters over a 15-year period: Jodie Holmes, an ordinary girl, and Aiden, a psychic entity tethered to her. But like Aiden, the game is trapped between two worlds: video games and cinema. It might just be the best movie you’ve ever played (interactive cinema has come a long way since Dragon’s Lair), but that’s not necessarily a complement for a game, especially since the story’s epic encounters come at the cost of an overbearing direction. It’s like taking an acting class: You’re allowed—and encouraged, based on the unlockable achievements—to make choices, but no matter what you do, the results are ultimately overruled by the needs of the script. (This isn’t to say that there’s only one way to finish a chapter, but there aren’t any branching paths or lasting consequences.) Furthermore, the controls, though greatly improved from those used in Quantic Dream’s prior Heavy Rain, are clunky; both the stealth and survival-horror sequences would be better served by getting away from contextual QTEs. But the game still tells a beautiful, gripping tale, thanks in part to the voice and motion-capture performances of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, making 2011’s L.A. Noire, acclaimed for its facial graphics, seem decades old.
If nothing else satisfies the picky gamer, Beyond: Two Souls is at least filled with a variety of scenarios that take every advantage of its time-jumping, non-linear narrative to convey short-story-like experiences that grow to more than the sum of their parts. Each scene not only fills in the character-defining blanks between Jodie’s first interactions with Aiden as a frightened six-year-old and the present, in which she, as a 21-year-old, slaughters a room full of SWAT agents sent to subdue her, but offers a distinct experience. One sequence has you precariously piloting an underwater submarine; another has you sneaking out of the house to throw snowballs. These are drastic highs and lows, bound together by the anguish of a young girl who wants nothing more than to be ordinary. They also justify the inclusion of so much normality: For every traditional chapter (sneaking through a hostile Somalian village or fighting rogue entities leaking out from a rift between Earth and the spectral Infraworld), there are two or three unconventional-for-a-game levels (attempting to fit in at a fellow teenager’s birthday party, contemplating suicide while homeless, anxiously preparing a dinner date for a potential boyfriend).
To be fair, with the rise of independent games, many of these once-alternative stories have been explored before, most recently in Gone Home, though rarely in a triple-A title. What sets Beyond: Two Souls apart is the fact that you control Aiden as well as Jodie. It’s one thing to throw a tantrum as a young teenager who just wants to go out to a party, and another to use your “imaginary” friend to fly around the room, smashing objects and possessing guards in order to sneak out. Aiden’s context-less choices are also more complicated, and thereby more interesting, than Jodie’s: Do you take revenge on the people who tease her, and if so, where do you draw the line? When it comes to protecting her, does that extend to ruining her dates, and if so, is that out of jealousy? Moreover, it’s simply cool to play as Aiden, who can fly through walls, disrupt electronics, and channel the memories of corpses, so long as he doesn’t get too far from Jodie.
More importantly than being cool, Beyond: Two Souls is never boring—and that’s despite the fact that several chapters are nothing more than a series of dialogue choices or mundane tasks like taking an ESP test or learning the ropes as a rancher. We cede control all the time in the interests of gaining something better, so if QTEs are required to program a thrilling chase across the roof of a speeding train, or a Karateka¬-like fighting system is what’s needed for a brawl that takes place in the back of an out-of-control flatbed truck, so be it. (Is this so different, really, from what God of War and Uncharted do?) There’s at least the illusion of depth and significance beneath these simple mechanics. At its best, Beyond: Two Souls makes you feel like Aiden himself: an outside observer, tethered and emotionally connected to a foreign world, ever reaching out in an attempt to save the day.