Beyond: Two Souls isn't your average game. Quantic Dream has crafted an invested, emotive story above all else, then delivered it on a scale reminiscent of a Hollywood movie by embellishing its on-screen characters with a true A-list cast.
Ellen Page stars as Jodie, the lead who has a unique tie to a supernatural entity named Aiden, alongside Willem Defoe who lends his distinct voice and facial features to Nathan Dawkings, the government scientist tasked with studying Jodie's condition. These aren't just voiceovers, these actors truly embody their respective roles in a captivating way, while every last drop of the Playstation 3's graphical juice renders them in lifelike fashion. The game is gorgeous to look at, visually engaging from the off.
But with big screen actors, visuals and ambitions clear, is Beyond: Two Souls setting itself up for one giant fall? Off the back of Heavy Rain - the studio's 2009 title that polarised opinion in a way few other titles have - and in light of the advancing shadow of the next-generation consoles, this is a game with a lot of weight on its shoulders. We've been surfing the divide between life and beyond to see whether we're in for a box office bomb or treat beyond epic Hollywood-sized proportions.
After the Rain
Quantic Dream isn't new to the genre that we affectionately called "interactive drama" back when its earlier title, Heavy Rain, was released to the world. The studio has come a long way since then in many respects, but the crux of Beyond: Two Souls' gameplay rests on similar ideas: you respond to on-screen prompts, with multiple button presses and analogue stick directions interspersed with the occasional gyroscope-based PS3 controller motion.
And plenty of you reading this will hate that, likening it to jumping through hoops with little reward. But this isn't Grand Theft Auto, it's not Call Of Duty. Beyond: Two Souls is a game that resides in its own space, and that's exactly why we - and many others will - love it.
To be fair, there is a post-Heavy Rain freshness to the title thanks to its dual character dynamic. Take charge of Jodie and there's a lot to master: from the simple visual prompts to follow on screen; to hide-and-shoot stealth combat with weapons; through to hand-to-hand combat that revolves around Matrix-esque bullet time slowdowns where you'll need to intuitively dodge, block or counter attacks with analogue stick direction control.
Then there's Aiden, the entity intrinsically tied to Jodie, who you can also take control of. Here it's a wholly different experience: float around like a ghost with the ability to pass through matter to reach certain locations; interact with objects to distract attention; strangle or even possess people to do your bidding; heal others.
The interplay between Jodie and Aiden is often masterful, but does go full circle back to the hoop-jumping. Aiden can't be called upon at all times, while other times he has to be used. It feels regimented, like a known path is cut out. Forget to action a specific piece of a "puzzle" to progress forward and, typically, there'll be some sort of prompt to make clear what to do next.
Problem is that it rarely to never feels difficult, it's much easier than Heavy Rain was. We'd have liked a more challenging mode with more complex button presses and combinations. As it stands there's only an "easier" mode for those who don't play games very often.
However there is still challenge: you can't just sit there and ignore all the prompts because - and as we found out for the sake of testing - you can die or end up with a scene not playing out as you may have intended. Actions do have consequences, and those with carve a different set of results and path through the latter stages of the game.
'A chaos of images with no order'
Beyond: Two Souls explores Jodie's life throughout an approximate 15-year period, with the timescale jumping and diving between four key stages from the age of eight through to her mid-twenties. In a guise akin to a postmodern movie, the game subverts the otherwise linear narrative by playing out scenes in apparently sporadic order. But, of course, that's not the case: this construct is one of the game's driving characteristics, the mechanic that delivers the storyline in a truly engaging way.
One minute you're a child suffering nightmares all too real, the next you're camoed-up fighting half way around the world and, at that particular moment of play, you'll have limited ideas as to why. How does everything connect? It keeps the brain ticking over, there's that feeling of wanting to deconstruct the narrative puzzle to build a full understanding.
Why did that happen? How did she get there? What's that scar about? - the story unfolds piece by piece and you'll want to get to the end. All this is played out visually too: a mind map, complete with small orbs in chronological order, helps pick up your place in life with each play.
But it's not just the format that delivers the goods, it's the writing, acting, soundtrack and story that all forge into this genuinely engaging, even moving piece. It makes Heavy Rain feel like a rough around the edges pilot that was never picked up by a studio. Beyond pushes things into new territory.
Its testament to David Cage - the game's writer, director and Quantic Dream founder - and his ability to surf the movie-game divide. There are moments of brilliance where the Hans Zimmer produced soundtrack will tug at the heartstrings, or where Page's on-screen excellence feels real to the point of hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
But in the same breath there are some poor pacing issues. For all his brilliance, Cage needs an editor who's not afraid of the digital cutting floor.
While we've seen plenty of games swap between 9mm pistols and knives before, Beyond: Two Souls does so in a whole other context: we're talking shooting in warn-torn Somalia in one scene followed by the juxtaposition of chopping up the vegetables for tonight's dinner from some years before. In that instance, as one example of a few, the interplay feels like a hard slam on the brakes - elsewhere in the game the shift from scene to scene, through time and place, has a far greater deftness of touch.
Some in-game sections would also benefit from a trim: beautiful and painstakingly produced though all the game's locations are, we don't need to walk down a road for a whole minute before something happens. Not every location feels to have earned its place either - the insertion of a Navajo desert scene feels thin, like an afterthought with no defined place within the story as a whole. There's also the occasional odd sense of time where night suddenly becomes day right in front of your eyes in some scenes, which looks sloppy and is a brief distraction from a game where realism is the goal. Those small eye-off-the-ball moments should have been smoothed out.
But that's direction: and Cage still has a little to learn. And yet once you're done with the game - we've seen it out in six different ways - all is forgiven because the credits whip you through the rollercoaster ride of Jodie's life story, replete with so many captivating moments. It was all worth it, even the slow stuff.
Je ne sais quoi
There's that je ne sais quoi about the game, apt from the French-based studio. It's a thump to the face of acting brilliance and delivery that is 99 per cent on target. The other one per cent? Even the stuff that feels downright bizarre - the near-voyeuristic nature of taking a shower and picking out the style of clothes to wear, for example, or in a totally different twist helping to deliver a baby, cord-cutting and all - adds to the interaction between player and protagonist; because Page is so darn convincing as Jodie, and you've grown up with her through the game, it becomes a relationship more real than any other game has managed to convey before it.
The game's 26 chapters might take a weekend or a week to push through, depending on how much time you have to invest in the game. Treat it to an hour a day and you might spread that out to a fortnight at best. Once complete you can dig back in to individual chapters, play out different outcomes, and search out hidden "bonuses" such as artwork, trailers and behind-the-scenes featurettes. We'd rather these were available upon completion rather than having to hunt through Aiden's "beyond" world, but that's the way it is. In the future there will be additional pay-for download content from Playstation Store too.
Beyond: Two Souls is a genuinely engaging emotional thrill ride that represents a new benchmark for in-game acting and storytelling. You'll feel connected to the central characters in the same way a good movie will pull you in and keep you wrapped up in its fictional bubble. It feels meaningful.
Although that makes it a special experience, it's not a flawless one - but much of that comes down to personal taste, the occasional mis-paced chapter and, ultimately, whether you'll love or loathe the gameplay and control system. If you liked Heavy Rain then this is a step beyond, whereas if you weren't on board with that then Beyond will feel like more of the same.
Like a cult classic with a few dud scenes scattered in among the edit, Beyond follows a similar suit: its variety delivers a complete package, warts and all, where even the shortcomings garner a certain fondness; it's the full album experience but one where you can't skip any tracks.
Beyond: Two Souls delivers a rich experience that most games could only ever dream of and the dual character mechanic lends new life to Quantic Dream's vision. The game will divide opinion, no doubt, but we're totally on side with it - it's that rare landmark moment in gaming, delivered with Hollywood gusto and a lick of Quantic Dream's Francais flair. Utterly brilliant.