Friday, December 27, 2013

beyond: two souls

the second game to star Ellen Page this year stars the actual Ellen Page! While I'd had an interest in both of these games prior to their releases, I knew that The Last of Us was going to be hard to top, even before it came out. And I think it's unfortunate that the similarities will cause these two games to be associated that way, because The Last of Us was going to be a hard game to top for anyone, let alone Quantic Dream, whose games aren't even the same type of game. Combat is typically not the core. You fight with words. Fightin' words.  

We've seen dialogue work as a combat mechanic before, though

I was actually a really big fan of Quantic Dream's last games going into Beyond: Two Souls. The studio is very well-known for making games that have little to nothing going on in the "gameplay" department, giving the player an "interactive drama", as they'd opted to call it. That's what Heavy Rain was, anyway, and I think they did a really fantastic job of achieving what they'd set out to do in that game. I loved it, and thought it made a pretty decent case for games to try and do things other than combat as their core mechanic.

So just how does Beyond stack up? Well, there's no comparison to be made to The Last of Us. It's obviously a completely different kind of game, and it's storytelling elements are different for that reason. Apples to Oranges. But how about against Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, Quantic Dreams' older games? Well, truth be told, I kiiiiind of think those games were better. It kind of sucks to have to say that, because the promo materials we've all seen make it look like a ton of work went into this game. Beyond definitely seems to be trying hard, but a lot of the storytelling fell flat for me, and I think explaining why is best done through comparison. Apples to Apples.

You had ONE JOB!

What I'd liked about Heavy Rain specifically, was that it really got controls for this sort of game down to a T. Down to a U and V, even. They really made the inputs feel appropriate in terms of representing what was on screen, and making you feel "responsible" for your character's actions. My favorite example is that, when your character needed to carefully step around, through, or over something, you were required to press and hold a series of buttons in a specific sequence. On the controller, you would hold a button down with your thumb and, without releasing it, reach and hold down another with your index finger, and then another with your middle. In many cases it plays out like Twister for your fingers, and really made you feel like you were doing what your character was.

That's why it's so disappointing that, for whatever reason, in Beyond they seem to have downplayed this sort of mechanic. They've actually made it control like a typical 3rd person cover shooter in many instances. Gone is the requirement to hold down the R2 button to walk around, and most interactions with objects are done with a single-direction tilt of the right analog stick. Punches and dodges are done the same way, and no longer require a "hook" maneuver with the stick; you only have to tilt the right stick in the direction of the action. So, say if Jodie is punching to the left of your TV, you tilt the stick left to make the punch successfully connect.

It's streamlined and convenience-ized in order to keep the story moving (I'm guessing). I could understand any of the several reasons they'd made the decision to go this route, though in each case I honestly have to say I don't agree with it. I very much liked the idea of interactive drama, especially with how well I felt it was executed in QD's older games. Those games did an outstanding job of showing what could be done to use the video game medium for storytelling. The realism of the controls made it feel like you were actually interacting with the world and story, qualifying it to be called interactive drama.  Beyond works more like a movie on VHS, being played through a VCR that has a busted Play button, so you have to hold it down. You as the player do little more than press X to keep the story moving. With so much of the game requiring little mechanical investment from the player, immersion suffers. The straight-face, no-nonsense plot is then just more difficult to take seriously, and the whole experience just feels "bleh".

It feels that way despite the number of divergent paths it has. Penny Arcade posted a blogger article found here, which I'd happened upon and read. It showed how Beyond actually has a crazy number of divergent paths, and variables in the story's outcome. The game actually does do a very impressive job of making it so that your actions and choices have effects later on, which is something game developers have been trying to achieve for a while now; development costs have always prohibited it. In Beyond, you're able to actually trigger or miss entire scenes based on succeeding at certain tasks, or making certain choices. For instance, in one scene, you are trying to sneak out of your room and go to a bar. Whether you succeed in getting out unnoticed will determine whether you even go to the bar, and what you do in the bar affects your character personally later on. In most games, if you failed the escape mission, you'd simply have to try again or, heaven forbid, the story would just come up with a plot device to get you to the bar anyway. Like, you'd get caught, but then a friend would just come and bust you out.

This could only end well
So it's actually pretty impressive technically. Also in terms of how much filming must have gone into it. Watching some of the behind the scenes materials showed off just how much work went into the acting element. With name actors associated with the project, a lot was kind of riding on that, and it kind of makes me sad that so much of the plot fell flat. Moreso than any video game I've seen, this game is really, really mopey. Ellen Page stares blankly so much in this game. I don't know if QD thought they were at a point where they could capture the more subtle emotions of their actors and then fell short, or if the original performances were that way, but it's kind of off-putting. Jodie (our hero), while not unlikable, is really angsty and serious. I understand that it's a drama game, and that I'm writing this about a month after finishing it so my memory is fuzzy, but I feel like the character never smiled, cracked a joke, or nuthin'. It's appropriate in some cases, but makes for a really dry experience when that's all you get. Especially for a story with wacky stuff in it, like ghosts and junk. 

You'll be seeing this face a lot
I'll try not to spoil any of the story; most of the promo materials already show you that Jodie has an invisible companion with supernatural powers, and that she's on the run from the government. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, and switches between a typical QD game, and a 3rd person cover shooter. The 3rd person gameplay is the style QD is newest to, and I think it is by far the weakest. In a game that has practically no combat, and is built in such a way that there really aren't consequences for failure, you gotta wonder what it's even doing there. I don't know if they thought it would make for a more marketable game, or what, but it just felt unnecessary. Especially considering the scenes that used it were the least interesting, story-wise. Again I don't want to spoil anything, but I don't think it's hard to imagine cover-shooter gameplay clashing very awkwardly with a story about a ghostly companion.

The story does have it's strong points; don't get me wrong. There's a satisfying mystery attached to just what her companion character is (his name is Aiden), and it does get explained (in a manner I was satisfied with, no less). Jodie spends most of the story on the run from the government, though you will get to see most of her life before and after that happens; there's definitely more than what's in the trailers. While I understand the logic in having the plot revolve around the government's interest in Aiden, implementation doesn't go so well. It's just as awkward as the mixing of cover shooting and ghosts, though it will probably just come down to your taste. Bonus points go to whoever put in that Ghostbusters nod, though. See if you notice it. It's in the 1st or 2nd scene.

We've mentioned it, but the biggest deal about this game is that it's got recognizable actors in it. While I question the necessity of attaching Hollywood names to the project, I was pleased to see that everyone seems to have worked seriously on it. Truth be told, the fact that Ellen Page and Willem DaFoe are recognizable was sometimes distracting. I'm a verbal thinker, and in my head I constantly referred to Jodie as "Ellen". "Ellie" even, a few times. It kind of makes me wonder if such a move in the games industry is ready for "prime time" yet. I think we still have a few years before this sort of thing isn't going to be the biggest selling point, and if that's the case maybe it's not such a good idea yet. On the other hand, someone's gotta break the seal, so maybe this is exactly what we need.

All gripes considered, I still think it was an interesting game, and it wound up a net-positive for me. Most QD games are compelling at least from an experimental point of view, but usually also are good in their own right. This one is also good in it's own right, just to a less impactful degree. If you've got a PS3, it's worth a rent, just to see if you wind up liking it. There's a 2-player mode which I didn't get to try out, just an FYI. Maybe that mode is better. If you passed up Heavy Rain, and think Beyond is at least a intriguing, maybe pick that one up after.

Funny enough, my favorite part of the whole package was unlocking KARA. It's a tech demo of sorts produced by Quantic Dream. It only lasts a few minutes, and is a bit on the dramatic side for me, but is more affective than most of this game. If you're not interested in Beyond, you can at least watch KARA here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Can't find it?