In Beyond: Two Souls, Ellen Page plays a creepy version of the character model of Ellie from The Last of Us. She has access to something called an iDen, which has a number of apps. It has a wall hack app. It has an app to divert the flow of flashbacks into her face so that she can see them. It has a medical app that you’ll almost never use. It has an app to tump over items that are scripted to tump over. It has a mindhack app that can mindhack about 1% of the characters you meet. That’s the problem with the iDen: it only works where the game developers say it can work.
For instance, mysterious things happen at a house and the Ellen Page character model is told not to look outside. Under no circumstance. Don’t look outside. Just don’t. Don’t even think about it. Naturally, this means she’s supposed to look outside. So you fire up the iDen’s wall hack app only to discover that suddenly the walls to the outside of the house are impervious to wall hacking. Oh, sure, you can still wall hack the walls to adjoining rooms, no problem. But certain walls have now become magically immune to the iDen. So now you have to figure out the puzzle some other way. Except that it’s not a puzzle at all, since the solution is to go to the front door and open it. Are games getting dumber, or am I getting smarter? Wait, I think I mean the other way around.
After the jump, the iDen explained
Okay, the iDen isn’t really a device. It’s the eponymous second soul. The Ellen Page character model was born with an extra soul. Some people have an extra testicle or an extra nipple. The Ellen Page character model has an extra soul (the reveal about this soul is exactly what you expect, so act like you’re surprised when it comes up at the very end of the story). Her extra soul lets her variously play as a super spy, a midwife, a panhandler, a commando in a cover shooter without much shooting, and a little girl with psychic powers that come with psychic responsibility, so don’t use them too much against snotty kids your own age. You can, of course, unleash them fully on the rapey rednecks who hang out in some bars on Saturday nights. It’s also okay to use unchecked psychic powers against the armies of African countries when you’re trying to infiltrate those countries, where you will befriend a child soldier to great emotional effect. That bit about “great emotional effect” is probably how it read in the design doc. In the actual game, it was like having a midget sidekick who doesn’t do anything while you’re Nathan Draking it up.
The Nathan Drake bits that pop up throughout the game are inadvertently hilarious. The Ellen Page character model leaps from cars. She chops unsuspecting guards in the neck, and face, and limbs. She does judo throws. When you can actually see what’s going on — the way to do QTEs these days is to make them inscrutable so players might not realize they’re doing QTEs — she can kick some serious ass. She wears camo face paint to single-handedly coup an African country. She will later shut down the advanced occult weapons program of a country that totally isn’t China or North Korea, so don’t even go there. “I’ve piloted a sub like this on the CIA simulator,” she notes at one crucial moment when the game would come to a screeching halt if it weren’t for someone being able to pilot a sub. So convenient, so facile, so ridiculous, on so many levels.
But Beyond: Two Souls is far worse than convenient, facile, and ridiculous. It’s overall tone is low-key and morose, without energy or enthusiasm. Scenes drag out, with long pauses. Glances shift awkwardly. Character models fidget. This is about an eight hour game, but I’d estimate two or three of those hours are pregnant pauses. Are you supposed to do something? Nope, it’s just the pacing. Maybe something is loading in the background? Nope, that’s not it. It’s still the pacing. Although I’m pretty sure something is always loading in the background. The drive on your Playstation 3 will thrash the Beyond: Two Souls DVD relentlessly, as if it were desperately searching for non-terrible bits to show you. Chunka chunka chunka hurr.
This is Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain all over again, chock full of pressing X to Jason. The formula — all story, no gameplay — might work if the writing were better. At least in Heavy Rain, there was a serial killer mystery to be solved and/or resolved. In Beyond: Two Souls, there is only the absurd back-and-forth from poorly related set piece to poorly related set piece, with minimal character development. Sometimes the Ellen Page character model finds some sort of doo-dad with the blue reek of a flashback wafting off it. So you have to take control of the iDen to move two little dots and hold them still to redirect the reek right into Ellen Page’s character model’s face. You’d think this annoying little task would unlock something meaningful, or some clue, or some development. Nope. Never. It simply shows you a tiny cutscene of precisely what you expected, at which point you can then move on to something else unrewarding.
Sometimes you make a choice on a dialogue tree. When the Ellen Page character model meets someone who was a jerk to her, you can choose to be “curt”, “distant”, “aggressive”, or “cold”. What’s the difference among these choices? What repercussions do they have? Do they even have repercussions? Who knows. Who cares. I don’t. I had been playing this thing for hours when I was asked to choose “curt”, “distant”, “aggressive”, or “cold”. I knew the game was nearly over. Was I going to suddenly decide an ending? Was I supposed to be personally invested in the dopey morose soap opera of how the Ellen Page character model feels about her boyfriend character model? All the way through the supposedly uplifting finale, I felt only an overwhelming sense of relief that the tedium was nearly over. What an embarrassing clunker at a time when games like The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider, and Gone Home are proving that just because you’re playing a videogame doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful, memorable, well-written characters.