It’s clear to anyone familiar with their work that Quantic Dream are a studio that thinks about their video games in terms closely aligned with film and television. Quantic Dream, led by the largely unfettered vision of David Cage, appear to want to blur the lines between passive media – that which we simply sit in front of and experience – and interactive media, which we actively participate in. It’s an ambitious goal and, at times, they’ve stretched a little too far in their ambition and fallen short.
Fahrenheit (censored and released as Indigo Prophecy in North America) had a solid core story but perhaps came at a time when the audience was less receptive to such a departure from the norms in gameplay mechanics. Heavy Rain certainly looked much more impressive and seemed more comfortable in how it controlled (Move helped with that, too) but the narrative was trite and quite predictable with a plot full of gaping holes and some poor delivery from important characters that cheapened the whole.
It seems that Beyond: Two Souls wants to take all the lessons learned from those previous explorations of interactive storytelling and refine them. In casting bankable Hollywood talent (Defoe and Page are the headliners but there’s a respectable supporting cast too), Quantic Dream has addressed some of the issues many of us had with Heavy Rain and those extra years of experience and expertise will surely serve them well in addressing the other issues some might have had with the studio’s earlier experiments.
While it’s impossible to address questions relating to wider narrative development during the course of this preview, we can look at the control systems, presentation and early impressions. As with everything Quantic Dream does, there’s plenty of ambition here.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about Beyond is how stunning it looks. At E3 this year, I spotted a generic section of a cut scene running on a screen in Sony’s press area and, for a few moments, thought it was something on the PlayStation 4. It’s that good and it seems to have been improved, even since then.
The subtle complexity of surface textures on skin and fabric are probably the best I’ve seen. The motion-captured character animations are exceptional, both in general and in the facial animations during dialogue sequences. Even the environments are beautifully realised with solid edges and subtle textures helped along by a depth of field effect that rests just the right side of the over-use that plagues so many artfully directed Vimeo uploads.
The lighting, too, is often quite beautifully realised and various particle effects, implemented with varying degrees of subtlety often help to make Beyond a breathtaking visual spectacle.
The sections I was able to preview told time-hopping snatches of the story of Jodie (Ellen Page) as her bond to supernatural companion, Aiden, is uncovered and explored within the constraints of academic research and the slightly sinister influences of the CIA. As with some of Quantic Dream’s earlier work, Beyond still dallies slightly too long in the mundane with time spent wandering around a house or awkwardly realised social interactions taking a little too long and feeling a little too aimless but there was, at least, no standout “Jason moment” in this first third of the game.
There’s hope in that, too. Despite its flaws and the subsequent mockery at the hands of unimaginative internet memesters, Heavy Rain had a solid core that was just occasionally obfuscated by awkwardness and that swiss-cheese plot. If Quantic Dream have really learned from that – as it appears they have – and put in the extra few years of knowledge and expertise with the platform, Beyond is going to be a rare treat.
That’s not to say it’s without fault. The controls are less than perfect, with character movement and locked camera angles feeling a little dated, despite the fact that they can (and do) allow for more scripted direction.
At times, Jodie seems to move like a tank while Aiden – whom you can switch to at almost any time to assist Jodie’s progress – is a little awkward to get the hang of as he moves mostly unencumbered in 3D space. It’s not a major fault but it bears some discussion when it impacts those preciously held narrative threads. For example, the illusion is somewhat broken when a moment of utmost urgency in a non-interactive scene leads immediately to Jodie calmly strolling along at a snail’s pace once the player resumes control.
Actions are all initiated with movements on the right stick, which also controls your ability to look around a scene. The look control is not a rotating camera in 3D space, rather it slides along to show a little more of the environment around the locked camera angle. That can lead to mistakenly jumping into actions as the opportunity pops up because you were attempting to look in that direction. So you could be halfway into an action animation before you realise that you’re no longer properly in control. Once you’re fully engaged in an action, you might have prompts to tap or hold on certain buttons. This allows for awkward combinations or fast tapping to symbolise difficult movements or physical exertion. Failure isn’t too much of a problem: it doesn’t stop you, simply altering your progress slightly.
There are also occasional hints of that stunted vocal work on display but thankfully those are very limited and in general the acting on display in Beyond is as good as you could ever wish for. That’s to say that it doesn’t get in the way of the narrative’s delivery and it feels very natural – quite an accomplishment in a world entirely constructed of pixels.
The believability of the world is crucial to a game like Beyond, which rests so much on the development of its characters and their associations with each other. When you introduce supernaturalism to that world, it becomes even harder to maintain the grounding realism required to sell the illusion that this story is set in our world. Beyond manages to balance that by giving us Jodie to care about. While not entirely fleshed out in this early preview code, that’ll come over the full course of the game, it’s clear that she’s a complex character with more to her than we’re shown over the initial few hours. She’s clearly dangerous and deadly but seeing her as a child, struggling with her monsters, forges an empathy that simply doesn’t exist with most videogame protagonists.
The truest test for Beyond: Two Souls will be how well it holds up to scrutiny of its narrative, when viewed as a whole. Until then, we can at least be sure that it looks wonderful and that Quantic Dream are showing all the signs of a studio that has learned from its impressive – but imperfect – past and aims to set their own bar even higher this time around.