beyond
Beyond: Two Souls, the latest from Quantic Dream, releases next week but today a short demo has gone live on PSN. It’s the same one that was on the show floor at last week’s Eurogamer Expo (which I briefly wrote about here), a demo I neglected to play at the time. I was waiting to experience it in the comfort of my own home. I mentioned in my EGX piece that the demo seemed overlong, yet when I sat down and played it on my own PS3, it felt quite short – perhaps it was because I wasn’t standing up, waiting for others to finish…

Read on for some (fairly in-depth) thoughts.

The demo gives you two short segments of gameplay to try: The first part, The Experiment, begins with a young Jodie playing in her room before a friendly chap in a white coat comes to collect her. Gaining control of Jodie, you can interact (using R-stick gestures) with a few things in her room, such as a guitar and a doll, and even watch a very strange cartoon on the TV. The cheerful guy keeps reminding Jodie that it’s time to go, so we head for the door.

It turns out she’s been in an observation room in a hospital, and she’s led to another, smaller room where we first meet Willem Defoe’s character Nathan, the man who will be observing the experiment. Jodie is placed in a room at a table with some cards on it, and in a connected room is a woman who has the same cards. The test is to see if Jodie can guess the card that the woman selects. Of course, Jodie has a trick up her sleeve: her connection to the spectral Aiden.

Controlling Jodie feels very similar to the studio’s past games Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain (at least, what I can remember of the latter game’s demo), but when you switch to Aiden with a tap of the triangle button, things feel a bit different: you can float around and pass through certain walls at will, though just like controlling Jodie, anything Aiden can interact with is clearly signposted.

With the correct cards chosen, Jodie is asked to try and move other things in the adjoining room, such as a stack of wooden blocks, some papers and a water bottle. In control of Aiden, you can then act in a more malevolent manner, cracking the two way mirrors, breaking the lights and even flipping over the desk. When I was watching at EGX, I saw many people also attempting to throttle the poor woman that had been taking part in the experiment, which led to the end of the scene. I wondered at the time whether this was necessary to complete the segment, but I’m glad to see that I didn’t have to do that – switching back to Jodie, I was offered an ‘X’ button prompt to end the experiment. Nathan runs in to comfort Jodie, who sits in tears with blood streaming from her nose. He tells her it’s ok, it’s over. She replies that it will never be over.

After this section ends, we meet an older Jodie in training at the CIA and it’s this section that get us used to the directional gesture-based control method. It’s essentially QTEs without prompts; the game begins an animation – say, a kick to the left – and then drops into slow motion to give you time to input the proper direction to continue. This seems to be the way that action sequences will play out, and it extends into the next segment of the demo, where we find Jodie sleeping on a train. We’re in control of Aiden, and we’re able to float up and down the carriage (and even pop outside to catch some wind and rain in the face). Aiden’s paranormal shenanigans eventually wake up Jodie – just in time for her to see police boarding the train. It’s clear they’re looking for Jodie, and she’s discovered pretty quickly. With a few flicks of the right stick, we manage to evade the officers and make it onto the top of the train, and I have to say, with a great sense of speed and some cool rain and wet clothing effects, it looks excellent.

Jodie begins to clamber along the top of the train, against the wind and stinging rain, but the cops are unwilling to give up the chase quite so easily, following her out. We get into a few scrapes, and again we’re inputting directional commands in bullet time. I’m not entirely sure I like these segments; while they’re a step up from massive prompts appearing on-screen (there are still button prompts elsewhere, but they’re fairly small and unobtrusive), it often feels like you’re hitting a direction on the stick to trigger an animation. If Heavy Rain had press ‘x’ to Jason, Beyond seems to be more move stick to progress. Still, the sequences are nicely choreographed. It just feels like you have little real control.

After escaping the train with Aiden’s help, Jodie has to run through a forest, jumping or ducking over and under tree branches, fighting dogs (with, you guessed it, directional inputs) and finally scaling a cliff. This is where the button prompts crop up, though they are mercifully low-key – small, white labels that don’t stand out too much. Again with Aiden’s help, Jodie manages to steal a police bike and speed away, and here we’re actually given direct control of the bike, with the throttle mapped to R2 and movement on the left stick. Unfortunately, we’re stuck on one road with the occasional wide left or right turn to keep us occupied. It feels a bit unnecessary really, as if the developers felt they needed to give the player full control over something, but then limited it to veering left or right across the screen. It’s like a 20th century version of the original Outrun. The segment ends when a cutscene kicks in: Jodie reaches a town, a special forces soldier shoots out her tire and she comes off the bike, scampering away injured before being surrounded by the military types that have ambushed her.

Again we’re shunted into controlling Aiden, and I’m reminded of something David Cage said during his Eurogamer Expo dev session. He said the player could switch between Jodie and Aiden whenever they want. So I press triangle. Nothing. “Help me, Aiden”, screams Jodie. I guess that’s my role for the time being then. I also recall Cage lamenting gaming’s continued reliance on non-interactive cutscenes, saying that he wanted all of Beyond‘s story to come through in gameplay, rather than have slices of game bookended by slices of video. Yet there are traditional, non-interactive cutscenes in Beyond. Hmm…

Back in the game, and we’re in a very one-sided siege scenario. It’s an injured Jodie versus a heavily-armed, heavily armoured special forces team, backed up by a helicopter. But Aiden has little respect for the laws of physics and the natural world and we quickly find ourselves throttling, possessing and otherwise harrying the assembled soldiers. In a cutscene, I spot a sniper atop a building, so as soon as I’m back in control, I make a beeline for him, hoping to possess the poor sap and take out some of his buddies. Instead, Aiden makes him jump off the roof. I guess that works too. After possessing a few more, blowing up a petrol station with a grenade and tipping some cars over, Jodie manages to use the ensuing chaos to scamper inside a theatre and barricade herself within. “Aiden, they’re coming for me!”, she shouts, so I look down on the scene from above. None of the remaining soldiers have moved. I continue to watch. They remain in position, as if waiting for something, some signal that it’s time to move in. “Aiden! You have to do something!”. I guess I’ll try and take that chopper down, then.

Using R1, I float up to the chopper’s altitude and see that the pilot is surrounded by an orange aura. This means he can be possessed (other colours are available: red means you’ll throttle them, blue means you can’t interact at all), so I hold L1 to lock onto him and move the two sticks inward. Sparks fly, the pilot’s eyes turn white. He’s mine. With a single rotation of the right stick and a press of L2, I bring the helicopter crashing out of the sky. Exploding in a ball of fire right outside Jodie’s hiding place, I manage to take out all but one of the special forces soldiers. Predictably, he’s the leader. Another cutscene. Jodie leaves the theatre and approaches the soldier, grabbing him by the collar. “Tell them to leave me the fuck alone,” she says, “because next time… I’ll kill everyone.”

With that, the demo comes to an end, and as I read back over what I’ve written, it seems like I’ve perhaps been a little harsh. I did actually very much enjoy the demo, though it was more for the characters, their performances and the story premise. I like a bit of supernatural drama, and I’m certainly intrigued to find out more about Jodie, Aiden and the link between them. The facial animation is also very impressive – certainly up there with the excellent work done by LA Noire, though mercifully without the somewhat detached-looking body animation of that game – and character’s eyes look incredibly lifelike. More studios seem to be moving toward full-body performance capture (last year’s Halo 4 used it and upcoming Xbox One exclusive Ryse also does), and it certainly leads to a very cinematic, weighty end result. It also means that the actors really get their performance across, and Beyond shines here, with Ellen Page putting an excellent shift in as Jodie Holmes, and while we don’t see Willem Defoe’s Nathan for more than a handful of seconds, I’m sure he’ll be solid too.

What does give me cause for concern is the player’s level of interaction with the gameworld. I mentioned above that if often feels like you’re simply nudging a stick to trigger the next animation (or continue an admittedly well-shot cutscene), and this is what worries me for the full game. Even when you’re interacting with items in Jodie’s room at the start, it doesn’t really feel like you’re truly interacting, more that you’re triggering little vignettes. This concern will be nothing new to fans of QD’s games of course, and it’s clear that the story and characters will be the driving force behind Beyond: Two Souls. And that’s fine; not every game has to be pure gameplay, and if I want that I’ll put Deathsmiles on. I just hope that the story can carry David Cage’s latest opus, unlike that final third of Fahrenheit. Because if the story fails to hold my interest, there’s not that much meat left on the bones to carry the experience. But so far? I’m cautiously optimistic.

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