How does David Cage's latest project compare to his previous hit?
After months of rumour and speculation, David Cage has finally revealed Beyond: Two Souls. It's safe to say that the game's initial appearance at Sony's conference was somewhat perplexing, but I was lucky enough to score a place at one of Cage's behind-closed-doors demos.
So, having seen the first extended demo of the game, here are my initial impressions of how Beyond: Two Souls compares to Quantic Dream's last release, Heavy Rain.
Heavy Rain put us in the shoes of four different characters whose paths only intersected at set points in the story. Beyond: Two Souls, by contrast has a much tighter narrative focus - following a gifted young girl Jodie Holmes, and a mysterious poltergeist-like presence that goes by the name of Aiden (not Ivan, as I originally misheard; one American journalist I spoke to swore that the spirit was called "Mom".)
While Aiden's relationship with Jodie hasn't been explicitly explained, it's clear that the two have an important link. A Donnie-Darko-like umbilical cord prevents Aiden from straying too far from Jodie, and as the plot spans a 15-year period - including Jodie's childhood - it seems that the two have spent a long time in each other's company. In what we've seen so far, Aiden seems to act like an unseen bodyguard, though Jodie also clearly finds their relationship to be difficult at times.
In the E3 demo, Jodie is 21 years old and is voiced by Juno star Ellen Page. A younger actress will provide vocals during the earlier stages of her life; Cage mentioned that at least one scene will portray Jodie at 14. Given that the 15-year timeframe, this means that we could see Jodie at the age of 29 (if 14 is the youngest we age at which we meet her) or as young as 6 (if 21 is the oldest).
Cage has repeatedly hinted that Beyond's story may stretch into the afterlife - but only if the player makes the right choices.
Setting and tone
Naturally we only have a limited amount to work with at this stage. The E3 demo seems to take place in a Twin Peaks-like setting - think dark forests and industrial hamlets - and takes the form of a lengthy chase sequence.
The episode begins with our pair aboard a train which is subsequently boarded by the police. The cops pursue Jodie through several carriages and even along the train's rain-swept roof, ending with our girl making a desperate leap into the unknown, protected by Aiden. There's only a moment's pause before the police catch up, resulting in a Fugitive-like chase through the trees, with a trio of dogs hot on Jodie's trail. A stolen motorbike helps to crank up the pace towards the end of the demo, leading to the dramatic climax - an explosive stand-off in the streets of a small town, with Aiden taking down an entire army of SWAT officers.
While Heavy Rain certainly had its fair share of action sequences, there was nothing comparable to this extended, Blockbuster-like set-piece. Heavy Rain's louder moments tended to occur at the end of scenes, acting like a miniature finale, but here the action is the meat of the experience.
The whole chase was also seemed longer and more gruelling than any one chapter in Heavy Rain; then again, as there are no other characters to switch to, you could argue that what we're seeing here is several chapters seamlessly stitched together. At any rate, it's interesting to consider that Beyond might offer more in the way of lengthy, sustained scenes, rather than the bite-sized chunks we saw in Heavy Rain.
David Cage was also keen to point out that this action-heavy scenario is not typical of Beyond as a whole. I wouldn't be surprised if the game's next showing focuses on a quieter moment, one more in line with the very beginning of the E3 demo, which finds Aiden toying with a selection of the train's confused passengers.
First things first: If you just said, "BUT QUANTIC DREAM DOESN'T DO GAMEPLAY!", do me a favour and poke yourself in the eye.
As you might expect, Jodie and Aiden have very different ways of interacting with their environments - and as Jodie's means seem closer to the format of Heavy Rain, we'll look at her first.
Broadly speaking, it seems that much of Heavy Rain's controls have been retained. The player has full control of Jodie's movement, but she'll handle differently depending on the context: During the forest sequence she rockets about in a desperate sprint; later, just prior to stealing the motorcycle, she slinks about with a stealthy stoop. Object interaction appears to have been lifted wholesale from Heavy Rain, with minimalist floating icons popping up when Jodie is near an item of interest. Most of the prompts remain the same to - simple direction swipes or quarter-circle arcs.
When our gal is under duress, other familiar commands come into play. Wading through a river demands speedy alternate taps of the shoulder buttons. Later, Jodie has to hold her breath and press herself against a cliff-face as the police search below, and here the player is forced into one of those press-and-hold button combinations that cropped up in Heavy Rain's trickier moments - like when Ethan was trying to climb through the electric fences. During the motorbike sequence, it looked like the demonstrator was controlling the bike using the pad's gyro functions. Rather than a quick test of balance, it seemed as if the player was forced to steer the bike throughout the entire interlude, guiding Jodie at speed around tight bends in the road.
Cage promises that compared to Heavy Rain, Beyond boasts a greater degree of player control during action sequences, and for the time being we'll have to take his word on that. I wasn't playing the demo, obviously, and the clear improvement in character animation makes it harder to tell the difference between cutscene and player control.
Aiden's scenes - or rather his parts of a scene, as control flits back and forth between the two leads - are played out from a first-person perspective, with a slight fish-eye effect in the corners of the screen. Being a ghost (or something similar), he's able to drift straight through the scenery and go wherever the player chooses - although as mentioned earlier, a glowing tether prevents Aiden from straying too far from Jodie.
Anything Aiden can interact with is highlighted with a soft white glow; when the player opts to affect an item, this aura turns golden. The exact nature of Aiden's effect varies depending on the situation - we've seen him move small objects like bottles and magazines, but he's also capable of flipping cars up into the air. More demanding interactions seem to require the player to charge up Aiden's powers, though it's not apparent exactly how this works.
Inanimate objects aside, Aiden can also possess certain human beings - for the time being, we don't know if there's a rule that determines who's vulnerable to such attacks. At the close of the demo, Aiden took control of a SWAT sniper and then used him to shoot his colleagues.
Beyond: Two Souls' graphics are a clear step up from Heavy Rain, which was already one of the PS3's most visually impressive titles. There's a lot to admire here, particularly during the storm-drenched battle atop the speeding train, with water cascading over carriage roofs as Jodie and the police trade blows.
Given the tempo of this demo, there wasn't much chance to assess Ellen Page's performance, but the early signs are very promising indeed; then again, we should expect nothing but the best from an actress of her calibre. For many people a far bigger question mark will hang over Cage's script, which was arguably Heavy Rain's weakest link. Again, it's hard to draw too much from such an action-heavy demo, but the quiet scenes at the beginning, before everything kicked off, had an understated melancholic tone. By contrast, the final stand-off in the town didn't quite gel for me - especially as the SWAT team seemed to spend a long time standing around, waiting for Aiden to pick them off.
Still, as someone who loved Heavy Rain regardless of its occasional plot holes, I'm desperately eager to see what other surprises Beyond: Two Souls might hold in store. Part of me is disappointed that we're not getting another ensemble cast story with several protagonists, but the stylistic contrast between Jodie and Aiden's perspectives should give the game a bit of diversity. And in long run, I suspect that the story will benefit from having a tighter focus.