Despite some awkward moments, I'm a big fan of David Cage's output of games. Fahrenheit - at least for the first half - managed to instil genuine moments of panic in me, and Heavy Rain remains one of my favourite offerings of the last few years. For all the arguments that surrounded it, the Sony exclusive felt like a point and click title designed for the current generation, made better given it was all contained within an enjoyable, red-herring filled detective story. After being given the start of Beyond: Two Souls to experience, however, I have no idea what to make of it...
Blurring the line between the aforementioned projects, Beyond does feel like an amalgamation of the two. Falling back into the realm of fantasy - Jayden's glasses aside - Two Souls seemingly throws all, if not most, its eggs into the sci-fi/paranormal basket. It's determined to sell this fact to you as early as possible too, and, If like me, you'd been a little confused as to what path it would take, there's little confusion to be had once Ellen Page's Jodie introduces her spirit chum Aiden. It happens almost as soon as you've pressed start. It's certainly an interesting dynamic and does tie into the control setup Cage has now made his own. Along with the usual 'mundane' tasks the scenarios in Beyond will ask you to do, there's always the ability to switch to Aiden for a different perspective. It's not a mechanic that's new to gaming, but it's certainly unique due to what you can do.
Rather than the standard case of taking control of the apparition to progress through a level - which should come as no real surprise - the being is on hand to help Jodie with a psychological test, or push her on a swing. As much as it is a gameplay mechanic, it's designed to try and attach the two characters emotionally, and to get you to care about them too. Strangely, it was the latter scene where Beyond showed most of its promise.
Two Souls' structure jumps around frequently, giving you sneak peeks into both the past and present day. Turning the clock back at one point (as Jodie's mother prepares dinner), the two leads are simply left to walk/float around the house, eventually going into the garden to enjoy some swing action and get involved in a snow ball fight. It's the kind of moment that many hate and describe as pretentious, and while it would be tough to argue against such statements, it's still oddly fascinating. Cage has a knack for taking the ordinary - even if a ghost is present - and getting you to engage with it, or at least attempt to build up a connection between you and the people you're in control of. It's why another earlier chapter also works.
Given that Jodie has spent almost her entire life in a facility to monitor her strange powers, the act of going to a birthday party does have some significance. It's overblown, as you'd expect, but there's a level of choice to how it plays out: if it all goes wrong, the chance to exact your revenge against a group of, to be honest, asshole teenagers is, for whatever reason, entertaining. The dialogue is ridiculous, and the way it pans out somewhat clichéd, but it achieves its goal of drumming up some kind of emotional response, even if, on occasion, that's utter bewilderment.
These sections should come as no real shock, though. They could've been slipped into either of Cage's previous works and not seemed at all out of place. When Beyond spreads its own wings, the results are more difficult to define.
Within the story Jodie finds herself joining the CIA and then, for reasons yet to be revealed, being chased down by them. This is where Beyond ramps up its action-orientated side, and also where the most question marks are raised. Although it's not unusual for Cage to toy around within this sphere - both Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit featured them heavily - they don't feel as accomplished here, or at least not as interesting as the more subdued moments. A reason for this could be how the narrative is presented: shifting to different time periods means it's difficult to actually get an understanding of everything that's going on. For example, one minute Jodie is infiltrating an Arab Prince's house for intel to then sneaking through a ruined hospital to close a paranormal rift.
I assume the context comes from playing the game as a whole - as you'd expect and how it should be - but without that it's hard to know what to make of Beyond. It's like a collection of short stories that make sense and confuse at the same time. There's every chance I would've said the same for Heavy Rain, though, if I'd only been given access to a splice of its content, but that doesn't mean I'm any less confounded by Two Souls. I know I was intrigued throughout, mind, despite a few boring moments.
Ultimately, I would assume its real test will come in how it manages to affect me when I least expect it. With Fahrenheit's opening or when Heavy Rain asks you to 'wipe your fingerprints', methodical, thought-provoking gameplay gave way to all-out panic without any warning. It's a device that works. That just wasn't evident in Beyond, and it's an element that this type of game needs. It's not only distressing, but justifies why such a control scheme like the one in place can be so interesting too.
Sitting on the fence is never something that goes down well, and nor should it, but I honestly couldn't tell you in which direction Beyond will eventually head. Using Ellen page and Willem Defoe is a little distracting - it's hard to separate them from the roles they're playing - and moments like training for the CIA leave me perplexed. Gunplay isn't completely new to Cage's games, but third-person cover shooting certainly is - it's not necessarily something that it needed or works.
For now, though, it's a case of wait and see. If nothing else, I remain extremely fascinated...