TomoCon: Comic-Con ’13: Hands on with Beyond: Two Souls for PS3

Live from the Comic-Con floor in San Diego, I had my first chance to play hands on with Beyond: Two Souls.  For those who had missed previous news on this anticipated PS3 title, Quantic Dreams – the makers of Heavy Rain – have been promoting a very narrative-heavy experience that has promised to give people the same immersion and emotional reaction that hunting the Origami Killer did.  Our question: Does the demo gameplay live up to the hype?

The demo begins with you controlling the main character, Jodie Holmes.  By hitting the triangle button, you can switch between controlling her and controlling the spiritual creature named Aiden that seems to be tethered to her.  When in the form of Aiden, the world is murky and otherworldly, but you can use poltergeist-like powers such as a form of telekinesis to destroy objects and invisible hands to choke opponents.  Aiden can also possess certain people and then force them to do actions in a very robotic fashion.

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One of the limitations of using Aiden is distance: The spirit is tethered to Jodie by a wispy chord and if you get to a certain distance from her the game controller shakes as if you hit an invisible wall and your vision blurs and you can go no further.

The demo itself is set in what appears to be sub-Saharan Africa.  While the demo had no context as to your actions, you can look at the E3 trailer for that context – jump to 1:15 to see the environments the demo was allowing people to play within.

When the demo opens, you emerge in a country beset by war.  The tone is set by the fact you are accompanied / guided by a small child who is armed with an automatic rifle he can barely hold.  Jodie and the boy are pinned down by hostile fire of some soldiers and the boy is attempting to engage the enemy but the gun just wildly fires out of control in his hands.  It is up to you (and Aiden) to take care of the thugs.

Nothing says "Professional Games Journalism" like taking an iPhone picture in the middle of your demo

Switching to Aiden is easy, but getting used to his various mechanics at first takes a bit of doing.  In general, you find something you can target – which will be highlighted with a dot or aura.  You press the left trigger to engage in an action then use your joysticks to execute that action.  If you want to blow up a wall, you target the wall, pull the joysticks apart which pulls two other dots away from the center, then they ricochet back with a destructive telekinetic force.  Choking an enemy is similar, but you pull both sticks away from each other as if to tighten a garrote.  If you possess someone, there is no struggle to possess them, but then you will be given context-sensitive commands to have them do actions that are helpful to Jodie.

The really good news was how amazing the game looks and feels.  The child who is escorting you conveys his being soulful and lost with facial expressions that hit home the tragedy of children being dragged into warfare.  Along the path as we were dodging soldiers, there was a brief set piece where I was able to stop and examine a man lost in grief cradling a dead woman, presumably his wife.  There is no doubt that the capacity for emotional pull is here.

When playing as the spirit Aiden, the world turns blue tinted and hazy.  I have friends that claim the same thing happened Friday night after drinking at the Gaslamp Quarter

The less good news, depending on your point of view, is that all of this is very heavily scripted.  If you’ve played Heavy Rain you know how this works – many of the actions are scripted until a specific moment and then there are prompts from the game for the player to engage in an action.  What made Heavy Rain different from most QuickTime event-driven gameplay was that there was a huge variety in the types of motions and controls you made with your controller – not just button mashing but swaying or rocking the controller or moving the joysticks in a way that made you feel like the controls were a more natural responsive maneuver your own body would make.  The same gameplay was clearly in effect here. The variety of ways you use the controller — such as waving it upwards to give the child accompanying you a hand boost up a ladder is that about 3 feet of the ground – feels very organic.

However, there were a few questions I was left with after playing the demo.  This is NOT a sandbox game.  When I was pinned down by 4 soldiers, I WAS going to blow up the wall in front of one of them, force choke a second one, then creep close enough to possess a third one so he could shoot his friend on the jeep.  No force choking the guy behind the wall, no possessing the guy in the snipers nest and making him jump and tackle the guys at the jeep, etc.

The other difference – at least in the demo – was that there appeared to be no variety in outcomes for events.  For example, in Heavy Rain, at one point in a store you are a private detective shopping at a convenience store.  The store gets robbed.  Depending on how you approach the situation you may be successful in stopping the robbery or not.  That success or failure changed the outcome of your interrogation of the clerk at the counter.

I stood back and watched at least three other playthroughs of the demo by different people.  At one crucial moment you are physically accosted by a thug and are knocked to the ground.  You can kick his knee a bit out from under him, grab a bit of rebar and attempt to swing at him, but in the end he knocks you dazed to the ground and is about to finish you off when the child soldier shoots him.

Every time.

Beyond: Two Souls is a beautiful game that shows what developers can do during the death knell cycle of a console generation.  The characters and NPCs are emotive and expressive in ways that draw you in.   But difference in outcomes of your interactions is part of what made Heavy Rain such a complex narrative.  This area was billed as a tutorial level, so perhaps the variety is not there.  Let us hope that Beyond: Two Souls can live up to that expectation when it is released in October.

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About Bill Jahnel

Bill Jahnel is a Professor of History and a lifelong and avid gamer. He has served as a reviewer and main feature writer for Inside Mac Games back in 1993 when the magazine started and was a Senior Editor for the site MacReactor. He has lectured on the role of gays in video games and comic books as part of the Political Economy Days lecture series.