Brilliant acting, breathtaking graphics, and a good script... But is it fun?
Ellen Page has been my favorite actress for a while, from her early work on Trailer Park Boys to Juno to Inception. When I heard that she was taking on the 2,000 page script for Beyond: Two Souls, I was intrigued. Would she play the role of Jodie, a young woman who is bound to a spirit she cannot understand, from a "girl power" perspective, or be totally understated and "phone it in" like so many video game actors do?
Neither. Page smashes through the glass ceiling of male video game protagonists and shoves the shards up the "boys only" club asses. This game is an approximately 12-hour interactive movie where you get to control certain parts through prompted button pushes. There are a few high-octane action sequences, and they offer more control than Cage's two previous efforts, Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, but the best parts of Beyond are when you're controlling Jodie in the quieter moments.
Beyond covers 15 years of Jodie's life, out of sequence, while delivering a comprehensive if slightly silly story. She's been attached to an invisible paranormal being since she was born, and she can't talk to it or really understand it. Much of the game is spent figuring out why this paranormal being, called "Aiden," is both helping and pestering Jodie. The core mechanic of the game is that when you get stuck in a situation as Jodie, you can switch to Aiden with the press of a button and search inaccessible areas to have him do your bidding, like open a locked door from the other side.
The paranormal activity aspect shouldn't win any awards, but the more subtle themes of family and personal development while dealing with a strange "gift" are some of the best moments I've experienced in years. Jodie appreciates the advantages that having an invisible entity gives her, but hates the fact that Aiden is always there, messing with everything from her life at school to who she picks as a potential lover. It's a love-hate relationship that Paige performs exceptionally at every turn.
Above all, Jodie is trying to figure out how (or even if) she can live a normal life with this affliction that everyone from lab scientists to the CIA are interested in using for their own nefarious reasons. The highlights of the game come during the second act, when Page gets to use all of her subtlety and body language in ways that have never been seen in a video game before. I couldn't help cheering for Jodie becuase while she's trying so damn hard to be human, she comes across as more human than any character I've played as before, even Joel in The Last of Us.
Is the game fun? Most of the time. There are some truly tedious sections that seem to be filler material to justify a $60 price tag. By the third time I found myself wandering around a dining room, trying to correctly set a table, I was ready for dreamland. But again and again, Ellen Page's dynamic performance kept me interested enough to keep going.
This game is not for everyone: My fellow hardcore gamers should think of it as Mass Effect where the combat scenes consist of QTE button presses in place of inventory management, weapons loadouts, battle strategies, etc.
The two difficulty settings are "I play games a lot" and "I rarely (or never) play video games." David Cage is desperately trying to show movie lovers that video games can be for them, too. If you're not a gamer, but want to see an uncompromising performance by Ellen Page, and a slightly underdeveloped but still effective contribution from Willem Dafoe, this is the game for you to play.
Beyond: Two Souls crowning achievement is delivering what gamers have been requesting in letters to the editor, message forums and chat rooms for twenty five years: a real, human, female protagonist. Jodie leaves all stereotypes behind, except for a few very fun moments in her teen years where they fit her. Despite its moments of violence and even torture, I recommend this game for any female gamer or parent of a female gamer out there (over the age of oh, say, fourteen). It's not about girl power or anything that cheesy: It's just an amazing performance from a very human protagonist who happens to be female. It's a most welcome breath of fresh air that deserves to be lauded.
Unless you're strictly a Call of Duty/Assassin's Creed/Madden type, I recommend everyone to give Beyond: Two Souls a look. Try a rental or trade in some old games at your local game shop to give it a try. Because the decisions you make in everything from combat to conversation steer the game in different narrative directions, there are many "endings" to it. One of the accomplishments the game offers is for you to "See every ending!" If it's anything like Heavy Rain, there'll be around 11 endings. I don't know if I love it enough to play through it that many times to see them all, but I'll give it a few more goes to see just how different things would turn out if I had drank that beer at a party or accepted a man's invitation to dance.
-Review by Tom McDaniel