David Cage has made a habit over the years of blurring the lines between film and video game. His last effort, “Heavy Rain,” was a marvel of technology. Its “innovations” in gameplay, however, were less clearly beneficial. The amount of interactivity is tiny, and everything you do is in service to the narrative. There is very little freedom in your actions.
And yet, you press on, curious to see where Cage is taking you. It’s not far off from arcade classic “Dragon’s Lair,” except that rather than constantly dying when you make a wrong move, the consequence of poor play is being forced to press on to a less satisfying conclusion.
“Beyond: Two Souls” (PS3; Rated M; $59.99) is the latest of Cage’s visions, and his fans are likely to be pleased that he is not compromising his vision of what games can and should be. It’s a game with names on the marquee, names like Ellen Page (still hard to see as anyone other than the title character from “Juno”) and Willem Dafoe.
Page, for her part, does most of the heavy lifting. She plays Jodie Holmes, whom the player inhabits for the majority of the game, jumping around 15 or so years of her life. We see her struggles to adapt to a world that doesn’t understand her, a world not ready to accept that this girl/woman might actually be corresponding with an entity from another dimension. The entity’s name is Aiden, typically represented as a black blob-ish thing with an umbilical cord-like attachment to Jodie.
The player gets to be Aiden as well, usually when Jodie is in a pinch and doesn’t have a ready solution to a given problem. Where much of the experience of playing as Jodie is one of frustrating helplessness, playing as Aiden offers a sort of freedom. You get to fly around the environment, exploring in ways Jodie can’t. Granted, you can only wander so far given Aiden’s attachment to Jodie, but it’s still a nice touch that offers the player some semblance of “play” within the narrative.
Indeed, the biggest criticism to be leveled at “Beyond: Two Souls” is that you don’t play it so much as you participate in it. As Jodie, you’ll walk from place to place, perhaps pointing a stick in a given direction to trigger a few minutes of movie. There are a few action sequences where you point in the direction you want to dodge, or kick, or whatever might be appropriate, but it’s not an action game. It’s a quiet game, and you spend most of your time watching that quiet, with a few controller prompts along the way.
Playing as Aiden, as mentioned before, offers a little more freedom, but the things you can interact with are still very, very limited. You can see more, but you can’t necessarily do more.
Maybe this doesn’t sound appealing, but descriptions of what you do simply can’t do justice to the experience of playing the game. The appeal of “Beyond: Two Souls” is largely due to its actors, whose motion-captured performances keep you engaged, even as the story sometimes flounders and wanders. Crucially, Ellen Page is easy to root for in the biggest role, drawing you, as the player, into wanting her to succeed in whatever it is she happens to be doing. “Beyond: Two Souls” might not be redefining video gaming as we know it, but as a foil to the action-oriented big-budget norm, it’s a fascinating and worthwhile piece of work.
New This Week: “The Wolf Among Us” (PS3, X360, PC) is Telltale Games’ first big storytelling effort since the brilliant series of “Walking Dead” episodes, and it looks to be as well executed as its game-of-the-year-courting predecessor. Elsewhere, “Valhalla Knights 3” (Vita) may well eat 100 hours of your life if you let it, though the “hard-M” material in the game may put many players off of the experience altogether.