The cinematic narrative in PlayStation 3's 2010 exclusive "Heavy Rain" represented a significant progression in video games. Developer Quantic Dream used unconventional controls so traditional gameplay could take a backseat while the focus was on the game's story. But the game's subpar acting performances became a distraction.
Quantic Dream looks to rectify that mistake in "Beyond: Two Souls," another story-driven game that stars Academy Award nominees Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Having two experienced actors at the helm is the difference-maker that allows the game to succeed where its predecessor failed.
Ms. Page plays the role of Jodie Holmes, a young girl who has the gift -- or curse -- of being connected to a spirit from another world called an "entity." This entity, named Aiden, has the ability to manipulate objects but is invisible to people in Jodie's world. "Beyond: Two Souls" follows 15 years of Jodie's life as she struggles through her childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The Department of Paranormal Activities (DPA) develops an interest in Jodie's unique circumstances. Researcher Dr. Nathan Dawkins (Mr. Dafoe) finds himself in dual roles as a researcher and Jodi's father figure. The line between these roles blurs as the DPA discovers a way to gain access to Aiden's world. The actors performed motion-capture work for their scenes, a technology that allows "Beyond" to appear more like a movie starring the duo, rather than a video game.
The story is told in a nonlinear fashion. Chapters jump sporadically between her adult, teen and childhood ages, filling in key information as the story progresses. This style was confusing at first, but a timeline displayed between chapters helps the player figure out when the next events take place.
Like "Heavy Rain," "Beyond" is a video game that is built like a choose-your-own-adventure book. A conversation may take place on the screen, and a quick and noninvasive prompt will allow the player to choose Jodi's response. The player's decisions have an impact on the story and even affect the ending. The controls that change depending on the context of the scene are intentional, so the narrative isn't lost behind confusing button mapping. The triangle button, the only constant, is used to switch between Jodie and Aiden. With simple controls, "Beyond" can be enjoyed by nontraditional gamers.
Quantic Dream took this idea a step further with the "Beyond" app for mobile devices. With this app, the game can be completely controlled through an Apple or Android touch screen when connected to a PS3 via Wi-Fi. This integration goes further to remove barriers so nongamers can experience and enjoy "Beyond's" thrilling story.
Beneath this game's unorthodox controls, innovative mobile app and stunning graphics, the story and performances capture raw emotion in a world of science fiction. Ms. Page shows a broad range from a timid teenager who is bullied because she's different to a strong young adult trying to find love with her burden. Mr. Dafoe is her equal, artfully portraying the complex Dr. Dawkins. The two performances overshadow the occasionally murky logic behind the science fiction.
The story is more about human elements than ghostly entities. The actors bring it to life, making "Beyond" a unique experience that is accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike.
'Beyond: Two Souls' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)
Rating: M for Mature (language and violence).
Max Parker writes The Game Guy blog at communityvoices.post-gazette.com. On Twitter: @GameGuyPGH. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM