This morning I received an email from EB Games, giving me a code to download the playable demo of Beyond: Two Souls and thanking me for “registering my interest” in the game.
I’m not sure what they meant by this. I’m certainly interested in the game, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t currently have it on pre-order with EB and I don’t recall ever having mentioned it to a salesperson, so I’m not sure where they’re getting their information from. I did pre-order The Last of Us before it was released, so perhaps they assumed I have an interest in girls who look and sound exactly like Ellen Page.
I downloaded it, of course. And I’m so glad I did.
Beyond: Two Souls is the newest project from Quantic Dream, the French developer behind 2010’s Heavy Rain. Shamefully, I still haven’t had the opportunity to play Heavy Rain (something I shall remedy very soon), so this demo was my first true glimpse at Quantic’s unique ‘interactive cinema’ style.
The first half of the demo takes place in some sort of hospital cum research facility. A young girl, Josie, is led to an examination room, where scientists are routinely testing her extra-sensory abilities using Zener cards.
Once the test begins, we meet Josie’s special friend – a ghostly supernatural entity called Aiden, with whom she appears to share an intimate bond. The player can jump between Josie and Aiden as the situation demands, which becomes one of the key gameplay mechanics later in the demo.
The Zener test is a tutorial of sorts, in which you become accustomed to the various powers and influence that Aiden can exert on the corporeal world. You’re able to drift through walls and objects (though you can’t travel too far from Josie, as you remain connected to her), push or interfere with physical objects, and even possess or inflict harm on human beings.
It’s a somewhat surreal experience; the distortion of the screen, the coloured auras that characters emanate and the supernatural whispers around you all give you the feeling of a voyeur, an outsider. What I found most disturbing was how easily I adopted the behaviour a malevolent spirit – what begins as a simple task of knocking over some wooden blocks soon spirals horrifically out of control, as Aiden starts to shatter windows, upturn furniture and choke one of the researchers.
The music reaches a screeching climax, punctuated by Josie’s screaming and the woman’s hysterical cries for help, and you are Aiden – you can stop this havoc at any time – and yet there’s an intoxicating joy in bringing chaos and terror to the experiment.
The second half of the demo marks an enormous change of pace. Josie is now a young woman (voiced and motion acted by Ellen Page), apparently being hunted by a small army of federal agents. The action begins on a train speeding through the night in a rainstorm; she makes a desperate escape, assisted by Aiden, as armed officers pursue her.
There’s no time to make considered decisions here – the action is hurled at you with incredible intensity, and determined entirely by your instincts and reflexes. As Josie stumbled through crowded carriages just metres away from capture, I was given only a second to press each button or perform each gesture, so that she could duck and weave past obstacles in her way.
Once we reached the hallway of a private carriage, I had just a moment to decide how to get outside. I tried the window, which was jammed, but I was able to switch to Aiden and psionically smash the glass. As Josie began to climb out, however, an agent grabbed her legs, and in a moment of panic, I pressed the wrong button; he dragged her back in, and I was led into a different sequence where she was forced to fight off multiple assailants (this relied on pushing the control stick in the right directions when prompted).
In a moment of freedom, I dashed into one of the toilets, where Aiden was able to blow out the skylight. Josie climbed onto the roof of the train, where she fought desperately in the teeming rain against another half dozen agents, before leaping into an embankment.
I could give you a blow-by-blow, but suffice it to say the chase became a desperate manhunt through soaked woodland, culminating in a pretty spectacular siege outside a movie cinema.
What’s so incredible is that this chase sequence could have progressed in any number of different ways – what if I had chosen to run into the bathroom immediately, or the next carriage, rather than try the window? What if I hadn’t pressed the wrong button in that instant?
It all happens in real time at a blinding pace, and there’s no opportunity to stop and reload, to try again. You make a decision, for better or worse, and the narrative swerves in an instant onto a new course. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, presented with the frenetic camera work and soundtrack of an action thriller movie. When the demo finally ended, I was a little chagrined to find myself hunched tensely over my controller, half kneeling off the couch, so intensely had I been following the action.
Heavy Rain was one of 2010’s most critically acclaimed console titles, and from what I’ve seen here, Quantic is a developer stretching the very boundaries of the video game medium. Beyond: Two Souls, which also stars the magnificent Willam Defoe, is now just a fortnight away. Trust me – if you’re a Playstation 3 owner, you absolutely must not miss this one.