Beyond can't decide whether it's a thriller, a supernatural horror, a coming-of-age teen drama, or an action movie. It leaps between time periods and genres so wildly, and for so little reason, that it's almost impossible to become invested in the story at all. It's as if writer/director David Cage is trying to make ten films at once, and the result is a confusing jumble of themes and tone.
Jodie, played by an eerily realistic Ellen Page, is linked to a ghostly entity she calls Aiden. As she goes through life, from toddler to stroppy teenager, you control her not-so-imaginary friend, protecting her from danger. When you're in control of Aiden you can float around the world unseen, manipulating the environment and possessing people. Sometimes you're causing mischief, scaring people by knocking tables over; other times you're forcing them to shoot themselves in the head.
It's a neat idea, but executed with all the grace of a bulldozer. The script is terrible, with robotic dialogue and heavy-handed moralising. Jodie's predicaments are always the same: she's backed into a corner - by malevolent spirits, teenage bullies, and stereotypical rednecks trying to sexually assault her - and Aiden rushes in at the last moment to save her. But, annoyingly, he can only kill or possess people when it suits the story, which shatters the illusion that you're in control.
"You can only kill or possess people as Aiden when it suits the story"
The characters are painted in such broad strokes that they're like cartoon characters. Only Jodie feels vaguely real, which is down to Page's performance, not the one-dimensional script. Veteran actor Willem Dafoe also puts in a decent turn as a scientist studying her powers, but all this does is highlight how weak the writing and supporting cast are. There's something oddly inhuman and unnatural about the way the characters speak to and interact with each other; something Cage has always struggled with. A scene at a teenager's birthday party is hilariously awkward.
Like Heavy Rain, Beyond isn't much of a game at all - at least not in the traditional sense. It's essentially a heavily scripted sequence of cut-scenes that you prod along by hammering buttons and tilting the analogue stick. In combat, time will slow down briefly, and you have a few seconds to push the stick in the direction her body, arm, or leg is moving. Not that it matters, because you can fail these dressed-up QTEs an absurd amount of times before you're punished.
The controls are supposed to make you feel connected to Jodie's actions, but the illusion doesn't quite work. A moment where she eats dinner has more points of needless interaction than any of the fight scenes. In a scene where Jodie is in her apartment and has to prepare for a date - which is otherwise nicely put together, with some amusing outcomes - her phone rings. Now, Jodie has lived here for a while, but this is our first visit. Cue a farcical ten minute stroll around the flat as she struggles to locate her own phone.
We have no problems with minimal controls in story-led games - The Walking Dead is a great example of this - but Beyond lacks the narrative strength to hold it together. The gulf between Telltale's game and this in terms of characterisation and storytelling can be measured in light years. You don't feel like you're having any real impact on where the story is heading either, like you're a spectator rather than a participant. Heavy Rain actually has a much richer choice and consequence system, down to killing off main characters. In comparison, Jodie's fate feels disappointingly predetermined.
The best scenes are when we see her as a little girl, living with foster parents who are struggling to cope with her otherworldly powers. Here we encounter one of a few rare glimmers of humour: when her mum won't give her a cookie from a jar on top of the fridge, you can control Aiden and fetch her one. Otherwise, it's an oppressively dark and maudlin experience. Barely a moment goes by when shiny, glistening tears aren't running down Page's magnificently-rendered cheeks. But just when you're on the verge of feeling something, the game makes another of its pretentious thematic leaps.
The instant a chapter set in the New Mexico desert started, and the sound of pan pipes drifted through the air, we knew a wise old Native American was going to turn up - and she did, in a bewildering side-story involving hokey mysticism that barely relates to the main plot in any meaningful way.
This chapter, titled Navajo, is Cage at his most indulgent. Here we also see the first of two gratuitous shower scenes where Jodie's modesty is covered by conveniently-placed scenery, like that bit in Austin Powers. What is it with Quantic Dream and showers? Every game since Fahrenheit has had one. Admittedly, their engine is good at moist skin.
Later, we join Jodie as she's sneaking through the streets of war-torn Mogadishu in Rambo face paint. Even in a game where ghosts exist, the sight of slender, five-foot-one Ellen Page effortlessly choking Somali warlords, double her size, to death is hard to take seriously.
This sequence plays out like a Splinter Cell level, but one whose outcome is already decided, and over which you have no real control. The action scenes are so lethargic and over-choreographed that they have no impact whatsoever, and actually end up being really boring.
It's a shame, because the technology is impressive. This is a beautiful-looking game, pushing PlayStation 3 to its limits, and the motion capture technology mirrors every nuance of Page and Dafoe's performances. They do a fine job, especially considering the material they're working with. But as the tech advances, Cage is still stuck in film school.
"The motion capture tech mirrors every nuance of the actors' performances"
There are some moments that show surprisingly genuine heart, including a chapter where Jodie ends up homeless and on the streets during a brutal winter snow storm. She joins a group of down-and-outs living under a bridge and the characters here actually show some traces of humanity, but it's all over far too soon.
If the game was made up entirely of scenes like this, and Jodie struggling with her strange gift in a more relatable way - more relatable than murdering entire SWAT teams (another Cage favourite) and summoning Native American spirits - it would have been much more compelling. The chapters where we see Jodie growing up tell an interesting story; the James Bond-style espionage and straight-to-video action set-pieces just get in the way.
Great lead performance and tech, wasted on a lacklustre story.
- Impressive facial animation
- Solid performance by Ellen Page
- Clumsy, unnatural dialogue
- No sense that you're having any impact on the story