Beyond: Two Souls puts on its warpaint

Beyond E3 preview
The Beyond: Two Souls demo I played at E3 featured protagonist Jodi Holmes as a CIA operative, undergoing a perilous mission in the war-torn streets of Somalia. Quite how Jodi and her accompanying supernatural entity 'Aiden' came to this point is unclear, and that's fine; Quantic Dream has a curious life story in mind for its unusual heroine, and this was a mere portion of the game's ten or so hours.

Still, it was jarring. Heavy Rain often placed itself in the more normal, human situations that games tend to avoid. While it had its share of action, those sequences were smaller parts of bigger scenes, and not necessarily what defined them. In contrast, Beyond's Somalia demo offered 20 minutes of war-based intensity, and at times it outwardly resembled the medium's bevy of military shooters. It was weird. %Gallery-191353% Almost immediately, I saw my warpaint-covered Ellen Page likeness sprint behind cover. The game then led me through shooting an enemy, complete with Heavy Rain-like Simon Says cues: hold L1 to pull the gun out, press R1 to take the shot – like any military shooter, but minus the aiming. These particular cues didn't reappear in the demo, so their inclusion here felt strange on reflection. If there was a statement being made by aping conventional shooter controls, it was lost on me.

It must be said there was intensity in the demo, from the constant surrounding presence of death to a moment where, wounded and looking like she was done for, a sobbing Jodi placed her gun under her chin. The decision to shoot or not was left up to me, although both scenarios do play out with no shot being taken. Also attempting to provide poignancy was Salim, a young Somali boy forced to take up arms. Salim accompanied Jodi throughout, and even though exposition was limited in the demo, Quantic's excellent motion capture enhanced the pair's dynamic. One memorable scene saw Jodi and Salim lay next to each other in the back of a pick-up truck, with the young operative almost motherly as she gently stroked Salim's hair while keeping an eye out for danger.

Nonetheless, exposition was limited across the 20 minutes. Often the demo focused on the drama of war around Jodi, but to say it stood out from anything Call of Duty or Battlefield has had to offer would be a disservice to those series. As with Quantic's odd adapting of typical video game shooting, at the end I was left unsure of the overall point of traipsing the well-worn footsteps of gaming's military shooters, or that Quantic's approach to it felt distinct in a satisfactory way.

I'm willing to give Quantic the benefit of the doubt here; this isn't what the whole game will be like by any stretch. Instead, let's turn our focus to the controls; Quantic clearly wants to have screens less dominated by cues in Beyond, and that's been achieved with some grace both inside and outside of combat.

In non-combat, white circles offered discreet, contextual cues for possible actions. One on the back of the pick-up truck, for example, indicated Jodi could hop on board. Since getting onto the truck involved an upward motion, this obviously translated into the appropriate upward stick movement for me to input.

While they were common enough, so were the more familiar direct cues, like tapping X repeatedly to sustain Aiden's supernatural forcefield and protect Jodi from incoming fire, or lifting up the controller to climb a ladder onto a rooftop. This is still a Quantic game.

There was a similar contrast in combat, although direct cues were far less common. Instead, fight sequences frequently went into slow-mo, with the correct input here indicated by Jodi's own trajectory: if she was attempting to duck a punch, I was to push down, while a forward kick to the stomach from a side-on angle required a sideways push. If it doesn't sound intuitive, in practice it wasn't hard to get the hang of, and felt like a good fit, if not a particularly challenging one.

The fight sequences were one dominant half of the demo, with the other being the Aiden-based puzzles to get through enemies. I could switch between Aiden and Jodi at any time via clicking the triangle button, but it was necessary at certain junctures. Switching into Aiden placed me in a first-person view, able to float around like the invisible spirit I was, but only a certain distance away from Jodi.

Floaty is the word for controlling Aiden, which I never really got a hold of, although once I found what I was looking for he was simple enough to use. Objects, often humans, changed color when I had the ability to use Aiden's powers on them. In this demo, I used Aiden's powers to choke enemy soldiers, possess them to shoot other soldiers, and blast down doors. These powers could be very interesting with some flexibility in the situations that require them, but often in this demo it felt a little by the numbers: get to a dead end with Jodi, have to use a certain Aiden power, switch back to Jodi, rinse and repeat.

It's hard to know what to make of the demo I saw at E3. We've seen Beyond in so many different guises through its trailers, and clearly what I played doesn't represent the whole game. The Somalia sequence wasn't awful, but it felt uninspired. There were moments that caught my interest, and there were mechanical changes I appreciated, but I was left feeling like Quantic didn't bring its A-game to the pre-game. On the other hand, I'm beyond curious to see how the whole thing plays out.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.