Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls will be remembered for very different reasons, juxtaposing one another for how to and how not to produce an interactive choice-driven game.
Graphically enhanced and released together as a single package, Quantic Dream’s cinematic thrillers are certainly unique, bringing an element of consequential choice not seen in other story-driven video games with the exception of Until Dawn. Originally released in 2010 and 2013 respectively, the video game industry has come leaps and bounds in the 6+ years since their initial releases, with more immersive, absorbing stories combined with gripping gameplay as seen in games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider. Unfortunately for this two game collection, time has not been kind to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but despite the flaws, there’s still some enjoyment to be had across both games.
Heavy Rain’s story revolves around a self-proclaimed origami killer who uses rainwater to kill his victims. After a brief introduction, you switch control between four main characters: FBI detective Norman Jayden, a photojournalist, Madison Paige, distraught father and main protagonist Ethan, and a private detective, Scott Shelby. As the game progresses, the mystery unravels through the four intricately connected stories that each has a connection to the killer. A slow trickle of clues are uncovered along the way that help you piece together who the killer may be with a small dose of supernatural and futuristic elements thrown in for good measure. The game puts you firmly in control of how the story plays out, too, and with over twenty endings and a plethora of game-changing choices for each character along the way, Heavy Rain is certainly an impressive narrative feat in the world of video games.
As you may expect from such a story-driven game, vast swathes of Heavy Rain involve lengthy cut-scenes with various dialogue options along the way. Some of this is inconsequential – the infamous “Press X to JASON!” is one example here – along with bites of dialogue that uncover more about various characters, but most of these conversation trees lead to the same destination. Other conversations do have a significant impact in the way the story progresses. It’s ultimately the narrative and cohesive storytelling here that keeps the game engaging, and with the exception of a couple of niggling plot inconsistencies, it has good pacing and mostly satisfying endings, depending on how you play and which one you unlock.
When you aren’t sitting through cutscenes, most of the gameplay sees you controlling each of the four characters in their respective storylines, navigating awkwardly around beautifully-rendered environments. Heavy Rain defiantly steers away from tried and tested controls with an awkwardly contrived scheme, much to the detriment of the game. Holding down R2 sees you move around while the left analog stick changes your head movement from left to right as you examine different items in the environment. It’s not only intrusive to the experience of the game, but the controls themselves are so frustratingly archaic and awkward, it arguably makes Heavy Rain a more alienating game to play now than when it was originally released.
Most of the trickier segments in the game come from having to press three or four buttons simultaneously, or quick time events. Each of the four playable characters do have a good arc, albeit with a few inconsistencies here and there, but the story continues regardless of whether a character dies or not, helping to heighten tension during these crucial moments.
Whereas Heavy Rain manages to produce a compelling narrative despite its flaws, Beyond: Two Souls does not. With a confusingly structured story and an unnecessarily convoluted narrative, Beyond: Two Souls pales in comparison to its interactive storytelling predecessor. With a supernatural storyline and an incoherent narrative structure, Beyond: Two Souls sacrifices story for graphics in one of PS3’s best-looking but most structurally flawed games.
The story here sees you control Jodie and her psychic companion that possesses poltergeist-like abilities. The unconventional narrative switches between Jodie’s childhood, teen and adult life with little thought to narrative structure and pacing, sabotaging what interest there is with the intriguing premise. Unlike Heavy Rain, there’s an almost arrogant tone with the game’s presentation and a lot of this stems from sacrificing a cohesive story for star power and breathtaking visuals.
Visually, Beyond: Two Souls is certainly a looker, and the graphics are incredibly realistic. Motion capture coupled with the incredible vocal talents of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page do help to elevate this one, but Beyond tries in vain to emulate the cleverness of an Oscar-worthy film and fails miserably. A lot of the flaws with this one fall at the feet of creator David Cage, whose convoluted script and structure causes a lot of the issues here. There are some interesting moments and a lot of the action is well shot, but the game itself is really quite dull when you strip a lot of the visual quality away.
Most of the gameplay mirrors that of Heavy Rain; dialogue options and items in the environment can be interacted with by pressing the corresponding prompt as it shows up on the screen, which in turn opens up more cut scenes and moves the plot forward. Unlike Heavy Rain, the focus sticks to just one character – Jodie. Told in the correct sequence, Beyond: Two Souls does manage to tell a pretty run-of-the-mill story about an unusual girl on the run from authorities, but out of sequence the plot line is unnecessarily confusing and riddled with character inconsistencies.
What’s particularly frustrating with Beyond is just how little your actions actually matter until the conclusive scenes in the game. Told out of sequence, a scene with Jodie as an adult is followed up by another with her as a child. While this in itself is fine, it devalues any danger and tension in either scene knowing Jodie will most likely survive. Once you take the element of danger away, most of the game plays out like an interactive movie with little in the way of deviation from the overall destination. It’s only during the final moments of the game that any of your actions really matter and the various endings come from a branch choice of around six or seven options.
It’s a shame, too, as Beyond: Two Souls is a game with the potential of greatness. With a little refinement and some gameplay tweaking, the story could easily be engaging and exciting throughout. There’re a couple of nicely implemented plot twists and the controls are improved slightly over Heavy Rain. Graphically the game looks amazing too, and everything from the lighting effects to the draw distance is incredibly well-realised and realistic.
Apart from Until Dawn, there really isn’t anything out there quite like Quantic Dream’s two interactive, story-driven games. Heavy Rain is the stand-out here though, and if you can look past the awkward controls and a few plot inconsistencies, there’s an incredibly in-depth narrative to experience. With over 20 endings and four different characters to control, Heavy Rain is one of those games that are well worth replaying multiple times when you’re done just to experience all the different endings.
David Cage’s follow-up hit Beyond: Two Souls takes all the great elements from Heavy Rain, strips them bare, before building an unnecessarily convoluted, unimaginative story around a young girl and her psychic companion. Cinematically, the cut scenes and individual scenes are a massive improvement over Heavy Rain, bolstered by the impressive vocal work of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page, who really bring their respective characters to life. The lack of choice until the final few scenes is a shame, making for quite the disappointing follow up.
When you look at both games individually, Heavy Rain is by far the more viable option and certainly one that’s likely to be remembered more fondly for years to come. Time certainly has not been kind to either game, but it’s ultimately Beyond: Two Souls that stands out like a sore thumb here, acting as a prime example of why graphical quality will always come second to storytelling and gameplay. Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls will be remembered for very different reasons, juxtaposing one another for how to and how not to produce an interactive choice-driven game. Still, for anyone interested in a different way of telling a story, this two-game collection is worth checking out, despite the numerous flaws here.