Before Heavy Rain you’d struggle to find anyone who knew about Quantic Dream and the types of games they create. They were a little ahead of themselves with the concept when they released Fahrenheit back in 2005 being largely ignored by the gamer populace even though it received wide critical acclaim. Since then however they have developed a solid reputation for developing games that dispense with game play in favour of creating a deep, rich story whilst also teasing everyone endlessly with their technology demonstrations. Beyond: Two Souls is their latest release which goes back to their roots in paranormal thrillers done in their signature cinematic style.
On the surface Jodie appears to be just like anyone else but ever since she was born she has been tied to another entity that she only knows as Aiden. For a long time that’s all he was, just a presence that was always there watching over her. However over time he developed the ability to interact with the real world and, like the caged animal he was, he began to lash out at every opportunity. This had caught the attention of the CIA who, of course, were looking to exploit this potential power for their own ends. Like anyone else all Jodie wanted was to be part of the regular world but her attachment to Aiden made sure that would never happen.
Quantic Dream have really outdone themselves with Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates what the PlayStation3 is capable of. The graphics are simply phenomenal showing that the 3 years since their previous release have been spent pushing the hardware to its limits. The biggest improvements come from the small things that add on exceptional bits of realism like the way skin looks and moves or the way tears roll down the character’s face. It all runs smoothly as well although that’s mostly due to the restricted nature of most of the environments. It allows for a lot of detail but you’re not going to be play in wide expansive environments that are teaming with NPCs.
Beyond: Two Souls retains Quantic Dream’s signature interactive film style with you spending quite a lot of time being in the back seat to the action that’s happening on screen. The dialogue choice system hasn’t changed dramatically, offering up a variety of options which you can choose from and that will influence how the story progresses. The combat sections have been reworked slightly and puts a little more guesswork into completing the interactions successfully. The addition of the Aiden mechanic adds a completely different perspective to the game and also allows for some pretty novel and interesting game play.
From what I can remember of Heavy Rain you, for the most part, got unlimited time in which to make the decision about which dialogue option you chose. Beyond: Two Souls on the other hand will often begin to fade the choices out after a small period of time, leaving you with only a single option which will be automatically selected for you. I will admit that this helps with pacing as you can sometimes be paralysed by choice but you can sometimes end up regretting taking to long to think about what you wanted to say. Of course this also means that subsequent play throughs could be quite rewarding as even when you get to choose the options you want there are still many others that you’d potentially want to see.
The combat/quick time event system has been changed significantly with the the visual cues being almost completely removed. For combat sequences you’re now instructed to follow Jodie’s motion on screen using the right analogue stick. This does eliminate the majority of the rather immersion breaking pop-ups that alert you to what button you need to press however it also adds a layer of ambiguity to what action you need to perform. It’s relatively forgiving as I often found myself getting things right when I was pretty sure I just mashed the stick in a random direction however I just as often found myself getting it wrong when I was sure I got it right.
There are still times when you’ll be pressing buttons, holding down combinations of them or doing things with the controller that the prompts on screen are telling you to do although they’re usually regulated to the non-action sequences. Its also during these sequences that you’ll go hunting around for white dots which detail something you can interact with which also suffer from the not-so-precise detection method of pointing with the right analogue stick. Whilst I don’t have a better system in mind it does feel like it’s somewhat pointless for some sections.
The biggest deviation away from Quantic Dream’s traditional style is the inclusion of the Aiden mechanic, a disembodied spirit that has the ability to go through walls, throw things around and even kill or possess people should the need arise. For the most part he functions as another puzzle mechanic, allowing the developers to create rather intricate puzzles that require some lateral thinking in order to complete. You’re also given a little bit of choice as to how you play Aiden as you can either make him out to be the benevolent watcher or the dick that attempts to screw with every aspect of Jodie’s life. For the most part the game seems to encourage you to be a dick, making abstaining a torturous exercise.
Aiden also functions as the writer’s get out of jail free card as whilst his powers are initially limited to throwing things around it becomes evident that he’s really some kind of all powerful demi-god who can do pretty much anything he wants. Whilst this allows them to put Jodie in a whole host of situations that would otherwise be somewhat unbelievable it does make you question why some things happen to her and some don’t. Thankfully though Aiden isn’t a complete deus ex machina but it remove a good chunk of believability to the game, even for someone like me who’s able suspend disbelief in aid of a good story.
From a story perspective Quantic Dream has done an amazing job of bringing these characters to life; no small part of which is due to the amazing acting by the Ellen Page and William Dafoe. It says a lot that all the emotions I felt whilst playing came rushing back while I was reviewing my footage for screenshots, my heart aching for the pain they endured. Even though I was satisfied with my initial play through I still feel like there’s another side to this game that I’ve yet to experience due to the wide range of dialogue options available. This means that just like Heavy Rain before it Beyond: Two Souls is a game that will reward subsequent playthroughs. even if the overall story is known.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
However I feel like Quantic dream kind of screwed up the relationships in Beyond: Two Souls, specifically with Ryan. Whilst Joide makes it clear that she thinks she might be falling for him initially it appears that he’s not completely interested in her, especially considering how he left after she had a flashback to when she was almost raped. The confession then of how he loves her, and indeed in the final scenes when he continues to say he loves her, seem tacked on and hollow. The other relationships by comparison have deep and rich back stories to them that develop over the course of the game and I actually felt something for them, even if some of them were a little shallow. Its possible that I might have felt more if I had pursued the relationship further and its definitely one of the reasons that I’m considering a second play through.
Beyond: Two Souls reaffirms Quantic Dream’s domination of the cinmeatic game genre, pushing highly interactive gameplay aside in favour of deep and engrossing story that comes alive thanks to the brilliant acting of all the characters. It’s also a return to their roots in fantasy, almost feeling like a spiritual successor to Fahrenheit, and whilst it does suffer a little bit because of this I still find it hard to find fault with it. If you’ve ever played a Quantic Dream game and enjoyed it then you simply can not go past Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates just how good they are at building titles like this.
Beyond: Two Souls is available exclusively on PlayStation 3 right now for $78. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s that time of year again when the Electronics and Entertainment Expo (commonly known as E3) brings about all sorts of tech demos, teaser trailers and usually a swath of speculation of what the upcoming year holds for the gaming community. Whilst I usually shoot a curious glance its way whenever a company I’m following announces something I tend not to talk about it too much lest I work myself up into a White Knight Chronicles-esque fervor only to be disappointed once again. Still with the drip feed of information that I’ve allowed myself I’ve noticed something of a trend in many of the news articles that I’ve been reading.
It seems that the latest round of games look too good for current gen consoles and people are wondering if they’re all destined for the next generation. Taken at face value the games do look a whole lot more impressive than most current generation titles and here’s a few examples from E3 that have got everyone’s tongue wagging about whether they’re next gen or not.
Last of Us:
Beyond: Two Souls:
They are quite impressive looking titles, especially Watch Dogs which has managed to steal E3 away from all of its competitors. However I personally didn’t think they were outside the capabilities of the PlayStation 3, mostly because even though we’re a almost 6 years into its life developers are still wringing good performance increases out of it. The Xbox360 on the other hand is starting to run up to its limits but its still quite capable of producing some pretty good graphics (see my Mass Effect 3 review to see some screens taken in-game). The kicker of course is the answer to the question that everyone on the floor asked “What’s this demo running on?”.
For all the games in question it was a high end PC. Cue raucous cheering from the PC crowd who can feel the crown of best platform being placed back on their heads.
Of course many of the developers came out afterwards and stated that all the games would be running on current generation consoles. However the fact that they run on PCs doesn’t exclude them from running on at least 1 of the next gen consoles (Orbis, or the PS4) which will be sporting a good old fashioned x86-64 instruction set. Additionally any game that runs on a Windows PC and utilizes the Microsoft XNA framework has a very easy time being ported to the current Xbox and so it follows that the next gen would also have similar capabilities. So whilst these titles aren’t technically next gen they’re definitely indicative of what they’ll be capable of, at least at the beginning of their life cycle.
As for when those consoles will be making their debut I’d have to put my money on sometime next year for Microsoft’s Durango and the year after that for Sony’s Orbis. There’s not a lot of concrete evidence to back that up but with the Xbox360 approaching is 7th birthday soon I can’t see it hanging on for much longer after that. It then follows on that Sony wouldn’t want to be too far behind in its next gen console release although they’ve been very mum on whether or not they’re actually working on it yet. This is definitely a subject I’m going to have to revisit 6 months down the line.
Quantic Dream is a name that you’ll be familiar with if you’ve been a long time reader of this blog but outside of that you’d be hard pressed to find those who knew of them. Much like Ninja Theory, who were thrust into the limelight for being one of the reasons to buy a PS3 on launch day (and subsequently faded into the background as quickly), they have specialized in creating games that focus less on the actual game play itself and more on the characters and the roles they play in the story. Such games blur the lines between themselves and more traditional forms of video entertainment, which has drawn the ire of many a game critic. Still the genre of cinematic gaming¹ has proven itself to be extremely viable with many dedicated fans like myself lapping up every offering that any game company puts forth. With one of these such titles under their belt you can understand my excitement when Heavy Rain was announced, and my elation when I finally sat down to play through it.
The menu screens of Heavy Rain are rich in a sense of foreboding, with a noir like feel to them. It then comes as quite a shock when the opening scenes turn out be quite the opposite with bright colours and your character showing a healthy amount of contentment for his life, family and an overall appreciation for the world around him. As with any classic tragedy we know the man with everything has everything to lose and the focus of the game is very much centered on this.
The inital scenes are, as always, the tutorial for the game. Initially I felt the controls were a tad awkward as they’re different from your usual 3rd person affair. To walk you have to hold R2 and then steer your character with the left control stick. Additionally you have little control over the camera save for being able to switch between some pre-determined camera angles. Granted its no where near as bad as say Resident Evil which often had dreadful angles that hid details from you and from a design point of view the decision to lock the camera is solid, so no points lost there.
Combat and other challenges take an advanced form of the much dreaded quick time event. With a game relying so heavily on the story (and by consequence linear game play) Quantic Dream really out did themselves when it came to engaging you at the right times. Some of the events had me playing two handed twister with the controller which sounds like a cheap way to make you panic but the implementation is nothing short of flawless. Many of the scenes play out in drastically different ways should you succeed or fail at the button mash at critical times, something which will ensure that conversations over your Heavy Rain experience will be wide and varied.
Heavy Rain is set in the near future and Quantic Dream has taken this as an opportunity to give it a slight sci-fi bent. One of the story lines, a FBI investigator, utilizes a pair of sunglasses and special glowing glove with a Minority Report like interface to gather and analyze evidence. Additionally a scene with another character in a psychiatrist appointment has what appears to be a CAT scan being done with nothing more then a slim slab of metal on their forehead. Whilst it may be a minor point in the game overall it helped keep the pace of the game whilst ensuring that the hand waving over certain plot points was kept to a minimum.
Unlike Fahrenheit before it, which allowed you to choose which character to progress the story with up to a point, your experience within Heavy Rain is completely controlled by the decisions you make with each character during their scene. This has a much more organic feel to it as the story flows consistently with the story arc able to stretch from beginning to end without any odd disjoints in it. Fahrenheit had a few moments that were absolutely unnecessary to the overall plot or individual character development which I attribute to the choice you were given when progressing a certain character.
Heavy Rain’s scenary is one of complete normality. Almost every section of the game plays out in normal settings with extraordinary circumstances. It’s done as to contrast the banality of everyday activities, such as doing your teeth or simply looking at yourself in the mirror, with the extremes each character will be pushed to in order to achieve their various goals. After visiting so many lands of fantasy recently it’s been an oddly refreshing experience to be pushed back into the (almost) real world.
This is greatly helped by the fact that 95% of the achievements in Heavy Rain are hidden from you (although you’re really just a Google search away from finding them) and the only time you’ll know you’ve got one is when the loading screen appears. It might sound like a small thing but there’s nothing worse for immersion then having a “Trophy Unlocked!” message appear along with its associated sound coming along right in the middle of a scene.
As for the story itself? Completely and utterly engrossing. I’m not usually one for murder mysteries (they’re in the same category as horror for me, entertaining I won’t go out of my way for them) but chasing the Origami Killer through 4 different sets of eyes throughout the game makes for a complex and twisted story that had me guessing right up until right before the ultimate climax. Whilst it had been said before that at any point any of the characters could die (and I can see their point to, there were many close calls in my play through) I managed to keep them all alive throughout. You’d think this would bring me the ultimate closure on the whole ideal and whilst the story does wrap up quite well I still wonder how it would have gone had I made one decision differently, or if one of the characters died before a critical point.
Additionally Heavy Rain hits on some very mature themes that other games have been struggling to showcase properly. I’ve lamented in the past that for all the game industry’s trying at putting sex into games they always seem to make it a reward for clicking the right buttons rather than an expression of deep emotions. Heavy Rain on the other hand mirrors a similar scene to that found in Fahrenheit, with two people in desperate situations falling for one another. Whilst I won’t comment on how it all turns out (your choices will decide that) it’s good to finally see a game that views sex as something that is as quickly forgotten by the characters in the game as it would be by the gamer looking for a cheap thrill. The long lasting impact of such emotional involvement is deeply apparent in the way both characters react to each other afterwards adding yet another layer on an already complex relationship.
My game developer buddy wouldn’t let a conversation about Heavy Rain go by without mentioning that his trusted reviewers have stated that the game will start lying to you at certain points. Now that I’ve actually played the game (yes I’m calling you out on this :P) I can see what he was getting at but realistically it was at one point (well two, but the second isn’t an outright lie so much as it is just a cheap way to keep you guessing) in the game and had the scene been shown to you it would not only be confusing but also ruin the remaining game. Critically the game he worked on reviewed quite similar to Heavy Rain. However it would seem that the gamer community as a whole rejected that viewpoint with it garnering a rather embarrassing user score. The often sighted problems weren’t so much the complaint of the game lying to you, more the user critics level their eyes squarely on the plot citing its predictability and numerous plot holes. The score is misleading though as the reviews are ones of extremes with players either loving it or hating it.
I disagree with many of the criticisms as they seem to either come from a player base the game wasn’t levelled at (I.E. not the frat boy crowd that lapped up MW2) or forms of hindsight bias. The first lot of users will have come across Heavy Rain due to the hype it recieved, not for a following of the genre. Ask many of those who find fault in it if they had played Dreamfall or Fahrenheit and you’ll often get blank stares as few would have even heard of either of those titles. The second lot are those who probably pride themselves on not being easily fooled or after finishing the game look back on it and remember (quite wrongly) that they picked up on every hint and knew the outcome well before it was revealed. Had they wrote down who they thought the killer was after every scene I’m sure we’d see a completely different picture.
Heavy Rain is one of those games that has successfully managed to demonstrate that games are ready to become a mature medium for any story that would have them. I spent many hours on the edge of my seat hungering for the next scene or scrap of detail that would bring me that one step closer to knowing the truth. Each of the characters are uniquely themselves yet still shaped by the way you want to play them. In the end this makes Heavy Rain a unique experience for all of those who play it and will serve as a turning point in games as a storytelling medium.
Heavy Rain is available exclusively for PS3 for AU$108. Game was played on the PS3 on the hardest difficulty with around 10 hours of gameplay total with all characters alive at the end.
¹I have to make the point here that what I call cinematic gaming seems to be drifting away from what the industry thinks this term means. Today a cinematic game could very easily refer to something like Modern Warfare 2 which has a very Hollywood-esque feeling to it yet falls into the category of a FPS. For me cinematic games will be the ones that are only a few steps away from actually being a movie, despite whether or not they actually feel like one.
I picked something up yesterday, something looking suspiciously similar to this:
Yeah I think you can guess where I’ll be spending a good chunk of my weekend, firmly welded to the couch while I bathe myself in what is going to be one of the most enthralling cinematic gaming experiences to cross my path. The fact that the guy I picked it up from at EB asked me if I had played Fahrenheit shows just what kind of a following this game has and I’ve deliberately steered clear of any news or reviews of the game, lest they ruin my experience.
Now it’s one thing to get excited over a game due to the hype buildup or developer loyalty but, for me at least, Heavy Rain is in another category entirely. That’s not to say it’s the most excited I’ve been about a game, far from it. I was much more jittery when it came to picking up the Mass Effect series of games or even the first World of Warcraft expansions. No, there’s something different about this game that is tickling a part of my brain that I don’t think a game has ever triggered before, and that in itself is saying something.
I can probably put this down to the Four Days online experience that Quantic Dream put on. Basically it was a prologue to the game and involved putting you in the shoes of one of the characters of Heavy Rain who was investigating a murder. It played out over 3 days of each week for 3 weeks and to be honest the first one came and went with me barely giving it a second look. However things started to get interesting when the second one came along.
The event started with a series of interactive Youtube videos that put you on the other end of a 911 phone call. The idea was to keep her on the phone as long as possible so you could extract information about what she saw. If you do it right you’ll be sent to another website with a grab bag of evidence from the crime scene which contains various photos other bits of info. What drew me in at this point was a link to a Twitter account, and this is where things got a bit crazy.
It just so happened that I got the evidence package late at night and decided to check out the account to see if there was anything on it. Amazingly right as I was going onto the website the person behind the account started to answer questions about what he saw that night. Queue 3 hours of me furiously sending questions to him and refreshing the page, desperately hanging on for every little bit of information I could drag out of him. I went to bed before the whole event finished but as I drifted off to sleep my head was filled with even more questions that demanded answers and I spent the next day on the edge of my seat waiting for the mysterious character to return.
The next day saw me selecting the 4 most appropriate pieces of evidence from the crimescene to be submitted for further investigation. After a few attempts I got it right and was rewarded with a code for an early copy of the demo. Not wanting to spoil anything of Heavy Rain I filed it away and waited for the next challenge to begin.
The last challenge in the Four Days campaign wasn’t as enthralling as the one that preceeded it. Basically it was just looking at Facebook fan pages and figuring out who best fit the data. It was kind of spooky when I got an email out of the blue from another person who was apparently working the case for her own reasons, and the page she linked to instantly identified her as one of the characters right out of Heavy Rain. I still spent some time reading all the profiles but that initial buzz I felt from staring at SleeperInTheSun’s Twitter feed was a distant memory.
Despite the climax being somewhat disappointing (although the trailers that followed were amazing) it made me step back and take stock of the emotional responses that this little meta game invoked. Fahrenheit was one of those games that drew you deep into the story and its characters, even to the point of stretching the definition of what constituted a game (My game developer friend Tim doesn’t let me call them games, only interactive movies). Heavy Rain made no secret that it’s striving for an emotive experience first and gameplay second which has drawn some harsh criticisms from more traditional game reviewers. So far every one of the cinematic games I’ve played have been experiences I’ve savoured like a fine wine and if the small tidbits of Heavy Rain that I’ve indulged in are anything to go by this will be another fine addition to my shelf.
I’m an avid gamer and have been ever since my Dad sat me down at a computer at the tender age of 4 and showed me an old classic, Captain Comic. I spent many hours playing through that game and never getting too far into it, only to have my Dad’s friend show up and beat the game for me. I remember being awe struck as a child watching someone play through it so perfectly, when I had struggled for hours and only got half as far.
Fast forward 20 years and gaming has become a huge multi-billion dollar industry. So many games are released every year that no matter what kind of genre or play-style you fit into you’re bound to find something that you enjoy. Hollywood blockbuster budgets are thrown at impressive game titles and production values have skyrocketed, which has allowed game designers to become analogous to movie producers. Thus Cinematic Gaming was born, bringing the choices of a choose your own adventure book together with the immersion of modern interactive games.
My first real introduction into this blend of movie and game was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Whilst this is no where near the first foray into this genre it is a great example of what it is capable of. The emphasis is strictly on the characters and their interaction with each other. Every time I sat down to play it I felt drawn into the game and empathised with all of the characters, something which was made even stronger by the fact I could make their decisions for them. The ending left my heart aching, something which I had never experienced with a game before.
After finishing Dreamfall and sharing my experiences with some of my friends I was put onto Fahrenheit by Quantic Dream. This was a much earlier attempt at Cinematic Gaming and whilst the graphics were a tad rough, even for the time of its release, the emphasis again was on the plot and immersion. I quickly got drawn into the interaction between characters, and the use of game mechanics really makes you feel like the character is supposed to. Throw in a dash of naughty sex scenes and you’re onto a winner.
Probably one of the biggest jumps forward in this genre would have to be Mass Effect by Bioware, who are renowned for their games with intricate dialogues and over-arching plot lines. The conversation system implemented in Mass Effect is really second to none. Your responses are displayed just before the other person finishes their part of the conversation, allowing you to choose what you want to say before there’s an awkward pause. Once you’ve figured out which options are where (a “Paragon” response is typically at the top, “Renegade” is at the bottom) you can usually judge how you want to respond to someone before the options even come up. This makes the dialogue very fluid, and doesn’t have the same immersion break like many similar games do when you’re interacting with non-player characters.
So how does the future look for this type of game? Well Quantic Dream is busy working on Heavy Rain which is looking to take the next step in immersion with realistic facial expressions. They put an emphasis on the fact that their characters will show real tears, which is something that is sure to tug on heart strings. Here’s a great trailer:
I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I’ll be sure to give a review of it once I’ve played it through. Don’t expect it to be out quickly though, I like to take my time with things like this 😉