Reviews

 

The gaming landscape of today is more vast and varied than any other time before us. In the past if a studio released a game to less than stellar sales figures, that studio would likely never see another release. In today’s world however, the  landscape is such that a studio can release a moderately successful first title and go on to release smaller, more focused offerings. A developer such as Dontnod, based in Paris France would have most likely sunk into obscurity after their first offering, Remember Me. Luckily for them, however Square Enix saw potential and developed a publishing relationship with them to deliver Life Is Strange on Xbox One, PS4, and Steam.

An adventure game in similar style to earlier offerings from Tell Tale Games, Life is Strange is told over five separate episodes, each releasing approximately two months apart. You play Max Caufield, a High School senior that has just returned to her home town for her last year of high school. She attends Blackwell academy, a specialized high school for artists of varying types. Over the course of all five episodes you will be faced with various decisions and, depending on how you choose to confront those events, your story will adapt to those actions. Much in the same way Tell Tale’s games adapt, however Life is Strange twists the equation by adding in a time travel mechanic. Max is able to rewind short stints of time to undo conversations or certain actions you might have chosen. This is a welcome change, as now instead of wondering how a conversation could go should you push it in a different direction, you can simply rewind and see how the character would take it. I find this to be both a blessing and curse as by my exploratory nature I find myself reliving the same conversation multiple times over, just to see what happens. This mechanic isn’t just for choosing your experience though, as Max remembers the information you gain from these conversations, even if you rewind time. This is the crux of the game, and as a result you’ll be spending most of your time in conversation.

These conversations are some of the most engaging I’ve experienced in any game. The voice team employed by Dontnod is simply on top of their game, creating characters that are at once authentic and genuine, giving the player the feeling that these are real people, with real problems and motivations beyond what we’re shown on screen. It is at once believable and there’s something undeniably human about the entire experience. Without going in spoiler territory, there is a character that is being bullied for something she may or may not have done. She is a quiet individual, however just going into her room and speaking with her, you do learn about her, about her home life, and what she is like as a human being. Over the course of episodes one, two and three you have the opportunity to get to know each of the characters extremely well and develop  a group of friends that each seems to have concern for Max and their own well being.

Arcadia Bay, in which we lay our scene.

From a gameplay perspective, new ground isn’t being broken here. It’s extremely similar to Tell Tale games, if you’ve played those you’ll be at home here, however there is a distinct difference. Tell Tale employed a dual control stick method if you played with a controller, where the left stick controlled player movement while the right stick controlled a reticle which would select objects in the world and give your character the actions to use on those objects. Dontnod instead employs a single control stick and the face buttons controlling contextual actions within the world. It is at once easier to control, and serves the game better for it. That being said, there isn’t any kind of active combat in Life is Strange. That isn’t to say the game isn’t without its moments of tension, but this isn’t the title’s strong suit. The situations Max finds herself in are at times tense, however with the time rewind mechanic, I never felt in danger. Should I let the time run out, I could always simply rewind and start it over, now knowing what doesn’t work. In most cases this sense of safety prevails, however in some cases her time travel will falter, leaving you vulnerable again to the progress of time. It is these rare instances that I did feel tense and anxious at what could happen, but they come far to sparingly for my tastes. There just simply isn’t a lot of actual tension, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to try to add more in future episodes.

Moments of quiet reflection permeate the experience.

Graphically the game has adopted a quasi-realistic, painterly aesthetic that fits the feeling wonderfully. I found myself playing through as part participant, part photographer, snapping screen shot after screen shot that could pass for tasteful artwork were it hung on my walls. Just as important is the soundtrack, which is an eclectic mix of Indie Pop, Folk, Punk, and Rock. There is one particularly poignant scene in which Chloe and Max are sitting in a bed, reminiscing over recent events while Bright Eye’s “Lua” plays on Chloe’s stereo. I found myself also sitting and ruminating, despite being able to continue to play. These moments of simple quietude are sprinkled through, allowing you to breathe, to take in and think about what’s happened and what may come.

Life is Strange is one of those rare games that immediately grabbed me. I was hooked as soon as Max put in her headphones and Syd Matters began singing “To All Of You” as I walked to Max’s locker, preparing for class. It is a melancholic slice of life in which the world feels alive and larger than just Max, you’re only seeing a portion of it. I am very excited to see where the narrative goes, though I am cautiously optimistic, not because of my earlier experience, but for the potential for it to backfire at the last minute. Time travel is a difficult topic to cover in any medium, and if done right it is fantastic, but that line is extremely fine and I hope all the best for Dontnod. Regardless of how it turns out, Life is Strange is a game about the journey there, not necessary the end game, and I look forward to seeing their conclusion.

4/5

 

This tomato is just awesome. Just wanted to point him out.

*NOTE: This review only covers my experiences with Life Is Strange up through episode 3. I played the game on PC, through Steam with a controller. Episode 4 is out today, and I would recommend jumping in now. The Finale is set for an assumed September release.

When you think of a typical Starcraft player, you think of someone with intense, robotic focus, endlessly clacking away at their keyboards with super human speed and accuracy as they wage war across the digital battlefield. They know at what exact second they’ll have exactly enough minerals to construct the particular  building that they would require at that precise moment, as they had it planned out three minutes ago. They thrive to push their APM higher and higher in order to demonstrate full battlefield control, exerting pressure at the right choke point while sacrificing some units to draw attention away from their actual goal. I am not one of those players. I play Starcraft because I like the story. This is not the most popular stance to take, but I can’t mentally take the stresses of Battle.net. Believe me I’ve tried, and in the hours I’ve dedicated to playing, I’ve learned one thing, I’m just not that good. (Warning, spoilers ahead for both the Wings of Liberty campaign and Heart of the Swarm, you’ve been warned.)

What does keep me coming back to this series however is the story, and in their latest offering, Heart of the Swarm, felt a little lacking in that department. The main thrust of the story sees Sarah Kerrigan, no longer the Queen of Blades, returned to human form as the result of the Xel’Naga artifact Jim Raynor discovered and used at the end of Wings of Liberty. Now a prisoner to prince Valerian Mengsk, she begins the story as a research subject, Valerian attempting to use her to control the Zerg to his own ends. Soon, Arcturus Mengsk shows on his campaign to destroy Kerrigan, Jim is captured in the escape and he becomes the motivation Kerrigan needs to rebuild. It feels incredibly old hat and stale, but the overarching story only serves to deliver some memorable side characters and world building that hopefully pays off in the upcoming Legacy of the Void.

The overall mission structure is similar to that of Wings of Liberty, however this time around it feels slightly more restrictive in regard to narrative choice. You’re more or less selecting an order of missions rather than a branching path. At any one point you have a selection of one to three different planets, each with their own set of missions to take part in. Once you select one, you’re locked in for all the missions that planet offers. The missions themselves are quite varied and rewarding in and of themselves, keeping things fresh and new all along the way. There’s even a small Terran side quest in which you control the Hyperion Battlecrusier alone in a few skirmishes in space. These a-typical type of missions are peppered throughout the story and help to keep things fresh. Completing missions will give you rewards in way of new units, new possible upgrades of units and leveling Kerrigan herself as a hero unit. Much like Wings of Liberty Kerrigan levels throughout the story giving you access to new abilities and traits that will greatly change how she performs on the battlefield. I found myself constantly changing up her skills to try new combinations of abilities just to see how they could work together. My only gripe is that there aren’t enough missions once you maximize her level to really find out which of her top tier abilities you like best, you get a chance to try each once, and maybe only keep one for a few more missions, which is a pity. Just like Wings of Liberty you are given the chance to permanently modify your units throughout the campaign to create a custom set of warriors to use throughout the campaign. Where in Wings of Liberty it felt like ordering out of a catalog, Heart of the Swarm makes it feel much more organic. You’ll be periodically presented with evolution missions, hyper specialized mini-missions which highlight two options for the given unit. At the end you’re given the choice between the two and discarding the other permanently. A small touch, but much deserved as it lets you experiment with differing strategies before making a final selection, a feature I’d love to see carried over into Legacy of the Void. At the end you feel like you have an army that best suits your own play style, one that will better enable you to wage war and topple Arcturus.

Missions usually took between ten and thirty minutes, but I found it difficult to put it down in the middle of running through an entire planet. I had played through on the Normal difficulty and never really ran into a difficult challenge. There were a few hairy moments, but nothing that just balling up all of my units and throwing them at the enemy wouldn’t fix. The sense of scale during these battles was impressive as well, and they capture the feeling of controlling The Swarm fantastically. Once you have a group of one hundred or more units you do feel as though nothing can stop you, and on Normal that certainly is true, just don’t expect the AI in the campaign to put up much of a fight.

Heart of the Swarm feels like a narrative lull in the greater story that is the Starcraft II saga. It feels as though Blizzard is stalling in order to get certain characters into positions that are needed for the conclusion that are at odds with where they ended up at the conclusion of Wings of Liberty. At its core it’s still a Starcraft game and is incredibly fun to play. I found myself awake and much later hours than I am usually just to play “one more level”. As a package it felt somewhat short, but at the current price of $20 I can’t complain. If you’re one for the multiplayer aspect, that’s an extremely attractive price for one of the best strategy games around. I’ll admit I dabble against the AI, and it’s just as rewarding to swarm them in multiplayer arenas as it is in the single player campaign. If you’re a fan of the genre, pick up Heart of the Swarm, there’s a ton to like here, and if you’re on the fence about RTS in general, I’d still recommend it for the single player alone, it could serve as a good introduction to the genre.

4/5