Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Note: spoilers ahead!

Introduction

A little over a year after playing the first game, I returned to Arcadia Bay for its prequel, Before the Storm. Taking place about 2 years before the first game, in this one you play as Max’s friend Chloe. Max has recently left Arcadia Bay for Seattle, and Chloe is feeling alone and abandoned. Unlike the original game which was developed by Dontnod Entertainment, Before the Storm was developed by Deck Nine. While my review of Life is Strange was fairly short, in this one I’d like to go into a little more detail regarding the characters.

Plot

Chloe is a student at Blackwell Academy. Still reeling from the death of her father, she lashes out at seemingly everyone and trying to find her own way in life, everyone else be damned. One night while trying to sneak into a concert of her favorite local band, Chloe gets into a heated argument with two men; it is about to erupt when she is saved by Rachel Amber, a fellow Blackwell Academy student that she knows only by reputation.

Meeting back at school the next day, the two of them decide to ditch school, riding a train and ending up at a lookout point. Looking through a viewfinder, they happen to see a couple kissing; Chloe makes a joke, but Amber becomes very upset. It turns out the man is Amber’s father, but it’s not his wife he’s kissing. In a fit Amber kicks over a trash bin after burning a family photo, starting what becomes a sizeable wildfire.

At their hideout in the junkyard, Chloe discovers an abandoned pickup truck, which she’s able to fix up. Talking with Amber, they decide to leave everything behind and go away together. Unfortunately complications arise when the woman Amber’s dad was supposedly cheating with is actually Amber’s biological mother, Sera, a drug addict who has problems with both Damon and Frank.

Confronting Frank and Damon at the junkyard, Rachel is stabbed by Damon. Thankfully she survives and recovers at the hospital, while Chloe searches for clues in James’ home office. Using his phone she convinces Damon to meet her, agreeing to pay a ransom for Sera’s life. When she meets Damon she learns James had paid him to kill Sera. Frank arrives and fights Damon. Sera begs Chloe to never tell Rachel about what James did. Visiting Rachel at the hospital again, Chloe is left with the choice whether to tell her everything.

Characters

While not quite as rebellious or outright bitchy as in Life is Strange, in Before the Storm Chloe is still carrying a sizable chip on her shoulder, and it only grows once she meets and starts hanging out with Rachel. While she does reference the more-recent occurrence of Max leaving, she doesn’t really show how much she’s affected and hurt from that.

It’s not long into the game before Rachel Amber makes her appearance. Just like Chloe we are taken aback by her brash behavior and apparent bravery dealing with criminals and other notorious characters. We see her interact with her parents, and it’s evident there’s tension there, although for a teen it’s not that surprising at face value.

In the first game it was very briefly hinted at that Frank had feelings for, let alone a relationship with Rachel. In this game we see Frank as an “understudy” to Damon. Unlike Damon we’re shown that Frank is not all bad, and that perhaps his attitude in the first game is almost justified. We don’t actually see Frank interact with Rachel, and we don’t know if they even know each other yet.

In this game Damon Merrick is the classic bad guy and asshole. Frank is his “apprentice” and keeps him in check; Damon certainly doesn’t seem to care about anyone else besides himself and getting paid. He’s unfortunately a bit one-dimensional. It’s fine to be bad and threatening, but by itself it’s cliche and not very realistic. I would’ve liked to seen just a sliver of humanity, a crack in the armor that showed there is or used to be something in his life that’s not ruined by his way of life.

It hasn’t been as long since William has died, but Joyce has been dating David for awhile and has already seemed to fully accept him into her life and soon home. This is perhaps the biggest surprise in character origin and development compared to what we saw and knew from the first game. In this game David is dating Joyce and later on they announce to Chloe that he will be moving in. Obviously Chloe doesn’t like that, but Joyce basically ignores her. In his defense David seems to try to make an effort to connect with Chloe, as night and day they are in their behavior, opinions, etc. We see more about David, and it certainly puts him in a different light than what’s merely hinted at or perhaps the different way the original developers intended for him to turn out. This is absolutely one of the highlights for the game, and I commend Deck Nine for fleshing out this character.

Rachel’s parents, James and step-mother Rose, certainly come off initially as normal loving parents. At dinner with Chloe they make small talk and help each other in the kitchen. They try to act their best around Rachel, but as I mentioned before there’s something clearly lurking beneath the surface. That comes up later with the reveal of James meeting with Sera, Rachel’s birth mother.

Music

Let’s face it; the soundtrack and original music for the first game set a monstrously high standard, and I was going to be very damned pleased if the music for this game came even close to it. Well, it has gotten close, and while there aren’t any standout tracks or wholly emotional songs to go along with the extremely pivotal moments in the game like there was in the first one, overall I must commend Daughter for their work on this game, building layer upon layer and always knowing when to ease off and when to bring the guitars and other sounds swelling into the foreground. Yes, in contrast to the first game that featured a multitude of indie rock and folk musicians, for this game one band took on the task!

Writing an entire album for this game, Music From Before the Storm (Amazon | Apple | Spotify) is the third album from Daughter, and I really can’t believe I haven’t heard of them until now! It took me quite a few listens to really get into the album and really appreciate it, and stop comparing it to the previous game’s music. Like the game it’s definitely a “slow burner”; it’s something you really should put on a pair of headphones, lay back on the sofa and close your eyes, and just let it seep into you.

Conclusion

Learning the news of a prequel coming so soon after the first game, and from a different studio, my expectations weren’t too high. The original game and soundtrack had a monstrous impact on me, and I was really hoping for more of the same, as hard or even impossible as that would be. Before the Storm somewhat succeeds. Yes it follows the general visual and play style of the first game, but there’s no doubt that Deck Nine have put their unique stamp while still giving us a dramatic and emotional story. I think my only real letdown was the ending, which seemed to come up sooner than I expected, as well as not tying into the first game besides a small end cutscene alluding to Rachel’s disappearance. Why didn’t this game deal with Rachel’s disappearance and how Chloe handled that? Or even Frank?

My Setup – 2018

My original setup post was five (!) years ago. Since that time almost as much has changed as has stayed the same. Let’s go through everything and see where things were, are, and may be headed towards…

Who Am I?

I’m still Christopher, and my day job is still in IT. Music and writing are still my passionate hobbies, but that’s where they’re likely to stay. Doesn’t make them any less important to me!

Hardware

I built another desktop about four or five years ago, and it still handles everything I need it to just fine. Like the previous system it has a dual-core processor (this time a cheap low-power Intel Pentium) and 8GB RAM (I’ve thought about bumping it to 16, but it’d cost just as much as putting 16GB DDR4 into the next eventual system). The system drive is a 256GB SSD, while /home sits on a 2TB HDD. That’s primarily for Plex server, and it’s a little over half full. At the rate we (rarely) buy any new movies and shows, it will last well into the next system. Or by then a 2TB SSD will be cheap enough, that’d be nuts. The next system may get an AMD Ryzen or Intel i5; it’ll have a LOT more cores.

After starting out on Windows 7 and getting the free upgrade to 10, I moved it over to Linux Mint 18.1 when it was released. Everything just works, and I really like Cinnamon (seriously have you tried Gnome 3 on Ubuntu 18.04? Lol what a dumpster fire). No it can’t run my audio software, but that’s its only negative. It’s since been upgraded to 18.3. I may upgrade/re-do it once 19.1 is out, but since it runs Plex it’s definitely become a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” system, while the HP laptop can be the Linux distro guinea pig. The monitor is due for an upgrade, but I don’t know if I want to jump to 4K yet; I do want at least 27″ of screen space. I’m still using a plain mouse and an Apple keyboard. The latter may one day be switched out for a mechanical keyboard with brown switches (I have blue ones at work and they’re wonderfully clacky, but my wife would kill me lol).

The 2 older Mac laptops are long gone. Their limited RAM support and dying batteries spelled the end of their days. Now we have a 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina screen. My god is that great to work on. Its battery is still going strong, it has a decent 8GB RAM, and the SSD is still fairly fast. It just recently got upgraded to macOS Mojave, and for a .0 release it’s almost shocking how smooth everything is. Finally dark mode!

We have an HP Spectre laptop with Linux Mint 19 on it. It’s much faster than even the MacBook Pro. The only downside is its battery stopped working, which I removed. A new one just isn’t worth the price and its small size wouldn’t give it anywhere near the battery life of the MacBook Pro. It’s still nice to use, and it may be good for road trips and the like.

The iPad is also gone, it was just too slow to run even the basics. The new ones look great, especially the Pro, but I’m just too cheap and I have a phone that can cover most of that stuff. I do have a Kindle (cheapest one w/o a backlight) that I like to read from, although I’m not impressed with its battery life, even with keeping it on airplane mode most of the time.

Not that long ago I moved from the iPhone 6S to 8+. The battery was starting to crap out on the 6S, and I wanted the bigger screen and newest (at the time) processor. With the newly-released iOS 12 (like Mojave it’s crazy good for a .0 release) the 8+ still feels brand new, and provided its battery holds up I won’t be in a rush to upgrade for quite awhile. But, weirdly enough, I’ll likely go back to a smaller screen, if only for the weight reduction (trying to work out with a large phone in your pants is a pain!).

We have Rokus on all of our TVs, running Plex or Netflix. The living room also has a PS4, which doesn’t see a whole lot of use. It does stay for being the back-up Blu-Ray player for those that refuse to be ripped. Besides a larger-sized TV I did setup a receiver just to have 2 nice Klipsch bookshelf speakers. To me sound is more important than visual quality (seriously we stream Netflix at 480p, take THAT data caps!) and it still blows me away how much more enjoyable films are with that setup.

Musical instruments haven’t changed at all, and I don’t foresee any new additions or such. I still like my Yamaha acoustic, but admittedly haven’t played it very much. I also rarely play the Strat, even after having its bridge fixed. I still like the feel of the Les Paul Studio the most, and aside from experimenting with heavier strings and tuning in D standard it’s pretty much set as-is.

The Stingray bass is also still fun to play. I tried a set of tapewound strings and loooooved the feel of them! Unfortunately the G string wouldn’t stay on the tuning peg so I left it off. I’ve since gone back to roundwound strings, and hate them. I’ll eventually get another set of tapewounds and have the luthier give it a full setup. Otherwise the Stingray is a joy to play on, even if it weighs at least twice what the Les Paul does (no joke, holy shit). I did replace the small guitar amp in the living room with a larger Fender bass amp, and it’s unbelievable how light it is! Yeah it weighs less than the Stingray, jeez. I still have the other bass amp in the garage, and like the drums would prefer to donate rather than try to sell it.

I still have the drums, but I’ve had no urge to play them. It may be worth it to try to sell it for at least a little money, but honestly I’d rather donate it to a school or church.

While I’ve posted twice about searching for a synthesizer, I don’t foresee ever purchasing one. It’s gonna take up too much of what little room I have or could make, and since I already use headphones for Reason I just won’t want to be so “closed off” in the house. It’d bad enough I have to keep the door closed because I can’t trust the cats! I’m likely just going to get a nice compact 25-key MIDI controller to use in Reason. It already offers enough instruments and sounds, and I did also purchase MiniBit for some retro goodness.

Software

For writing there’s a mix of writing in plain text as well as formatting, whether for short stories (and perhaps novels) and screenplays. While I championed doing as much as possible in plain text for years, I’ve recently relaxed and used what I feel is the best tool/software for each aspect. For plain text I use just about anything, switching daily between Notepad++, Sublime, Visual Studio Code, and iA Writer. Due to all the writing for Basic Fantasy RPG being done in LibreOffice, that’s what I’ve tended to use for short stories (and that novel fragment); I even uploaded a short story template for it. I also made one for Apple Pages; if I’m using the laptop for an extended period of time I’ll use that instead of LibreOffice; it just runs so much smoother and really isn’t that overkill for basic writing needs. I do want to try it out on the phone as well.

For the little amount of screenwriting I do, I’ve honestly gotten tired of Fountain, despite the enthusiasm I used to have for it. I didn’t mind writing in a text editor (Visual Studio Code even had an extension for text highlighting), but I grew weary of the little things in Highland that didn’t work, and the newer 2 release didn’t fix them. It also pushed itself more for other kinds of writing, which I didn’t agree with. Yes it can be good to write “distraction free”, but the page structure and length DOES matter in screenwriting, and in Highland particularly I was constantly switching back and forth to the preview. Plus, in 2 it now by default centers character names and dialogue, so it’s already contradicting itself. ANYWAYS, I spent more time testing out Fade In Pro, and my goodness I can’t believe I didn’t go with that sooner. Plus, when I had an issue with something I emailed Kent and he not only replied within a day or so, he incorporated some changes in the next release, which didn’t come too long after. Amazing! Oh yeah, it’s also the ONLY screenwriting program to run on Linux. Boom.

For file syncing I’m still on Dropbox. It’s never had a problem, and again it’s the only one in its category to run on Linux. I don’t have my pictures on it anymore, so I have more than enough space for documents.

For web browsing I’m pretty split between Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. The latter is just due to the battery life on the laptop, while I prefer Firefox overall for its open nature, plug-ins, and bookmark syncing.

For audio I’m still Team Reason. I finally upgraded to 10, and overall have been pretty happy with it. It is a bit hard to work on the laptop’s smaller screen, while at work it’s amazing to have it all showing or still split off parts of it to hide when not immediately needed. It still looks meh on a high-res screen, and there is a lot of newer items that can put off those new to Reason and DAWs period. But, it’s still the easiest for me to work with, and I hope to spend more time with it.

SOMA

Note: spoilers ahead!

Introduction

Originally this was a game I didn’t play myself; my wife and I watched the Markiplier playthrough of SOMA, twice now. However it was on sale in the last GOG Halloween sale, so I finally gave in and plunged myself into this game and world.

Compared to Frictional’s previous game, Amnesia, SOMA is quite different, and not just in genre. There’s still some traces of horror, mainly when navigating areas with a roaming creature, but the overall tone is somber, reflective, and philosophical, and with a near-future setting it brings in aspects of technology, cyberpunk, trans-humanism, and more.

The Beginning

SOMA begins at a very interesting point in the main character’s life; Simon Jarrett is suffering the after-effects of a car crash that killed his fiancee and left him brain-damaged. After futile attempts at self-medication, he has finally agreed to work with David Munshi, a graduate student, to have his brain scanned for a possible treatment. He arrives at the facility and sits down in a special chair, and the scanning device is lowered around his head.

After the scan is complete, the contraption raises, but Simon realizes that something happened. David has disappeared and the surroundings, as well as Simon himself, are not the same. What happened, and how did it happen in the apparent blink of an eye? At first Simon thinks he’s been transported to the future. He doesn’t question this nor can imagine any other alternative, but as events unfold and he begins talking with Catherine Chun, he realizes that it was only his brainwave that survived, not his physical body.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

Simon wakes up in a similar scanning chair, but immediately notices it’s not the same place. Before too long he discovers it’s not even the present, but rather about 100 years in the future. There’s no-one else around, and there are just terminals and glitching robots. As he begins to explore it’s pretty obvious something bad has happened, as there are broken machines, mutilated cybernetic creatures, machine tendrils, and black goop everywhere.

There is apparently no-one else around. A few voices come from robotic forms in various states of decay and corruption. After reaching a radio and restoring power, he finally makes contact with someone who seems to be at least as cognizant as him: Catherine. She tells him to make his way to the shuttles and meet her at Lambda.

So What Am I?

Upon finding Lambda and looking for Catherine, Simon has another disappointing moment: she’s not human either, but another surviving brainscan. Catherine tries to help him come to terms, both for what she is as well as Simon’s own existence.

As Simon goes through the game, talking with Catherine as well as interacting with the environment, can he actually come to terms with his present self, what happened to his past self/body, and what will actually survive beyond this planet?

Humanity’s Last Chance

Simon must deliver the Ark to the Omega Space Gun to complete Catherine’s mission to save what is left of humanity’s accomplishments/etc.

The initial plan is to get to Delta and fire up the DUNBAT, a deep-sea exploration vehicle that will be capable of taking the Ark into the depths where the space gun is. Unfortunately when Simon finally is able to power up the DUNBAT it is already infected with the WAU and is unusable.

I Just Can’t Get It Through My Head

While Simon wrestles with his own predicament throughout the game, his first major hurdle comes when he has to find a diving suit that can handle the depths of the ocean to make it to Site Tau with the Ark. At first he still thinks he can just take off his current “suit” and put on the new one, but Catherine has to hammer it into his head that he won’t be moving to another suit, but rather copied, yet again.

Catherine manages to get him back on track, at least enough to get through Site Tau and find the parts needed to get the diving suit working. This may not be all that realistic, but in a game you can’t have the main character whining about his existence for so long at a time without frustrating or at least boring the player.

Simon has quite the wake-up call and somber reflection on things when he encounters Sarah Lindwall. She is literally the last person alive, guarding the ARK, and she is sick and dying. Simon stays with her for her final moments, and upon her death he gets a final wake-up call for how important the ARK is and how critical it is to send it out into space.

The biggest hurdle of all is when Simon arrives at Site Phi and sits in the scanning chair next to the space gun so that he and Catherine can make it onto the Ark right before it’s launched up through the ocean and into outer space. Simon watches as the count-down finishes and the ARK is successfully launched, but then is immediately distraught when he realizes he’s still sitting in the scanning chair.

Simon can’t realize his copy/mind/memories survives, not his body or “self”. The question Catherine keeps asking him, and what the game asks us is, does that matter? If your physical self is left behind but you retain your mind/memories in the new copy, is that good enough? Are you less of a “person”?

A New Beginning or a Peaceful End?

The game ends with the third copy of Simon walking through the ARK’s simulated world, coming upon Catherine (presumably her second copy) standing at a precipice looking at a city in the distance. Right as she turns around the screen fades away, teasing us as to how Catherine would respond to seeing Simon “in person” and what might happen next. The game doesn’t hint much towards a romance between Simon and Catherine, and there’s an earlier hint from Catherine that she had either feelings for or even a relationship with another woman. We are left to ponder how we would react and go from that moment, whether it’s in a relationship (romantic or platonic) with Catherine or exploring the ARK’s virtual world on our own.

Conclusion

Both watching and then playing SOMA was a surreal, sometimes terrifying, somber, and even uplifting experience. That’s everything a great game, actually a great story (no matter in what medium) should do for the reader/viewer/player. I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own experiences and feelings, as well as those of us (the human race) in general and what will and may come in the future. I personally enjoyed this game far more than Amnesia, and I really look forward to what Frictional Games will bring us next!

Catan

Formerly known as Settlers of Catan, Catan has become one of the most popular modern board games available. While it may look complicated at first glance, it’s actually pretty easy to learn the basics and start playing. There’s even an online (albeit older) introduction, as well as an iOS and Android assistant app. Both are nice options, but at first I think it’s fine to just go by the small rules booklet included with the game.

In Catan several settlers (i.e. 3-4 players; 2 are supported, while an expansion can handle up to 6) have discovered the island of Catan and begin to build and develop. The first step is to lay out the land tiles (the hexagonal pieces), which can be done in a fixed or random order. On top of these land tiles round number tiles are placed, also randomly.

These numbers are what coordinate with each dice roll; the number that comes up each roll is what resources are dolled out to each player that has a piece next to that hexagonal tile. The player that rolled can also spend resources that he or she has acquired to build roads, settlements, and cities. If he or she needs resource cards they don’t have, they can also trade with another player as well as the bank (at a higher 4-to-1 ratio).

The order of play continues in a clockwise order: each player rolling, resources handed out, and items constructed. One caveat is if a 7 is rolled; instead of resources produced, a robber on the island allows that player to steal a resource card from another player. Also, if anyone is holding more than 7 cards, he or she must discard half of their choice of cards, rounded down.

The first player to reach 10 victory points wins the game. This come from settlements, the longest road constructed, and having the largest army.

Resident Evil 7

Introduction

The last Resident Evil game I played was 4 on the Wii. It had quite a different atmosphere than the previous games, with an over-the-shoulder view and a much more action-oriented style (although when I played Code Veronica on the Dreamcast I remember running around with dual Uzis, so maybe it’s been moving in that direction for a long time…). I heard the same criticisms for 5 and 6, ramping up the action and gun-play and all but leaving tension and atmosphere behind.

The Demo

Then came the Resident Evil 7 demo. I didn’t play it at first, but watched Markiplier run through it. I was pleasantly surprised, as this certainly wasn’t any Resident Evil game I had seen since the remake of the first one on the Gamecube. The tension, atmosphere, everything was ramped up, and I was certain that every time he rounded a corner that would be the end. The ending of the fairly short demo left me with so many questions and wanting more, so Capcom definitely succeeded in what a good demo should do.

The Full Game

When the full game was released I was eager to watch Markiplier play through it. I was happy to see the beginning of the game did keep quite a bit from the demo, but also changed up just enough to keep people on their toes.

You play the game as Ethan Winters. His wife, Mia, has been missing for 3 years; one day he gets a strange video message from her, ultimately warning him to not try to come after her. Doing exactly the opposite, Ethan travels to Louisiana to find out what happened. Ethan pulls up to a property behind a locked gate, and he must sneak around to get inside. Even starting from here the atmosphere is already filled with tension and dread. Moving closer to the house there are dead cows and birds, the former often found butchered and tied together with saw blades and more in strange sculptures. Entering the house (and luckily remembering a flashlight), it looks decrepit and abandoned. Making his way to the basement, Ethan finds Mia, who is frantic about escaping immediately. While going back upstairs, Mia suddenly becomes violent and apparently possessed, attacking Ethan and forcing him to defend himself, ultimately killing Mia.

Before long we learn a little bit more about this family and the home they occupy. Navigating and learning the layout is very important to Ethan’s survival, as there are monsters along with the seemingly immortal family members roaming the premises.

As Ethan makes his way through the house, and later an older house and a barn among other locations, he finds better weapons and more items, some of which can be combined to create other items. This crafting system is luckily on the simpler side, akin to the one found in Alien Isolation.

Eventually Ethan finds his way to a crashed tanker ship, which he discovers was carrying Mia and a young girl, Eveline, who escaped the crashed ship and made their way to the Baker family. Ethan must utilize the lab equipment in a nearby salt mine to devise a way to ultimately kill Eveline, which is the ultimate final fight of the game. Teasing its connection to the other games in the series, Ethan is rescued by Chris Redfield and an Umbrella-branded helicopter.

Changes and Evolution

As noted previously, the Resident Evil franchise had been veering further and further into the action genre, shedding its survival roots as well as its incredible atmosphere. This most recent game turned that all around, although it is still a unique entry in the series.

The first notable change is the first-person perspective, which was something that even the next Silent Hill game was potentially going to use. I think this is something that should have been used many games ago, as it forces the player into the game and really helps push the “illusion” of being there. I can understand the earliest games used third-person perspective due to technological limits, especially as those games were console-exclusive.

The next thing I noticed is the enemies, which besides not having traditional zombies were quite unique, along with the fact is that in general there weren’t that many of them. As each game came out there seemed to be more and more enemies crammed into each area, which becomes almost numbing to any dread or horror. In this game, with having far fewer enemies the player has to rely on listening for any cues, which of course helps draw him or her more into the game. Most of the enemies were fairly easy to kill or avoid, but of course with rare amounts of ammo around it can still present a legitimate danger.

One thing that I was thrilled to see this game keep was the unique and even quite strange keys and the locked doors that were all around the house. Some may have groaned and rolled their eyes at this, but I think it’s cool to roam a house/mansion/etc. and encounter strange locked doors. It makes me really curious about what in the world is behind it, and knowing that somewhere else was the key or other method to access that area, which could be a small single room or could be an entirely new hallway and number of rooms.

Conclusion

Overall I was really happy with the direction this game took, the immersive visuals, lighting, and sound design that all helped sell an incredibly dreadful and at points downright scary environment, something I hadn’t experienced  since the re-made first game on the Gamecube. Of course the next game is already in development, and I’m really intrigued to see what it does. I would love to see something like the mansion in the first game, and/or another different and unique location with plenty of things and areas to explore along with something really terrifying lurking and roaming the halls, eager to kill and maim the player.