Life is Strange 2 Episode 1

Introduction

It really doesn’t seem that long ago that the first game came out (2015!), but it’s probably more that I didn’t hear about and play the game until later on. Before the Storm then came in 2017, and finally the short demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit earlier this year. Now we have the first episode for Life is Strange 2, so I’m writing this as my memory is still fresh. Instead of one long review I’ll be posting a review as each episode comes out.

Episode 1

Compared to the first Life is Strange, this sequel starts out a little on the slow and uninteresting side. We play another high-school age student, this time a Hispanic male named Sean Diaz. He lives in Seattle (although it feels like a small town, so I really thought we were back in Arcadia Bay) with his younger brother David and his dad Esteban. Like any teenage boy Sean has a crush on a girl and acts indifferent to his brother and dad. Walking home from the bus stop with his friend Lyla, Sean is trying to invite his crush Jenn to a party, but only succeeds with Lyla’s help.

Upon Lyla’s departure Sean is in his room when he sees the asshole neighbor Brett confronting David. Sean goes out to intervene, and apparently the cops have already been called, as when Brett is shoved by Sean to the ground they arrive. Brett has apparently fallen onto something and is gravely wounded. Ordered by the frankly-hysterical under-trained cop to kneel, Esteban comes out wanting to know what’s going on. Of course nobody can just chill out, because before we know it Esteban is shot. Sean is left stunned and David yells, which seems to set off the energy blast hinted at in the beginning.

Proceeding with the sirens of the approaching back-up in the background, Sean picks up the unconscious David and they flee. The game cuts to 2 days later, as they are walking along a highway (yeah because that won’t get you noticed…) and David already pissing and moaning (if we’re supposed to be sympathetic I don’t have any investment in the characters) about being tired and hungry. After walking further and camping near a lake for the night, they come to a roadside gas station. The lady at the cash register is reasonably nice, as is Brody, the man hanging at a table with his laptop. After brief conversations with both Sean pays for their items (unless you choose to steal, but you’ll likely have the money from earlier) and they head outside to eat and figure out what to do.

This is when racist-McGee rolls up and hassles them. I just don’t get what the point of any of this is. He’s a racist asshole who has no qualms hitting kids. And yet no-one else around sees or does anything apparently. Sean ends up handcuffed to a pipe in his office while waiting for law enforcement to show up. David comes back and helps Sean escape, with the help of Brody. Brody is pretty likable, but this is Life is Strange, how do we know he ain’t a Mr. Jefferson? Driving through the night, they end up at a small motel near the coast. Brody has graciously paid for a room for the two for the night, heading off on his own adventure.

After winding down a bit and starting a bath for David, Sean goes to get a soda when all hell breaks out again. David finds a news report on the TV and learns the truth about their dad, sending him into another emotional rage and causing the telekinetic waves to start swirling around. David barely manages to talk him down, and the next day they are on a bus, continuing their trek. The game ends with a very small hint, a large rock in snow that begins to hover.

Conclusion

As this write-up no doubt shows, I’m not too impressed nor happy with the start of this game. The first Life is Strange is a watermark for storytelling, music, and emotional investment. Before the Storm stumbled a bit, but many simply attributed that to the different developer. But with this sequel and back to Dontnod, unfortunately so far it seems the lightning escaped the bottle. Episode 2 will have a LOT to do if this game is gonna even come close to comparing to the first one. I certainly hope I’m proven wrong, but with such a slow, confusing, and frankly boring start I’m not holding my breath.

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?

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!

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.

Oxenfree

During a recent GOG sale I finally caved in and bought Oxenfree, an adventure game that’s been frequently recommended in the same circles as Firewatch and Life is Strange. Featuring gorgeous 2D graphics and fairly good voice acting, Oxenfree follows five teens who travel to a small island to hang out on the beach. In a nearby cave, tuning in to a radio causes something to happen, and suddenly the teens are split up on the island. As one of the teens, Alex, you must travel the island to find your missing friends while discovering what happened to cause these events.

During the game’s conversations you will usually have a two to three choices of what to say. But this is a timed response, so if you don’t act quickly Alex will remain mum, usually to the exasperation of the one talking to her (whether this really affects the game’s story and outcome I don’t know).

While it’s not an overly long game, I did enjoy the atmosphere and story of Oxenfree. I could definitely see this style working for Silent Hill and other games that don’t need to rely on action, shooting, etc. My favorite games are ones that let me sink into a story and submerge myself in that world and atmosphere, discovering new locations and people. Oxenfree is a fine example of this, and I hope to see more from Night School Studio!

Soundtrack

I have to give a special shout-out to scntfc for his work on Oxenfree’s soundtrack. To say it’s incredible, atmospheric, and at times downright creepy is an understatement! The synth work, especially the bass, is phenomenal and will engulf your head and help get into the game. Even when listened to on its own there is a unique blend of fear and meloncholy. I highly recommend it!