Life is Strange 2 Episode 4

After far too long of a wait the next episode of Life is Strange 2 is out, and my wife and I played this over a couple of evenings. As usual for an episode in this game, this one continued to leave me disappointed, confused, and not really looking forward to the next (and final) episode.

Sean wakes up from an apparent coma in the hospital, his left eye removed and leaving him in pain. An FBI agent wants to know where his still-missing brother is, while a helpful nurse tries to lift his spirits. Through the dialogue options Sean can be either halfway-helpful or confrontational with both.

Escaping by way of a hot-wired car, Sean drives east to Nevada. Stopping for the night off the road for sleep, he’s awakened by racist white men (one wasn’t enough Dontnod?), forcing Sean to sing in Spanish while going through the car’s contents. Thankfully the scene is short and far less distressing than it could be (seriously, if this wasn’t a game it would be borderline unwatch-/readable). After driving off the car soon runs out of gas (way to plan ahead Sean), forcing Sean to continue on foot.

Nearly dying of exposure and thirst, the one helpful white guy in the game, a trucker, offers Sean a lift (seriously, I was so relieved that he turned out to be a decent person). Sean finally arrives in Nevada at the church where Jacob once lived.Daniel has been taken in by the stereotypical crazy Christian leader, and Sean doesn’t seem too phased by this. Even when Sean shows up, Daniel doesn’t immediately go with him; he prefers to stay!

In a surprise to no-one, Sean and Daniel’s mother turns up, and it’s as anti-climactic as it could possibly be. Did she have secret powers like Daniel? Nope. Is she a secret spy/agent/criminal packing enough firepower and lack of morals to storm the church to rescue her son and redeem herself to both of her sons? Lol nope. She’s aimless, boring, unsure of anything, and is the walking epitome of “show, don’t tell” gone wrong.

Coordinating with Joseph, Sean and her mom go to the church to rescue a reluctant Daniel. After clicking through more uninspired dialogue Daniel finally agrees to leave, but not without his “powers” lashing out again, causing a fire to start which eventually consumes the entire building. This is the last part of the episode, as the three re-united family members drive south to the Mexican border.

Until Dawn

Your choices have consequences.

Introduction

When I had a PS3 I didn’t play Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain, but when I heard about Until Dawn, an interactive horror story/movie for the PS4, I finally took the plunge. This was one of the few games I played and finished long before watching Markiplier play it, and I enjoyed watching his play-through just as much as when I played it.

In Until Dawn a group of teenagers meet up at a remote lodge in the mountains (see they’re already screwed) one year after a similar meet-up resulted in the deaths of Josh’s two sisters (that should be another alarm bell going off!), whose family owns and used to live in the lodge (where the parents are now, who knows!). As soon as the teens meet old tensions, memories, and petty rivalries flare up; it’s hard to feel there’s any genuine friendship or romance, which does detract from an otherwise quite solid and engaging story.

Gameplay

The game uses a mix of in-game cutscenes as well as letting the player control the current “star of the scene”. Sometimes the in-game cutscenes come about pretty frequently and interrupt gameplay, which can be annoying. During some of these scenes, the player will need to make a quick decision such as which way to go, or to choose a safer or riskier route. At other times while the character is running or climbing a random button will pop up, and if the player doesn’t press it quick enough something will happen, which can affect the current character’s story as well as further story ramifications. There are also points where the character will need to use a weapon to hit a specific spot in a short amount of time, and whether it hits affects the storyline as well.

One interesting concept shown to the player early on is that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all, to let events transpire without any interference or influence. This does factor in later on as a few characters’ survival actually depends on this. It’s a neat twist, and it can actually be hard to remember at which points to actually do nothing.

The Therapist

In between sections of the game, the player will be in the office of a therapist, who will ask the player to describe their feelings, choose between images, or other methods to judge the player’s (and the unknown-until-the-end character’s) reactions. With each visit the office evolves (or breaks down, depending on the view) and leaves the player wondering just what is going on with this supposed therapist. It adds an interesting layer on top of the game’s story, but it does pull the player out of the action and main story of the game somewhat often, so I’m not sure just how necessary it is. If it’s meant to be a game-within-the-game, or some sort of meta the “real” game is actually the game-within-this-game, well again it doesn’t add a whole lot and the game would flow much smoother without it. At the end of each session, the player is presented with a “Previously on Until Dawn” video montage, which doesn’t make any sense if the game has been going for awhile, and instead of a helpful reminder or catch-up becomes an annoying repeat of recent game scenes.

Conclusion

Ultimately I enjoyed Until Dawn very much, and I really wish there were more games like it; not necessarily horror, but at least with a story of intrigue and second-guessing as time goes on. The graphics and gameplay were exactly what I wanted in a current-gen game, but some more prominent music and sound effects would have really helped. I liked the split-second decisions and aiming moments, mainly because they weren’t over-used. I hope to play Detroit: Become Human in the near future, and I look forward to Supermassive’s The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan.

Life is Strange 2 Episodes 2 & 3

Episode 2

Was it really 4 months previously that I played the first episode? Dontnod took quite awhile to release the next episode, and for as slow and little plot progress this episode has, I have to wonder.

Taking place right after the first episode, Daniel is lifting rocks and other objects like it’s no big deal now, and Sean is pushing him to keep “training” and refining this supposedly new power (I’m not entirely convinced during episode 1 was the first time Daniel has discovered and used his power). Having left Seattle, the brothers head towards their grandparents in Oregon after Daniel becomes ill, likely due to the winter cold and an abandoned house providing little relief.

At their grandparents house Sean and Daniel try to learn more about their mother, but they don’t get much information, even after getting into their mother’s childhood room. While at the house they see the neighbor boy Chris (yep, this is where Captain Spirit ties in) fall from his treehouse, and Daniel uses his power to save him. Unfortunately Chris believes he is the one with the power, which will play into the ending of this episode. During their stay Sean and Daniel go to a Christmas market, where they meet train-hoppers Finn and Cassidy (which will factor into Episode 3).

Near the end of the episode Sean and Daniel discover a letter from their mother, expressing her desire to meet her children. After an argument with their grandparents, Sean and Daniel have to escape when the police arrive at the house. In an unexplained twist Claire distracts the police so they can escape, and Chris’ actions factor in here. I won’t give away what can happen, but I hope no matter what it will be addressed by the end of the game.

The episode ends with Sean and Daniel getting onto a train going south, with an outstanding closing track by First Aid kit (which I wrote about here). It was hard to judge how I felt about this episode. Looking back, not very much happens, and besides a few key interaction it’s still just Sean and Daniel. I suppose that’s the point of the game (and the first one was mostly Max and Chloe), but for some reason here it just gets too repetitive. I think it’s because the brothers never have any time apart, and it’s mostly back-and-forth bickering and whining about tough times.

Episode 3

For still unknown reasons, Sean is encouraging Daniel to train and use his powers. Even more obvious in this episode is how whiny Daniel is. Yes, we get he’s a little kid who’s been through a lot. But why he’s allowed to work on a pot farm along with Sean (yeah, I know) I’m not sure. Even more incredulous is that they somehow met up again with Finn and Cassidy!

Sean and Daniel, along with Finn, Cassidy, and several others have a nice campsite in California. We’ll learn later on that nearby is where Big Joe lives, pot dealer Merrill’s second-in-command and oversees the workers. When not working they hang out here, around the kitchen table, campfire, or down at the lake. Daniel becomes jealous of Sean spending more time with them rather than him.

One day at work Merrill calls everyone (except for Daniel) into his office, where he is evidently going to pay them). But before he does Big Joe comes in holding Daniel, claiming he was sneaking into Merrill’s office. As punishment Merrill doesn’t pay any of them, and fires Sean. When Merrill also tells Big Joe to punish Daniel, he must use his power, which the others witness. They swear to keep it a secret, but at a farewell party that night Finn keeps trying to convince Sean they can use Daniel’s power to get back at Merrill.

Near the end this episode ramps up the music and drama, but yet again it’s simply the result of Daniel freaking out and using his power in an uncontrollable manner. Finn talks Sean into breaking into the safe for the money, and Sean and Cassidy try to intercept them before they get caught by Merrill and/or Big Joe. Merrill does catch them, pointing his shotgun at them and telling them to get on their knees. Daniel unleashes his power and destroys the house, as well as knocking everyone around, some quite violently. The last shot is a still-unconscious Sean with a shard of glass in an eye.

Conclusion

I’m still not sure what to think of Daniel, Sean, and all of the characters. Even after 3 episodes I just don’t know if I care what’s happened to any of them. This is a staggering contrast to the first Life is Strange, or even Before the Storm. Sometimes I have to wonder if this is actually the same developers. Was Dontnod so keen to capitalize on the success of the first game they rushed to bring something similar out, using the same series title? There’s two more episodes to go, and I hope we get a lot more insight into Sean and Daniel’s mother, and perhaps even callbacks to previous characters, namely Layla, Brody, and Chris. I’m not sure if they’ll indeed end up in Mexico, or perhaps will return to Seattle. Perhaps for the latter, the truth of the officer’s actions will surface, leading to Sean and Daniel no longer considered fugitives.

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?