Sunday, October 7, 2018

My thoughts on Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 (Roads)

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 was an experience that was so disappointing to me, and one that over its few-hour runtime I was eventually begging for to end. 

I say this as someone who really enjoyed the original Life is Strange; I’m bummed that I apparently never got around to reviewing it, but I found that its likable characters and their experiences in school and the surrounding town of Arcadia Bay worked well with a fantastic time travel mechanic to deliver a truly unique adventure. It was visually alluring, there was tons in the world to interact with, and the presentation was superb; the ending that I got at the completion of my journey still haunts me.

I’d had misgivings about Life is Strange 2 leading up to its release, mainly due to its emerging direction as more of a “road trip,” scenario starring two brothers, something that I didn’t see working well at all. The first episode sadly did little to prove me wrong, coming across as an uninspired Last of Us knockoff dominated by a surprisingly mishandled political storyline and a bunch of dull gameplay to boot.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a “true” review; I plan to offer my final thoughts on the game once I complete it, but after playing Episode, 1 I’m beginning to wonder if playing through all 5 episodes is something I’ll even manage to accomplish.  

Things get off to an alright start; the interactions Sean has with his little brother Daniel and his childhood friend Lyla are solid, if occasionally less-than-impressively acted, but after a series of events, which are quite dramatic if not entirely believable, the two brothers find themselves on the run through the wilderness on an adventure South. 

The gameplay through almost the entirety of Episode 1 consists of walking forward, collecting things, and bringing them to someone. The branching dialogue sequences that were so compelling in the original game evidently don’t have much of an impact on the chain of events in the sequel; despite opting not to steal anything from a convenience store that the two brothers find themselves in, the plot progresses forward as if I had regardless. The lively, ambient and NPC-filled settings of the original game are replaced by repetitive, empty wilderness, and a little brother who began to get on my nerves as the first episode neared its end. 

There’s as much to interact with as there was in the first Life is Strange as you move about many of these environments, but it isn’t nearly as satisfying since so little seems to mean or offer anything to your characters or their adventure. 

Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 also suffers from some clumsy writing and badly-handled political themes. The game’s heart’s in the right place and I agree with its message, with the story it tells involving two Mexican-American brothers living with their father who (I think? The game’s not entirely clear) may have come to the United States illegally many years ago. When the story focuses on them and their family, which is rife with love and a sense of humility, it’s done incredibly well, and I think would have more than served its purpose had they left it at that; a surprisingly necessary reminder that despite all our politics surrounding this issue, these are still human beings. And that’s a message that I think occasionally gets lost in the shuffle of our current political climate. 

Sadly, Life is Strange 2 makes sure this message has no hope of resonating beyond the choir by devoting a good deal of Episode 1 to the brothers encountering portrayals of openly racist and hostile Trump supporters (this is in the incredibly blue Washington State, by the way) at seemingly every turn, to the extent that it begins to feel a little ridiculous . Racism has been and remains a huge problem in the United States, but the notion that a teenager of Mexican descent can’t enter a convenience store without being literally kidnapped by a racist shop owner and held against his will as ICE is called is far removed from any reality that I’m aware of. 

Between its uninspiring gameplay and its often farfetched story, Life is Strange 2 really struggles to get off the ground in its opening episode. If you aren’t wandering the woods collecting sticks or being forced to entertain your little brother, you’re watching storytelling that occasionally works, while at many other times becomes bogged down under its wildly mishandled political ambitions. I’m hopeful that future episodes change course, but after Episode 1 I just can’t say I’m especially eager to continue playing. The mishandled storyline is one thing, but the gameplay doesn’t offer much of interest, and the brothers move around too much to allow for the strong cast of supporting characters that helped propel the first game to develop.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 still has developer Dontnod Entertainment’s trademark dialogue and quirky, stylistic presentation, and the moments that are effective are nice, but all in all I’m hoping that Episode 1 was just a fluke and that they course-correct as this sequel goes on. 

(Note; this is a preview, not a review, so there won't be a score. I'll preview each episode, while reviewing the entire game should I manage to complete all of them.) 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

New Review: A blast from the past to a simpler, more lighthearted time for gaming: Crash Bandicoot is still fun to this day.

With much of the industry, including Crash Bandicoot creator Naughty Dog, having taken a dramatic shift towards dark, violent, and largely cinematic games, it’s been refreshing to see over the past couple years what appears to be a counter-shift back to when games were simpler, brighter, and just generally less afraid to come across as light and fun. 

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is one such example, with Vicarious Visions doing a pretty excellent job of bringing the 3 PS1 main series Crash Bandicoot games to the current gen, giving them a fully modern graphical overhaul and adding in a handful of other little tweaks and features. These 3 platformers (or at least, Crash 2 and 3) have for the most part held up well, with definite credit to the talents at Naughty Dog, given the fact that Crash Bandicoot was one of the first ever 3D platformers. The original Crash is understandably the weak link here, with a frustratingly steep difficulty spike early on and a reliance on trial and error, but it still plays well and ultimately laid the groundwork for the incredibly fun and entertaining Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. Together the 3 games provide a worthy collection and an enjoyable dive back to the 90s, where platforming reigned supreme and set the tone for much of the rest of the gaming industry.

Taking a different tactic from Super Mario 64, which had released a few months prior and delivered fully explorable 3D worlds as its centerpiece, the Crash Bandicoot series instead took the pacing and linear feel of a 2D sidescroller, but flipped the camera behind your character and had him or her run up the screen in 3D as opposed to running from left to right.  The result was pretty cool, with the games delivering quick, fast-paced, and often challenging levels, with boss battles appearing regularly throughout, and 2 and 3 offering a 3D hub section in between levels. 

The Crash Bandicoot series takes place on an archipelago known as the Wumpa Islands, with the dim but likable Crash Bandicoot and his sister Coco taking on the evil Dr. Neo Cortex and his minions. This is all presented in a fun way, with the narrative elements taking a greater presence beyond the first Crash Bandicoot game, delivered with quality voice acting and well-designed characters, giving the cutscenes a charming presence. Crash 1 features the most limited use of its world and characters, existing in a mostly tropical setting clearly inspired by the Donkey Kong franchise and featuring little in the way of interaction between Crash and his arch nemesis. Crash 2 and 3 then switch things up, throwing in a 3D warp room between levels as opposed to the original’s 2D map, this setup now allowing you to return to a hub where cutscenes take place, as well as the warp concept allowing the developers to greatly expand upon the level variety and move the series beyond the mostly island setting.

The levels are all pretty short and quickly paced, but in many cases quite challenging. Crash dies if he’s touched by any of the enemies or falls down any of the crevices. The levels use a checkpoint system, with checkpoints usually being well-placed, while losing all of your lives results in a game over and forces you to restart the level over again. Collecting apples grants you additional lives, and Crash can be shielded by the Aku Aku character, who can be collected throughout the levels and grants Crash a 1 or 2 hit immunity from the baddies, or even full-on invincibility from them for a short period of time. The levels contain much in the way of hidden goodies, from collectible objects that grant you “the full ending” to bonus stages, to branching paths and the incentive to eat each and every apple. It’s impressive how much replay value Naughty Dog was able to squeeze into fairly short levels. Vicarious Visions has added a couple extra levels as well, which are incredibly challenging and will definitely test Crash Bandicoot fans’ skills should they attempt them. 

As was said before, Crash Bandicoot 1 is by far the weakest in the trilogy, as would probably be expected. The difficulty ramps up almost immediately, and the occasionally poorly explained control segment and the relative lack of a narrative don’t do much to take the attention away from the increasingly frustrating try-and-die mechanics on display in the levels. The series though turns the corner in a major way with parts 2 and 3; while still challenging, both of the sequels have a far better handle than the original does on how to balance difficulty with frustration. Crash Bandicoot 2 especially features the best story presentation and the best in the way of level variety. Crash Bandicoot 3 isn’t a slouch either, adding the fun Coco levels involving a tiger and the Great Wall of China, which are just as cool now as they were back then, along with a host of new powerups for Crash that expand as the game goes on. Other additions to the third installment, such as racing and dogfighting levels, haven’t held up nearly as well. As a kid, I remember favoring Crash Bandicoot 3, probably due to the game’s increased craziness. As an adult though, Crash 3 now seems to me almost like that Hollywood sequel that ups the ante to such an extent that you lose a little bit of the heart in the process; thankfully the game doesn’t fall into that trap, but when you have levels involving medieval wizards and motorcycle racing, it comes pretty close. Crash 3’s hub world display is also much clunkier than its Crash 2 counterpart, and the cutscenes that propel the story forward are a good deal less interesting.

But despite various flaws here and there, all 3 games are still fun. Crash Bandicoot 2 would almost be worth replaying again just on its own, and its platforming and level design (despite a surprisingly easy final boss) represent 32 bit platforming at some of its best. Throw in the other two games as well and you have a must-have collection that so awesomely recalls elements of the Playstation era, and it’s definitely a treat to get to re-experience it. 

As was stated earlier, the visuals have received a major overhaul, bringing them very much up to speed with current gen gaming. The series’ 32 bit heritage of course still peaks its head out in various aspects, but this is a full remake graphically and by today’s standards it looks pretty nice. Seeing visuals and character design from the PS1 era remade in beautiful HD means that these 3 games have a look incredibly distinct from much of what else is currently out there. There are various things that I have small issues with; I prefer Naughty Dog’s art direction to that of Vicarious Visions, as some of the games’ darker color tones have been substituted for much brighter, bloomier surroundings, and it would have been nice if things like a retry button had been included, or if there was an option for subtitles during cutscenes, especially when playing on the go. But this is a high quality remaster, one both faithful to the originals and one that also evolves the look to make sense on modern hardware, and it’s a job well done. 

The Switch version looks good, with incredibly short load times and only occasional brief framerate stutters. For the most part it runs very well. The resolution does seem a bit low for what’s on display; it outputs at native 720p when docked and even lower when played in portable mode, which is a step down from the PS4/XBO versions. Given some of the other games that we’ve seen on Switch so far, it’s hard not to feel that Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy could have done more with the Switch hardware, at least as far as resolution is concerned. It still looks nice on the TV, though when playing portably I found myself noticing a much blurrier look; not a game I’d use to show off the Switch’s handheld capabilities, that’s for sure. For me, the ability to take N. Sane Trilogy out and about made this issue worth it, but it’s worth noting that for those looking to play this trilogy with the best visuals possible, that the Switch version does feature some cutbacks in this regard when compared to its PS4/XBO counterparts. 

It can be an interesting experience to revisit old games, especially those from 3D gaming’s earliest days. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy delivers, with Crash Bandicoot’s 2 and 3 holding up very well and proving to be a lot of fun. The characters are likable, and there’s a lightheartedness and simplicity that just doesn’t exist in a lot of modern gaming that’s such a refreshing thing to re-experience. As someone who fondly remembers the PS1, it’s great to get to enjoy the sense of humor and the visual style that permeated Sony’s 1st console. It’s missing the occasional features you’d expect in a modern game (subtitles, retry button) while Crash Bandicoot 1 has some frustrating difficulty spikes and iffy controls in places. But overall, this is a solid collection of great games that’s worth re-experiencing, or even experiencing for the first time. Fun and recommended. 


Note; this review is based on the Nintendo Switch version.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

New Review: Though still held back by the limits of exactly what it is, Detroit: Become Human is Quantic Dream's best game yet

Quantic Dream has become a studio which, for better or for worse, is known specifically for creating a certain type of game, and Detroit: Become Human is very much one of those games. It places its cinematic nature and characters first and foremost, with the most important bits of gameplay taking place from within its cutscenes, during which your responses and actions have major impacts on and determine the narrative. 

That isn’t to say that you don’t have the ability to control your character through various environments and complete rudimentary quests in between the story sequences, and Detroit: Become Human makes this aspect of gameplay more enjoyable than it was in their previous efforts, especially the oddly forgettable Beyond: Two Souls. As with other Quantic Dream games, I still can’t help but wish at times that there was more to sink my teeth into from a gameplay perspective; just a little bit more to explore, a way to pull off interactive action sequences without relying on QTE prompts, and a way to escape the nagging feeling that the story could have been much stronger had it not been so determined by my choices. 

All of that said, Detroit: Become Human can arguably be called Quantic Dream’s best work to date, a game whose futuristic environments are often beautifully realized, its characters easy to become attached to, and, of course, the seemingly endless amount of decisions and dialogue choices that have major effects on the progression of the story. 

As far as the dialogue system is concerned, similarly to Quantic’s past games, you have only a short amount of time to make major decisions during cutscenes, and the studio does a great job of making many of them morally ambiguous; too often these types of games boil down to thinly disguised “good or evil” choices, with the gamer making a choice more because they want their character to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” In Detroit: Become Human, it’s very tough to tell which choices are which, and the many possible outcomes of each choice have only a short time to run through your head before time runs out on making your decision. The game isn’t afraid to provide seemingly any type of story outcome, including the ability for any of your main characters to be permanently killed off from a decision that goes badly. A flowchart displays at the end of each chapter, showing the path you took intermingled with the numerous other branching off points, revealing just how many different directions the scene could have gone had you done something differently, and giving you the ability to see the percentage of other players who made the same choices as you did.  I can see why this feature has been Detroit: Become Human’s most controversial aspect, as it does serve as a regular reminder that you’re playing, of course, a video game, but I thought it was an incredible addition, as not only does it show you just how many different paths a given scene could have taken, but it provides an incentive to return to scenes after the fact, potentially improving the game’s replay value for those interested in seeing the many different ways a scene can go, and the effects the various outcomes can have on the rest of the game.

Detroit: Become Human tells the story of three different androids in a futuristic version of the city of Detroit, in a world where androids play a major role in people’s lives, but live in servitude and are essentially treated as second class citizens. This takes place against the backdrop of potential world conflict, as the United States sits on the verge of WWIII with Russia as the country begins making moves to take the Arctic. Detroit stars Kara, Connor, and Markus as androids who co-exist in different parts of the city, working/living alongside humans. The world’s entering a bit of a crisis, as an increasing number of androids are beginning to malfunction; in other words, beginning to develop human consciousness. The game cuts between the characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with them having minimal, if any, interaction with each other, but with each scenario blending well together, and all three given strong narratives that propel the game forward. Any of them can live or die, succeed or fail, or seemingly anything in between, based on your choices. It’s here that Detroit demonstrates the largest leap forward for Quantic Dream; in their previous games, and most evidently in Beyond, there was always the feeling that your choices didn’t make a difference except on a mere surface level, and here, from the beginning, that’s clearly not the case. 

Ultimately, this is Detroit’s biggest accomplishment and yet also its biggest weakness. Looking at the Quantic Dream formula, it’s hard to think how the system can evolve much beyond what Detroit has accomplished. The impact that you can have on the story at almost any given second is astonishing, and some of the interactive action sequences, including a showstopping chase through the city’s rooftops, are pretty awesome and inventive. The fear of failure or an undesirable result is ever-present given the game’s ability to present such outcomes, which adds a level of well-earned tension to many of its scenes. 

The downside is of course that it’s very difficult to provide such freedom without it impacting the story. I was ultimately happy with and proud of the ending that I was able to achieve, but at the same time, having a character, one who I’d grown attached to over the course of the game, killed off for something as accidental as failing a QTE, and therefore causing me to miss out on the entire conclusion to the character’s story arc, just wasn’t fun. If this had happened during a movie, it would be so anti-climactic that the crowd would’ve booed the scene. To be fair, such a dire outcome isn’t commonplace, but it did happen to me and as a result it really hurt the story that was told to me. It serves as the clearest example of the game’s most impressive feature also in the end hurting my experience with it, through no real fault of its own; it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s hard to fault it for that. I’m a fan of the deadly consequences lurking within Detroit: Become Human, though I’d say for future games I’d be happier if Quantic Dream made the permanent death of a main character a bit harder to achieve than it can be here.

As with most other of these cinematic types of games, the exploration progresses in a linear fashion, with you limited to small areas dictated by the story. Though the enclosed nature of each environment (such as a single city street or a house’s living room) does occasionally feel constricting, Detroit makes the environments a lot of fun to fully explore, with clues that you find and observations that you make giving you additional (often beneficial) choices during the upcoming cutscenes. In that sense, diving into all that each little environment has to offer almost feels like this game’s version of sidequests, (ones with an immediate payoff, to boot) and the bustling futuristic urban environments you find yourself in look fantastic and give you a great opportunity to experience and explore Detroit’s world firsthand. I did wish there was a bit more of this, and the lack of a “run” button is unfortunate, but the game otherwise controls well as you explore, and these sections add quite well to the rest of the experience.

The music is really the only aspect of Detroit’s presentation that I wasn’t thrilled with. Similar to Heavy Rain, the soundtrack here consists mostly of subdued, melancholy piano tunes and other downbeat music throughout. It isn’t bad, and at many times it sounds pretty and does elicit some emotion, but as with Heavy Rain, I just find this type of soundtrack to be depressing, and especially given Detroit’s sci-fi, futuristic elements, I wish they’d have come up with something different. The voice acting though in general is great, providing the characters with a natural, down to earth feel, and for characters who are androids, that’s definitely an accomplishment. 

Detroit: Become Human was a game that managed to impress me. I’ve had a bit of a declining interest in games from Quantic Dream in recent years, having enjoyed Indigo Prophecy, and finding Heavy Rain to be equally compelling but a good deal less satisfying. Beyond: Two Souls had its moments, but was a game I hadn’t even bothered to review and find myself hard-pressed to remember much of anything about.  I’d had my doubts that Detroit would click with me, especially with my gaming tastes having shifted in a much more exploration-driven and gameplay-focused direction following The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last year. But I have to say, this game really takes the Quantic Dream formula and evolves it in a major way. The amount of control you have over the narrative and the fate of your characters at almost any given moment feels unprecedented, illustrated between chapters by a great flow chart system that fully and effortlessly communicates this all to you from minute one. The environments you get to explore when not watching cinematics remain limited in their scope, but offer a huge amount of objects and clues to interact with, things to take note of, and atmosphere to take in. Detroit: Become Human isn’t perfect, and the amount of freedom it offers you to shape the story can really take its toll on the story itself, should things not go the way you intended them, especially if it’s due to a simple mistake or to not understanding what the game’s asking of you. I do wonder whether there’s really anywhere for Quantic Dream to go from here, and hope, as I’ve done for years, that one day they attempt to deliver another open world, Omikron style of adventure. Until then, though, Detroit: Become Human is, I think it’s safe to say, their best work yet, and though the limitations that come with such a guided, cinematic experience do hold it back, it does manage to excel within those parameters and deliver a compelling, thought-provoking adventure.  

Detroit: Become Human is available exclusively on the PS4.