Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review - Life is Strange

There is almost too much to be said about Life is Strange, an episodic narrative-driven game developed by Dontnod and published by Square Enix. It pushes boundaries and goes where few other games even attempt, much less succeed. After all, few other games would center on a female protagonist and her reconnecting with an estranged female best friend. Few other games would broach topics and themes more common to dramatic television than typical videogames. Make no mistake: Life is Strange isn't for everybody. But for those open to a game that eschews providing its players cliched power or revenge fantasies and instead delivers a captivating and personal narrative about friendship and the trials of adolescence, Dontnod's followup to Remember Me is beyond memorable. It's magnificent.

-- Review (Draft) - Life is Strange, by wangxiuming

I drafted this paragraph for a review of Dontnod's recently-completed episodic adventure game, Life is Strange after completing Episode 4, in anticipation of a glorious finale in Episode 5 that would cement this thought-provoking adventure as an incomparable piece of art in videogames. And to be honest, while Episode 5 did not exceed Episode 4's narrative climaxes for me, I still would have agreed with what I wrote two months ago ... at least, up until the game presented its final "choice" to me.

Yeah ... I jumped the gun.

That's not to say Life is Strange or its developer Dontnod are without achievement. The game itself, despite the final choice and its subsequent endings, still remains - on-the-whole - a provocative experience, one that is ultimately worth both the time and the money spent on it. It is courageous on many fronts, considering its protagonists, its subject matter, and - at least through most of its five-chapter run - its emphasis on delivering real choice with real consequences.

Unfortunately, while touting its adaptive storyline based on player choice as its greatest strength, the last choice in Life is Strange ultimately serves not to empower player choice at all. Instead, it undermines all of the choices that came before it, and ultimately the entire experience as a whole. It is a tremendous shame, especially when looking back just two months ago, I had been prepared to only heap praise.

Spoilers follow.

Life is Strange centers on Max Caufield, a teenage girl in her senior year at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in the seaside town of Arcadia Bay. Without explanation, she discovers she has the ability to reverse time. The player takes on Max's role and powers - frequently used as a tool for the generous dose of puzzle-solving that is required to progress. Not all is as it seems in Blackwell, and it's up to Max to uncover and connect the mysteries. Her interactions with her fellow classmates and the townspeople will build - or ruin - her various relationships. In turn, many of these decisions have a lasting impact on future events and those subsequent interactions. Kill a man's dog (you monster!) and he'll remember it. Through it all, Max will reconnect with an estranged friend, Chloe, while desperately wondering how to stave off an impending calamity.

It would be impossible to talk about Life is Strange without also talking about Chloe. Max reconnecting and re-establishing their friendship is central to the story, and her efforts to keep Chloe from danger is the impetus that drives the narrative forward. It's enormously compelling to watch them reminisce about old times and catch up with each other lives - especially since Chloe is hardly the same girl Max remembered from before she had to move away. Thankfully, both characters are portrayed beautifully by their voice actors, and so indeed is the rest of the cast. Still, it's Max and Chloe who are the real stars of the show and they are completely believable as two lost adolescent souls, struggling to make sense of what's happening around them and to do the right thing - for each other, as well as for the rest of the town.

And oh the things they'll stick their noses in. Throughout the narrative, Max will have to deal with a plethora of real world problems, not all of which there is an easy fix - or indeed, a fix at all: friends struggle with depression after being slut-shamed through viral media, the sacrifice of privacy in the Academy in the name of security, corruption or despondence in the ranks of authority at all levels, bullying, etc. etc. These are not your typical video-game challenges to overcome, and indeed, not all of these problems can be solved. The game will make you debate encouraging an oft-bullied loner to attend a party where he can potentially stand up for himself but risk more of his dignity, or stay home in the safety of solitude. What choice do you pick? Max's temporal powers only extend so far ... she might not be able to change her mind.

Then again, sometimes she is able to change her mind; rewinding time to the start of a scene can be done in most parts of the game, and it's fascinating to watch things unfold differently based on the different choices you make. Broaching one topic over another in a tense conversation might mean the difference between people ending up shot, and it's not always clear - though the game does leave clues - what option will result in a "best" outcome ... neither is there anything forcing you to strive for that result. Max is perfectly free to live with whatever mess she's stirred up if you so choose ... unless of course, the consequence is her death.

I struggled to find the right descriptor in reviewing Life is Strange when I first started this draft, and I'm still not sure I found it. Courageous, I think, might be the closest thing I can think of, but it's not exactly that. I wouldn't call it innovative either - maybe in its medium, it could be so considered, but it doesn't exactly broach things that have never been portrayed in media as a whole. Regardless, for its subject matter, its embrace of choice and meaningful consequences, and for presenting two strong female protagonists in Max and Chloe, developer Dontnod and publisher Square Enix deserve recognition. I'm even more thrilled that Life is Strange has already become a financial success, reaching 1 million in sales before the release of the fourth episode. The game will hopefully be a herald for other publishers and developers to recognize the market for these types of games, and continue to bring videogaming into the mainstream.

That all said ... I cannot help but feel disappointed by the final minutes of the narrative. A slew of minor quibbles also detract from the experience - minor plotholes that are unaddressed and questions that are left unanswered - but ultimately it was the ending(s) that ruined what was otherwise a thoroughly brilliant game for me.

I should mention it's difficult to discuss this without treading into spoiler territory, but I will do my best.

The last choice the game asks you to make renders almost all the decisions you've made through the first 4.9 chapters null and void, no matter what you choose in the end. I left the game feeling empty, questioning whether anything I did from the beginning up until the last few minutes mattered at all. I was particularly disappointed in one of the endings, which personally I felt could have done a lot to ameliorate that sensation, simply by showing us that Max had gotten something valuable out of the relationships she built from the game.

Instead, Life is Strange detoured into a fatalistic dive off a cliff.

Yes, the endings were different. No, it did not matter... and maybe that was the point?

Could this really be the message behind Dontnod's tale, after spending hours and hours, chapter after chapter, enthralling us, convincing us that what we did made a difference? Is this really supposed to be Max and Chloe's legacy? Is life not strange at all ... but merely the illusion of so being?

Even despite this surely controversial ending, Life is Strange remains a worthwhile experience. On its own, the game is a worthy - if flawed - entry in Dontnod's library. I think it will have to be another title, however, that serves as that developer's magnum opus.

Recommended For:
+ Fans of episodic adventure-narratives AKA "walking and talking simulations"
+ Gamers who want to explore different and real-world themes and storylines
+ Gamers who enjoy/don't mind playing a strong female protagonist and exploring her relationships
+ Fans of story-based games.

Not Recommended For:
- People who don't want to simulate walking and talking.
- If you didn't like Mass Effect 3 because of its last moments, I can't imagine you'll like Life is Strange

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review - Remember Me

Will you Remember Me?
In 2013, Developer Dontnod released a captivating setting and immensely personal tale in their debut action-adventure game Remember Me. Uplifted by a memorable protagonist and encapsulated in a story focused on identity, memory, and the relationship between those two central themes, Remember Me resonated with me well after I completed the game. It's a shame then, that Remember Me's actual gameplay is not up to par. Unwieldy controls, lackluster platforming, and excessively restrictive level design ultimately drag down what could have been a superb game.

A world that invites you to explore ...
Remember Me is set in Neo Paris: a year 2084 version of the French capital complete with dilapidated slums, sprawling marketplaces, and majestic skyscrapers. You play Nilin, an "Errorist," armed with the ability to see, remove, and modify other people's memories. It's ironic then that you start off the game having lost all of your memories. Edge, a mysterious ally and constant voice in your ear, helps you get your bearings and then guides you through various mission objectives. Your goals are both to restore your own memories and bring down M3M0RIZE, a giant corporation whose research is threatening the security - and the sanity - of Neo Paris and her people.

The atmosphere and setting of Remember Me is absolutely compelling. Dontnod's version of Paris is simply breathtaking; if there's anything worth remembering from this game, it's the truly beautiful vision and artistic direction. Whether its wandering through the slums, casually infiltrating a shopping district, parkour-ing across rooftops, or ascending the seemingly boundless limits of a Neo-Parisian highrise, the game treats you to a buffet of eye-candy. Meanwhile, the musical score successfully accentuates the action with an energetic techno beat while also managing to deliver poignancy to the game's emotional climaxes.

... but then closes the doors.
Unfortunately, while the game's art style, graphics, and music spark a desire for exploration, the game itself is surprisingly narrow in scope. Too often, Nilin is barred by arbitrary barriers, locked gates, or walls that hinder her movements, forcing her along what amounts to a winding railway with only a few nooks off the beaten path to house collectibles and stat boosts. The last time I played a game so linearly designed was the original Final Fantasy XIII, and while it's somewhat more forgivable in this 10 - 20 hour action game, the sensation did make me feel like I was playing an "on-the-rails" shooter. It's just such a shame in such a intricately crafted world, that we are not allowed to see more of it.

The game is also generously splashed with platforming segments that are uneven at best. Nilin spends much of her time hanging from ledges, gliding along as she tries to navigate the precarious edges of buildings, prisons, warehouses, and various other infrastructure. While I did appreciate the shots of the city you get from these segments, the platforming itself is ultimately uneventful. There's no real sense of accomplishment from successfully reaching the end, as far too often the only obstacle to your progress is accidentally falling, or the game's poor on-screen instructions of where you are allowed to go. The game will generate little pointers telling you where the next ledge you should leap to are located, but it does this unenthusiastically. Falling to your death because you can't see a little orange triangle drains the narrative of its momentum; and yet, this is sadly the most danger the platforming ever presents you with.

Don't mess with an errorist.
When Nilin isn't scaling skyscrapers, she spends most of her time beating up the agents of M3M0RIZE. Remember Me's combat system is simple to learn and yet layered with some depth. You start off with access to simple combos. A dodge button reacts timely - and even in the middle of a combo - and allows you to avoid being hit by enemies, who will conveniently notify you via exclamation points flashing on screen that they're about to attack. Meanwhile, Nilin's punches, kicks, and special abilities are all animated fluidly; it's a pleasure to watch as she wades through a pack of armored M3M0RIZE soldiers and disable them with graceful but powerful martial arts.

As you progress through the game and defeat more and more enemies, you unlock additional combos. All of the combos available to you are customizable with attacks of your choice. Available attacks - called "Pressens" in game - include those that increase damage dealt to your foes, allow you to heal yourself with every successful hit, and reduce the cooldown time of your special attacks. Special attacks range from taking control of enemy robots to launching Nilin into a fury mode that allows her to chain attacks together without limit for a set amount of time.

... like, seriously. Just don't.
These diverse options afford what is ultimately a serviceable combat system. Unfortunately, the controls leave something to be desired. The auto-targeting function is horrendous, and targeting in general is unwieldy at best. These problems are exacerbated for Nilin's ranged weapons, which force you into a first person perspective in the heat of battle. The game also has a tendency to throw waves of enemies at you, causing too many of the battles to feel like wars of attrition.

Even when overwhelmed by staggering odds, however, the combat can feel too simple at times. This is especially true of the Regeneration "Pressen," which allows you to heal yourself with every hit. The result is that Nilin is never truly in danger of being defeated, as refilling your healthbar is as simple as executing a regenerative combo attack. The game attempts to ameliorate this problem somewhat in the later stages of the game with enemies that hurt you with every successful hit you land; even so, I never felt like there was any real risk.

Just another day kicking ass.
While the platforming is otherwise innocuous and the combat manages to be engaging enough, it's the story elements of Remember Me's gameplay that truly capture the imagination. Of particular note are the "Memory Remix" sequences, which task you with altering certain key memories of your target in ways that cause their entire personalities to change. It's utterly fascinating to watch a person's memory, then tweak certain details within - the undoing of a leather strap tying your victim's beloved to a medical bed, or the removal of a safety in a loaded gun - and then see how just these minor changes cause your victim's memory to play out in entirely different ways.

History is in the eye of the remember-er ...

These remix sequences truly beg the questions: do our memories define who we are? Does history change with memory? Dontnod doesn't directly address these questions; indeed, their treatment of Nilin's power is not entirely consistent. In an early section of the game, Nilin's use of the memory remix causes another character to completely change her behavior, but it seems clear that it's only through our protagonist's manipulation that this result is achieved. Nilin knows she's revised history for her target alone. However, in later segments of the game, the remix of another character's memory seems to bring to Nilin a sense of emotional closure, a catharsis, that doesn't quite make sense considering Nilin more than anybody should know that the remixed memory is not in fact reality.

... or is it?

Cue Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You"

Despite its problems, Remember Me is nonetheless a memorable experience, one worth experiencing if only to provoke the questions it brings up for yourself. While parts of the gameplay are lackluster, the story, the protagonist (a woman of color! As the lead character of a game!), and the setting are all well-worth the look. Remember Me is available on Steam, PS3 and the Xbox 360.

Recommended For:
+ Fans of stories in their games
+ Fans who like their games with atmosphere and style
+ Fans of thought-provoking games
+ Gamers who'd like to see more minority representation in games!

Not Recommended For:
- People who blaze through stories
- Fans of challenging or difficult games