When Vapourware Condenses: Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian

Too Human. Aliens: Colonial Marines. Duke Nukem Forever. All are famous for their promise, their hellishly delayed development times, and ultimately, their disappointment. This isn’t just endemic to games, either; just look at Chinese Democracy and Alien vs. Predator. The culmination of years of held breath, of stolen glimpses punctuating the overwhelming silence as teams worked hard behind closed doors. Each project fell into myth, almost; a growing, creeping sense of disbelief that the promised game would ever make its way to your expectant disk tray.

The allure of these games, the hope and the fear, overgrows and strangles our perceptions of the subject. “Surely they’re not still working on it”, we think. “When that thing was announced, so and so was president”. “I’ll believe that release date when it’s right there on the shelf next to all the season passes and worthless preowned copies of Battleborn.”

And yet, despite the signs of troubled formation, there’s always that hope, right? You can’t have greatness without ambition, and for a team of people to dedicate a decade of their careers to something, you’d certainly hope it was worth the time of every hand that touched it. Sadly that’s not often the case; consider the three key examples of Too Human, Colonial Marines, and DNF. One was widely regarded mediocre at very best, while the other two were so reviled that many questioned the sanity of Gearbox in pushing their tired, broken corpses up to the finish line.

From company so often bound for failure, two high-profile releases managed to break free of the cycle of delay and rub their elbows with the very greatest games of 2016… with a handful of asterisks each. Both long-awaited instalments of beloved Japanese series, both nudged back with a final apologetic delay for spit-and-polish, and both fully capable of taking your breath away. 2016 was something of a shitstorm, but at least the demoralisation was softened by the one-two punch of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian.

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Final Fantasy XV began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006, and surprisingly little of the game’s spine (at least the core narrative and play themes) seems to have altered since its reveal trailer in 2008.

Final Fantasy XV’s vast and beautiful world is a spellbinding place to inhabit, brimming with side quests, treasures, and monsters to hunt. Truly impressive, though, is its handling of its main cast – Prince Noctis and his companions Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis – as they sweep across the Americana-tinged countryside of Lucis. Every detail and mechanic surrounding the group’s dynamic successfully compounds and deepens their relationship. The incidental dialogue highlighted the companionship well – for some reason I find it especially memorable that Ignis turned to Prompto as we approached a waiting active volcano and checked that his beloved camera would be alright in the heat.

Beyond this, though, lies a wealth of mechanics to further carve and mould these relationships beyond the script. Camping together, choosing meals from Ignis’ repertoire, and leafing through the pictures Prompto has snapped during the day while your companions critique the shots; every time I set a campfire I relished not just the stream of experience from the day’s activities but the easy companionship of these friends around the fire.

Combat is a fresh cocktail of the old and new; the base is a grand departure in the form of explosively balletic action with hints of Final Fantasy’s familiar juggling of weapons, abilities, and status effects. You could be forgiven for laying eyes on Final Fantasy XV and initially confusing it for a straight-up action game, but the strategic elements elevate the experience from one that tests the reflexes to one that engages your mind, too. And even in the heat of the action, Final Fantasy XV emphasises the bond between you and your teammates: cooperative Link Strikes and Parries trigger when you attack enemies whilst yourself and an ally are in a certain position, and your friends are prone to lending you their advice as you approach a difficult encounter, which you can follow for valuable skill points.

In nearly every conceivable part of the game, Final Fantasy XV succeeds in exploring and examining platonic male relationships with a depth and deftness rarely seen in a medium whose primary preoccupation with the theme is limited to gruff banter and no-homo-brohugs. There’s a real affection between the men you guide through Lucis, and that emotional core is the game’s biggest achievement underlying its mechanical triumphs.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my recommendation of Final Fantasy XV be marked with some pretty big caveats. Firstly, despite the game’s fantastic underlying narrative of the developing relationship between the protagonists, the actual plotted story is obtuse, impenetrable through its incompletion, and tiresomely unoriginal.

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Despite the great group dynamic, Noctis is an unlikeable shit, his *ugh, whatever* affectation varying in minute degrees no matter how you choose to have him react to others. Aside from that, it irks me that all his boons were received by birthright: his powers, his friends, his fiancé, and of course his kingdom. He shows few redeeming features besides determination and a begrudging sense of duty until late in the game, when his preceding presence has already grated away any sympathy you may have otherwise held for his plight.

Finally, and perhaps most vexingly, the last few hours of story missions do away with everything about the game that charmed us with for the first 25 hours (if you’ve followed the story pretty doggedly). The inventively snappy combat, the breadth of the world, interaction with your squad, even colour itself; all gradually pruned and filed and clipped away for the last few chapters of the story. I realise it could be argued that there’s a certain narrative purpose behind these decisions given the progressing graveness of the story. However arguments for this being a collection of conscious creative decisions are undermined by game director Hajime Tabata’s pledge to “patch in more story” and “fix” (read: make bearable) the most offensive chapter.

I’ve got to wonder about Final Fantasy XV’s development in relation to these glaring issues of storytelling and late-game woes that should by all rights have been ironed out by playtesting and common sense somewhere along its decade-long gestation. I would posit that vast parts of the game’s structure and story must have been scrapped and reworked, leaving little time to work on its lacking portions. I guess they didn’t want to disappoint everyone with yet another delay.

With the complexity of Final Fantasy XV, it’s relatively easy to explain both its long development and its shortcomings. The Last Guardian, however, is a much more streamlined and linear experience; which makes sense, considering Team Ico’s past work and Fumito Ueda’s well known design philosophy of “design through subtraction” that sees the removal of any superfluous elements in order to distil a desired feeling. The Last Guardian aims to be a single dish designed to please your taste buds in a specific way, while Final Fantasy XV offers a sprawling multi-course banquet. Even when you take the relatively diminutive team size into consideration, the scale of the project certainly doesn’t mesh with the time it took to produce the thing.

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The Last Guardian is a linear action-adventure game following an unnamed boy and gigantic feathered creature Trico as they attempt to escape a hauntingly quiet valley of treacherous crumbling architectural beauty. The player’s focus might be to escape, but in a much wider sense, the game’s focus is to develop and convey the relationship between Boy and beast, and that’s the real story of the game.

The game’s core mechanics lend themselves well to the central theme. Boy and Trico are brought and held together by the need for survival, and their reliance upon each other is constantly reinforced. The Boy’s physical weakness is compensated for by Trico’s brute strength, while Trico’s overwhelming size and animal intelligence is complemented by Boy’s nimble slightness and human intellect.

Underlying this vital reliance is the highly tactile nature of the game, grounding you in the world’s mystery and Trico’s presence. There’s a very real sense of physical presence and you clamber, grasp, and manhandle your way through The Last Guardian. This, of course, extends to Trico itself – a prominent mechanic involves riding and petting the beast at different positions on his body to encourage different behaviours.

Such effort to cement you so tangibly in the world wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t an appealing place to inhabit, but Team Ico has crafted an achingly beautiful place; a blank enigma for you to unwrap and examine as you traverse its abandoned majesty. The sense of awe and beauty is at once unique and recognisable to anyone that’s sunk into Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Teetering tower-like structures punch up towards the sky like solemn sentinels to the silent place, while inside their walls you’ll want to run your fingers over long-eroded glyphs that adorn the walls and explore outer courtyards in the slow process of reclamation by nature. The Last Guardian’s valley is a beguiling, brooding masterpiece of danger and contemplation. The faceless, possessed suits of armour that make up the game’s primary antagonists feel like the personification of that implied threat, dispassionate and deadly in their resistance to your trespass.

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Sound design is not to be underestimated, either, with a rich auditory landscape laid over the physical one. Your footsteps slap and echo through yawning halls, ancient mechanisms screech from untold ages of disuse, and omnipresent wind whistles through the bricks of the high towers.

All that work goes a decent way towards achieving the exact atmosphere that Team Ico want to achieve, but that effort is hobbled by fundamental missteps in the core game design. Chief amongst these issues is Trico itself. Despite the fantastic work evident in its characterisation through animation and lovable design, his responsiveness will test the limits of even the most patient players. This is an understandable decision, at least in the The Last Guardian’s opening chapters; Trico is a wild animal, and you’ve got to earn each other’s trust. Its unruly streak does go some way towards building Trico up as a believable creature with agency rather than a simple AI minion under your Beast Master-esque control. A more “realistic” Trico should lead to a more meaningful relationship, right? But the frustrations of such ponderous response times ultimately take you right out of the game and plant a kernel of resentment for the idiot animal, which runs in direct opposition to the game’s intent. Trico does steadily become more responsive for the first half of the game, but the long periods of bellowing at it to “please just fucking jump over there” never go away, right up to the last portions of the game.

Another fundamental issue – and one that may be far more embarrassing for Team Ico – is that the Boy controls like a dizzy infant on whatever drugs the kids are into these days. Movement feels enduringly imprecise and clumsy, past the point that would have appropriately conveyed the Boy’s inexperience and fragility. The camera is stiffly unhelpful, often preferring to take a firm interest in Trico’s (immaculately rendered) arsehole rather than providing a helpful view of the level. These issues could be forgiven in Shadow of the Colossus, where gaping landscapes and vast enemies required only broad strokes to wrangle successful accuracy from Wander’s movements. In the narrower, dense, more platform-heavy environments of The Last Guardian, those gripes stick out like a sore thumb and rudely overshadow your immersion.

There’s no question to me as to which game was more deserving of the wait; Final Fantasy XV might be marred by myriad shortcomings, but I get the overwhelming feeling that its issues are more a product of ambition than anything else. The Last Guardian, meanwhile, feels like it’s fallen by the wayside through a certain blinkering effect; stagnant portions of the game’s design allowed to seep into and impair the experience against better judgement. It would seem that the wider market reflects my lopsided opinion of these games, too; whilst Final Fantasy XV happily announces DLC plans and ongoing support, The Last Guardian recently endured a permanent price drop of $20.  All caveats aside Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are unquestionably worthwhile experiences that sit amongst the best games of 2016. They’re certainly more worthy additions to the world than Duke Nukem Forever an Aliens: Colonial Marines. But they both represent the pitfalls of long-term development in ways both shared and distinct.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a highly-polished, well-designed, eminently enjoyable game that sits amongst the best titles of this generation on the merits of its gameplay. Extensively exploring its intricately realised environments is a peerless pleasure. It’s such a shame, then, that the game’s narrative is marred by a couple of conspicuous issues; problems that are clearly the result of Square Enix’s meddling with Mankind Divided’s development, divvying up the game’s planned content into multiple games to form a trilogy.

Two years after Adam Jensen’s trip to the sea floor and revelations about shadowy cabal The Illuminati at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revelation, tensions between augmented people and “naturals” are high. Everyone’s favourite Swiss Army Human Jensen is a double agent working for Interpol’s Prague-based anti-terrorist group Task Force 29 whilst investigating Illuminati infiltration in the organisation through collaboration with hacktivists The Juggernaut Collective. Since the “Aug Incident” at the end of the last game, where the augmented population were triggered into a lethally aggressive state through Illuminati machinations, segregation of augmented humans is well underway- a situation that’s not helped when a series of aug-linked terrorist attacks occur. Adam Jensen must juggle political motivations, widespread prejudice, and a host of experimental augmentations installed without his knowledge in pursuit of truth, justice, and the impeccably bearded way.

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Gameplay wise, not much has changed since Human Revolution. Adam Jensen still controls through a mixture of first- and third-person perspectives, with a cover system optimised for stealth and a suite of unlockable and upgradeable augmentations dependant on a carefully maintained battery meter. You can pursue a range of different play styles, incorporating stealth, hacking, and all out action depending on how you apply the Praxis Kits earned through levelling up to unlock and upgrade new abilities for your semi mechanical body.

The most obvious additions to gameplay are Jensen’s new experimental augmentations – powerful new abilities that stretch his system to its limit. You can trigger thick dermal body armour, incapacitate foes with concussive or electrical blasts from your arms, and hack certain electronics from a distance to turn the tables on your foes. The drawback of these upgrades is that they require you to “overclock” your system, which can lead to issues like overheating and failure of certain augmentations at random. This is potentially mitigated by an optional item which grants you free reign to tap into all of that sweet, metallic potential risk-free.

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Although sound, Mankind Divided’s gameplay could use a little bit of ironing out. For instance, you can lug unconscious or dead enemies’ bodies around to hide them from their peers. This process should be quite easy, but it’s fraught with issues. The (admittedly hilarious) rag doll bodies often catch and latch onto objects or walls when you attempt to drag them around corners. You never feel like you have a solid grip on their body either, since sometimes Adam decides to just drop the body without your knowledge or consent. Most frustratingly the command prompt on Xbox One for picking up a body is the same as the one that lets you look at your gun to switch between different ammunition types and firing modes. On more than one occasion I’ve been caught by a patrolling guard because Adam suddenly decided to take an keenly intense interest in his stun gun’s serial number while squatting guiltily over a convulsing goon.

Still, ninety-nine percent of the time the foundation of Human Revolution’s established gameplay is pretty damn solid, and Mankind Divided’s runaway triumph lies in its level and world design. The game’s hub, set around your Prague base of operations, initially seems a little bit small- you can sprint across the explorable length of the area in a couple of minutes- but it’s soon clear that the space contains multitudes of pathways. Most buildings are honeycombed with a plethora of apartments, offices, and hidden rooms. Exploring Prague feels like delving into a trove of intricate puzzle boxes requiring a mixture of approaches to crack into, and in my experience there’s always something worth finding in any given locked room. You might find valuable materials, codes to storage lockers, entire side-quests, or even story critical items you’ve stumbled across by chance- something I managed in a brief spate of apartment-diving in one of the ritzier joints. The city evolves, too, offering new opportunities as time passes and night falls to reveal that seedy black-and-gold spirit that you know and love from Human Revolution.

It’s not just Prague that gets this fastidious attention to detail. Missions that take you away from the city let you delve into similarly rich and complex areas as you fight your invisible war. Level layouts might seem to follow a more linear path than you’re used to in the sprawl, but there’s always a wealth of choice awaiting you.

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That’s the design philosophy at the core of Mankind Divided: levels are built to accommodate player choice. Pretty much any approach you can imagine and spec yourself towards is supported down to rewards for each approach: you’ll gain similar amounts of XP taking enemies down through up-close stealth attacks, bombastic action, hacking their security systems to turn against them, or circumventing your opposition altogether by seeking out hidden paths. You can skip entire heavily-guarded sequences by finding and stacking enough boxes to climb up to somewhere you’re not “supposed” to be. Even the AI is remarkable; antagonise a shop’s bodyguard by stepping into and out of the stock room, and when the ensuing gunfire and panic draws police they’ll fire upon the bodyguard because they’re the one that’s seen to be breaking the rules (yes, Grand Theft Auto allowed you to call the police on people responding to your attacks first, but it’s such a rarely-seen detail in AI that it warrants mention). Mankind Divided’s world and rules always accommodate the astute and the imaginative with its potential for emergent play.

Unfortunately, although the bricks-and-mortar of gameplay guided by a beautiful design philosophy blueprint make for grand architecture to behold, there’s a serious fault in Mankind Divided’s structure. No matter how well crafted the torturously metaphorical building, a weak narrative foundation threatens to compromise the whole effort.

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Take the elephant in the room: the “Mechanical Apartheid”. Although not so pronounced in the game as in its misguided marketing campaign, the theme of “augmented” as a racial identity just doesn’t feel like it holds water. Although the all-but mandatory adoption of augmentations in manual labour industries essentially creates a population that “didn’t ask for this”, the issue remains that, unlike in real life racial conflicts, the persecuted group in this universe actually is inherently more dangerous than the majority. That’s even before you mention the recent Aug Incident, which shows that in a realistic worst-case scenario augmented people can be controlled by their bodily accessories to ruinous effect whether they like it or not. There are so many interesting and fitting places the game could’ve explored with augmented people, deeply exploring themes of ableism, industrialism, or expensive and ineffective healthcare systems. Instead, we have to make do with a blunt bludgeoning over the head with unsuitable theming.

That’s a shame not only due to the game’s inept allegory potentially alienating people of colour, but also because the ways the game showcases widespread prejudice are actually quite clever. Not content with just pseudo-racial slurs heaped onto dialogue, persecution bleeds into the way you interact with the world, too. Everywhere you’re seeing the state mistreating augmented people, arresting them without warrant, hassling them in the street, and exploiting them when possible. It’s stuff that would usually warrant intervention in any other game, but it’s so pervasive and widespread that you really don’t feel like you can help. An especially powerful, while simultaneously very subtle, detail is found in the game’s subway stations used to zip between Prague’s districts. You’re supposed to walk right to the end of the platform to board the train on the Aug-specific train car. Every mission marker leads you to this spot whenever you need to use the train. However, if you board the train from any of the “Naturals Only” spots, you’re greeted by a police officer at the other end and forced to wait through a 30-second cut scene where they check your papers and tell you off. It’s a small delay, but really hammers home how infuriating it can be to jump through unfair hoops.

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Mankind Divided’s powerful attention to storytelling details in the environment kills me because it’s so focused on forcing a 1:1 augmented-as-race metaphor that just doesn’t fit. All that attention to detail and potential lying in the subtext is cheapened by inappropriate theming.

Aside from the game’s underwhelming use of its setting, Mankind Divided is beset by conspicuous issues of pacing. The game just barely tells enough of a complete story to justify itself as a single release, but the path to its sudden and disappointing conclusion is riddled with baffling decisions of plotting. You start the game with a full suite of upgraded abilities, but when you inevitably lose them you’re a couple of hours into the game (a move that could be defended through giving you enough time to get to grips with your many options to decide the path you’re going to pursue with upgrades, but story-wise it’s very jarring). There’s a tutorial that teaches you the ins and outs of gunplay at your office’s firing range that crops up after about five hours of play. Plot advancement is paper-thin and prolonged in a way that makes it obvious that Mankind Divided was intended to be a longer game, but has been hacked apart to fill out multiple releases- and that’s thrown a spanner into the pacing of the game’s events.

The game isn’t too short by any means- the dense world and wealth of side-missions pads out the experience admirably, but the story has not been adequately changed to make appropriate use of its allotted time post-division. The flailing attempt to appease this split is epitomised by the conclusion of the game, in which a (not joking) five minute long news report in which Eliza Cassan, the (albeit intentionally) limpest character in the whole world, covers events linked to your actions in drab monotone.You can almost feel Square Enix shoving a bookmark in the middle of the story and yanking from your hands, Eidos Montreal looking on sadly.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a beautifully presented, eminently replayable and immersive game that offers tens of hours of Renaissance-flavoured cyberpunk escapism. While its core gameplay and world design are top-notch, the experience is sullied by significant narrative weaknesses as the game struggles to justify its most prominent theme amidst producer-driven meddling. That’s not to say that Mankind Divided isn’t worth the plunge; it’s still a fantastic game worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s just that this particular painting is too many missed strokes away from being a masterpiece.

Hitman: Sapienza Review

It’s been six weeks and a hair since Hitman: Intro Pack launched, aspiring to take a leaf from Telltale Games’ book with an episodic release format. Doubling down on the series’ trademark replayability, it seems that this game’s success would hinge on the quality of future content. If Hitman: Sapienza is anything to go on, fans can rest easy for now; Hitman is in very good hands.

Sapienza brings Hitman’s second major map and story mission, set in the eponymous Italian town. Your mark this time is noted bioengineer Silvia Caruso, a troubled genius that’s developing a deadly virus that can target specific people across the world- something of a killer app in the assassination game. His phobia of travel means that he doesn’t want to leave his luxuriant mansion, which is handily kitted out with an underground laboratory. You’re also to take out Caruso’s Head of Laboratory, Francesca De Santos, who is very capable of taking over if (when) Caruso leaves the picture. Finally, you must destroy the virus sample in the laboratory.

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As with Paris, it’s a joy to carry out the mission a number of times. There’s more to each of your targets than you’re initially aware of, and integrating your intel into assassination approaches is still tremendous fun. I was a little bit disappointed when the most obviously laid-out paths for each mark involved poisoning, but repeat playthroughs revealed some delightfully outlandish executions that topped my standing favourite kill from this game so far (that would be tipping the wife onto her husband in Paris).

The real star, though, is the map itself. Like Paris, Sapienza centres around a very classy mansion, although this map still manages to feel distinct. The streets surrounding the estate feel alive and fleshed-out, with a surprising amount of enterable buildings. Sun-bleached yellow cobbles, colourful cafes and butcher shops bustle with activity, and the backdrop of Mediterranean cliffs and sea sets a totally different tone to the mansion setting.

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I remain gobsmacked at the scale and complexity of Sapienza. Even though the crowds are thinner than last time’s Herculean effort, there are still scores of NPCs to outsmart, outmanoeuvre, and impersonate. The mansion is smaller than Paris’ too, but the streets and caves around and under the place lends a serpentine, multilayered feel that showcases the game’s continual utilisation of current-gen technology.

There are some issues with dumbass AI, though. NPCs largely react relatively intelligently to situations, with a believable spread of alert through guards and nice touches like civilians alerting guards to illegal activity, and guards carrying found weapons to lockup. But NPC behaviour is far from perfect, since I encountered a few situations where guards tried to apprehend me whilst facing the wrong way, as well as some doofy pathing. Since the whole fantasy of the game revolves around outsmarting people, that effect is diminished when those people don’t act in a believable fashion.

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Outside of Sapienza’s story mission, there’s still a wealth of side-content in the form of Escalations and Contracts. Escalations have you carrying out a series of assassinations with similar objectives- like the use of explosions to take out the mark- that get progressively more difficult. Altering your approach when stipulations like “no non-target casualties” are added to the mix makes for interesting variation.

The real meat when it comes to side content is in the Contracts mode, though. It’s good to see that the community has continued to produce a plethora of quality scenarios to play through. For those that don’t know, Contracts allows players to specify chosen NPCs in a level to be killed, as well as limitations like required weapons or disguises. Crucially, IO Interactive continues to curate and promote the best examples of player-made content, ensuring a stream of fresh content each time you log onto the game.

It seems like IO is settling into a good rhythm for now. I’m excited to see where they take the series, although I hope Episode 3 steps back from the mansion setting before it becomes a crutch. Since it’ll be set in Marrakesh, I’m hoping to see more of the streets that are so well realised in this episode. IO and Square Enix have had a hard time convincing people of the viability of their release schedule, but it seems to me that a modular Hitman might shape up to be the best choice for the series right now. Good work, IO.

Spoiler Tags: The Ending of Life Is Strange Is Perfect

It’s been a good month since the last episode of Life Is Strange was released, so I’m reasonably confident that lots of people have completed the game by now. To those of you that haven’t yet completed the game: I’m going to spoil the ever-loving shit out of the ending. Do not read beyond this paragraph if you want to experience the game to the end for yourself unspoiled. You have been warned.

Throughout Life Is Strange, there are two equally prevalent running sub themes regarding your heroism: you’re fighting to save Chloe, your estranged best friend who can’t seem to avoid danger, and you’re saving your fellow Arcadia Bay citizens, in minor or major ways. As the game reaches its climax, you gradually realise that the major storm at the end of the game is a result of your tampering with time throughout the game, but crucially linked to the moment that you saved Chloe’s life way back in the first few minutes of the game.

The very last decision that you make in the game is tied into this: standing over the town you’ve become a hero to in the past week, grasping the hand of your soulmate, you’ve got to make the gut-wrenching decision over which to sacrifice for the other. Go back in time so that you never saved Chloe and the storm will never occur, or watch the storm rip apart the town and its inhabitants and walk into the sunset with Chloe.

What’s so interesting about this choice is that it’s directly affected by the context of the decisions you’ve made throughout the entire game. All of those relationships you’ve built with all the people you’ve gone out of your way to save or help: wiped out in one fell swoop, in the name of selfish love.

And that’s why this last choice is perfect. It goes beyond being a test of the moral quandary “do the lives of many outweigh the lives of the few”. It really makes you think about how much you actually value the decisions you’ve made throughout the game. Are you willing to effectively negate the meaning of any of your decisions to save your best friend? It’s the kind of question that only a video game, as an interactive medium, can ask. A lot of the problems that people had with the ending of Mass Effect 3 was the feeling that none of your choices mattered (I’m something of a Mass Effect 3 defender, but that’s for another day). Life Is Strange allows you to choose between your lasting agency as a player, and the emotional needs of you and your character. And for that reason, the game does something special.

Image credits: pushsquare.com

Life Is Strange Review

Platforms: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Episodically (Episode 5- 20th October 2015)
Copy purchased

The following review contains minor spoilers for Life Is Strange. Nothing that impacts the plot heavily, but if you want to know nothing at all about the game going in, then count yourself warned.

There’s something wonderfully kooky about Life Is Strange. From its diverse set of characters to the way its time manipulation mechanics affect both its adventure game mechanics and labyrinthine plot, to its masterful sense of atmosphere, it’s a game that sets itself apart as an emotional journey.

An adventure game in the vein of modern Telltale titles, Life Is Strange follows Max Caulfield, a young photographer (known for her fondness of selfies, prevalently) who returns to her hometown Arcadia Bay so that she can attend the prestigious senior school Blackwell High. The game starts when Max discovers that she can manipulate time, rewinding events a short duration so that she can affect the way things play out. It’s just as she discovers her ability that she’s reunited with her old best friend Chloe, who attended the wayward punk rocker school of adolescence. The old friends reconnect as they investigate the disappearance of Rachel Amber, as well as other strange occurrences at Blackwell and Arcadia Bay.

Where the game really shines is in its characters. Over the course of the game, many of the characters were really well fleshed out, and I was occasionally surprised at the depth of some of the secondary players. The game heavily focuses on Max’s relationship with Chloe, who might be my favourite video game character this year. One thing that everyone will notice pretty quickly is how a lot of the dialogue has the feel of being written by people in their 30s and upwards trying to emulate the way that millennials talk. While it takes some getting used to, there is kind of a cheesy glee in characters straight-facedly saying sentences like “fuck your selfie”, or anything with the adjective “hella” thrown in.

What’s interesting about Life Is Strange is how the time rewind mechanic slots into the decisions you make. I often found myself making a decision, watching it play out, then rewinding and trying other options. You might think that this would cheapen the sense of the importance of the decisions that you can make, but I often found myself agonising over which decision I’d prefer to live with between to equally “wrong” options.

The rewind mechanic is also very smartly worked into the interpersonal aspects of the game. For instance, there’s one character whose room you visit in the story, and if you search a particular part of their room you’ll find a pregnancy test. They’ll notice your nosiness and become understandably annoyed. Rewind the game, however, and Max will retain her memories of finding the test, and will be able to carefully broach the subject with the character in a more supportive way, leaving that character with a much nicer view of you.

Time manipulation and linked themes like the butterfly effect are very prevalent in Life Is Strange’s satisfyingly twisty plot. The game’s writers have done a fantastic job of keeping the story relatively unpredictable, with most episodes culminating with a pretty huge hook that drove me forward to find out what happened next, in particular episode 3. Despite the frequent twists, the plot never felt contrived, unearned, or overly complex.

Life Is Strange is a game best enjoyed at a somewhat sedate pace. In fact, there are myriad opportunities to sit down and listen to some wonderfully chosen piece of licensed music as the camera pans around your surroundings. The soundtrack really is well put together, and really sets the right tone for the coming-of-age story. Lots of chilled-out, vaguely indie tunes that really lend themselves to taking a breather and just sitting back for a pleasant couple of minutes before jumping back into the frequently heavy narrative.

The game’s pretty nicely put together aesthetically, too. Characters, while a little bit wooden in their animation, are facially expressive and visually distinct, while the colour palette of Arcadia bay is awash with luscious colour. The bright visuals are a delight, and really help punctuate the lighthearted introspections while contrasting with the dramatic turns when the game gives us contrastingly dark and somber tones.

Slightly hackneyed dialogue and the occasional poorly delivered line don’t stop Life Is Strange’s characters and story from shining. While most won’t struggle with the game’s simple puzzles, there’s much fun to be had in riding out the story in your way, trying to predict the far-flung consequences of your decisions. Life Is Strange is a beautiful experience that makes use of derivative parts to make a beautifully unique whole that should not be missed.

Image credits: kotaku.com

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided- Don’t Augment Your Preorder

For those of you that’re out of the loop, Square Enix have announced their preorder incentive for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s called “Augment Your Preorder”, and it’s kind of like the Kickstarter stretch goals system in that the more people that preorder the game, the more preorder bonuses there are to choose from, the last goal being that the game releases 4 days early.

Yeah. Screw this thing.

When are companies going to understand that divvying up content so that no (sane) person can have a fully complete version of a product, really pisses everyone off? It’s a terrible practice on a PR and customer relations level, and it just leads to degradation of the art form.

deus ex md augment image

The target number of preorders for the five (!) tiers of goals are secret, which probably means that no matter how many people fall for this rubbish, Square Enix gets to come out with a press release claiming that all of the tiers have been reached, and, yes, they’re very proud of how the community has already rallied around the game. I can just picture the smug release now.

Now, there’s been a fair amount of outcry, although I’m not sure how much outrage will actually lead to a change in this kind of practice. We’ve been putting up with this blatant disregard for customers and games as an art form for years now; as anyone who remembers the absolute clustermolest that was the list of Watch Dogs editions and pre-order incentives. Pre-order incentives in general tend to lead to a system of haves and have-nots, and you really don’t want a customer paying for a full-price triple-A game feeling like a have-not.

Now, I’m not totally against pre-ordering like many people are. For instance, I myself pre-ordered the Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4, because that is a very exclusive product that I’d probably have to resort selling my organs for had I relied on eBay scalpers down the line. But, in this case, the blatant disrespect for the consumer is such that I just cannot condone pre-ordering this game. And that makes me sad, because I love Deus Ex, and the developers probably had little to no say in Augment Your Preorder program.