Monthly Archives: February 2016

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Insert Uncharted Pun Here

I have to admit that I don’t have a significant history with the Tomb Raider series, and mostly that is due to personal oversight.  For as big of a fan as I was for the original Playstation, I just never picked up that series.  I was in middle school at the time of those original games, and my peers who were into those games were into them more for the allure of the Lara Croft character than anything else.  The awkward sex appeal that was attached to those early games was kind of a turnoff to me, and thus I never really thought highly enough of the series to give it a go.  When the rebooted Tomb Raider was released in 2013, I was completely surprised by the number of Tomb Raider fans that were suddenly vouching for the quality of the older games.  It made me a little bit ashamed that I had waited so long to get into the series, especially for a game that many long-time fans considered to be a departure from what made the earlier entries special.  Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 Tomb Raider and was excited when its sequel, the boorishly titled Rise of the Tomb Raider, finally made it to PC last month.  

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The story of Rise of the Tomb Raider I feel is by far its weakest part, both in plot and in characters.  The plot synopsis of Rise is simple: Lara must get to the magical artifact of the week before the bad guys do.  In this case, the object of obsession is the Divine Source, a device used by an ancient Byzantine prophet to grant himself and his armies eternal life.  Long since faded into myth, the Source was the obsession of Lara’s father, Lord Croft, and his dogged pursual of the artifact eventually earned him the enmity of the shadowy organization known as Trinity.  Trinity pulled strings within the UK media to discredit and publicly humiliate Croft which led to his apparent suicide when Lara was young.  Flash forward to the present day and Lara has discovered new evidence which points to the Divine Source having found a resting place deep within Siberia.  Before she can depart, however, the information is stolen by Trinity, which triggers a race to reach the long lost antique.

I guess the story of Rise isn’t particularly bad.  It serves its purpose in that it gives proper motives for Lara to complete the various objectives she’s tasked with across the game.  I guess my main problem with it is that it’s not very unique.  The “reach the artifact before the bad guys” plot is of course the story of most of the Indiana Jones movies (all save Temple of Doom) which in turn has been used in almost all of the old Tomb Raider games and every single one of the Uncharted games.  That might seem like an odd thing to take issue with, but I enjoyed that the 2013 reboot story differed from this archetype and instead focused on a group of survivors trying to endure and escape a cursed island.  It was a welcome change of pace.

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The lack of originality is also weighed down by the fact that the characters just aren’t very interesting this time around.  Lara is accompanied by a returning character from the 2013 game, but here he’s really just sort of “there” from time to time.  He doesn’t do much interesting and nothing about his character or his relationship with Lara are developed further.  As Trinity gets closer to the Divine Source, Lara makes an alliance with a native group that are trying to protect the secrets of the artifact, but I can’t say anything was particularly engaging about them, either.  They merely fill the “native tribe resisting a powerful invading force” slot that these types of stories have.  I also didn’t really care all that much for the villains.  While the secrets of the shadowy Trinity group could have been interesting to unravel, we don’t actually learn anything about them.  Instead, the villains are a mercenary group that serve as the enforcement arm of the organization.  There is some interpersonal drama between the two leaders of this rival group, a brother and sister, but, again, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about how their relationship plays out.  The entire story is pretty predictable, and as a consequence, I was neither invested nor intrigued in seeing the resolution, as I had already worked everything out in my head.

Fortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider really shines in its technical feats.  The environments are huge, but nonetheless filled with a gorgeous amount of detail.  The outdoor landscapes teem with lush foliage and striking terrain, and the enclosed areas are no less impressive.  Particle effects were particularly eye catching and put to good use to fill the screen with snowflakes, ash, ember, and the like during the appropriate scenes.  Fire effects are also really impressive, both visually and for the way fire spreads through surrounding structures during certain sequences.  And being a Lara Croft adventure, often entire levels will begin to collapse in spectacular fashion as Lara makes a mad dash to safety.  I think the visual appeal on display was what ultimately made the game stand out to me, which might seem like a shallow thing to say, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little bit of high-tech eye candy.

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The original series of Tomb Raider games could probably be described as a mixture of acrobatic platforming, with Lara jumping, tumbling, and swinging her way through ancient ruins, and puzzle solving to overcome environmental obstructions (either manmade or the result of natural obstacles) rounded out with some action sequences.  A major criticism of the 2013 Tomb Raider from long time fans of the series was that it significantly rebalanced this mix of gameplay toward being more about action and shooting, with the puzzle solving almost completely relegated into optional side missions.  More or less, the same is true of Rise.  I think the game is about a 50/50 split of acrobatic platforming (similar to the old games) and action shooting segments.  There is almost no puzzle solving to be found in the main quest of the game.  Like the last game, there are secret “tombs” whose entrances are hidden throughout the game’s sprawling outdoor areas, and these tombs serve as a kind of side mission which contain puzzles that Lara must solve to earn a reward at the end of the ordeal.  While many long time fans may lament the lack of puzzles in the main mission sequence of the game, I will say that, to Rise’s credit, the optional tombs seemed far more intricate and lengthy to me than in the previous game, and the items that were earned by completing them always seemed highly worthwhile.

It’s no secret that the newly rebooted Tomb Raider series has taken cues from Uncharted when it comes to the design of its action sequences, and naturally one can’t help but compare this game to Naughty Dog’s series.  Action sequences during the main missions of the game are often linear in nature, with the player constantly being funneled along a straightforward path composed of sequential areas where enemy encounters are staged.  I will say that I probably prefer the action in these new Tomb Raider games to that of Uncharted.  While it’s clearly a follower not a leader in this aspect, I find the enemy encounters in both the 2013 game and Rise to be far more satisfying than Uncharted’s design philosophy of spamming the player with waves of bullet sponge enemies, as they inspire me to be far more thoughtful in my offensive approach.

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However, unlike the Uncharted games, Rise isn’t purely a linear “rollercoaster ride” type game.  While the main missions are highly linear in nature, in between these missions Lara has freedom to roam around and explore a series of large interconnected areas that make up the game’s overworld.  In these areas, Lara can search for hidden tombs, take on side missions, root around for collectibles, and she can collect crafting items by hunting animals and gathering plants.  Pleasantly, I felt that these big open areas gave the game a bigger sense of adventure than the Uncharted series.

New to Rise of the Tomb Raider is a crafting system that wasn’t present in the 2013 game.  There are a wide variety of crafting items that can be collected in a number of ways (see above), and these items can be used to unlock new abilities for Lara, as well as craft ammo, grenades, and health packs on-the-fly.  On-the-fly crafting works simply by holding down the button associated with a specific object.  So, for instance, if you have the bow equipped, you can craft arrows simply by holding down the button that you press to fire the bow (the right trigger of the controller).  If you have the requisite crafting items in your inventory, a meter will appear on screen that will fill up to complete the crafting action.  You’ll often need to do this in the heat of battle to generate more ammo, especially for the bow, since arrows usually aren’t dropped by the enemy.  I think the game wants you to spend time exploring the large open areas of the game to hunt animals and gather plants for these crafting items, but I generally never found myself having to go out of my way to stock up on these.  If this whole system sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s very similar to the crafting system used in The Last of Us.  Considering these games already draw enough comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I was more than slightly amused that they just went ahead and wholesale copied the crafting system that Naughty Dog introduced in The Last of Us.  

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While I’m sympathetic to the bristling of long-time Tomb Raider fans at the action-oriented approach of the rebooted series, I think I’ve grown to enjoy these games a lot, and, in fact, I find that I prefer them over the Uncharted series that inspired them.  For many of the reasons I’ve outlined above, Tomb Raider just feels like a more substantial adventure than Uncharted.  It may not have the best characters or story, but Tomb Raider really does present a world that feels dangerous and alive.  Meanwhile, the Uncharted games feel more like a theme park attraction to me, where the focus is more on cinematic heroism that is all smoke and mirrors.   And I hate to sound so down on Uncharted, as I really liked Uncharted 2, but I think Uncharted 3 left me with some disdain for the series, and I’m looking forward to see if Uncharted 4 can bring me back around.

Putting Uncharted aside, however, I do wonder about the future of the Tomb Raider series.  I really enjoyed this game, but I don’t think you can say that it is anything but an incremental improvement over its predecessor.  If this series wants to sustain a future, I think it’s going to need to evolve a lot more in the next iteration.  This series has already seen one short-lived revival with the Legends-Anniversary-Underworld games, and I fear that this latest round of the series is on the same trajectory toward stagnation, which I think would be a real shame.

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Gunpoint: What a Tangled Web We Weave

Gunpoint was a small indie game released on Steam back in the summer of 2013, around the same time as Rogue Legacy.  At the time, I did hear it mentioned on a few of the big name gaming podcasts that I listen to, but I’ve always felt that it flew a bit under the radar and didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved.  And there was never any subsequent console release to give it a second wind as is often the case with Steam games, so I worry that it’s a forgotten treasure at this point.  Regardless of it being overlooked or not, Gunpoint was a surprising burst of joy to me, as it came out during a time that I was under a lot of stress.  Although it is a very well-designed stealth game, the writing and atmosphere of the game just carry a flippant, goofball energy to them that I found really appealing, and for that reason the game stands out to me.

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Gunpoint is a 2D stealth game played from a cross-sectional viewpoint.  The levels are usually large office buildings that provide a gauntlet of guards, cameras, laser tripwires, locked doors, and other security measures for the player to sneak through.  The camera is zoomed out so that large portions of the level are visible at any given time which conveniently provides the player with plenty of information to plan their movements through the mission.  The objective is in most circumstances to find a computer somewhere in the building that contains sensitive information that your character is on a contract to collect or erase.  Credits are awarded at the end of each mission based on performance and can be used to upgrade the arsenal of spy gadgets available to the player.

In Gunpoint, the player takes on the role of Richard Conway, a freelance corporate saboteur who can probably be best described as a demented Inspector Gadget.  Conway has at his disposal a number of eccentric gadgets to enhance his sneaking abilities.  The most important of these are his “hypertrousers” which enable him to jump great distances at high speeds.  He can also cling to walls and ceilings, and since jumping is faster than running, most of the game is spent darting from surface to surface to avoid the guards’ line of sight.  Stealth games tend to be slow, methodical affairs which require the player to precisely time the moments at which they can weave between cover spots undetected, but Gunpoint tends to be a more acrobatic ordeal where the best way to hide is to zip to a place to hang just out of the guards’ purview.  

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If the guards catch Conway, they will immediately open fire which usually results in failure for the player since it only takes one bullet to kill Conway.  But if your reflexes are fast enough, you can occasionally get away unharmed.  The player can go on the offense by pouncing on guards from the shadows and beating them senseless, and there is a gun that is available as a high-level unlockable gadget, but it can only be fired once per mission (as it only carries one bullet).  Occasionally, these offensive maneuvers are necessary, but as is usual for a good stealth game, the non-violent solution is often the best way through.

One of the hallmarks of a good stealth game is the ability to utilize a game’s systems to goof with unsuspecting guards.  An important gadget available in Gunpoint is the “crosslink” device which allows Conway to rewire the circuits in a given building via remote control.  Most importantly this device adds a slight puzzle element to the game, as it allow him to overcome electronic locks and avoid triggering security alarms.  It also offers the player some creativity in neutralizing (read: screwing with) the guards.  The crosslink gadget makes it possible to do things like rigging the building to lock the guards in certains rooms, playing with the lights so that Conway can stay concealed in the dark, or remotely opening doors as guards pass by to knock them out.

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While Gunpoint is a lot of fun to play, what really elevates the game is the spastic storyline that spoofs convoluted spy fiction.  Richard Conway is a man whose only loyalty lies with his bank account, and over the course of the game he gets entangled in the midst of an increasingly complicated revenge conspiracy.  This is not a game about saving the world or anything like that.  The main conflict is simply a lovers’ quarrel between some Very Serious People, and Conway, through no fault of his own, gets in a position where he’s playing both sides (and others) against each other.  It’s a plot that’s filled with double-crosses and triple-crosses and double triple-crosses and “I know she knows he knows” and “I know he knows she knows I know” kind of stuff.  The comedy is driven by how increasingly absurd and convoluted the various schemes that involve Conway become and the contrast between the seriousness of the Very Serious People who are hiring him and Conway’s own flippant and bemused attitude.

One specific thing that I think is interesting to mention about the game is that an important part of how the story is told is through dialogue choices the player can make for Conway.  Unlike in most games which utilize a significant amount of dialogue choices, Gunpoint makes no pretense that these will affect the outcome of the story.  Rather, the dialogue choices are used as a comedic device by contrasting the disparity between the various responses Conway can give.  Conway can range from a strictly down-to-business professional, an empathic do gooder, a flippant idiot savant, or a babbling psychopath.  These wild potential swings in Conway’s personality give the character a level of frivolity that makes the game funny despite the seriousness of the conspiracies that Conway becomes entangled with.

In a previous post, I recommended Gunpoint as a good Steam sale game for those that are curious, and that recommendation, of course, still stands.  It’s not a particularly long game.  I think Steam reported that it took me under 3 hours to beat, but for as short as it is,  I found the game to be a worthwhile burst of fun.  It’s both a very good 2D stealth game, as well as just generally being a fun, goofy experience.  The game has also been updated with a level editor and Steam Workshop support, so if you’re still left wanting more, the game can be extended with a decent-sized catalog of user generated content.

So there’s a chance Onimusha might come back…

In a recent interview, Street Fighter overlord Yoshinori Ono let slip that internal discussions at Capcom were occurring over which of the company’s many dormant classic series should be revived, with Onimusha being mentioned specifically by name.  I’m a big Onimusha fan, so naturally this is good news to me, even if nothing may ever result of such early discussions.  Beyond just Onimusha, I think Capcom of all publishers may very well sit on the largest vault of beloved series that have laid quiet for too long.  Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of Onimusha, Dino Crisis, Darkstalkers, Maximo, Okami, Final Fight, Power Stone, Demon’s Crest…. the list goes on.  It’s good to know that the door isn’t completely closed on some of these and indicates that Capcom still is in touch with what made the company a success in the first place…unlike certain other competitors of theirs.

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Onimusha was the first game I got a chance to play when I first got ahold of the PS2 back in the day.  I don’t know if other people have these, but there are certain games that in my mind sort of symbolize my experience with a console.  These games aren’t necessarily the best or my favorite games for a particular system, but they sort of set the tone for how I remember my time spent playing the rest of the platform’s library.  For NES, that would be Super Mario Bros.  For PS1, it would be Final Fantasy VII.  For PS2, it would probably be the original Onimusha: Warlords.  

For those who have no familiarity with Onimusha, imagine it as a hack-and-slash samurai version of Resident Evil.  The series is composed of four games, all of which were released during the lifespan of the PS2.  (There was also a tactical RPG spinoff on the GBA, and some mobile and browser games which are best left unmentioned.) The series mainly features Japanese swordsmen as playable protagonists in an alternate history where humans are covertly hunted for food and ritual sacrifice by a race of extra-dimensional demons known as the Genma.  Across history, the Genma have made blood pacts with great conquerors to lend their power in battle in exchange for a stable supply of human nourishment drawn from the defeated peoples.  During the point in history that the series takes place, the Genma have allied with the ambitious Japanese warlord Nobunaga Oda.  Nobunaga’s armies thus become a supernatural threat to the nation’s already war torn populace.

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Similar to the Resident Evil series, Onimusha features a fixed camera system with polygonal character models overlaid on pre-rendered backgrounds.  Movement comes in the form of RE-style tank controls, and  combat is, of course, focused on sword fighting as opposed to gunplay.  I wouldn’t call Onimusha a horror series, but especially in the first game you can sense the series’ survival horror forebears.  The original Onimusha features a dark and sometimes macabre atmosphere, and the events of the game are entirely centered on a feudal Japanese castle overrun with monsters in the same way that RE1 and 2 are centered on the Spencer Mansion and RCPD HQ respectively.   

In hearing of this news, I kind of have to wonder what a modern Onimusha game would look like.  I very much doubt today’s audiences would be receptive to a game that closely follows the series roots with pre-rendered backgrounds and tank controls.  I see a new Onimusha going one of two ways:  Either it would focus on slow-paced, methodical swordplay like Dark Souls or fast-paced acrobatic and combo-driven combat like Devil May Cry.  Of those two, I think the slower Dark Souls-inspired combat would be the preferable of the two, as that would be closer to the PS2 games.  Also, a game that took cues from Dark Souls’ horror atmosphere would help it feel like one of the original PS2 games.

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However, all of this dreaming may be for not, as Ono explained that there are going to be certain “battles” he’ll have to fight to get a new game made.  But, whatever, it’s just good to know that someone is fighting for it.

 

Girls are Weird: Life is Strange *SPOILERS AHEAD*

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I recently finished Life is Strange during my New Year’s break from work.  I’ve been itching to write about it for a while but just had trouble expressing my thoughts without going into story-specific details.  Therefore, this is going to be a SPOILER-FILLED POST OF ALL FIVE EPISODES.  I usually abstain from writing posts with spoilers in them, but I found it necessary this time to express my thoughts.  ***If you have any interest in playing Life is Strange, I would completely refrain from going any further, as I’m not going to hold anything back.***  

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The protagonist of Life is Strange, Max “Don’t Call Her Maxine” Caulfield, is a surprisingly mundane character for someone with the ability to rewrite the space-time continuum.  Amongst the students at Blackwell Academy, I don’t think she particularly stands out above anyone.  She’s an introvert, but is friendly enough to not be antisocial, and she struggles with confidence sometimes, particularly as it relates to sharing her great passion in life, photography.  I don’t call her mundane to deride the character, rather I find her refreshingly relatable.  She’s not some naturally perfect and charismatic individual that is treated like the center of the universe by everyone around her.  Instead, to be noticed and liked, she actually has to put effort into her social interactions.  And while her peers often dismiss her as a hipster, I find her to actually be a very genuine character.  Her personal quirks, particularly her attachment to instant film cameras, are not the result her of trying to be cool or trying to stand out and be different, but rather she comes across as just very sincerely liking what she likes.  And I find such authenticity to be the trait that most made me like her as a character.

I found myself really enjoying the tale told by Life is Strange.  I initially had some reservations about how easily I could relate to the story.  Loathe as I am to think about it, I’ve been out of high school long enough that I have no real familiarity with the reality of teenagers today.  Of course, I don’t think the people who actually wrote Life is Strange are really more in tune with the subject than I am.  The close relationship between Max “Don’t Call Her Holden” Caulfield and her old friend Chloe, is another facet I thought I might be alienated by.  As I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend in my life that I’ve had a really close relationship with, certainly not like Max and Chloe have.  

Initially, I found these elements to be rather awkward.  But while the teen drama can sometimes feel insipid, I eventually discovered there to be some very sincere and serious character stories explored over the course of the game’s five episodes.  I think the most memorable character arc has to be Kate Marsh’s as she struggles with bullying in the age of social networking and which culminates in her suicide attempt at the end of the second episode.  While I know some people find Chloe to be an insufferable character, I thought Chloe’s hardships in dealing with her family in the wake of her father’s death to be heartbreaking at times.  I also found Warren’s awkward attempts at getting closer to Max to be amusingly relatable.  And ultimately, the central plot focus of Max and Chloe’s relationship is developed in a way that endeared me to the characters and made me want to see how their story would resolve.

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While Telltale’s post-Walking Dead adventure games have largely eschewed the puzzle solving that pervaded the genre’s roots, Life is Strange does make an attempt to re-integrate that aspect.  It is still a game that heavily focused on dialogue and storytelling, but there are a few puzzles that pop up each episode.  Most of these seem to revolve around using Max’s time rewind abilities in creative ways.  I didn’t really find them to be particularly hard, but I’m not sure that I want especially hard puzzles in adventure games anymore, and I appreciated their presence.    They serve to create a reality to Max’s rewind ability and make her power into something more than just a means to redo conversations if you don’t like the outcome of your dialogue choices.

As an aside, one of the best compliments I can give here is that Life is Strange has an excellent soundtrack of licensed music.  It’s not necessarily the kind of music you often find in games, as it’s all very twee and folksy, but it compliments the game’s atmosphere and mood very well.  And I thought each song was perfectly matched to its moment in both the cutscenes and important playable sections.

Life is Strange is another adventure game that purports to have actual story consequences for the choices that the player makes in-game.  In the end, I found like most other games of this type, choices don’t really end up having the impact that the game wants you to believe they do.  The overall arc of events that the game follows is, of course, unchanged no matter what you do.  Regardless, the characters in the game tend to remind you constantly of the choices you made earlier.  

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I found that the dialogue tends to suffer somewhat because of these player choices, which is to say that the writers didn’t plan well enough for all the potential circumstances that they created.  There were many times when characters were saying things to me that didn’t really make much sense in the context of the decisions that I had previously made.  Nonetheless, even if they aren’t as important to the plot as they pretend to be, I did feel like all these player-choice moments made me more engaged with the plot and Max as a character.  I also just enjoyed reviewing the data that is shown at the end of each episode and comparing what I had done in the episode to other players.

There are two story moments where the player’s input does seem to have a fairly big impact.  The first is of course Kate Marsh’s suicide attempt at the end of the second episode.  I was actually a bit shocked that the game went this far in its treatment of high-school bullying.  I was, unfortunately, not able to save Kate.  I’m not sure exactly what it was specifically that I said wrong.  At first, I thought it must have been meant to be a very difficult thing to achieve, but based on the end of episode stats, ~2/3rds of the players were able to save her, so I guess I’m just an idiot.  Sorry, Kate.

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The other major story-altering decision leads me into the most controversial part of Life is Strange, the ending.  Ultimately, I decided to let Chloe go.  It was a purely pragmatic decision.  If the universe is so hellbent on destroying Chloe that it would wipe out an entire town (amongst other things), then I really don’t think it would have stopped there.  And with Max’s rewind abilities having reached their limits, I doubt she would have been able to protect her in the future.  On the one hand, I find the entire ending to be disappointingly fatalistic, implying that we as humans have no real power over fate.  Max couldn’t save Chloe, despite all her best efforts.  I don’t even think she stopped Jefferson in the final restored timeline where Nathan shoots Chloe.  My assumption is that Nathan flipped on Jefferson when he was taken into police custody, and that’s how he was caught.  But maybe that’s why Chloe had to die?  Her death wasn’t in vain as it directly led to Jefferson finally being brought to justice, and saved Kate, Victoria, and future victims in the process (one of whom could have been Max, herself).  And while Max couldn’t save her friend, her powers did grant them one last week together.

I know others have found it disappointing that Max’s powers are never explained.  We’re never told why she was given them and where they came from, and we never even really understand the deeper cosmic implications that result from her time manipulation.  Is Max really creating new universes each time she alters the past (which is what she seems to think), or is there merely a single universe with one timeline that is being overwritten with each rewind?  How does Chloe surviving her encounter with Nathan result in so many strange phenomenon?  These questions are never given real answers, but I think I’m okay with that.  I like that outside of Max’s ability to rewind and the meteorological anomalies that occur, there are no supernatural or sci-fi elements to the story.  The tragedies that befall Max and those that surround her are ultimately the result of human sins, not some sort of cosmic or supernatural malignancy.  Too often the stories of fantasy and science fiction games rely on these ancient/cosmic/alien evils that are external to humankind, even one of the big influences of this game, Twin Peaks, does that.  But as the conflict present in Life is Strange is entirely the result of morally corrupt human individuals, I think it provides a story that is refreshingly down to Earth, while at the same time being about something that is very beyond the mundane in nature (time travel).

I’ve heard that Dontnod may be planning a second season of Life is Strange, although for the time being they are focused on their next game, Vampyr.  It’s good to have an alternative to Telltale’s episodic adventure games out there, especially since Telltale is entirely focused on using licensed properties.  I assume (and prefer) that season 2 follow a completely new character, as I feel like if Max keeps her powers she’ll just end up becoming some sort of superhero-like character, and I just don’t want to see that happen.  Like I said at the start, I like Max because of how normal she is as a human being.  But definitely, Life is Strange is a series that I could find myself continuing to be very enthusiastic for in the future.

 

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