Life Is Strange – Review (PS4)

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Life Is Strange is an episodic game that tells the story of Max Caulfield, a student who has returned to her hometown to take an elite photography course at Blackwell Academy. She has been away for five years, since her family moved to Seattle and we meet Max in October 2013, awaking from a nightmare as she slept in class. After class finishes she makes her way to the restroom where a chance encounter leads to a discovery… that Max can rewind time.

Choice is a big theme in a lot of games, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, The Walking Dead and, more recently, Until Dawn gave the player a selection of choices throughout the game that helped to shape the player’s experience and story. Life Is Strange does the same but with a slightly different twist.

Max can rewind time at will, you’re free to rewind by pressing L2 most of the time, and this also extends to conversations. So as well as manipulating certain events to happen at a set time, she can also get more information from people than you would just by speaking to them. You can have a full conversation, get some information and then rewind and have the conversation again. Only this time you will have extra dialogue choices based on what you found out and what the character you’re talking to doesn’t know they already told you. Still with me? πŸ™‚

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The other twist on the choice mechanic is that Max’s power doesn’t have an ‘energy bar’ or limited use. She can only rewind time so far but she, and by extension you the player, can do so over and over. This gives you the freedom to choose different options, see what happens and then rewind and try something else. If you prefer the original choice just rewind again and reselect it. If not go with something else. I feel this is a great innovation in the genre and while it wouldn’t suit all choice-based games, it really makes Life Is Strange stand out from other similar titles.

Graphically the game has a really nice art style, which looks gorgeous at times. It uses lighting well and the characters are modelled with believable facial animations, the only downside is the movement of mouths which, for the most part, don’t really match up to the dialogue being spoken. It’s a small gripe in the grand scheme of things and not a huge problem given that the game was made with a smaller budget than a lot of other titles.

The story itself was gripping and it was a painful wait between episodes, with about a two month period between each installment. There were a few odd inconsistencies in the story but nothing that did too much damage, especially as a lot of the time you’d be altering the timeline anyway and changing things. The characterisation was superb, with most of the people you meet feeling like well fleshed out characters, each with a story to tell if you wanted to listen. There was the rare occasion where characters veered away from the personality they’d shown previously, particularly in the final episode, but I never found it too much of an issue.

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Before we discuss another big part of the game, music, I wanted to flag up, in the interests of full disclosure, that I did actually work on Life Is Strange, helping to make sure they could use the Sparklehorse track that features in the game. With that out of the way, it would be remiss not to discuss the music in this game. A selection of great tracks, for a start, that are used so well and do much to add to the game. The music is as much a character in Life Is Strange as some of the other supporting roles. The opening of Life Is Strange features, in my opinion, possibly the greatest use of music within a title. It’s seamless, suits the scene perfectly and puts you straight into the head of Max. Wonderful stuff.

The game comprises of five episodes, each ranging between two and half to three and half hours. There is plenty of content to get through, although the ability to rewind time to check out different dialogue/choice options within the first playthrough might limit the replayability of the game for some. Having said that there are also chances for Max to practice her photography, with picture opportunities scattered around levels and not clearly marked for the player. Each of these will net you a trophy so perhaps people might find some extra playtime going back to find these.

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I fell in love with Life Is Strange right from the opening credits of the first episode. As long time readers of my blog might know, I am a sucker for anything time bending or time travel related and the developers have provided a rich, varied cast of characters to join you for the ride. There were moments I didn’t see coming that made me smile and a fair few that had me welling up. One cliffhanger ending to an episode left my jaw on the floor. Life Is Strange is everything a piece of entertainment should be – enjoyable, well made and memorable.

Rating 10/10

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Until Dawn – Review (PS4)

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Until Dawn has been floating around for a long time. First revealed back in 2012 as a Move focused game on PS3, it has been in the works for what seems like an age. Supermassive Games eventually scrapped plans for a last gen release and concentrated on getting the game onto PS4.

If you’re a fan of horror films then the setting of Until Dawn will feel warmly familiar. A group of teenagers head to an isolated lodge in the woods and find themselves stalked, having to survive through the night until help can get to them in the morning. But to dismiss Until Dawn as just another horror game is to do it a disservice.

While there is nothing here that revolutionizes the horror genre like Cabin In The Woods, Until Dawn does a good job of subverting some of the tropes that are even recognizable to non-horror fans (like me). There is some neat character based stuff in the game that, depending on the choices you make throughout, you get to see through interactions with the other teenagers.

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The game also does a nice job of playing with the mechanics of gaming, mixing them nicely with horror film expectations. At times my knowledge of horror films was telling me to do one thing but my gaming experience was screaming another. It made for an enjoyable game and that’s before we factor in the main reason to play Until Dawn – The Butterfly Effect.

Widely understood, and seen in the film of the same name, The Butterfly Effect is the theory that one small choice can lead to a huge change in fortune further down the road. In Until Dawn these choices stack up and can led to character deaths. This lends every choice and event a weight. Some of them might not even be direct choices, as failing quick time events could slow your character, meaning they simply aren’t there to save someone else.

This type of thing has been done in the past, most notably by Quantic Dream in titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but I think this is the best implementation of it I have experienced. Having said that, while the paths diverge depending on your choices in Until Dawn, the ending remains largely the same. This differs from something like Heavy Rain where there was a huge amount of different endings. While the ending of Until Dawn doesn’t vary wildly, the way you get there can be very different indeed. In fact you can end the game with none of the characters left alive, or they can all be still alive – it depends on what you do.

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There is also a cool mechanic in the game that asks you not to move in a tense situation. The game is literally checking your controller for movement in sections that can last for up to 10 seconds. It’s a really nice touch that helps tie you to the characters, as they hold their breath and hide from an assailant so do you!

The characters are great, a real mix of personalities that you will love and hate, and then maybe love again. Some of the arcs the characters have are interesting, if you can keep them alive long enough to see them! Graphically the game is a powerhouse with some astounding lighting and facial capture. Of course Until Dawn is not an open world game and you are very limited in where you can go. That obviously helps with concentrating the graphical power into one space.

Until Dawn is a game that begs to be played more than once, with so many variables there will always be something you’ve missed or another character to save. There are also lots of clues to find that unlock information on the backstory, as well as shedding light on the characters current predicament. As you play you will also discover various ‘Totems’, each showing you a glimpse of a future event or offering some form of guidance. These add another layer to the game because they can influence your choices, which might be a good or a bad thing.

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I didn’t have many problems with Until Dawn, there were a few small things – occasionally controlling the character was a bit of a pain, usually when the camera angle shifts and you need to switch the direction of the analogue stick, ala the old Resident Evil games. A couple of times the tone of the conversation was out of whack with what had just happened. Really small stuff in terms of the scale of the game though.

My one major gripe (and I’m not alone judging by the online reaction) is with one specific late game choice. No spoilers here so I’ll try to explain as best I can – almost all the choices in the game give you an A or B scenario. The choices are clear, it’s this or that. One particular choice far into the game appears to give you a simple choice but doesn’t give you all the info you need to make the decision. Making the wrong choice has catastrophic consequences and I just felt I would never have made that choice if I’d had all the information to hand.

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Having said that I still thoroughly enjoyed Until Dawn and it was one of those rare titles that stays with you. After I’d finished it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. About my choices, about the backstory and about what others thought of the characters and story. Having looked through some of the story branches I feel like my version of the story was pretty good, barring that unfortunate late game choice – I still might go back and replay that section! I would recommend Until Dawn to anyone, even if you don’t much care for horror this is a really cool title that sets a new bar for this type of branching story/exploration game.

Rating: 8/10

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