Life is Strange: Before the Storm

This review contains spoilers for Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

DONTNOD’s indie time travel adventure game Life is Strange has sold over three million copies since its release. While a sequel is in the works, Deck Nine games have produced their own game, a prequel in three parts to cover how Chloe Price met Rachel Amber during Max’s absence.

The game begins with Chloe sneaking into an old mill to see one of her favourite rock bands, FireWalk (a Twin Peaks reference). There she collides with some shady characters and Rachel appears and rescues her. The next day, the two skip school together and grow closer, a bond that is ultimately cemented when Rachel discovers something shocking about her father.

The mechanics of Life is Strange: Before the Storm work in exactly the same way as the original game, you walk around, interacting with objects and people. Unlike Max, Chloe doesn’t have a time travel ability, but you still make big decisions which affect how the game unfolds. Chloe also has a ‘backtalk’ ability, in which you have to select the right option from multiple dialogue options within a short time limit in order to win an argument.

Choose your words carefully if you want to get your way!

Where Max would take photographs of various scenes throughout the original game, Chloe’s option to interact with her environment is graffiti spots located throughout the game which I thought was a nice reflection of her personality as Chloe likes to creatively reinterpret the world to her own style. The game also lets you choose the kind of graffiti you want to make which is a nice bonus. This isn’t mandatory to the game in any way but it’s a nice extra designed to encourage you to explore each environment you’re in more thoroughly.

Anyone who played Life is Strange will know that Chloe’s relationship with Rachel was incredibly important to her, so it’s not surprising that their relationship forms the heart of this game. I was pleasantly surprised that Before the Storm doesn’t skirt around Chloe’s sexuality or her feelings for Rachel, and you have the options to express a desire for ‘something more’ and to kiss Rachel at points in the game. Rachel also calls Chloe ‘cute’ and ‘hot’ at multiple points in the game and their big Shakespearean moment feels like a romantic declaration. Although they get more in the way of flirtatious and romantic interaction than Chloe and Max, it would be nice if it had been more explicit e.g. use of the words girlfriend, lesbian, bisexual etc.

Weird costume aside…Chloe was happy to be with Rachel.

Before the Storm isn’t without its flaws. Many of the characters from the original game make a return – Joyce, David, Nathan, Victoria and Principal Wells, and many of them feel well realised in relation to their characterisation in the original game, especially Joyce’s ongoing struggle to help Chloe and try to move on herself. There are odd inconsistencies though – David is presented as an abusive character in Life is Strange but Before the Storm repeatedly tries to present him as a heavy-handed but sympathetic character who you even have the option to forgive and be nice to on multiple occasions. This is one of many choices that seems completely pointless as anyone who has played Life is Strange will know that chronologically, Chloe is at odds with David by the time Max returns, so it makes no difference if you choose to attempt to build bridges with him in this game.

Rachel is a core character in Before the Storm and the first two episodes focus primarily on her and Chloe and their relationship, but this is pushed to the background in episode three with Rachel’s family drama taking centre stage, and it’s not clear why. From the end of the first episode it is hinted that Rachel’s fire starter moment and her potential supernatural powers will be the main focus of the story, especially in relation to the appearance of the crow and Chloe’s bizarre, premonition-like dreams. But episode three seems to drop this entirely even though it could have been used to explain why Rachel and Chloe stayed in Arcadia Bay when they both had the means and the determination to leave.

Rachel Amber – twisted fire starter

Another upsetting moment was the post-credits scene which hints at Chloe desperately trying to get hold of Rachel who is trapped in the Dark Room. This event takes place after Before the Storm, and not only will confuse people who have only played Before the Storm but upset those who have played Life is Strange. Anyone who has already played Life is Strange knows Rachel’s fate, so to remind them of it seems cruel and unnecessary, particularly as Before the Storm had just finished with a happy Chloe/Rachel summer montage. I don’t understand why anyone would think this scene was a good idea, particularly at the end of an episode that didn’t even resolve Rachel’s own supernatural powers storyline.

If you’re a Life is Strange fan debating whether to play this game I would say it is worth it, if you’re prepared to accept that the final episode is a big letdown for the potential that had been built up. I’ve read that many things were cut from the finale including a potential explanation for Rachel’s supernatural powers, which is hugely disappointing if true. That said, this game offers a well-characterised teenage Chloe and her relationship with Rachel is hugely satisfying to finally see. For me, this game is worth playing for their beautifully blossoming story alone and it still offers some wonderful scenes worthy of the Life is Strange universe…even if it sadly loses itself to melodrama towards the end.

 

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Root Letter

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Although I enjoy gaming and anime, I’ve never actually played a visual novel before, so when I first read about Root Letter I was drawn in by its beautiful graphics and that it was a game revolving around penpals. For those who don’t know, a visual novel is essentially an interactive, playable novel with mostly static graphics. They are largely linear with a set storyline and ending, although some can have multiple endings.

In Root Letter you are a 33 year old man who has returned to the Shimane prefecture in the hopes of finding a penpal you used to write to in high school called Aya Fumino. You recall that she stopped writing to you for some reason, and on digging out her old letters to you, you discover one that had been unopened, in which she says she has killed someone. Keen to get to the bottom of the mystery, your quest is to track down the classmates Aya mentioned in her letters to you to get the truth. Luckily they all had distinctive nicknames such as Fatty, Bestie, Shorty, Bitch, Snappy and Four Eyes and Aya’s letters provide clues to their past that help you figure out where they might have ended up.

At the beginning of each chapter of the game you take out one of Aya’s old letters to read, in each one she discusses a different one of her classmates. After reading her letter, you recall your own response and at the end of the letter the game gives you the option to decide what you wrote for part of the letter – the choice you make will affect the ending you get in the final chapter of the game.

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All of Aya’s stationery is totally adorable
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Try your hand at virtual snail mail

Most of the gameplay is you travelling around Shimane to talk to people and pick up items along the way. You can then use this knowledge, and the items to win an “investigation” at the end of the chapter and uncover one of Aya’s classmates. The investigations are the most fun part of the game because you have to say the right thing or use the right evidence in the right order, and if you get it wrong too many times then you have to redo the investigation from the beginning.

During the investigation you can also use “Max mode” (your character’s nickname is Max) to choose from a selection of sayings across a moving meter to get the reaction you need from the person in question. If you pick the wrong answer the person you are talking to will be unimpressed and you have to try again.

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Max mode is one of the more dynamic features of the game

One of the things I really enjoyed about this game is that the Shimane prefecture in the game is heavily based on real life with many of the real locations beautifully rendered in the photo realist style that anime scenery is renowned for. The game itself also fills you in with little titbits of information along the way so if you’re keen to visit Japan it’s a really fun virtual tour.

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Matsue Castle in the game…
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…and Matsue Castle in real life

My expectations for the game would be that it centred heavily on high school age characters, which isn’t the case as you meet the classmates all grown up. The cutesy cover art also duped me into thinking it would be a sweet emotional game. I was surprised that there’s actually a lot of humour and wit. The character you play as, Takayuki, has a really dry, sarcastic sense of humour, which really works well to keep the game engaging and entertaining during the slower moments when you’re just pressing one button repeatedly to move through a lot of dialogue.

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Takayuki is cocky at the best of times

Although Root Letter wasn’t what I expected I really enjoyed this game. The soundtrack has a relaxing, serene quality that complements the stunning landscape art beautifully. The characters usually subvert expectations and make for entertaining and often suspenseful investigation gameplay as they constantly clam up when it comes to Aya, deepening the mystery and creating an increasingly compelling story. The only major downside to this game is that the five alternate endings only come into play in the last chapter of the game, which means that the rest of the game hints at all five endings throughout which can make the gameplay feel a little confusing and nonsensical as it tries to maintain an ambiguous element by mentioning all the different themes. If you’re willing to overlook this you can still enjoy the mystery though.

Root Letter is available now for PS4 and PSVita. You can also buy a special edition of the game which includes an artbook containing the beautiful landscape art featured in the game.

Until Dawn

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Ten teenagers are enjoying a fun getaway at the Washington’s lodge, and decide to play a particularly cruel prank on one of the girls, Hannah. When she runs out into the woods humiliated, her sister Beth goes after her and they go missing. Their distraught brother Josh decides to bring the group back to the lodge a year later in the hopes of healing and reuniting everyone in their grief, but there’s something sinister in the woods…

So begins the interactive horror game Until Dawn. The aim of the game is typical of most horror stories – to make it to the end with as many of your teenagers still alive as possible. Each chapter of the game counts down the remaining hours “until dawn”, when the game will end. You can play as all of the teenagers throughout the game, each with distinct personalities (the jock, the bitchy one, the moral one, the nerd) and differing relationships to each other.

You can monitor how your character's personality and relationships change throughout the game
Your character’s personality and relationships change throughout the game dependent on the choices you make

Until Dawn works as a choice based adventure game. You can decide how your characters should treat each other and how much they should tell each other with each decision. This has a knock-on effect to the kind of relationships they have with each other and their own personalities which creates the long term and sometimes tragic consequences. During the more active game play in which your characters are exploring their surroundings you can also decide whether to run or hide when necessary or which route to take. Sometimes these decisions are timed as your character needs to make a quick decision and you might have as little as five seconds to pick an option that could mean life or death for your character.

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There’s not always an obvious choice in this game

Until Dawn works well as a horror game because it serves up equal parts intellect and quick reflexes. As well as hunting for clues to help you figure out what is going on in the woods and what really happened to Hannah and Beth, you have to think really carefully about the long term effects your choices could have on each teen and everyone’s survival. The game also encourages you to think about turning horror tropes on their head – do you want to befriend nature or destroy it? Should you risk separating from the group? Is it best to kill someone to save someone else? You have to keep your wits about you at all times, so if you enjoy the horror genre you’ll really enjoy being able to make these choices yourself. It’s a refreshing change from just killing monsters as you go along which some of the more traditional horror games offer.

The reflex quick time event moments also work well to really keep you on edge at all times – you never know when one will pop up so you always need to be completely focused. There are plenty of jump scares (and yes, I jumped at all of them) and they can often be followed by a quick time event in which you need to quickly press a button or make a choice to help ensure your character lives to the next chapter. It’s frustrating but also more realistic to the danger the game aims to portray that one wrong decision or missed button press can mean your character’s death just as easily as making poor long term decisions can. The game play also includes moments in which you have to keep the controller as still as possible to keep characters safe which is a lot harder than it sounds when you’re tense with fear, but all adds to the suspense.

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Sensor style gameplay puts the characters’ lives in your hands

Between each chapter are scenes in which a psychiatrist talks to a hidden character in his office. The psychiatrist repeatedly discusses with the hidden character the “game” she/he is playing and the effects it is having, which I thought was a fun little breaking of the fourth wall. The psychiatrist encourages “you” to pick answers for things which scare you the most, and which characters in the game you prefer, which each have small effects on future gameplay (although not on who lives or dies).

Until Dawn is a great game that builds tension well with atmospheric music, dark visuals and jump scares galore. It forces you to live with your choices through auto saves, there’s no way to “redo” a choice without restarting the game, so you have to carry on even when you’re annoyed about making a wrong choice or missing a crucial button press. This makes for a much more compelling and honest horror survival game. Although the characters weren’t always as interesting and sympathetic as they could have been and some of the movement is a little clunky, this is still a definite play for anyone who enjoys choice based games. With so many variants and endings you can easily play it again and again. Just don’t play it on your own in the dark…

Life is Strange

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Square Enix has always excelled at story focused games and Life is Strange is no exception. Max Caulfield is a photography student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. After a bizarre vision, Max discovers she can rewind time. She first uses this ability to save a girl from being shot, a girl who turns out to be her best friend Chloe she’s been estranged from for five years. During their estrangement Chloe has been hanging with another girl called Rachel Amber, but Rachel has gone missing.

The game works as an interactive, open-ended novel. As Max, you travel round the campus and surrounding areas of Arcadia, speaking to classmates and other citizens of the town. The primary goal is to find out what happened to Rachel, but unfolding dramas and events seem to be connected and form a much larger picture which you have to get to the bottom of. Even small choices like whether or not to sign a petition or take a phone call have an impact on the storyline, and every time you make a decision that has consequences you are alerted to this. The game allows you to rewind and change a decision immediately if you don’t like the way its immediate effects play out.

Be careful what you say...it could have consequences
Be careful what you say…it could have consequences

Although the gameplay is not generally dynamic – you walk around, speak to people, interact with objects and rewind time where needed, the story is hugely ambiguous. There are five episodes in total and it becomes clear from episode one that many threads are connected, so speaking to one character about a drama might actually shed some light on another character and give a clearer idea of the overall picture.

The most fascinating aspect of the game is that there are often no clear choices. Unlike Catherine, in which your answers are unambiguous and will move you along on a good/bad scale accordingly, it is not always clear how your actions are going to impact others in the long term. There is no way of knowing how far reaching even a seemingly small action could be. The Chaos Theory is referenced in Life is Strange when Max sees a butterfly at the start of the game and a butterfly will appear in the top left corner whenever a change is made, maintaining the notion of the butterfly effect in that we have no way of knowing how our actions will affect others in the long term.

Life is Strange features a strong host of female characters and the style of the gameplay is very much geared towards those who enjoy social and drama based stories. Issues such as privacy, gun use, drug use, mental health and environmentalism are examined and used to support the game’s message that our actions and decisions often have a much bigger impact on the world around us than we realise. The game also throws in a relationship subplot, giving you the option to make Max lean towards either Warren or Chloe in a romantic way.

I really enjoyed the number of female friendships in this game
Max and Chloe’s relationship forms the core of the game

The indie soundtrack and the soft, dreamy aesthetic help the emotion of the game stand out. Whilst the dialogue can be grating and cheesy, throwing in a heavy dose of how adults seem to think modern teens speak, such as “go fuck your selfie” the voice cast is strong and this is a really enjoyable and interesting choice based game.

Life is Strange is available on multiple platforms now.

Catherine

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A “multi-platformer horror romance” – Catherine sounds like an interesting game already. Our protagonist is one Vincent Brooks, a man in his early thirties working a dull office job and not really finding any direction in life. His long-time girlfriend, the smart and sophisticated Katherine, is beginning to get restless, which isn’t too surprising – the game refers to them having been together around seven years, and they still aren’t living together.

With Katherine pushing for a commitment from Vincent, he isn’t sure which way to turn, even less so when he begins to have strange nightmares which spill over into the real world as he wakes up next to a busty flirty blonde named Catherine he has no recollection of bedding.

The multi-platform levels are certainly fun, with multiple difficulty levels to choose from. There are enough unpredictable elements with ice blocks, bomb blocks, enemies, and a loose sense of a time limit to keep things interesting. You also have a mini boss at the end of each set of levels, with a ghoulish figure that represents Vincent’s primary worry at that stage of the game. These bosses each have slightly different strengths designed to keep you from finishing the level, but some might find levels a bit repetitive all the same.

This game is best for those who love a strong storyline, as the joy comes in choosing which path you want to take – your long time love Katherine, or the seductive and mysterious Catherine. Alongside the multi-platform levels, you can interact with characters during the day in the appropriately named Stray Sheep bar, making choices that will steer the game. These choices are as simple as how you phrase texts to Katherine and Catherine, or what responses you give when speaking to your friends in the bar, which really emphasises the overarching message of the game that even our seemingly small actions are shaping our lives all the time.

If you like a clever, thought provoking game that considers the question when and if we should settle down, with neat classical music touches and quirky anime graphics, Catherine is the game to pick up. If you have the patience to keep battling through the levels you can get all the endings too, including the supernatural twist.