Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “October, 2015”

Life is Strange for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

Life is Strange is the second game from Dontnod, who made the intriguing but ultimately lackluster Remember Me. Life is Strange is a much greater success, blending Telltale style gameplay and storytelling with a nifty little time travel mechanic. Although there are multiple issues in the presentation and some clunky writing, Life is Strange ultimately emerges as a massive success, offering an experience which had me emotionally hooked from beginning to end.

Max Caulfield is a shy teenager who has returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay after having moved away with her family several years before. She has enrolled at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, where she is pursuing her passion for photography. One day in her class, she has a vision of a massive tornado destroying Arcadia Bay and soon stumbles into the girls bathroom, where she sees her childhood best friend Chloe shot and killed by Nathan Prescott, the son of a powerful local family. In her distress, she discovers the ability to rewind time and saves Chloe from her death. Taking place over five days, Life is Strange tells the story of Max and Chloe discovering a dark secret at the heart of Arcadia Bay, all whilst the storm looms in the horizon.

The immediate impression that Life is Strange gives is of a self consciously ‘indie movie’ aesthetic. It can all be a bit much at first and the fairly cringe worthy attempts at ‘teen’ dialogue don’t help. I’m fairly sure nobody has ever described anything as ‘hella’ something. The soundtrack, the tone, everything about it initially grated, but at some point everything clicked. I’m not sure where, but it did. It stopped trying so hard to be an quirky indie movie and became its own thing; I like that ‘hella’ is now used fondly by the Life is Strange fan community. The real success of Life is Strange lies in its characters, moreso than its plot. Chloe is the absolute star of the show, vibrant and dangerous and never quite possible to pin down, but Max is a compelling and likable protagonist. Almost every character conceals depths which will be explored later on and unlike many other games of this type your choices really do matter. By the end, I cared about Chloe and Max as much as I cared about Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead, which is no easy feat.

Although the time travel mechanic adds some basic puzzles, Life is Strange is still a mostly narrative driven affair. You’ll be walking around, talking to people and making decisions which ripple down the series. There are several much more open areas than we have become used to seeing in Telltale games and a lot of the little interactions which make Life is Strange special are skippable. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to as I became rather attached to this circle of teenagers and the wider Arcadia Bay community and wanted to talk to them as much as I can. You can, at most points, rewind time with a press of a button which is used in some puzzles and sometimes to improve the outcomes of conversations, now armed with more information from the get go. It’s not particularly deep or anything, but it adds a very nice twist to the narrative which works well. Interestingly, after most major decisions you get the option to rewind and change your mind, meaning that you often get to see the immediate fallout whilst the long term ramifications remain clouded. These lead to some extraordinarily tense moments where the short term result is very bad and you have to make a decision whether to stick with your gut and flip in the knowledge that everything could get even worse in the other timeline. Where Telltale games are based around blind luck half the time, Life is Strange gives the player more agency.

The voice acting in Life is Strange is flawless, with a wide range of characters feeling broad enough to be defined without resorting to simple stereotypes. The music selection is lovely as well; I initially found the twee indie burblings a bit grating, but the music choices become more story appropriate as the game moves on, with some nice Amanda Palmer being my personal highlight. The biggest drawback of Life is Strange is its visual presentation. Although the environments look absolutely lovely, with some particularly beautiful lighting effects, the character models are horrible. Everyone looks like they’ve been molded from plastic with rigid, unexpressive facial movements. The lip synching is…well, non existant. There is seemingly no connection between the words they say and the movement of their mouths, which is more than a little off putting. It is a testament to the quality of the writing and voice acting that the game manages to rise above these issues; these problems could have sunk a lesser experience. If Dontnod make another game in this style, and I sincerely hope they do, working on the character modeling and lip synching must be their top priority.

Life is Strange is the kind of game which latches into your head, refusing to be shaken out. If you’ve enjoyed Telltale games in the past, give Life is Strange a go. Dontnod put their own spin on a now familiar formula to create a truly special experience.

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Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection for PS4

I had been hoping this would come from the day I bought a PS4; the Uncharted franchise always appealed to me but I never had a PS3 so never got a chance. I now see what all the fuss was about, although the experience felt slightly hampered by having been, in my opinion, outdone by other games which have been influenced by this series, most notably the Tomb Raider reboot.

The Uncharted series follows Nathan Drake, a rougish Indiana Jones-esque figure who claims to be the long lost descendent of the legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake. All three games concern mythical lost cities, with the first game Drake’s Fortune relating to the El Dorado, the City of Gold. The second game, Among Thieves, is a tale of betrayal set against the hunt for Shangri-La. Drake’s Deception, number three, is a personal tale which delves into Drake’s core motivations in the hunt for the lost desert city of Ubar, known as the Atlantis of the Desert.

The storytelling in the Uncharted series has been widely praised and I can see why. The voice acting is good and the characters fairly vivid if not exactly complex. All of the characters seem like film characters rather than game characters, but I think that pretentions towards being ‘cinematic’ can sometimes obscure lackluster storytelling. Perhaps it is a side effect of playing all three back to back in this collection, but I found them all quite similar towards the end. Pretty much identical story beats occur in each one and the ‘lost city hiding a terrible secret’ got a pass from me in Among Thieves but had me rolling my eyes with Drake’s Deception. Nathan Drake is a likable protagonist but I don’t think he really gets beyond that; he has frequently been compared to Indiana Jones but he never approaches the quality of that character. That’s not to say that the stories for the Uncharted games are bad, but they never approach the quality of Naughty Dog’s later The Last of Us.

The Uncharted games are a hybrid of Prince of Persia-style platforming and third person cover based shooting. You’ll spend most of the game climbing around walls and shooting foes from cover and two thirds of the time it works really well. There is a massive jump in quality between Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves which is then maintained until Drake’s Deception. It never fails to shock me how quickly games age and Drake’s Fortune is something of a slog. The setpieces are underwhelming and the combat involves unsatisfyingly gunning down wave after wave of identical foes ending in an abysmal boss encounter. I’m sure that this game was more impressive when first released, but playing it initially in 2015 even an extra PS4 lick of paint can’t save it. Thankfully, Among Thieves is an improvement in pretty much every way and a significantly better experience. The combat actually becomes fun and the set pieces begin to get more and more ridiculous. Across Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception many of the set pieces genuinely had me on the edge of my seat, with thrilling platforming sections and combat encounters.

Despite having a few extra bells and whistles in number three, I think that the second Uncharted game, Among Thieves, stood as the best. It hits the sweet spot between ‘gamey’ and ‘cinematic’. Drake’s Fortune is too videogame-y, with a terrible turret section and arbitrary wave after wave of enemy. The gameplay got in the way of its cinematic ambitions, but Drake’s Deception goes a little bit too far the other way. The camera is wrestled away from you far more in Drake’s Deception to give things a more cinematic bent and I found myself missing the sweet middle ground of Among Thieves, which also has the strongest plot.

Drake’s Fortune aside, the games do look bloody lovely. Recently a gaming site mistook Uncharted 2 for Uncharted 4 at a trade show and while that’s a pretty significant oversight, you can see why it could happen. Running at 60FPS these games look incredible, with fluid animations and a sense of chaos and immersion. It goes to show what a difference frame rate makes; I would argue that these PS3 games put up to 60FPS look better than most PS4 games running at 30. The voice acting is very good and generally elevates the story beyond what it probably deserves; Nolan North deserves particular praise as Drake, although I also really liked his sardonic and somewhat grizzled sidekick Sully.

I bought The Nathan Drake collection to find out what all the fuss was about and by and large I did. Elements of these games have dated already and I’m not sure how I’d feel about paying full price for just one of them when Uncharted 4 comes out next year, but all said I enjoyed them. They’re popcorn games to enjoy between meatier experiences and that’s ok.

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is something of an oxymoron; he is generally respected in literary circles and has achieved significant mainstream success, yet he seems to delight in crossover and references between his works like he’s Stephen King or Kevin Feige. It’s a difficult balance to pull off and I don’t know if many people could do it, but Mitchell manages it with aplomb. As good as his last couple of books were, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, they didn’t aim for the same lofty ambition of Cloud Atlas; until The Bone Clocks that is.

As with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks is split into several chunks following different characters telling different stories. The links between the stories of those books were largely thematic, but in The Bone Clocks each genuinely does feel like the chapter of a larger story. The protagonist of that story is Holly Sykes, our first narrator who runs away at the age of 15 in the early 1980s. She also narrates the final section and in between we are given stories from people whose lives intersect with hers. We have Hugo Lamb who Mitchell superfans will remember as the sadistic cousin of Jason in Black Swan Green and his selfish climb to the top. Next is Ed, a journalist covering the early years following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Crispin Hershey follows, a Martin Amis esque fellow a few years past his prime. Eventually we come to Marinus, an Atemporal being who has reincarnated dozens of times, last seen as a gruff botanist on Dejima in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and now living as a doctor. All of these figures have a part to play in a grand struggle between good and evil, although the fundamental inability for humanity to learn from its mistakes causes greater suffering than any conscious malevolence.

The Bone Clocks is a sequel or sorts to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as well as a prequel to the ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ section of Cloud Atlas. Immortality has been a preoccupation of Mitchell’s for a while and The Bone Clocks jumps head first into it, with a whole thought our lore and process governing the different ways immortality can be achieved. We saw the beginning of this in the monstrous Abbot Enomoto in Jacob de Zoet and Mitchell develops the concept here. Mitchell’s style has tended more towards the realm of magic realism rather than fantasy, but Mitchell has finally committed to the genre. The result isn’t perfect; being relatively new to the genre Mitchell makes a couple of rookie mistakes. One is too much jargon, much of which is at best forgettable and at worst just plain silly. The second is an over reliance on exposition to explain what is going on rather than letting the story get there organically. This is far from a deal breaker though with the fantasy elements intertwined with the science fiction and normality very nicely. Mitchell is excellent at taking the relatively mundane and making it thrilling and entertaining; just look at Black Swan Green. 70% of The Bone Clocks isn’t about an ancient war between two feuding factions of immortals, instead focusing on more grounded and relatable exploits and it all manages to be equally interesting. The inner bitterness and pettiness of Crispin Hershey gripped me as much as the fantastical stuff and neither undermines the other. The Bone Clocks isn’t as perfectly put together as Cloud Atlas and is certainly much rougher round the edges, but for something so ambitious to succeed as much as it does is truly triumphant.

Mitchell’s dialogue and general prose is as excellent as ever, with a highlight being a nice little repeat of his Nagasaki descriptive rhyming technique seen in Jacob de Zoet, this time used to describe a bustling Cambridge bar. Mitchell is a literary polymath, seemingly able to leap into any genre comfortably. Mitchell balances lyrical beauty and literary flairs with compulsive readability; I would argue that this is one of the most important skills that a writer can demonstrate.

The characters of The Bone Clocks aren’t necessarily as vivid as those of Cloud Atlas, but that is because unlike Cloud Atlas there is a central protagonist holding the story together; the wonderful Holly Sykes. We follow Holly for pretty much her entire life and Mitchell manages to capture the perfect voice for every age. The teenage Holly we see at the beginning is probably the best though, being a genuinely flawed and believably teenager rather than the extreme monsters or geniuses we often see. Crispin Hershey is a great character as well and Hugo Lamb matures well from his cameo introduction in Black Swan Green. The one slight disappointment is Marinus, who never particularly comes alive in her current form than he did as the doctor on Dejima in Jacob de Zoet (pronouns are hard). She exists in The Bone Clocks mostly to support Holly, but I’d have loved to have seen more of her. The glimpses of her past lives we get in The Bone Clocks made me want much more.

The Bone Clocks is Mitchell at his baffling best and the kind of novel that I’ve been desperate for him to return to. There are some elements which don’t quite work as well as others but the grand ambition of it all holds the experience together. There really is no other writer out there quite like Mitchell.

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Tearaway Unfolded for PS4

I’ve long been curious about the PS Vita; it has some really interesting looking games in its library and a fiercely devoted fanbase. Sadly, I already have one underdog console I love irrationality despite a dearth of games; Wii U. Thankfully, Sony seem to have read the writing on the wall and seem in the process of porting most of the best looking exclusives over to PS4. This must be a bit galling for the Vita owners and I sympathise, but for me, it’s great!

In Tearaway you can choose to play as the male Iota or the female Atoi, a letter made sentient and given limbs that must be delivered to the player. You must make your way to rift in the sky, a rift to our ‘real’ world while You manipulate the world to help your protagonist make their journey as a godlike figure from the rift. The actual narrative itself in Tearaway is likeable, but the way that it brings the player themselves in as a figure is really interesting. It’s all very meta and interesting and succeeds in making you feel more personally involved in all the whimsical silliness going on.

I normally don’t talk about visuals until the end of a review, but the visual style is so tied into the core mechanics of Tearaway that I can’t avoid it. The world of Tearaway is based almost entirely on papercraft and this ties into the core mechanics in a way more profound than the similar concept Paper Mario series. It looks lovely, with a massive variety which ranges from colourful and lively to genuinely spooky and striking. The attention to detail is astonishing, with simple things like the way your character moves becoming a joy to behold. The music is very nice too, with a strong Celtic influence featuring lots of violin. There are two voiced roles who do a good job narrating the plot. All tied around a lovely 60FPS framerate, Tearaway is a feast for the senses.

Tearaway Unfolded instantly appealed to me because it’s a colourful 3D platformer, a neglected genre which first brought me into gaming. The core jumping and running mechanics aren’t really the best and can’t compete with the precision of a 3D Mario game, but that doesn’t end up being the focus. Tearaway Unfolded feels like a really good console launch game, in that it uses pretty much every bit of functionality that the PS4 controller has. You’ll be swiping the touchpad to create gusts of wind, tilting it to move things around and shining a light from it onto the world. Yes, these are gimmicks, but they are actually used for some pretty clever tricks. Unlike a lot of games like this where you simply get a new trick for a level and mostly abandon the old ones, Tearaway crescendos as you end up using pretty much every mechanic in the final sections, making things complicated but never convoluted. This being a 3D platformer there are the expected camera issues, which wound up being my biggest irritation. It’s not a deal breaker or anything, but it doesn’t always work as well as it should. Precise jumping is tricky too and Tearaway is at its best where it focuses on its unique gimmicks rather than clever platforming. There is a combat system, but it’s not particularly fun or challenging and I almost always wanted it to be over.

Although obviously not so much so as LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway Unfolded is a love letter to creativity. You’ll frequently be asked to draw new things to put on to the environment, which I’m sure worked well on the Vita’s touch screen but really doesn’t on the PS4 touchpad. It’s a nice touch and I’m such a crap artist it makes little difference, but I imagine that if you take pride in your artwork this may be an irritation. Your creations pop up regularly and it’s nice to feel that you’ve put your stamp on the world. Tearaway is very concerned with making your experience feel personal and while I suspect that most of this personalisation is an illusion it is a convincing feeling one.

Tearaway Unfolded lacks the simple purity of other 3D platformers, but it makes up for it in imagination and engaging gimmickry. Tearaway bamboozles you with charm and ideas and it’s easy to let yourself get carried along for the ride; it’s not the deepest or most fulfilling experience and I doubt I’ll be thinking about it for weeks afterwards, but as a light gaming snack it cannot be faulted.

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The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

So…this is it. The final Discworld book. I first read The Colour of Magic when I was about 12 and devoured the rest of the series in the year that followed. I’ve known since then that every year or so I’d get a new Discworld book to read and I’ve always looked forward to it. I still can’t quite believe that we won’t be getting a new Discworld book in 2016 or ever. There aren’t many series which can extend to over 40 books and still not quite feel finished. Thankfully, The Shepherd’s Crown is an excellent way to cap off a truly legendary writing career. Reading this book, part of Pratchett must have known that this would be his last.

Tiffany Aching has, despite her youth, become one of the most respected witches on the Disc. Already run ragged tending to the Chalk an unexpected tragedy leads to her workload increasing even further as she prepares to step into a role she feels barely prepared for. Meanwhile, a power shift in Fairyland leads to the return of the elves, posing a threat to the Chalk, Lancre and ultimately, the Disc.

The Shepherd’s Crown is one of Pratchett’s gentler novels, with the core threat of the elves remaining rather restrained for much of the book. This novel is mostly a reflection on the virtue of caring, of empathy and kindness. Pratchett has been cynical at times, but not in The Shepherd’s Crown which reflects an unshakable belief in the essential goodness of human nature. This isn’t his funniest book, but I don’t think it’s aiming to be. It is wonderful that Pratchett’s life ended with his belief in humanity unshaken, perhaps even reaffirmed. Death is a major theme in this book and there are several devastating passages which are impossible to read without considering Sir Terry himself and I must admit that I got more than a little teary eyed throughout.

The prose in The Shepherd’s Crown is more focused than it was in Raising Steam, the Discworld book immediately preceding this one. That book felt slightly scattershot, but that isn’t the case in The Shepherd’s Crown which feels leisurely and relaxed. Apparently this book was unfinished, but you wouldn’t know it. Those who want Pratchett at his most caustic may be disappointed, but The Shepherd’s Crown is a much nicer note to end on.

Tiffany has come into her own as a character, but the real treat is seeing pretty much every witch character from previous books pop back to make an appearance. Granny Weatherwax is indomitable, Nanny Ogg is hedonistic and wise and Magrat Garlic has become the powerful and respect Queen of Lancre. There are a few cameos from other characters which are nice and although this isn’t the final blowout crossover event I always imagined the Discworld series would end with what we have is enough to keep us satisfied.

The Shepherd’s Crown isn’t the best Discworld book, but it’s one of the kindest. This is a peaceful, calm conclusion to the series that I never knew I wanted. Sir Terry, I read 41 of your Discworld books and I would have happily read 41 more. I’m grateful for what we have however; one of the most incredible works not just in the fantasy canon, but in the history of English literature.

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