Life Is Strange

If you have ever made a choice that you regret, what would you do if you could try that choice again? If you’re a fan of adventure games, you already know the answer: you save before you make any and every choice. But reality doesn’t work that way, and most of us simply live with the consequences of our choices. Then again… what if it did?

Dontnod Entertainment’s second game, Life Is Strange, follows a young woman Max Caulfield as she endures her senior year at a prestigious high school on the Oregon coast. It’s been a month since she came to Blackwell Academy, and already she’s disillusioned with her surroundings; her classmates are hostile, she’s targetted by the local snotty girl posse, and the teacher she most admires seems to be putting way too much pressure on her. For Max, the only bright spots are her photography– the reason she’s at Blackwell– and the thought of reuniting with her friend Chloe, who she hasn’t seen in five years– and hasn’t had the guts to make contact with almost a month into school.

All this changes when Max happens to encounter a butterfly in the ladies’ room one late October day. The butterfly’s arrival coincides with a maniac with a gun shooting someone else in the bathroom… and then Max wakes up in the classroom, minutes before the butterfly’s arrival. She has somehow acquired the means to turn back time in a limited fashion, allowing her to undo choices and re-live moments. This blessing comes with a curse: a premonition of the city being destroyed in a massive tornado in less than a week. And by saving that girl in the bathroom, Max has put herself in the crosshairs of forces she doesn’t yet understand.

Playing out as a very relaxed-pace adventure game in the vein of Telltale Games’ chaptered tales, Life Is Strange‘s first chapter (released this past week on PS4 and Steam) is a short introduction to both the mechanics and world of the game. It probably won’t take more than about an hour or two to play “Chrysalis” to its completion, which is a little disappointing because the storytelling does such a wonderful job of drawing the player in. Between the excellent voice acting, the wonderfully-curated music selections, and the strong scriptwriting, the rather abrupt end will most likely leave you counting the days until the next chapter’s release.

The game does suffer from a few minor flaws, of course. In keeping with the moderate pacing, Max moves maddeningly slowly, and the offered acceleration button doesn’t really give her too much more speed. The game’s Unreal Engine-powered graphics experience texture pop-in and some rather frank ugliness on occasion. And, while Max’s actress does a good job expressing Max’s disaffectedness, it’s sometimes easy to mistake that for a flat tone and wooden acting. Still, these are exceedingly overlookable in the larger picture of the great story being told.

Without a doubt this is going to be a strong contender for awards when 2015 is said and done. More, Life Is Strange is the next evolution of “interactive movies”, a form of game storytelling that had its origins in the old Don Bluth laserdisc games and has been refined, with varying success, ever since. Titles like Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and The Longest Journey have all brought us closer to the ideal posited with the advent of full motion video, and Life Is Strange is simply the next step. As a game, it’s a true breakthrough, simply because of the massive amount of choices being tracked and affecting the story. As a story, it’s enthralling and intriguing that something this well-crafted is being directed by the player in real-time. This game hits fifth gear from the very first moments and is not going to let up anytime soon.

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Hatsune Miku Project Mirai 2 VS New Japan Pro-Wresting VS Our Necessary Viewings of 2014

They crew is back with the first episode of season 4!
The crew talk video games starting with the announcement of Hatsune Miku Project Mirai 2 DX. They then move on with other video games news and commentary. Next then look at New Japan Pro-Wrestling airing on AXS and a little about WWE’s NXT. Lastly the group look back at 2014 and make recommendations on movies and TV that you should watch from 2014!
(Wow, the logo image is such click bait, eh?)

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS

Super Smash Bros. is a game that, quite frankly, was never meant to be. No, I’m not saying its success was unexpected, I’m saying Nintendo deliberately tried to kill the game before it was even first released on the Nintendo 64. HAL Laboratories was trying to reinvent the fighting game genre to work with four players, and originally it wasn’t meant to star Nintendo’s showcase characters. The budget was small, the marketing was nonexistent outside of a very famous commercial, and it was never actually going to leave Japan if it hadn’t been such a smash hit in-country. But here we are, fifteen years later, and the game that broke all the rules about fighting games is breaking all the boundaries it can.

As with the previous three iterations of Super Smash Bros., players select their favorite Nintendo character or one of a handful of third-party guests, then proceed to cast, kick, pummel, or blast their rivals into submission. Damage accumulates on characters, making them less able to resist the extreme knockback effects of Smash attacks as their counters get higher. If a character is thrown too far beyond the boundaries of the screen, they are out; game modes that define victory as the most knockouts or the least falls are available. In addition to the frenetic multiplayer battle mode, the Wii U and 3DS games offer adventure modes and minigames for players to hone their skills in.

This fourth-generation installment of the series is the first to feature on a handheld console, and it was the 3DS version which released first this past October. Featuring the same massive cast of characters as the Wii U version, the 3DS card includes as its adventure mode “Smash Run”. In Smash Run, players are placed in a massive labyrinth filled with both their rivals and a plethora of foes; the fighters have five minutes to roam the maze, defeating the mooks and collecting powerup markers affecting their base stats. At the end of regulation time, a battle against the rival characters ensues, with random rules and/or victory conditions. Smash Run is a fun idea on paper, but the grunt monsters are too well-defended compared to the flimsy defenses of the other fighters. Worse, there’s no way to know in advance or to influence what the rules of the final battle are; this creates situations where you have spent five aggravating minutes maximizing your attack stat at the expense of speed, only for the battle to be a literal footrace.

The Wii U version dispenses with Smash Run in favor of Smash Tour, a board game conceit more reminiscent of Mario Party or Fortune Street than anything prior. Players roam a board collecting character and stat icons, similar to the setup in Smash Run, but when players collide on the board, a brief battle ensues to swap and steal those icons. In the end, players engage in a stock battle with as many lives as they have characters. Again, it’s a great idea in theory, but players have limited control over which characters they can work with at any given moment, and despite the efforts to balance the cast, sometimes you’re gonna get stuck with duds.

But the main draw of Smash Bros. is always the core battle game, and I’m glad to say that there is simply no better fighting game on the market right now. Combining the speed of Super Smash Bros. Melee with the forgiving mechanics of Brawl, the engine in Wii U/3DS is crisp and slick; you never feel like your character is slogging through molasses or that you’re fighting the controls more than your opponents. While the 3DS version is understandably limited to the built-in controller, the Wii U version allows you to use any controller Nintendo had first released in the 21st century. Literally. While the adapter to connect Gamecube controllers is in short supply as of this writing, using more recent controllers such as the Wii Classic Controller Plus or the Wii U Pro Controller is smooth and effortless. Using the Wii U GamePad as a controller was difficult for me, though; I was far more than happy enough to just use one of my classics. And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, the 3DS version can sync to the Wii U to act as a controller on its own. Which is convenient for the 8-player battle mode on the big screen.

Nintendo has done a pretty good job of making the game “future-proof” by promising DLC characters. Mewtwo, the psychic powerhouse Pokemon, is scheduled to be released in early 2015, and is being offered free to owners of both versions. In addition, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the first game to make use of Nintendo’s new Amiibo figures, which were released alongside the game. (Amiibo functionality is scheduled to be patched in to the already-released Mario Kart 8 early next year as well.) Amiibo are, for lack of any better description, Skylander figures with Nintendo skins. Using the GamePad’s built-in NFC sensor, the figures store artificial intelligence data for the characters they represent, making them capable of learning from human and computer opponents. At Level 1, Amiibo figures are little more than ambulatory targets; by Level 15 they start becoming consistently able to read your moves and challenging your personal style; when they reach their cap of Level 50 they can rival top tournament players. The figures are well-sculpted and gorgeously painted, but the implementation of the system leaves a little bit to be desired. Amiibo level up too quickly, making them frustrating opponents in too short order. There’s no tweaking of the AI possible, meaning that if it learns a bad habit, the only way to retrain it is constant battling. Worse still, the figures’ main selling point– that they can be used across several games– is slightly not as advertised; an Amiibo can only be formatted for one title at a time. While this works well for figures that aren’t in multiple games, such as Marth or Mega Man, some of the more familiar faces like Mario and Peach can’t fight and drive at the same time. In the end, the Amiibo feature is an afterthought in contrast to the extremely well-developed customization of existing characters and Mii Fighters.

It should also be noted that the Amiibo features will be patched in to the 3DS version as well. Why aren’t they there already? Well, ask yourself this: why would Amiibo be added to a system that doesn’t have an NFC sensor? The answer is also why the 3DS version has an aggravatingly long initial loading time: it was programmed with Nintendo’s New 3DS system in mind, which launched in Japan alongside the 3DS version in October. North America and Europe did not get the New 3DS in 2014, and as of this writing Nintendo has not announced a release date for the rest of the world. Presumably the silence was meant to avoid gutting sales of 3DSes and 2DSes, particularly with the one-two punch of Smash and Pokemon hitting this holiday season, but it is still infuriating.

Honestly, though, even with the somewhat quirky nature of the minigames and unlock schemes, at the end of the day this is quite simply the biggest reason to own a Wii U. It’s also a damn compelling reason to get your 3DS warmed up again. Focusing on what Smash does best– fast-paced battles with a horde of your childhood heroes– has made these titles must-owns, and while the extra content such as trophies and Home Run Derby is nice to have, it doesn’t detract at all from the just-about-perfect main game. This game is one that hits Fifth Gear and doesn’t let up.

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire

Fall is definitely a time when I think about Pokémon, primarily because most of the games in that venerable series have been released in the autumnal months. As leaves pile up around me I’ll usually be found on a bench, enjoying the chilly breezes and heated battling, collecting, and training. With the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the long-desired remakes of the third-generation core titles, the rite of fall continues.

Note: While this review is taken from gameplay of Alpha Sapphire only, it will use the acronym ORAS to refer to the game, as most of the features mentioned will be applicable to both titles in the set. Anything specific to Alpha Sapphire will be mentioned as such.

Taking place in the archipelago region of Hoenn, ORAS brings the player back to the gorgeously-rendered 3-D world first glimpsed during X and Y. The story is true to the original, with the player– choosing either Brendan or May as their avatar through the game– traveling the region, battling wild Pokémon, performing errands for adults that they happen across, and along the way saving the world from the machinations of Team Aqua and/or Team Magma. Like the originals and also like X/Y, the story is subtly different between the two versions in order to accommodate the myth arc surrounding the generational mascots, Kyogre and Groudon, as well as to introduce a new chapter revolving around Emerald’s mascot Rayquaza and the generation’s most enduring of its hidden Legendaries, the cosmic Deoxys. However, if you’ve played through Ruby or Sapphire before, you know what to expect, both in a general sense and in some of the specifics.

The Pokémon Company’s general modus operandi when creating a game remake is in full effect here: there are only mild upgrades to the layouts of the routes and trainers along them, in order to maintain a verisimilitude between the old and the new. However, visually and musically, the game is as much a leap forward as the GBA series were to the first and second-generation titles. While it retains the graphical engine of the Kalos-region set from last year, that’s not a bad thing at all– it actually improves upon it by eliminating a good deal of the frame rate drops and other annoyances that plagued X/Y. The improved sound hardware of the 3DS also means that the big, brassy soundtrack of the games comes through in its full orchestral glory. Yes, Vileplume-ginia, there are horns. ORAS also returns to using the touch screen as a strong tool for capturing Pokémon and tracking friends’ synced data relatively unobtrusively; the PSS, Super Training, and Pokémon-Amie apps are now augmented by an area map, PokéRadar-like tool, and Trainer’s Eyes-like news channel. Finally, Pokémon Contests return, allowing players to pit their Pokémon against others in a non-combat competition of style and spirit. With them come also the vast and time-consuming Berry system and Pokeblock creation, which fortunately has been simplified greatly from its original minigame roots.

However, in the process of fixing things, some things that were never broken to begin with got rearranged. All of the cities are redesigned to utilize the new engine’s capabilities, and unfortunately this makes things harder than they should be due to the closeness of the camera (which can’t be adjusted). It can be difficult to tell at first glance what the city has to offer, even considering the now-standard practice of coloring the Pokémon Center, shop, and gym roofs. What’s worse, the solution to this is shown in the first city– examining the town’s name placard shifts the camera to a bird’s eye view of the whole town– and then never utilized again. It took me several tries to wrack my brains around the concept that there was no gym in Verdanturf, and by then I was getting impatient to advance the story and activate new features.

Unlike the refinements between Pokemon Platinum and HeartGold/SoulSilver, some of ORAS feel like a step backwards. While the battle engine is virtually identical to that of X/Y– again, why mess with a good thing– some of the ancillary features such as clothing changes and riding Pokémon are missing. Worse still, the game actually introduces incompatibilities with X/Y that TPC and Game Freak have already said are intentional and will not be patched into the older games. This includes certain new Mega Evolutions and new moves. Despite Kalos’ wide-open spaces and relative freedom to explore, Hoenn feels cramped and rushed in comparison; this may be a concession to the fact that the Gen 3 games still had an over-reliance on HM moves and Gym Badge progress gating, rather than the more natural feel of Kalos’ gating or even Unova’s (as of Black2/White2). Though take heart, hydrophobes, certain Pokémon used for surfing will move faster; and using Latias or Latios to soar through the region is much more expedient than the traditional Fly HM.

As the series starts to wind up its second decade, at this point it’s extremely hard to judge a Pokémon game as anything other than its own thing in and of itself. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire neatly sum up the difference between something being formulaic and something being generic: a formula allows the developer, and the player, to work within a known and accepted structure to produce new and exciting experiences, while genericness is a failure to do anything new with the formula, and commodifies the thing which it is trying to express. ORAS are, like X and Y before them, formulaic to a T; and for the most part, that’s not a bad thing. If you like the established and almost inflexible formula of “get starter, collect badges, save world, battle rival”, most every Pokemon game will be for you. If, however, you’re weary of the same game being incrementally improved upon year after year, ORAS will likely not spur a rebirth of interest in the franchise.

Where things get weird is that, honestly, ORAS is an implementation of the formula as it stood ten years ago. For a game series that justifies its continued reflection on the past through incessant reimplementation and refinement, ORAS feels like a throwback trading largely on nostalgia mixed with sensory flair. For those who first threw a Pokéball in Hoenn, this game is a must-own as it returns those players “home”. For those who didn’t, however, it’s hard to say whether this is the beginning of a new respect for the region– or merely the beginning of the end for their habit of buying each new core game.

Overall, though, I have to place the games in Fourth Gear (out of six), because they are still solid games, just not solid Pokémon games. It remains to be seen at the moment where the series is headed, but if Nintendo and Game Freak keep up their pattern of annual releases, this January we should see just how long we’ll be staying in the land of too much water.