All posts by aetyr

Life Is Strange is a new episodic, story-centric game from Dontnod. You may remember them (heh, sorry!) from their action-adventure debut Remember Me a couple of years ago. Life Is Strange sheds the gritty, digital and futuristic themes of Remember Me in favour of a softer, more natural and nostalgic experience, though there are still parallels to be drawn from both games’ differing takes on memories and finding yourself. The first episode, Chrysalis, is available now as a standalone purchase or as part of the season pass along with the four remaining, as-yet-unreleased parts. In a way this is a review of part of a game, a prologue at least, so I’ll be bearing that in mind when it’s relevant.

At its absolute simplest, this is a story about teenagers at school dealing with heaps of typical teen drama. It’s got pretentious art students, mean girls and dense jocks, turbulent relationships, an overly militant rent-a-cop, a creepy janitor and more. Would you like a side of cliché to go with your tropes? Good, because the main character is just discovering that she has a superpower: she can rewind time, allowing her to change the past and undo any devastating events from the last few minutes from someone getting seriously hurt to answering a question wrong in front of the whole class!

Now, while technically accurate, that basic summary makes the game sound far more crude and shallow than it actually is. In all seriousness, it may be a theme that’s been done countless times, but it’s worth remembering there’s a reason for that: it’s relatable. That’s not to say we all had teenage years like the characters in this kind of story, but that stage of life very much exemplifies and puts under a microscope the underlying feelings of change, uncertainty and adjusting to the future while trying to hold onto the past which we all know in one form or another. It’s a setting which can evoke some kind of past experiences for a lot of people, and good storytellers can utilise it to touch on real and emotive themes which you don’t have to be a teenager to be affected by. Dontnod certainly start to explore some pretty serious ideas in Chrysalis, so hopefully this will expand into some powerful moments later on no matter what age you are.

In fact, I often felt like Life Is Strange is as much targeted at older generations for whom these years of their lives are only memories and photographs as it is at the younger players for whom the subject matter is much more contemporary. That might just be me seeing the game through my own bias, but for a game whose central mechanic is the reversal of time to undo previous actions and try something else it seemed that the Chrysalis episode spent a lot of time looking at things you can’t change. From past conversations had in happier times to people who are no longer around to relationships which have changed from what they used to be, some of the kind of things Chrysalis brings up are those you tend to become far more aware of the older you get. If I were to try and describe the main theme of the first episode of Life Is Strange in one word it would be transition, and from the title of the episode I’m sure that’s what Dontnod were aiming for.

Using a photography student to tell a story about time travel was a fitting choice, as the narrative swiftly points out in the first conversation you hear by mentioning an Alfred Hitchcock quote about capturing little pockets of time on film. The fact that the collectibles in the game are photographs only emphasises that link, especially as almost all of those pictures are of brief, fleeting scenes rather than unchanging landscapes, making them seem even more like frozen moments.

That early Hitchcock reference is the first of many quotes and references on which Chrysalis leans to make its point and invoke the desired feelings of nostalgia and change as you listen to the conversations with the stereotypical “hip teacher” Mr Jefferson or Max’s own internal narrative as you explore the little details sprinkled about the environment. When these hit their mark, I felt they were used really well to flesh out the characters and inject whatever feeling the writers were aiming for. Sometimes though it started to feel like a little too much; there were a few points where it seemed like the references were just there for the sake of it, as if to tick some boxes with a specific target audience. I can see how they were probably intended to help the player get to know the characters’ interests better without having to insert too much text into a mostly audio-visual experience (a design choice which I do agree with for the game), but once or twice it made conversations sound entirely lifted from a written script rather than natural speech, which was a jarring reminder that these are actors reading lines.

Speaking of lines, it’s hard to deny that the story is almost entirely linear. I found plenty of optional conversations to have and minor choices to make along the way, as well as all sorts of items you can interactive with all over the place to learn more about Max and her surroundings, but if you don’t like being hand-held along a preset path at all then the way Life Is Strange guides you from scene to scene with no way to deviate from the map laid out by the writers may grate with you. I’ve got a lot of love for the kind of open-world games which let you explore and get distracted by countless side quests to the point where you forget what the main point actually was, but I still think there’s plenty of room for guided, interactive narrative experiences as well. So even though it’s no Heavy Rain, I wouldn’t say Life Is Strange is hampered by its rails.

The only other criticism I have is actually one I’m not sure is a fair judgement to make at this stage. Having played through Chrysalis twice, once just making whatever choices felt best and once more to see all the opposite options, I didn’t really notice much variation between the outcomes of any of the forks in conversations. The wording of future events changed a little, but the actual events themselves didn’t. I don’t want to mark Life Is Strange down for this based purely on Chrysalis though, bearing in mind the point I made earlier: this is episode one in a five-part story and it’s entirely possible we’re just too early in the plot to see any real deviation. We’re still in the ‘setting the scene’ part of the story where a lot of the groundwork needs to be laid and players need to be introduced to the people and places that are going to be important going forwards, and even in other games which have done multiple endings and deviating story arcs spectacularly well the paths don’t get to fork off as much in the opening chapters as they do later on. In the first couple of episodes I’m willing to give some benefit of the doubt to the writers in that regard in the hopes that once we have the full ‘season’ in our hands this will be a complete non-issue. I’d very much like to be apologising for being wrong about this when I finish episode 5!

The strong emphasis on photography in Life Is Strange spills over to its artistic style, and that works really well at making it feel more like a real story than just a video game. The lighting, effects and textures lend the game a style which is evocative of the instant photos Max loves taking at every opportunity, and every menu and prompt has a handwritten scrapbook feeling to it. The sleepy, autumnal colours bring you right into that nostalgia which I keep finding myself mentioning. They also provide a contrast against a couple of more vibrant, brightly-coloured elements which perhaps hint at the disruptive concept of change looming over the horizon, from the bright blue butterfly which appears the first time Max uses her powers to the blue-haired girl in the same scene. I would be surprised not to see these two opposing colour schemes battling it out more obviously in the later episodes as the cosy, familiar embrace of the Past dukes it out with that ever-uncertain beast we call The Future. Let’s hope that these first uncertain wing-flaps of Max’s own personal Butterfly Effect don’t cause too much of a storm!

As a prologue and an introduction to Life Is Strange as a whole, Chrysalis does rather well; it builds a solid foundation for Dontnod to build future episodes on, giving players a taste of what’s coming in the rest of the story and leaving enough questions unanswered to keep us wanting more. It is very clear that it’s just a beginning though; I find myself very awarr of the amount of times I’ve had to offset possible criticisms against words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘later’ because so much of the overall game remains unseen, so if you’re not sold on it yet it may be worth waiting to see some reviews of thre later episodes before passing judgement. For me at least, episode 2 can’t come soon enough!

Formats Available: Windows, PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360
Format Reviewed: PS4

Tearaway comes from Guildford-based development studio Media Molecule, the same creative minds who brought us LittleBigPlanet, which gives this portable papercraft platformer some pretty big shoes to fill before it even begins. Fortunately though Tearaway light-heartedly crafts its own origami shoes and fills them perfectly well from the first moment you burst forth into its world, maintaining the theme of creativity and imagination which LBP encapsulated so well but spinning it off in its own direction.

You are a You, a strange creature with the ability to look down on the world of Tearaway from the Sun and to reach in and manipulate said world in a number of ways, almost as if the world was some kind of game and you were the player, if you can imagine such a fanciful and unlikely situation! As your mighty visage first appears in the sky and the people below are unsure whether to stare in awe or run in fear a message is written and sealed inside the envelope-shaped head of a Messenger called Iota or Atoi, depending on the gender you select. So begins this little hero’s unerring quest to deliver that message to you all the way up there in the heavens, and considering how much effort he was putting into it I didn’t have the heart to ask why he didn’t just e-mail it rather than try to hand-deliver it to the Sun…

Of course, Iota (as my own little Messenger was called) doesn’t have to take on this collossal feat all by himself; as his You, you will help him on his journey using the myriad abilities granted to you by Media Molecule’s inclusion of every single form of input which the PS Vita has crammed inside its deceptively small form factor. The analogue sticks and some of the face buttons handle their traditional tasks of movement, camera control, jumping and rolling but it’s the other inputs which give Tearaway an immersion-boosting feeling that helps you believe this world really exists inside your handheld and you are quite literally reaching into it and becoming part of its story. Whether you’re swiping the front touchscreen to pull open a door or draw your own decorations to be used in the game, poking the rear touchpad to burst a giant finger through the paper scenery, recording a mighty roar through the microphone for a scarecrow, tilting the Vita to slide obstacles out of Iota’s way, taking pictures of the real world to use as textures for certain characters or simply looking up at the in-game Sun and seeing real-time video of your own face from the front-facing camera staring back at you, Tearaway puts you in the game in a way that few (if any) video games have before it.

In practise a couple of the input types are used much less often than the others. While this sounds disappointing at first, in the end I actually think it works out better that way; in a game which uses so many different and unorthodox types of input it would be easy for some of them to quickly become gimmicky and annoying with overuse. In Tearaway the controls which feel the most natural are the ones which are used the most throughout the game (touchpads, buttons and sticks) while things like taking real-world pictures and recording sounds with the microphone are sprinkled more sparingly throughout the game so they don’t end up feeling too forced.

It’s very easy to give all the credit for Tearaway’s deep sense of immersion to the clever usage of inputs to stimulate real interaction but while that is partly true it does great disservice to just how beautiful the world of Tearaway is. Every inch of the game looks like it has been lovingly drawn, cut, folded and glued into place and the way the papercraft art style consistently permeates every level, character and menu really helps to pull you in. Not to mention the fact that as you play you can unlock papercraft designs which will help you build your own Tearaway characters and items out of real paper, bringing Iota’s world out to you as much as the game itself brings you into that world in the first place. It’s definitely a very cute, vibrant and cheerful style which might not appeal to some players and there are certainly other Vita games which look like they push the Vita’s hardware further and churn out more pixels but Media Molecule has proven once again that they don’t need that level of graphical brute-force to craft a visually stunning environment and an immensely enjoyable experience.

It’s not the longest game ever made; I’d estimate my initial playthrough going straight from start to end took about 7-8 hours without going back for any missed collectibles and it’s looking like I’ll be able to get a couple more hours out of it while I’m chasing 100% completion, but every minute of that time felt fresh and enjoyable unlike some longer games which fill the extra time by retracing steps or grinding for experience. Tearaway keeps you moving forwards all the way to the finish line but also makes it easy to selectively replay levels at any time if you do decide to go back and grab the last few presents, scraps, pieces of confetti, papercraft patterns or ‘extra things to do’ which you didn’t get first time through.

With it’s finely (paper-)crafted world, vibrant art style and inventive input usage, Tearaway is an imaginative, playful game which tells a heart-warming tale about a Messenger, a You and the adventure-filled path between the two. Media Molecule displays an ability to not only blur but almost erase the line between reality and imagination with their attention to detail, inventive use of the hardware and constant focus on creativity. In short, Tearaway is a quintessential Vita game which I’m sure will stand tall and proud as one of the handheld’s best titles for the rest of its lifespan, however long that may be.

Formats Available: PS Vita
Format Reviewed: PS Vita

I’m going to start off with a quick book review  of “The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language” by Mark Forsyth. It’s no fantasy epic or anything like that, but the topic of etymology, the origins and histories of words, is one which has long fascinated me. Back at college I would sometimes sit in the back of my English Lit class ignoring the Penguin Classics the teacher was going on about to read where words came from in the dictionary of etymology (I know, I really was one of the cool kids back then). If you ask me, there are some really interesting stories behind the routes words take from ancient languages like Latin and Greek to modern day English, and The Etymologicon is a journey through the obscure and intricate histories of many of the words and phrases we use in our everyday lives, including the rude ones.

I use the word ‘journey’ to describe this book because you could almost draw a map of the route Mark Forsyth takes the reader on as he navigates from one word to another, each new word somehow related to the one before it. The end result is a series of short, inter-connected linguistic stories which flow well from one chapter to the next. It is a testament to the author’s passion for the subject matter and his writing skill that The Etymologicon doesn’t feel anything like reading a dictionary, instead being more like a broad, continuous story composed of countless smaller tales, helped by regular injections of lexical humour to lighten the tone. I found it surprisingly easy to treat it like the fiction novels I’m more accustomed to reading, and combining that comfortable flow with the short chapter length made it incredibly difficult to put this book down. When the end of one chapter hints towards the contents of the next one and most of those chapters are only a handful of pages long it’s far too easy to convince yourself that you have time for ‘just one more’ each time you reach a chapter break. A few of the ‘links’ tying one chapter to the next felt a little tenuous, but fortunately that didn’t make them any less interesting and it was the only real criticism I have of the book.

If you are the slightest bit curious about how language develops over centuries, which long-forgotten ancient tradition links the Old & New Testaments to male genitalia, why people are increasingly willing to inject themselves with sausage poison, how Vikings in 8th century Yorkshire created one of the 21st century’s most recognisable American brand names and what links psychoanalysis to releasing butterflies then The Etymologicon is a book you need to read.  Though some of the links between one word and the next are a bit of a stretch, the flow never suffers because of it and from the first chapter to the last it remains an easy read and an entertaining stroll through the English language. Mark Forsyth has managed to take a subject which sounds as interesting as reading the dictionary (literally) and produced a very light and readable book, sweetening the underlying linguistic history lessons with plenty of storytelling and humour to make them much easier to digest. The subject itself does mean it’s still not for everyone, but it’s incredibly accessible and  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. No doubt I’ll read it again whenever I fancy a quick refresher course.

Find this book:
Amazon UK
ISBN: 1848313071
ISBN-13: 978-1848313071

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After writing half-drafts of reviews and opinion pieces here for the past few years I’ve finally been convinced to finish some off and actually click Publish. There may be some out-of-date topics at first while I start by polishing off and publishing some of the previous stuff I’ve already written but don’t worry, more modern content will soon follow.

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