By Anthony L. Cuaycong
IT’s a testament to the critical and commercial success of Life is Strange that Dontnod Entertainment had already begun work on a sequel even as its final episode was just being released. When the French developer confirmed the piece of news in January 2016, sales had already reached the three-million mark and physical copies were already making their way to store shelves. Episodic adventure games weren’t new to the industry, and yet it managed to present a choice-driven, coming-of-age narrative that transcended the genre. And, understandably, it wanted to build on its singular achievement.
Parenthetically, it was no surprise to find Dontnod leaning on the same group that produced Life is Strange for the next title in the series. Directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet were again tapped to lead the effort, backstopped by writers Christian Divine and Jean-Luc Cano, voice director Phil Bache, producer Luc Baghadoust, and composer Jonathan Morali. From the outset, however, it made clear its intent to come up with an altogether new story for the sequel, featuring new characters, new locations, new milieus, and, yes, new dilemmas.
The result, released two and three-quarters years later, is nothing short of remarkable. Considering that only the first episode has been made available, it may well be premature to say Life is Strange 2 is better and more polished. Yet, if Roads is any indication, it’s well on its way to earning its status as a superior sibling. It certainly runs and thrives with concepts and frameworks established by such disparate wordsmiths as John Steinbeck and Jon Krakauer, showing the good and bad sides of the United States while its protagonists travel across the country.
Life is Strange 2 has players in control of Mexican-American high-school teen Sean Diaz. With nine-year-old brother Daniel, he goes on the run from the authorities following an unfortunate development that disrupts their otherwise uneventful lives in suburban Seattle. En route to Mexico with no money and armed only with supplies from the backpack they’re carrying, they experience bigotry and racism, politics and violence (and not always of the physical kind), and a hint of the supernatural. The circumstances they find themselves in inform their relationship, with the elder sibling’s choices — even the seemingly small ones — firming up the younger’s moral code and affecting the direction of the narrative.
As with the original, Life is Strange 2 compels players to make hard decisions, and how they act determines the course of the game. And because nothing is presented in black and white, there is no right or wrong choice. Then again, there are consequences, and the gravity of the effects are certain to be felt moving forward. Sean is faced with having to protect Daniel by the means at his disposal, but at the same time needs to weigh the demands of expediency with their long-term repercussions on an impressionable companion.
In terms of actual length of play, the first episode of Life is Strange 2 is short; Roads won’t take players five hours to finish. Then again, the sure-footed manner with which Dontnod lays it out may well have them playing it anew, or, at the very least, appreciating their experience. Often, the turns in the story will give them pause and make them wonder if things would have been the same had they done something else or gone another way earlier. And if they’re left to their thoughts in the end, looking back wistfully and ahead impatiently, it’s because the game succeeded in moving them.
Certainly, much of Life is Strange 2’s capacity to immerse players in its world can be traced to Dontnod’s painstaking care in making visual and aural cues as realistic as possible. Settings are extremely detailed, and the smoothness of the character animations complement the excellent voice acting. The soundtrack is spot-on, with background music and ambient noise appropriately enhancing the mood at the moment. That said, the taut script and dialogue add the most weight; taking in the plot as it unfolds, players simply cannot help but be caught up in Sean and Daniel’s travails, and, in so doing, reflect on their own.
If there’s any negative to Life is Strange 2, it’s that the second segment cannot come soon enough. Even as Roads possesses high review and replay value, its very excellence figures to make waiting for Episode 2 seem interminable. The original appears to have already been surpassed, with the best yet to come.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PlayStation 4) — It’s surprising to think that Lara Croft, one of the most iconic videogame badasses ever, could have almost been relegated to the dustbins of history. While Eidos Interactive’s Tomb Raider in 1996 catapulted her to stardom, her subsequent appearances were met with mixed reception. After a decade and a half of ups and downs that included a change in developers, the series suffered from waning public interest, and she was effectively put on hiatus.
Thankfully, Square Enix’s 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise — via the release of, well, Tomb Raider — was a success, and its 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, was met with similar praise. Critics hailed their stories, dramatic set pieces, and stunning mix of action, adventure, and exploration. And Shadow of the Tomb Raider, last month’s followup on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Personal Computer platforms, looks to provide much of the same.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider finds Croft exploring ancient ruins and vast jungles in Mesoamerica and South America, all in an effort to recover an important artifact stolen by Trinity, a shadowy paramilitary organization bent on triggering a new world order. Amidst the backdrop of apocalyptic disasters, Lara navigates through tombs, avoids deadly traps, hunts animals, and crafts outfits and upgrades for her equipment. Along the way, she relies on her guns, trusty knife, climbing axe, and bow to solve the various environmental puzzles and overcome the many obstacles that bar her path.
As you might expect from a Square Enix game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks absolutely gorgeous. Stunning visuals interlaced with amazing, lifelike cutscenes is Square Enix’s forte, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider does not disappoint in this aspect. While some texture pop-ins may occur from time to time, the overall visual fidelity is stunning, and there’s never any point where the game appears ugly.
Everything in Shadow of the Tomb Raider — from Lara herself to the enemies she faces to the environments she traverses — just looks great. The forested areas are brightly lit, vibrant with life and color, while the tombs and crypts are dark and musty with age and dust. Even the odd open-area hubs are forgivable in their appearance; filled with friendly non-playable characters, these are where she accepts side quests from and explores around in for secrets and supplies at leisure.
Yes. Open-area hubs. While a vast majority of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s gameplay should be familiar to series regulars, the appearance of merchants and introduction of side quests make exploration more appealing. Items found in tombs are no longer just collectibles, but actually add to Lara’s ever-growing inventory of toys to play with. As a result, progression seems fluid and natural. Gold, found in the unlikeliest of places, can be used to purchase guns, ammunition, and extra upgrades. Things like leather and wood can be used to upgrade her bow or repair outfits that give passive boosts to her performance. Exploring optional tombs gives the player better rewards as well, be they in the form of money, items, or experience for skill points. All in all, they serve as wonderful incentives to keep moving forward and search for hidden items and pathways seemingly just out of reach.
Players will quickly move from area to area, hunting, fighting, and swimming their way through the story with little difficulty. Exploration is key in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and long segments of the campaign have Lara trudging through the forest, alone in the wilderness with nothing but the animals around her for company. Combat sections are placed now and then, though these sequences occur less frequently compared to previous titles, and most of the fighting is purely optional as stealth kills are still available.
The tomb-raiding part of Tomb Raider is still ever present, relying on players’ wits to avoid traps and fast reactions to maneuver through scripted sequences that result in instant death. These are fun, though, sadly, most are locked behind story progression, requiring tools that can be accessed only later in the game. Thankfully, fast travel between areas does exist, making back-tracking an ultimately forgivable annoyance.
All of these things blend together wonderfully in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It delivers pretty much everything it has set out to do. It’s a very polished but safe title, playing very well and very smoothly, and content to present what the series has already done so before. Efforts to make itself stand out are evident in its progression system and its pacing, but, all told, it provides exactly what it is expected to.
Fans who love the Tomb Raider series will no doubt find themselves spending hours upon hours in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. With a keener focus on exploration and survival, it hits the right notes, and well. (8.5/10)