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PC

Choices, choices: A Look Back on Life is Strange

It’s often said we are defined by our choices, and no other game does this more effectively than Life is Strange. In Life is Strange, you don’t actually play the game. The game plays you, toying with your emotions, making you second-guess yourself with every choice you made. But ultimately, the game isn’t even about choice, but rather the impeccable story-telling and character development driven by the choices you make.

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This simple game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix vividly and eloquently capture the perspective of a coming-of-age teenager who discovers she can rewind time. While other games use a unique element like this as a springboard to blast through a different world, Life is Strange keeps it grounded. As we play the game, we see Max, the lead character, prioritizing her relationships to her friends than the premonition of a hurricane bent on destroying Arcadia Bay.

 

Turning Back Time

 

Max rewinds time, but sometimes at a cost.
Max rewinds time, but sometimes at a cost.

 

Life is Strange’s unique fantasy aspect is Max’s ability to reverse time. But even this ability has limitations. The game only allows time-reversal up to a certain extent, and only on certain situations, indicating a branching of possible outcomes.

The game also uses time-reversal to solve simple puzzles. From guessing games to reaching for a screwdriver on top of a refrigerator, it allows you to ‘brute force’ solving these puzzles. Granted it’s nowhere near Portal-level difficulty, but it’s entertaining at best.

The best usage of this time-reversal mechanic is how it helps shape Max’s identity and character. As Max is self-aware, we see the dilemmas she face and values she holds as she second-guess herself (acting as audio cues for the player should they want to revert their choice).

 

Character Development

 

Do we mock Victoria, or show some empathy?
Do we mock Victoria, or show some empathy?

 

That said, one thing I like about the characterization of Max is that the developers did not simply give us a caricature of a heroine. The game allows us not simply to affect the outcome of events, but also how Max’s character changes throughout the game. And while there are some scenes or outcomes that are unavoidable (as all games have some limitation), how Max arrives at that seems more important than the outcome itself.

Max’s reactions are also very relate-able. They aren’t over-the-top, they aren’t flat or dull. It’s almost like watching a well-crafted movie. While there are other games where it feels more like a movie than a game (Beyond: Two Souls), this game doesn’t seem forced. It’s paced slow enough to feel like an RPG, but fluid enough that it seamlessly drives the narrative forward.

 

Choice

 

One of these choices may save a student's life.
One of these choices may save a student’s life.

 

While choice as a game mechanic is nothing new (see Mass Effect series, Telltale games), what sets this game apart, I think, is that your own decision for Max wouldn’t be dictated by the outcomes. The game is divided into scenes, and you can only rewind up to the beginning of the scene. However, almost all choices (except the puzzles) have repercussions at a much latter event. At this point in time, you still may change your action (eg. whether to tell the principle what you saw or lie). But you won’t really know if you made the “right” decision until, sometimes, an episode or two away.

What do you rely on, then (excluding spoilers, of course)? You rely on yourself. Often, you base it on yourself (hence the term “role-play”). It draws you in and creates an emotional hook, not only because you can relate to the characters, but because you yourself made that choice based on something internal (values, outlooks), rather than something external (outcomes).

Putting it all together, you have a very tight game complimented by thematic visuals (despite lip-sync issues), a mellow soundtrack (which is perfect for indie fans), and unparalleled story-telling through characterizations.

Life is Strange is a game that proves a game can be great without fancy graphics, or complicated game mechanics. It argues that emotion is a base element for any successful game, despite the package it comes in. Often times I’d find myself pausing the game just to process the series of events that transpired. While far from perfect, and despite its limitations, Life is Strange manages to bring a unique gaming experience. I might even go far as to say it’s an art experience.

 

All to save your hometown, Arcadia Bay.
All to save your hometown, Arcadia Bay.

PS. The game is on sale at Steam as part of the Steam Summer Sale. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested!

PC

This War of Mine – A Review on War, Choice, and Resource Management

One of the games I picked up during the Steam Summer Sale was This War of Mine. Indie games have always fascinated me, mostly because they’re often more courageous to experiment different genres, and often put a primacy on how the game plays, rather than how the game looks. With AAA games becoming more and more graphics demanding, indie games take the alternate route, and often produces very unique genres outright.

This War Of Mine is an indie game produced by 11 bit studios, and is inspired by the 1992 Bosnian War. It’s a war survival game that focuses on the civilian side, rather than the soldier side of the conflict. As such, your goal is to make it as long as possible until ceasefire has been declared. Choice, in this game, is not merely about being efficient with one’s resources. There are tradeoffs to be made, sometimes in the form of elevated risk to danger, and sometimes in morale. Even if you have a guide or walkthrough, one beautiful aspect of the game is that it sometimes forces you into choices which challenge your morality. And this is what I think the game ultimately wants to portray. It’s not simply enough to survive, but HOW you survive is also brought into question.

 

Katia is more useful in trading than in combat or domestic activities.
Katia is more useful in trading than in combat or domestic activities.

The game starts off with a selection of character sets, each one unique in their skills and personality, as well as the challenges you’ll face. There are two phases in the game – day and night. Day time involves fixing your house, crafting materials and equipment, cooking food, and even resting. You’ll most likely plan and prepare during this time for the night. The night phase involves scavenging, and is the most interactive aspect of the game. Here you get to explore different locations, steal, barter, or even kill for resources.

There's lots to do and places to explore during scavenging mode.

There’s lots to do and places to explore during scavenging mode.

Art direction is beautiful yet haunting. The gray undertones vividly portray the harsh realities of war, while the characters are somewhat a truthful rendition of civilian casualties. While the characters do need basic resources like food and security, morale is also quite important. There were a few instances where I had to make a terrible choice of robbing from a church which led to my characters feeling despondent and guilty. Depressed characters do not make the best scavengers or guards.

On one hand, there is also the tendency to distance yourself from the theme of the game and simply focused on the economics and “beating the game”. As I’ve said, the game is beaten when you survive till ceasefire has ended. While the game is complex, it still follows a certain set of rules which can be exploited. As you try to become more and more efficient (often times focusing on maximizing the potential in one aspect of the game, say, producing and selling alcohol for bartering), the game loses its war-torn appeal, mostly because you can anticipate the next scenarios.

On the other hand, role-playing the game (without using any guides), also provides a different enjoyable experience. While surviving till ceasefire is your main goal, HOW you survive also plays a role in the ending of the game. The more morally questionable choices you make, the more difficult it is to get a happy ending. Such that there were even a few cases where despite surviving, my characters committed suicide at the end. There aren’t a lot of games where you lose even if you beat the game.

 

Daytime is for cooking, repairing, and building upgrades to your home.
Daytime is for cooking, repairing, and building upgrades to your home.

All in all, This War of Mine is a very unique game. It explores and combines emotive characters and detailed resource-oriented game mode to create a game that honestly can go either way. If you’re a fan of semi-round characters, or the Dead of Winter board game, you’ll love This War Of Mine.

PC

ASUS VC239H IPS Monitor Review

Monitors with IPS panels have slowly become standard in the market as the new and better panels have become not only cheaper but also more capable of handling tasks like gaming. A few years ago, ASUS released the VX239H which became incredibly popular for being a great bang-for-your-back monitor and last year the company decided to follow it up with the VC239H. We take a look at ASUS’s latest affordable IPS monitor to see what the company has updated as well as find out if this new model is just as good as or even better than its predecessor.

The ASUS VC239H IPS monitor features an incredibly simple and straightforward design that’s almost identical to its predecessor, the VX239H, with the only noticeable change being its base which is now one solid circle instead of a ring. The VC239H still features a black chassis, a thin bezel now measuring only 0.9mm, and controls on the lower right bottom of the display. The monitor’s two 1.5W stereo speakers are also found on the bottom of the display. Another significant change the VC239H has from its predecessor is its rear design and port configuration which now features down facing connectors as well as VESA mounting capability. Its rear connectors include a power port one HDMI port, one DVI connector, one VGA connector, and one 3.5mm headphone port. Sadly, much like its predecessor, the VC239H’s ergonomics options are limited to only adjusting its vertical tilt with no options for either height or rotation. The monitor also comes with a couple of the company’s GamePlus features including an OSD crosshair and timer, both of which worked decently enough. The monitor’s menus were also easy to navigate in spite of the lack of labels on the monitor’s bezels.

The ASUS VC239H monitor features a 24-inch IPS panel with a native display resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. It also features a maximum brightness of 250cd/m2, a contrast ratio of 1000:1, and a response time of 5ms GTG. Because it uses an IPS panel, the color reproduction and viewing angles of the VC239H were undoubtedly impressive and make it quite suitable for either professional or entertainment use. The wide viewing angles also partially make up for the monitor’s lack of ergonomic options. The native contrast ratio coupled with the company’s ASUS Smart Contrast Ratio made images on the monitor more vibrant with some impressive black and white reproduction. The monitor’s brightness was also suitable for both dark and high glare environments. Gaming performance was also acceptable as we did not witness any ghosting even when playing fast-paced first-person shooters. We did notice some slight backlight bleeding but that may be limited to our test unit, as is the case with all monitors, so your mileage may vary. The speakers on the VC239H worked decently enough for casual use but aren’t loud or complex enough for more serious listening.

Overall, the ASUS VC239H IPS Monitor is a great addition to ASUS’s line of professional monitors and definitely an improvement over its predecessor. Its design, features, and performance are more than suitable for most users and its affordable price makes it even more attractive. It’s one of the more affordable 24-inch IPS monitors in the market and with a company like ASUS behind it, you can’t really go wrong with the VC239H.

PC

ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix Review

ASUS’s Strix line of graphics cards have become some of the company’s most popular products. The relatively new line of cards, introduced only a few years back, come with features that make them incredibly attractive alongside their great-looking aesthetic. We take a look at one of the company’s more popular and controversial cards, the ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix, and see how well it handles some of the market’s newer titles.

The ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix features a custom PCB that differs in a few ways from NVIDIA’s reference design including a 5+1 power phase configuration and a single 8-pin power connector as opposed to the reference 4+2 power phase and two 6-pin connector setup that cards from other manufacturers feature. It’s also is equipped with the company’s newly designed DirectCU II cooler that features a triple heat pipe and heat sink design but differs from its ROG counterpart as it gets the same design treatment as the rest of the graphics cards in the Strix line that include the Strix Eye shroud design and black and red color scheme. Another feature of the Strix version of the DirectCU II cooler is its 0db Fan Technology that stops the fans from spinning while the temperature is below a certain threshold (67 degrees Celsius) allowing you to play in complete silence. The card also features a black back plate which has become more commonplace with newer cards. Connectivity-wise, the GTX 970 Strix is equipped with two DVI connectors, one HDMI 2.0 connector that’s capable of outputting up to UDH at 60Hz, and a DisplayPort 1.2 connector that supports eDP 1.4.

The ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix is easily capable of handling modern games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Rise of the Tomb Raider at High or Ultra settings with its 4GB of DDR5 graphics memory. At 1080p, 1200p, and even 1440p, the GTX 970 Strix is easily able to attain 60 fps and beyond without much fluctuation. The GTX 970 Strix is also able to achieve 30-45fps even when the resolution is pushed to 4K. When compared to other 900-series cards, the GTX 970 Strix easily beats out its younger brother, the GTX 960 Strix, by a very large margin of 15-20 fps. It’s also capable of coming close the performance of the GTX 980 with a frame rate difference of only around 10 fps. Temperature-wise, the GTX 970 Strix runs at a very cool average temperature of 33 degrees Celsius when idle and around 67 degrees Celsius when under heavy load. And even when the card was under heavy load with the fans activated, it ran incredibly quiet and was barely audible in our living room environment.

Priced at around PHP18,500.00, the ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix gives mid-range enthusiasts and gamers the best price-performance ratio they can possibly get from NVIDIA’s 900-series cards. The GTX 970 Strix can effortlessly run modern games at the highest settings and get more than 60fps at resolutions all the way up to 1440p as well as acceptable to great frame rates at 2K and 4K resolutions. It’s able to perform significantly better than the ASUS GeForce GTX 960 Strix and is able to come close to the performance of the GTX 980 while staying at a much more affordable price point. It’s also one of the coolest and silent cards we’ve ever used, keeping with the theme of the Strix line of graphics cards. While the clock’s factory overclock speed isn’t as fast as others, the GTX 970 Strix is easily tunable and is stable even when clocked to around 1450 MHz. Overall, the ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix is one of the best graphics cards in the company’s 900-series line-up and those looking to play games at above 1080p without breaking the bank can’t go wrong with this powerhouse of a graphics card.