Checkpoint Reached! #1

This is Checkpoint Reached!, where I take stock of a month’s worth of gaming and invite you to do the same. This month, I’ve been playing Dragon Age InquisitionTales from the Borderlands, and Life is Strange.

Dragon Age Inquisition (PS4)

8.26 Sera

I spent an inordinate amount of my final months in Columbus playing my roommate’s Xbox copy of Dragon Age Inquisition, during which time I completed every non-DLC achievement except beating the game on nightmare mode. I rolled an elvish archer and all-around paragon of good will and mercy (much to the chagrin of my more chaos-hungry party members). Heck, I romanced Josephine, perhaps the nicest and least mischievous member of the inquisition.

So my second time around, on the PS4, I’ve decided to try to be bad, which admittedly does not come easily to me. I’m aiming to get with Sera this time around (in keeping with the rebellious streak) but in the meantime I have seriously alienated Blackwall and Solas (though, let’s be honest, screw Solas). So it goes. This time around I’m a human rogue, but I’ve exchanged my arrows for daggers and am trying (and, largely thus far, failing) to get better at tactical fighting. Between the loss of range I enjoyed as an archer, and the ramped up difficulty of nightmare mode, I’ll admit that I’m struggling quite a bit. I’m still at a point where regular enemy encounters spend most of my party’s potions and send me scrambling for the nearest camp…and that’s just in the Hinterlands.

I should note that Inquisition was both my first Dragon Age and my first Bioware game. My RPG history has predominately been of the Japanese variety, with the notable exception of Skyrim back in 2012. Typically I’m daunted by the prospect of diving into a mythos of which I am ignorant, but Inquisition never really gave me the sense that my failure to play prior games put me at a disadvantage. The game does a good job of introducing its main factions and conflicts and then sets you on a course to recruit or ruin those factions as you wish, though I get the sense that you’ll always essentially come out the good guy no matter how ruthless and aloof you choose to be (time will tell, should I ever make it to the end of my renegade run).

Bioware games are lauded for player choice, and to that end I can’t say I’m overly impressed by Inquisition. I’ve seen clear differences in the ways my party members interact with me, depending on what I choose to say, but the actual game world and major plot points seemed essentially etched in stone. Major choices on missions seemed more likely to affect the way that particular mission unfolded, but the ultimate conflict and its resolution seemed nothing short of inevitable. I watched my roommate make a couple significantly different choices in his play through but the results did not meaningfully differ from those of my own game.

That said, there’s a reason I played the game so thoroughly in my first play through and was still willing to get it again: it’s fun. Character classes and abilities differ significantly enough that swapping roles (or rolling new inquisitors) is legitimately refreshing. While fetch quests and typical RPG grind fare aren’t particularly novel, I’ve found the chief pleasure of heading out to battle is the endless bantering between party members. Each of your nine potential companions is fully-realized and excellently acted and integrated into this world, and the camaraderie (or lack thereof) between such diverse personalities is well worth mixing up your party to experience.

I’m looking to eventually try out the multiplayer component of Inquisition, so if you have the game and a PS4, please let me know if you’re interested in trying it out together!

Tales from the Borderlands (PS4)

8.26 Atlas Mugged

Borderlands has always had great characters and a universe begging to be elaborated, but it’s probably fair to say that plot is not the primary driver of most players’ trips to Pandora. So when you strip out the guns and the looting and the exploration, what’s left of the Borderlands soul?

Turns out, a whole lot.

Telltale Games has a proven track record when it comes to methodic and emotional storytelling. Their The Walking Dead was the first iteration of that franchise to truly get my undivided attention, and The Wolf Among Us consistently impressed me with its narrative sleight of hand. But both of those series were based on properties already lauded for their complex storytelling, whereas Borderlands is predominately popular for its action and player agency (if, by agency, you mean whom to shoot first and with which kind of gun). To that end, if the challenge TTG faced with prior games was proving they could tell as good a story as the source material, with Tales the challenge was proving they could tell a better story; or, at least, they’d have nothing to fall back on if the story fell flat.

With four of five episodes released, it’s safe to say they have met that challenge rather gloriously. Tales from the Borderlands is instantly recognizable, even though its primary cast is almost entirely comprised of brand new faces. The macabre post-apocalyptic humor is ever-present, but Telltale has figured out when to let that humor fade into the background, either to remind us of the high stakes of living in such a dangerous world, or to impress upon us that even bad people are still, ultimately, people. Revenge, betrayal, greed, love, and friendship drive this story, and for perhaps the first time in a franchise overflowing with death, I actually found myself upset when people got hurt or killed.

If you’re a fan of Borderlands, you absolutely should play this game. But with a game this accessible — you can buy it on iOS and Android, in addition to on gaming consoles and computers — I extend that recommendation to anyone who enjoys dark humor and doesn’t mind a little cell-shaded gratuitous violence every once in a while. Watch this trailer to get a general sense of things, and if your interest is piqued try out the first episode for just five bucks.

Life is Strange (PS4)

8.26 lifeisstrange

Dontnod’s time-bending romp through the Pacific Northwest hipster high school scene is the other episodic tale I’ve sunk my summer into, though it has a lot less blood and a lot more awkward teenage dialogue than Tales from the Borderlands. This month saw the release of this game’s penultimate episode, and raised the ante for cliffhangers in a game that has already caused me to gasp and scream at my screen more than most.

Life is Strange is the story of Max Caulfield, an unassuming photography student at prestigious Blackwell Academy whose painfully normal life takes a wild turn when she witnesses a drug-related murder and then wakes up minutes before the murder with an opportunity to stop it from happening.

The time-rewind mechanic could easily have been a simple gimmick that would have broken lesser stories. Instead, Life is Strange accepts that players will rewind decisions they don’t like, and makes a point of presenting equally interesting alternatives to most conversations. Sometimes, you need to make the wrong choice, and then rewind to take advantage of the knowledge you gleaned with it. Other times, there is no clear right answer, and consequences of decisions do not become obvious until later on (sometimes even a couple episodes later).

Even when you are incredibly careful, Life is Strange is ready to sucker punch you emotionally. It has quickly become a game worthy of trigger warnings: self-harm, suicide, rape, and domestic violence all show up in some fashion; even euthanasia plays a focal role in one chapter. While my own decisions have mercifully kept fellow Blackwell students alive, I’ve watched livestreams with players whose choices led down darker paths.

Occasionally awkward animation and perpetually awkward dialogue (it’s rare for a conversation not to include the word “hella” at least once) lead to a misguided laugh or two, but for the most part this game’s heart is too strong to be overcome by those moments of unintended campiness. Life is Strange treads dangerous waters, but it also addresses its subject matter with a gravity and respect for nuance I don’t often see in regular conversations and have basically never seen in a video game.

It’s safe to say no game has made me groan or facepalm as much as Life is Strange, but it’s also fair to say no game has never made me feel pain, shock, or surprise like Life is Strange. For that power alone, I recommend others give it a whirl. Once more, five bucks gets you the first episode, and the rest of the game will sell itself. Here’s the trailer:

That’s about it for me this month. I downloaded, but still have not had a chance to experience, the pleasant surprise that was DLC for the delightful Never Alone (a game developed with and about the Iñupiat, an indigenous Alaskan people). What have you been playing? If you’ve played any of these games, what are your thoughts?  If you haven’t, any questions? What are you playing? Let’s chat.


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