Life is Strange, the most recent outing from Dontnod Entertainment, the folks behind 2013’s Remember Me, doesn’t make the best first impression. Aside from an interesting opening scene, the player is quickly dropped into the general world of the game, immediately hit with a stereotype-heavy premise, an awkward opening segment of dialogue, and, the absolute weakest aspect of the game: poorly done lip animations that don’t matching the spoken audio. As bad as all this sounds, it’s important to note that Life is Strange does get better.
Before speaking to that though, there is a point that can’t be stressed enough: Life is Strange is not a game for everyone. It’s… different.
First of all, there is little to no action in the opening episode of this five part series. Though taking most of its gameplay cues from adventure games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Life is Strange forgoes zombie apocalypses and Fabletowns to be set in the artsy private school of Blackwell Academy, nestled away in the small Oregon town of Arcadia Bay.
Likewise, the conflicts that emerge for the player to overcome early on, more often than not, are the stereotypical high school problems one would expect (Nerds being bullied, cliques ruling the school, etc.), so, generally: teen angst and all the glories that come with it.
Life is Strange, in fact, revels in the angst. For any who have read Catcher in the Rye, the game draws massive amounts of inspiration from JD Salinger’s book, even making the game’s protagonist, Max Caulfield, a pretty obvious homage to Catcher’s Holden Caulfield. Do you see what they did there?
While unique, speaking to a modern teenager’s coming of age in a time dominated by social networks, texts, selfies, and camera phones, and tackling subjects like drugs, sexual violence, and abuse, this is also where the game is on the rockiest ground. Every so often, a few elements tip away from reference and lean too much towards parody, an early instance in which Max’s teacher lectures about the history of the ‘selfie’ coming to mind. Clunky moments of dialogue and a little too much reliance on basic high school tropes keep Life is Strange from being the insightful look it seems to want to be.
Adding to the issue, all of this isn’t helped much by the stereotype-heavy premise I mentioned before. Max is the new girl in school, a rather shy photography student, made fun of and shoved off by the school’s elite, rich clique of students, known as the Vortex Club. While certainly not the lowest of the low, Max rests somewhere in-between cool and ‘loser’, given little thought by either side of the spectrum.
All the characters are present and accounted for. There’s the rich, snobby head of the Vortex Club, Victoria. There’s the most tortured of the shy, Kate. There’s even the football star/jerk, Justin. Like I said, nothing all that new or inspired. And at first glance, that’s all you really get.
Where Life is Strange’s light shines through, however, is in how you choose to interact with each of the fellow students. As you run across them, the interactions with Max’s peers manage a surprising degree of character development, giving just enough of a hook to each character that I am anxious to learn more about each as the series continues.
Even more impressively, the cast just keeps growing, the eventual introduction of Max’s childhood friend, Chloe, stealing the show. Throughout the episode Max has thoughts and narrative to share about every single student you pass in the hall or object you find around you. That is, if you choose to hear it.
And more than that, you can talk to, and engage with, almost everyone. The halls of Blackwell Academy, if nothing else, are a fleshed out creation, and even without the action or immediate stakes of other games, I found myself drawn in and working to understand the small town of Acadia Bay just as much as any other game-world.
So where’s the wrinkle? What makes Life is Strange stand-out? Well, it turns out that Max suddenly has the ability to reverse time. More than just a plot point, the mechanic weaves its way into almost every aspect of the game. Very similar to the memory remix segments of Remember Me, the player can jump back through recent decisions, reworking conversations or events, progressing towards whatever outcome seems preferable.
Further more, in the flavor of the time-travel puzzler Braid, the objects you collect, the placement of where Max is standing, even the information you learn, all carry over as time reverses, letting you solve recently unsolvable puzzles, get through recently blocked off paths, and even select new dialogue options, answering questions you didn’t know the answers to before.
Sadly, the robustness of time-travel as a puzzle mechanic doesn’t begin to be explored until well through the episode. Until then however, it manages to add an odd, voyeuristic flair to everything you do. Multiple times I found myself doing things I never would have done normally, rummaging through a person’s desk while they are standing right there for instance, just because I knew that when the person caught me, and inevitably got angry, I could simply reverse time. Overall, the ability, when used to essentially trick people with your miraculously keen knowledge about them and their belongings, brought out a unique mix of guilt and satisfaction I don’t think I’ve ever felt with another game.
Even more than that, the ability to reverse time has a greater effect on the game as a whole. While decision-based games have struggled more and more to make sure players understand what a particular choice actually means, Dragon Age Inquisition for instance giving a short description of what will happen as a result of each major decision, Life is Strange fixes the problem without giving away the whole barn.
Though not painting out exactly what the long-term effect of each choice is, reversing time lets you see the immediate effects and choose accordingly. Yes, this takes out some of the gut wrenching anxiety of what to choose, considering you can immediately take it back, but it also makes it so that every choice is very much yours, the path you carve through the game unquestionably of your own careful choosing.
In this way, the first episode of Life is Strange is best experienced taking things slow. As far as a central conflict, there’s just not all that much here, the episode instead littered with clues and potential starters for what could easily be major conflicts later in the series. Due to this, with playing straight through, episode 1 could easily be completed in under an hour. Getting to know the world and the people populating it however, it took me over three hours to roll the credits, still missing a few pieces along the way.
So ultimately, it’s true, Episode 1 of Life is Strange isn’t the strongest opener for an episodic series. But it certainly could have been worse. A few lines of clunky dialogue and a persistent mismatching of lip movement and audio aside, the game has its high points. Nailing a strong sense of style and voice (the entire UI made to look like the sketches in a teenager’s diary for example), Life is Strange manages to stand out from other games. And better yet, everywhere I looked there is enough mystery and intrigue, be it time travel or a missing girl or even a gun toting, drug-dealing classmate, that I am at least very curious about the next installment.
Score: 3/5 (Decent game, nothing special, nothing awful)
- Definitely unique
- Getting to know the massive cast is interesting
- There’s enough mystery and set up to make me want more
- But, there’s no solid conflict built during the episode
- Slight animation problems
- And every so often the teenage angst does feel a little over-done