Life Is Strange is similar to a younger sibling. It’s weird, annoying, and awkward, yet, you still kind of love it. The world of Arcadia Bay is vibrant and beautiful, as if it is painted onto your TV screen and figuring out the secrets the town holds is an interesting rabbit hole, that never gives away too many secrets at once. The second episode of Dontnod’s time-travel adventure, “Out of Time,” maintains the charm and the style of the previous episode, but unfortunately falls flat with poor voice acting and writing, sections that put the story on pause for far too long, and a time-travel mechanic that feels more like a gimmick more than it does useful.
Taking place the morning after the events of the first episode, Out of Time finds protagonist Max Caufield still curious as to why she has been given the ability to reverse and control time. After coming clean to her best friend Chloe about her powers, she is pressed by her friend to take full advantage of her ability and to do whatever she wants with them. As the two explore the possibilities Max’s powers posses, they unravel secrets the Oregon town of Arcadia Bay tries to hide. Max and Chloe, convinced something is amiss with their town, set out to investigate and expose the corruption, neurosis, and crime that the town’s populace seems to be involved in.
Max also finds herself, once again, in the halls of the prestigious boarding school Blackwell Academy, where she is pitted against a social clique run by the rich, popular members of the student body that call themselves the Vortex Club. The club thrives on bullying and Max, being a bit of an outsider, is not always free from their attacks. A viral video involving a possibly drugged classmate named Kate is the focal point of the club’s harassment, pushing certain students to drastic and possibly dangerous measures as the bullying starts to make them feel trapped. The Club’s ties bleed into the aforementioned secrets of the town, adding to the mystery of what happens behind closed doors and who is really in control of Arcadia Bay.
The story in Life Is Strange is an interesting ride, making players curious to see which turns the game is going to take and constantly leaving players surprised by the character’s motives. The story is enhanced by a large cast, that all feel unique. Each character introduced, even those that play a minute role in the story, have their own personalities, interests, and relationships with Max that the two can talk about, whether the conversations be positive or negative. Unfortunately, an often cheesy script or poor acting detract from the story. Though character’s themselves are unique and fun to engage, occasionally an actor’s performance will fall flat or the script will contain a line such as “amazeballs” or “Getting my coffee on before I cut class and destroy some rails” that feel unnatural and cringe-worthy. Sometimes lines like this can add to the feel that these are teenagers using slang they may have picked up off TV, but often times it just feels like adults trying too hard to write a convincingly hip script.
The world of Arcadia Bay is a fresh environment and an accurate portrayal of a small American town. The game’s water-color style art direction gives the game a bright color pallet that makes it stand out, looking as if someone was painting the story in front of you. Similarly, the game’s great sound direction does a lot to add to the atmosphere of the game. Sounds such as walking over a fallen fence in a junk-yard or rain hitting the school’s windows give breath to an already beautiful world. The game’s original score by Syd Matters and licensed soundtrack do a lot to give context to scenes and a lot of care was taken to make sure that using songs by artists such as Local Natives was done so to effectively add to the story rather than to just feel current.
Life Is Strange gives players numerous opportunities for exploration in large, diverse areas. Max is free to roam areas such as the streets of Arcadia Bay or a junkyard Chloe refers to as her “home away from Hell.” Numerous items litter these areas for Max to examine and comment upon, as well as photograph with her ever present camera, but the game never makes these environments feel all that important. While they are beautiful and interesting to explore, when the overarching objective is simply to find five bottles or go take a shower, they don’t always feel justified for being there. Especially compared to the exploration segments of the first episode that had Max hunting for evidence to further the story, the open areas in Out of Time can occasionally feel pointless in regards to the narrative. It would have been nice to see the story progressed through these environments and items in a more dynamic fashion, rather than put on pause while you walk around an area over and over looking for the small item you missed so that you can continue the game.
One of my biggest gripes with Life Is Strange is the time control mechanic. Set up similar to games such as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, players are given control over Max’s responses, but they are also given the ability to reverse time if they don’t like the outcome of their actions. Max will also occasionally make comments reminding the player that she can rewind time, insinuating that they made the wrong decision. This really takes away from the importance of choices; if something doesn’t pan out the way they want, players can often change their minds without any ramifications.
Time-reversal is also used in Out of Time to solve puzzles, such as guessing the contents of Chloe’s pockets or helping another student with a science project. The object is to guess the right solution or set of solutions, but if the player fails they can rewind time to guess again. The issue is the game forces players to rewind to the beginning of the puzzle, often having to redo numerous choices that had been made correctly all in an effort to correct one mistake. This quickly becomes repetitive and frustrating as one error can mean reversing back to the beginning of a puzzle.
Being able to reverse time in Life Is Strange often feels like a gimmick rather than a useful mechanic and being able to change Max’s decisions robs them of their importance. With that said, when it is used in context of the story and outside of player control, Max’s powers are interesting. She is just a normal teenage girl, trying to fit in and make it to class on time, and her struggle with her power is fascinating to watch unfold as she tries to comprehend why she of all people was given this ability.
Like a teenager, Life Is Strange is finding its way in a much larger world and still has many flaws to overcome. That’s not to say that it isn’t good in its own right. Life is Strange tells an intriguing story that weaves numerous mysteries with a coming of age drama that leaves players wanting to know more and willing to scratch away at the surface until more is revealed. The game is beautiful and Arcadia Bay is a joy to explore and future installments are sure to keep the interest of those who are already fans of the game. While it has definite hiccups along the way, those willing to be patient with Life Is Strange will be in for a good trip through a charming world.
3 out of 5
- Interesting story
- Unique characters
- Beautiful world and great sound design
- Poor writing and voice acting
- Can take players away from the story for too long
- Time-reversal feels more like a gimmick