I’m not used to being pandered to when it comes to video games. Most commercial releases from big-name publishers tell stories that hold absolutely no interest for me and increasingly employ gameplay types that I struggle to engage with on any meaningful level (do a search for “Ubisoft” and read the resulting reviews for a prime example).
So I’m pretty stoked about Life Is Strange, a new episodic adventure game from Square Enix and Dontnod, the french developers behind Remember Me, which seems to have been created by shoving Telltale’s recent output into a blender with Gone Home and adding in a sprinkling of The Last Of Us: Left Behind. Since those three things constitute some of my favourite gaming moments of the last few years, Life Is Strange is almost tailor-made for my enjoyment. This first episode (which I’m reviewing separately because you can buy it on its own for five currencies, eschewing Telltale’s buy-it-all-at-once model) is a promising start, setting up some eminently endearing characters and intriguing mysteries despite a few rough edges in the writing and technical presentation.
At its heart Life Is Strange is about that unique time in a young woman’s life when she develops time travel powers and uses them to help her former best friend track down a missing person (you know, as you do).
The game opens with photography-obsessed hipster teen and Heather Mason lookalike Max Caulfield returning to her childhood home of Arcadia Bay, shortly after her eighteenth birthday. She’s there to study at a prestigious private academy for seniors and her first month at school isn’t going entirely as planned- her introverted and soft-spoken personality makes her a target for bullies, her attempts at scrounging up a boyfriend have all failed and she wakes up from a disturbing dream involving the town being destroyed by a gigantic tornado to find that she now has the ability to rewind time to a limited degree.
You may be surprised to learn that this isn’t the most pressing issue on Max’s mind. You see, when she left Arcadia Bay five years ago she also left behind Chloe, her best friend. The two haven’t spoken or seen each other since then, largely due to Max’s as-yet unexplained reluctance to contact Chloe, and at the start of the episode she’s still dithering about it. But events conspire to throw them together sooner than planned and it quickly becomes apparent that they no longer have a whole lot in common, as Chloe is now a rebellious school dropout with a massive chip on her shoulder over Max “abandoning” her. In order to try and patch things up between them Max agrees to help search for Rachel Amber, Chloe’s replacement best friend who went missing under suspicious circumstances six months ago. As it turns out, being able to manipulate time is a handy skill for a would-be investigator to have!
There’s quite a lot going on at the outset of Life Is Strange. The plot seems to be hanging on three central mysteries, which may or may not be related to each other. The first and most obvious is where or how Max got her strange new powers and what the deal is with that “Arcadia Bay getting destroyed by a mega-tornado” dream that Max has. The second layer concerns the disappearance of Rachel Amber- is she still alive? If so, where is she? Why doesn’t anyone except Chloe seem to care?
The third and most interesting mystery is Max and Chloe’s relationship and the events that brought them to the point they’re at now. Max’s absence seems to have blown a hole straight through Chloe’s life, and yet Max cut her off completely and appears to be almost dreading the idea of a reunion- at the start of the game she’s been back for a month without making any effort to get in touch. What exactly happened between them? Chrysalis only drops a handful of clues, but what’s here is more than enough to promise an intriguing drama, especially with time travel thrown into the mix (I have an idea Max and Chloe’s past might be vague so that the player’s actions in later episodes can influence it).
Max’s fancy-pants school comes with a pack of classmates, most of whom are written surprisingly in-depth, with a handful of what seem like running side-stories to interact with. All of the characters straddle a fine line between realism and cliche; they’re often stupid in exactly the same way I remember being stupid at that age and even the ones that seem like thin archetypes (the rich mean girl, the quiet one from an ultra-conservative religious background etc) have a bit more to them under the surface. That said, the dialogue occasionally stumbles into embarrassing “we’re a bunch of 30-somethings trying to write teenagers” territory. Characters say “phat” more than a few times and conversations are liberally peppered with references to kickstarter and social media. Not twitter or facebook specifically, just “social media”.
Max herself is an interesting case of a well-written introvert. Her lively (and occasionally a bit intrusive) interior monologue shows her to be far more witty and scathing than her awkward, mumbled dialogue would indicate. Like a lot of people in very early adulthood she’s kind of pretentious and sometimes a bit of an asshole, aspects of her personality the game doesn’t shy away from. I found myself laughing out loud more than once at her goofy musings or acerbic comments, and by the time the episode was half over I was fully invested in her story.
Chloe is slightly harder to warm to, if only because a lot of this episode consists of her being stand off-ish and resentful, but the game does a good enough job of illustrating why Max and Chloe were friends to begin with to make you want to see them patch things up.
Life Is Strange imports its gameplay from the recent crop of Telltale titles more or less wholesale, with the exception of Max’s time powers. At any point apart from cutscenes and some conversations you can hold the right mouse button and watch your recent actions in reverse, then move forward with information or items (anything Max is holding travels with her) gained in the last attempt. This lets you experiment with dialogue choices and decisions (so you can have Max be a complete asshole with no consequences) and also ties into the game’s few puzzles. According to Dontnod the effects of the big decisions won’t become evident until later episodes, which means you can’t use the rewind mechanic to undo any serious trouble you get yourself into.
My one big problem with Life Is Strange is that the game doesn’t seem to trust the player to put its most unique feature to good use. If you don’t twig the solution to a time-travel puzzle immediately Max will usually just straight-up tell you the solution, and the fact that the major story decisions are signposted by with the UI robs some of the feeling of experimentation from rewinding. It’s an interesting idea, but the way it’s implemented in this first episode feels like a two-hour tutorial.
But like the sources its drawing from, Life Is Strange isn’t really about the puzzles. It’s about the story, and also poking around detailed environments looking at things. And let me tell you, if you enjoy looking at things then the locations in this game will send you into transports of delight. I very much appreciate the fact that you can start Max’s commentary on something running then continue to wander around instead of being rooted to the spot, as in many other adventure games.
Said locations are rendered with an absolutely gorgeous painterly art style, all soft pastels and textures designed to look like brushstrokes. These budget-saving graphics are another element borrowed from Telltale, but in terms of both style and technical merits Life Is Strange has them beat.
Also borrowed from Telltale? Some slight graphical jankiness when it comes to animations. Characters eyes occasionally look as if they’re pointing in the wrong direction and the lip syncing is universally awful, bearing only the slightest relation to what a character is saying. Of these two problems the latter is the one that bothered me; I sincerely hope later episodes improve in this regard.
Dontnod have stated that they were influence heavily by indie movies when making Life Is Strange, and that’s certainly borne out by the game’s presentation. Obviously if you loathe that sort of movie (which I gather some people do) then this might present a problem, but for my money I don’t think the game adopts any of those film’s flaws. Specifically it’s actually, you know, about something. Something interesting. It might have plinkety guitar music and visually abstract camera angles baked into its very fabric, and Max can sit down in various locations and have indie as fuck interior monologues about Coming Back Home and shit, but there’s none of the pointless fluffery I usually associate with a certain breed of bad American indie film.
There’s one other reason you should consider checking out Life Is Strange apart from the fact that it seems like an excellent and well-made start to an promising story, and that’s to contribute to the delicious tears of gamerbros.
Yes, just like with Gone Home a small mob of people are very angry indeed over this game’s existence, because…. well, I’m not sure. Because it’s girly, or something. I look forward to drinking more gamer tears in a few months if the plot goes in the direction it seems like it might based on hints dropped here.
Whether you’re playing it for enjoyment or in order to hasten the downfall of video games, you can try out Life Is Strange relatively risk free- as I mentioned earlier, the first episode is available separately (the rest have to be bought together) and there’s a demo out for consoles (not PC for some reason).
Life Is Strange is the sort of thing that makes me profoundly nervous. I honestly feel like this could be the start of something truly special, and I’m terrified the remaining four episodes will let me down. But I’m also scared of what’s waiting for Max and Chloe at the end of the story; I want them to find some way to avert that terrible storm and come out the other side okay, and I guess that’s as good a sign as any that the game has its hooks in me deep.