Reviewed on: Windows PC (Also Available on PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360.)
‘Life is Strange’ is a game series that holds a lot of potential. Developed by ‘Remember Me’ developers Dontnod Entertainment, it’s an episodic graphic adventure game series, much like the critically acclaimed Telltale Games titles, but it is one that takes on a different approach. In terms of story, ‘Life is Strange’ is much more subdued and focuses more on its characters rather than the drama of its plot. From a gameplay standpoint, it ditches the plethora of timed dialogue responses and tense consequential choices for a more reserved puzzle solving and exploration-based experience that lets the unsettling consequences of its choices sit comfortably in the distance. However, for all the good that ‘Life is Strange’ does in its differences, it is not perfect – seeing as stilted plot pacing does prevent it from being as refined as it could be. Yet despite this failing, the first episode of ‘Life is Strange’ is redeemed by its ability to keep its focus on its characters and create a gameplay experience that is of its own.
The game puts players in control of Max Caulfield, a senior photography student who after having moved to Seattle for five years returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon in order to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. One day, after being haunted by a nightmarish vision and witnessing a traumatizing fight in a school bathroom, Max soon discovers that she has the power to reverse time. What follows throws Max down a path that has her reuniting with her disenfranchised childhood friend Chloe, which results in the two discovering a danger at the heart of Arcadia Bay that neither of them could have predicted. Being a graphic adventure accompanied by some pretty decent voice acting, ‘Life is Strange’ puts a lot of emphasis on creating more subdued and relatable moments with its characters amidst its nostalgic high school era setting where alienation, teenage growing pains and petty drama are common place. For better or worse, there is definitely a lot to identify with here, and Max’s struggles within that environment definitely pave the way for that, be it her listening of music to deflect insults when she walks down a hall to the various entries she writes in her journal about her life. It is just unfortunate that the pacing of its plot tends to serve more as a detriment to that effort than anything else.
One of the major issues in ‘Life is Strange’ comes from the pacing of its plot. Throughout its first episode, there is always this feeling that the plot pushing the story forward only exists because of the obligation for it to do so. Because of this, the pacing of the plot comes across as forced and unnatural to a point, and you can’t help but question how characters in the game make conclusions that they do so quickly. This is especially true of Max when she first comes to the conclusion that she can rewind time. She makes the wild conclusion to explain her situation, and rather than really question it on a basic human level, she unnaturally and artificially accepts it simply to move the plot forward. Moments like these reduce the impact of the game’s plot, and instead make it come across as stilted and artificial.
When it’s not focused on trying to carry its plot forward, the core strength of ‘Life is Strange’ lies in the development of its characters. This is done in spades through the way characters are given room to simply speak about themselves and their own struggles. For instance, Max’s old best friend Chloe definitely embodies this strength with her moments in the first episode, which constantly hone in on expressing the kind of person she is and who she has become in the five years that Max had lost contact with her. But what really brings this all together is the numerous amounts of observable details found in the environments of the game. From the halls and dorms of Blackwell Academy to the various rooms in Chloe’s childhood home, there are dozens of things for Max to comment on, like laptops displaying Facebook pages, old photographs, journals, portfolios, school flyers, carpet stains and a whole lot more. Despite lacking a balance with the plot, the dialogue and details found in the game always fill in the player on the characters first and foremost rather than have all dialogue pertain to leading the plot to its eventual climax with little to no character development.
In terms of gameplay, ‘Life is Strange’ relies on puzzle solving, exploration and dialogue choices. But one of its key mechanics that differentiates it from others is Max’s ability to reverse time. By using this, players can basically take any of Max’s actions or dialogue choices, and completely reverse them at their own discretion. This plays into the bulk of the situations thrown at the player where they will have to rewind time to make a different choice or to solve a puzzle that requires intimate knowledge of the future. Despite the mechanic being used a fail-safe in most other games, the mechanic here is an interesting one, albeit underutilized in the game’s more action portions, that provides a means for players to freely experiment with the consequences of their actions. But what is most captivating about reversing time is the idea of taking advantage of it to set up events in the way the player desires. Do you want to leave files containing important information dropped on the oily floor or do you want to reverse time so the traces of Max’s presence have vanished? It’s entirely up to the player because they control the consequences instead of having the consequences control them. How these will affect the future has yet to be seen in the first episode, but the notion of giving the player the capability to freely rewind their actions provides a sense of empowerment that is inherently unique to games of this structure.
Due to the rewinding power offering freedom to experiment, some might say that there is not so much tension or impact in the story of ‘Life is Strange’, which tends to be a fairly essential quality needed in games of this structure. But ‘Life is Strange’ is not about constantly punishing the player for their choices but embracing choices by critically observing them and making the one that makes the most sense to the player. As stated, how these choices will play out is still uncertain, but what is there definitely brings up interesting concepts. When you are notified that a choice will hold consequences to the future, you are allowed to use Max’s power to reverse time to play out how the situation would have gone if you had chosen another phrase. The cool thing about the game is regardless of what the player chooses, Max will take the information she finds out into account. The choices themselves aren’t too obvious either, making each one seem fair towards the situations at hand. Ultimately, all of this works together to create a safe space that is more accessible for players, allowing plot to move forward without so much pain and guilt in choosing what you wish you could have.
‘Life is Strange’ is an episodic game series that has a lot of potential due to its focus on its characters and its unique approach to decision based gameplay with its time rewinding mechanic. While it suffers in how it pushes its plot forward at times, the game still winds up being one that is natural, intimate and personal. There is definitely a lot to be hopeful for with the series based on the first episode alone. But as far as whether or not the issues plaguing it are addressed in future episodes is still to be determined. Regardless, ‘Life is Strange’ offers more than enough in its first episode for gamers looking for a solid graphic adventure experience that is unique in its own right.