[Reviewer’s note: I avoid revealing spoilers in this initial review as much as possible. In reviews of future episodes, I will delve more into the story itself, as I will assume those reading reviews of Episodes 2 through 5 will have begun playing the game, already.]
DONTNOD Entertainment is no stranger to the memory-manipulation genre. In Remember Me, players are tasked with changing Neo-Paris in the year 2084 using the creative editing of memories (which are a commodity, bought and sold). Bringing this feature a bit closer to home is Life is Strange, an episodic adventure where choices can mean the difference between life and death, and the lives of many are in the hands of a teenager. Despite the strange setup, and the somewhat lighthearted hipster vibe, Life is Strange is full of agonizing choices and consequences. The first episode, Chrysalis, sets things up for us by introducing characters, while only beginning to unearth the secrets held by the residents of Arcadia Bay.
Our heroine, Max, is newly-18, and has moved back to her hometown after four years away, so that she can attend Blackwell Academy, a prestigious school with a focus on the arts. The school only contains seniors, which gives the choices made by the students a certain weight that toes the line between “kids will be kids” and “oh, my god, you should totally be arrested for that.” As a warning to those who have neither played nor watched an LP of Life is Strange, the latter scenario pretty much rules the roost. As a budding photographer, Max is under pressure from her teacher, Mark Jefferson, to submit a photo for a contest which could launch her career while earning her prestige at a school where her main goal seems to be to remain invisible. It’s a tough choice, but not as tough as the choices she faces a short time thereafter.
The gameplay is, like many adventure games, a point-and-click scenario, though players can walk around their environment and interact with multiple items. Unlike Gone Home, which is the biggest comparison for Life is Strange by review publications, players can’t interact with nearly everything – there are a set number of items in each scene that can be looked at, photographed, or manipulated, and only a few of them have consequences. Instant Polaroid photos can be taken to fill up a scrapbook (Max’s journal), and there are achievements for finding all of the photo ops. The problem is actually being able to find them – and that requires liberal use of the main gameplay tool: time travel. You see, Max has discovered the ability to go back in time while retaining any information she learned in the future, in order to make decisions that further her ends. Make no mistake, most of the decisions the player has to make are to Max’s benefit, even while they seem altruistic. However, this is one of the most realistic depictions of decision-making I’ve ever seen in a game, and despite the anxiety I felt when wondering which consequences I was okay with, I was thoroughly impressed.
Other characters we’re introduced to include:
- Chloe (Max’s former best friend, who seems to have fallen on hard times)
- Warren (a potential love interest, and Max’s only friend at the beginning of the game)
- Victoria (the token spoiled little rich girl)
- David (Chloe’s stepfather, the head of security at Blackwell – he relishes the opportunity to control everything around him)
- Nathan (the poor little rich boy, who is also an objectively disgusting human being)
- Kate (a student with a secret serious enough to make David afraid of her)
Those are the major players – other characters are introduced, and indeed, they all have their place, but the focal decision-making revolves around those listed above. A girl named Rachel Amber has gone missing, and as the episode progresses, you begin to come to the sickening realization that everyone except Max had their part in making that happen. In reconnecting with Chloe, Max finds out that Rachel was Chloe’s best friend when Max moved away (Max and Chloe never kept in contact, and while the blame is placed squarely on Max for that, it’s clear that it was a mutual decision). Rachel and Chloe were planning to leave Arcadia Bay, but Rachel’s disappearance put a stop to those plans, effectively bringing Chloe’s life and future plans at a standstill. The dichotomy between Max’s life (future possibilities, and her ability to rewrite history) and Chloe’s (inability to escape despite a strong desire) adds to much of the tension, even before Chloe is officially introduced into the game. In fact, Max’s ability to control time, when she’s so disconnected from Arcadia Falls as a whole, seems strangely inappropriate and uncomfortable. Of course, she’s also a slightly more objective observer, so it’s really up to the player to decide how involved she actually becomes.
In the middle of all of these minor events, tying them together, is a vision Max keeps having of Arcadia Bay’s destruction via a tornado. This is the game’s opener, and the introduction to Max that there’s something strange about her perception of time. It’s not until a bit later until the full scope of her power is known, but by the end of the episode, you know that every decision you make is going to culminate in how the town fares in this destructive storm. It’s pretty heavy stuff for an 18-year-old…though if Donnie Darko managed, then I suppose Max will, too.
At the end of every episode of Life is Strange, players are shown which of their choices are in line with players worldwide, which is similar to TellTale’s method of episodic reminders. In addition to the worldwide comparison, you can also see how your friends on Steam made decisions, though not individually. It’s interesting to take a bit of moral inventory on the folks you know, and especially those you may try to play multiplayer games with. (For the record, my friends seem to be out for justice, which means I appear to have picked those I associate very well.)
The voice acting is excellent, and while Max seems a bit emotionally flat, it also seems as though this was a stylistic choice meant to keep her from becoming the focal point of the story. She may be the camera through which the story is viewed, but her choices seem more like framing than they do heavy editing, in some respects. I definitely appreciated that, as someone who doesn’t generally enjoy seeing characters from a limited angle. The sound design was immersive, though not distracting – again, an overall positive, at least to me. My one complaint, and I used this term earlier, is that the music is very alt-rock hipster-esque, and even at a point where Chloe is instructing Max to “rock out,” the song playing is the hard-rock equivalent of “Pork and Beans” by Weezer. Does it have a beat? Yes. Is it something you thrash to? Nope. In some respects, the sound design seems to have been created to not be distracting at all, and that’s a shame, as it might have lent more of a greater range of emotions other than generalized anxiety. I was reminded of Juno, and even though I (sporadically) like that movie, you can only take so much Johnny One-Note before it becomes a bit mentally boring.
My final impression of Life is Strange is that it is absolutely worth picking up if you’re into adventure and discovery games. If you enjoyed The Walking Dead series, and also enjoyed Gone Home, other reviews have been correct in assuming that you’ll also enjoy this game. For such a low-key game, there are some exciting mysteries, and I’m looking forward to continuing the series.
You can buy Life is Strange on Steam for $19.99. If you’d just like to try Episode 1 – Chrysalis, it’s available for individual purchase at $4.99.