Developed by Dontnod Entertainment
Released: 20 October 2015 (Episode 5)
Platforms: Windows, Playstation 3, 4, Xbox 360, One
No spoilers to be found here!
In a time where Telltale announces a new adventure-game every other month, it can be easy to get tired of the adventure game genre. Therefor I didn’t really take note when the first episodes of Life Is Strange were released, thinking it was just another Telltale look-alike. Move forward an entire year and I have now played this episodic game. And it’s near perfection, I haven’t been this enthralled by a adventure-game since season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Life Is Strange is a breath of fresh air for episodic games and a superb piece of interactive art in it’s own right. Don’t miss out on this one.
Life Is Strange is a story-based adventure game similar to the works of Telltale. That means that it plays like an interactive tv show, you guide a character through a certain story making choices that could affect the narrative in meaningful ways. There is gameplay, but the plot and characters always take center stage.
Maxine Caulfield is an eighteen year old introverted American teenager raised in Seattle. She is a young aspiring photographer and has been admitted into the Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, the town she was born in. The game takes place a few months after she started her education and she is faced with the usual things you go through in school, shyness, bullying and crushes. Back when she used to live in Arcadia Bay her best friend was Chloe Price, but since she moved they fell out of contact. Never having built up the courage to meet Chloe after all these years, a strange series of events manages to get these to friends reunited. It is also during this time that Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time. The game then chronicles this one specific week of Max’s life as she has to struggle with all these things in her already hectic life.
Life Is Strange is heavily story-based which makes it really hard to share my thoughts about it without spoiling anything. I can however say this, I love this story. I waited a long time before starting to play the game, but once I started I couldn’t stop and played through the entire thing in little over a week. I love stories set in the Pacific Northwest with small towns and intriguing plots, things like Twin Peaks and Alan Wake. You can tell that developers Dontnod also are fans of this, as the story of Life Is Strange feels inspired and familiar but still wholly original and fantastic. But where similar works have had their bad turns (does anybody like late season 2 of Twin Peaks?), Life Is Strange’s story simply doesn’t dip in quality. It is very familiar to other works yes, but I do think that this story trumps them all. There are a lot of different influences here, the time travel aspect from the excellent anime Steins;Gate, the earnest teen drama from films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all mixed in with the Twin Peaks feel of a small town with a mystery. But throughout the entire plot the game never looses it’s main focus, which is the well-written characters, their relationships to each other and the heartfelt drama that surrounds them. People may look down on video games, thinking that the art-form simply can’t produce compelling characters and drama. Max Caulfield and Chloe Price from Life Is Strange are some of the most well-written and acted characters that I have ever had the pleasure to know in any form of art. The amount of attachment I still feel towards these characters as I am writing this review (more than a week after I finished it) is something that I haven’t experienced since the Mass Effect trilogy.
Max Caulfield is a young art student on her first term in the Blackwell academy. She is kind of quiet and shy, not wanting to be in the spotlight. Once you get to know her however, you can see that she is a nerdy girl with a love of pop culture but also photography, her passion. She is always kind to the people near her and is generally a liked student. I gravitated toward Max a lot throughout my time in Life Is Strange. I have a lot in common with this person and my time in high school was similar. Playing as Max was a bit strange, I always felt like I wanted to protect her no matter what. I haven’t been this attached to a video game character in a long time and that usually is a good sign.
Chloe Price was Max’s best friends as they were younger but when Max moved to Seattle they lost contact. Chloe comes from a happily loving family and had a good upbringing. However, in her later teens a lot of tragedies fell upon her and her family. As Max reunites with Chloe in the present day she is a very different person. She is bitter and rebellious, hating on most things and spending her time on drugs and dangerous individuals. The amount of care that went into the character of Chloe is what sells it and really most of the game. I cared about her a lot and wanted to help her. Max and Chloe’s relationship is believable and wonderful to watch, which is fortunate since that is the main focus of the game. She is well-written (almost rivaling Max herself) and develops wonderfully throughout the game. Simply put, an amazing character.
The game also features a lot of side character with varying importance to the overall story. I think that each and every one has been given enough individual care to warrant at least a conversation with them. They are mostly there to fill out the schools and dorms, but I do think the team put in enough care into them to consider them interesting.
In a narrative context I think Max’s newfound powers to reverse time reflects what she is going through in life and therefor fits really well in the story. But the science fiction elements never take away from the core of the narrative, which is the wonderfully realized characters and their drama. The time-mechanic is only ever there in the background, which I feel was the right decision. Life Is Strange takes a lot from different works of art and combines them to something, in my opinion, greater. I think that Life Is Strange has one of the best narratives and characters that I have ever seen in a video game. I love clever science fiction and small town drama and I think the way Life Is Strange combines them is amazing. This is one of these games that I’m yearning to go back and play just to experience this wonderful narrative that I was experiencing.
Amongst the many reviews that I have read for this game, the most common complaint seems to be that the last episode simply couldn’t reach the heights of the previous ones. I get why many people feel this way, episode five of Life Is Strange is a bit different from the rest of them. This is very much up to personal preference but I loved the last episode, making it one of my favorites of the season. It was a nice change of pace and just delivered on something that I personally really like. I get why some people might be put off by this, they had big expectations from the earlier episodes and were disappointed by how different episode 5 turned out to be. I do however think that a certain sequence in the episode was badly thought out, more on that later.
I do also want to touch upon the endings of the game without any spoilers. A game with so many different choices makes people want a lot of different endings tailored to their decisions. This game sadly doesn’t deliver this, which also was a major complaint with the game. To me it came down to expectations, I didn’t think that we would get many different endings from such a small studio as most AAA-developers can’t pull this off correctly. However, the game uses a lot of still photos in order to tell events throughout the game, which could have been an easy and cheap way to create more endings. But despite this I was satisfied with the numbered of endings offered and didn’t think much about it.
What did sour my experience somewhat were the actual endings themselves. It feels like one ending is the intended one by the developers and is quite long and fleshed out while the other one feels like fan service and rushed. None of them are great as they are simply to short to tie up all loose ends after 15 hours of intense character drama. I’m not asking for a Return of the King, but something more would have been nice. It didn’t even need to be animated, the photo idea mentioned above would be an excellent way to flesh out the endings somewhat. I do think these are genuinely good endings that could have been great if some more effort had went into them.
One thing that I think got increasingly worse about Telltale’s adventure-games (at least those I played) was that the gameplay sections become shorter and shorter until they barely existed. That means that the games simply were a long cut scene without a break to just walk around. I was very happy when I found out the Life Is Strange thinks the same and has a lot of time were I can simply walk around and explore. I like to play the game at my own pace and don’t feel forced to progress with the story until I want to. But the game does go out of its way a little bit and actively rewards exploring as you get to know characters better and get more clues towards the story. Really enjoyed that aspect of the game and I hope Telltale takes note.
Like I mentioned and then promptly skipped over, Max gets the ability to rewind time early on in the game. This doesn’t mean that she can go back to the dinosaurs, but rather that she can rewind time a few minutes back before getting exhausted. While this power of course plays a part in the story and attributes it with a light science fiction vibe, it is much more prevalent in the gameplay. As with many of these Telltale-esque adventure games you make a lot of decisions that might affect the story. But the interesting twist in Life Is Strange is that you can always make a decision, witness its short term consequences and then rewind time and make another decision. This is a very interesting concept that makes you view the decision-making in a different light. Since you can only rewind a few minutes you still have to make a final choice and because you don’t know the long-term consequences it’s still a bit nerving to make a decision. The time-rewind mechanic also lends to the puzzle aspect of the game, when you rewind time Max and all her items physically stays in the same place. This is used in pretty clever ways throughout the game and overall I think the time-mechanic is well implemented in both the story and gameplay department.
Life Is Strange isn’t the most graphically impressive game, Dontnod knew this and adapted a watercolor aesthetic, only somewhat reminiscent of Telltale. I do however believe that this game looks better than your average Telltale game, it’s aesthetics gives it a unique charm which works well with the limited graphics and especially the lighting is beautiful at times. The animation of character, both in gameplay and cut scenes, is generally well-made and rarely looks clunky or immersion-breaking.
The voice acting of Life Is Strange is some of the best I have heard in a video game, which is impressive considering the smaller scope of the game. Most memorable are Hannah Tell and Ashly Burch as Max and Chloe. They both fit their respective characters perfectly and deliver in spades. You can feel the chemistry between the voice actors translating into the game creating a believable bond between the two leads. Voice acting for the side character is also good and lends to the variety of the cast of the game. I don’t think I had any problem with any of the voices in the game, a lot of Life Is Strange’s budget went into this and it shows, fantastic voice acting throughout.
Life Is Strange has a certain vibe to it, a small town high school drama. The game’s mostly licensed soundtrack reflects that perfectly and solidifies the vibe of the game even further. It consists of various indie pop and rock tracks and the songs fit incredibly well with the tone and feel of the story. I think tuat this is the type of music our protagonists would listen to and it touches a certain somber bone in my body and I get all emotional listening to it. This typically isn’t my genre of music but I could listen to these tracks any day of the week because of all the great associations with the game. Definitely one for my music collection on my phone.
I like a whole lot of things in this game, almost all of it’s things. But where I see the biggest problems with Life Is Strange is in it’s technical aspects. As mentioned, I really liked the watercolor aesthetic of the game, but it’s graphics simply can’t keep up. Character models often look pretty good but a lack of detailed textures on some occasions make certain people look plastic. That mostly hold true for the entire game, everything looks nice from a distance but as you get closer you start to see the cracks. It is still a nice looking game, especially from such a small budget, but these issues are frequent enough that you do take note of them. The lip-syncing is also pretty terrible at times. In many conversations lips simply don’t respond to what is being said and it is distracting. It is never a deal-breaker, but since you spend a lot of time in serious dialogues with other character bad lip-syncing can break the immersion somewhat.
A quick word on the antagonist as well. This has gotten some bad reactions out of people which I agree with, somewhat. I think the antagonist is well handled throughout the game, but does become a tad too black-and-white towards the latter episodes. I do still think that it’s a good antagonist and is actually not part of the main conflict of the narrative, but compared to the amazing writing of Max and Chloe the villain is somewhat lacking.
I also briefly want to address a certain stealth-section found later in the game that seems to have angered a lot of people. I don’t think it was awful, it’s easy to hide from people when you can rewind time and I made it through pretty easily. I then noticed that I had rushed quite a long sequence and missed a lot of small details that I usually want to find. In the end, the stealth-sequence just isn’t a good idea in this sort of game. I want to take it easy and explore, but this forced me to rush a substantial part of the game, something that really irritated me.
Since I beat Life Is Strange, which was about a week ago, almost nothing else has been on my mind. I spent my time listening to the soundtrack and reading about it online, I felt so empty inside and wanted to fill that void somehow. To me Life Is Strange was an incredible narrative experience. I was immediately intrigued by the story and couldn’t wait to know what happened in the next episode. I fell in love with the characters, the leads and the side-characters around them and when I hear that soundtrack I get very emotional. I can easily say that Life Is Strange features one of the best stories I have ever experienced in a form of art and it’s two leads some of the best characters I have ever had the joy to know. I liked the freedom of the gameplay and thought the time-mechanic was clever and well implemented. As I started writing this review, I would have easily given Life Is Strange my highest rating as it seemed to be one of the best game I had ever played. I do now recognize some issues with the game. There are graphical problems and the lip-syncing is bad at times. The villain is a bit to black-and-white and I do think the endings leave somethings to be desired. If some more efforts were made in these areas I could stand by and say that Life Is Strange is perfect, but I can’t. Despite these small issues Life Is Strange has been one of the best experiences I have had with a piece of art in a very long time and I can’t wait to play it again to make that void in my heart even bigger.
If you like the time-travel aspects of Life Is Strange, I highly recommend the anime Steins;Gate which deals with similar issues but goes a lot further with the concept.
If you like the feel of a small town mystery, look no further than Twin Peaks, the tv show that basically created the genre.
And finally, if you liked the weirdness of the later chapters of the game, I recommend you play Kentucky Route Zero, a surreal indie adventure-game. You will want to experience this one.
Cover image source: https://i.ytimg.com