It has occurred to me how little I actually research the games I am going to review until I actually play them. This is mostly because I enjoy going into a game blind and not have my expectations too heavily hued by trailers and speculation, but it’s getting to the point where I jump into games without even seeing 30 seconds worth of gameplay or more than five screenshots. I’m not sure if that’s unusual, just like I’m unsure if playing most games several months or years after their initial release is unusual, but it’s something I’ve been doing lately, and something that applies to this title.
Life Is Strange Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, PS3, XBO, Xbox 360
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Life is Strange is centered around Max Caulfield, a high school senior who recently moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay in order to attend a prestigious school. After acclimating to this school, she is reunited with her childhood friend, Chloe Price, and inadvertently discovers that she has the ability to turn back time. An ability that naturally proves to be instrumental as the two begin investigating a series of strange occurrences that appear in their town, searching for answers and justice alike while dealing with a lot of teenager-based drama, and some surprisingly dark themes. Or at least that is the best description I can muster up, as Life is Strange is a rather peculiar game.
It has a very distinctive personality that I struggle to properly define or categorize, though that may just be due to my unfamiliarity with the specific aspects of American youth drama the game is clearly building itself off of. Regardless, the story left me genuinely wondering what path it was going to take, while also maintaining a large variety of tones. Certain scenes and story beats are playful and lighthearted, some are heartfelt and dramatic, and others can be surprisingly dark, especially after the writers pull the tragedy level near the surprisingly morose conclusion for the game.
The final two episodes of this five episode adventure are rife with death, drugging, rape, trauma, and both definitions of devastation. It was emotionally gripping and oppressive in a way that honestly caught me off guard and had me giddily going through the game in order to see how the story would conclude and where the cast of surprisingly intricate characters would end up. Only to reach that conclusion and be caught off guard, but not for particularly good reasons. I’ll just say that I can respect what the developers were trying to do with it, that does not mean I found it satisfying.
Though, that’s not to say the ending is the only sour note throughout the entire game, three of which in particular spring to mind. Firstly, the first two episodes are home to a few curiously inserted hot button “modern teen” issues, a somewhat unrealistic or dated vernacular for the teenage characters, and a litany of archetypical characters who are all too easy to dismiss as monodimensional. Such as the cool young male teacher, a scattering of “alt chicks”, the token church girl, a gaggle of rich popular girls, and so on. This is all built upon a high school that is dated in both its appearance and social structure, being far more relatable to the impression of high school crafted by decades old media than any sort of genuine high school experience from the past ten years.
Secondly, Max’s time powers, which the entire plot is built around, are also never really explained, and don’t follow a stringent rule set. There is no proper limit to how far back she can go into the past, her ability to fully stop time is only ever used once in the story, and the ability to travel back in time using photographs, while interesting, leave the door open to a lot of questions and alternate solution to problems that the game never addresses. Why couldn’t she travel back in time and write a note to tell her past self how to create a better future? I have no idea.
Thirdly, while the relationship between Max and Chloe is a compelling one that manages to have their two conflicting personalities compliment each other in a believable way, there are two things that persistently bothered me about their relationship. The fact that they supposedly did not attempt to contact each other for the past five years, which I refuse to accept considering that they were best friends. Along with how these two are clearly intended to be a lesbian couple, but the game is confusingly subtle about that side of their relationship. To the point where, aside from a few scenes near the conclusion, I could understand why someone would not think that these two were romantically involved.
These are footnotes to an otherwise enjoyable story that also takes inspiration from modern Telltale games with its general structure. Meaning that the game is a modern adventure title where the player needs to survey environments, do a few small puzzles, and make choices that minorly impact the story and give the players as a sense of agency and investment as they role play a character. Except, I felt a bit odd controlling Max’s decisions considering how much of an established character she ultimately is. Because of this, it felt like there was a right and wrong answer to every choice for Max to ultimately make, which is further muddied by the ability to rewind time to see the short-term outcomes of these choices.
Seemingly in order to counter this, Dontnod included many ambiguous choices where the player is incapable of knowing the long-term repercussions of their decisions, or is given many reasons to feel unconfident in their actions. This frustrated me to the point where I looked up the consequences of certain decisions so I could understand what my choices mean. That, and not screw myself over into unknowingly getting a worse ending, only to realize that there are basically only two.
As for the more exploratory elements, this is the prime example of why I do not like the over the shoulder camera perspective in anything other than a third person shooter. In most third person games where this perspective is adopted, the player’s view is narrowed to only a specific section of an area, and it makes the act of exploring anywhere in detail more difficult than a wider camera does. Because of this, it is easy to miss certain bits of scenery or interactables unless the player is not regularly rotating the camera.
Life is Strange is one of the most potent examples to why this does not work for exploration driven games, as that’s what the gameplay largely consists of. The results screen for each episodes often lists interactables that would be easy to miss given this camera perspective, and it was not uncommon to see that 80% of players did not interact with them. While the one section of the game that required scrounging through the environment in great detail, where Max had to find bottles in the junkyard, was so reviled that the developers openly mocked this section in the final episode.
As for the other breed of puzzles, the game occasionally throws a conversation based challenges to the player, which also highlight how this game occasionally suffers the Fallout 4 problem, where conversation options are fairly vague in their presentation, or their exact meaning can be hard to grasp. Thankfully, only a few sections require an exact criteria to receive a specific outcome, and most conversational puzzles involve learning about a topic in a conversation before going back in time to ask someone about that topic. Which I would have really liked to see explored in a more meaningful way.
All of this is presented using an art style that, while realistic in proportions and certain textures, manages to achieve a very painterly look thanks to the coloring, lighting, and general world design. This gives the game a certain visual flare despite taking place is a fairly mundane setting, and combined with good staging for more cinematic moments can make Life is Strange quite striking and beautiful at some points. To the point where I actually became curious if the presentation would be substantially improved by fixed camera angles.
While I can point at numerous little irksome qualities about Life Is Strange, it was still a remarkable title with a story both captivating and curious that had me invested after an admittedly shaky introduction. It has some mechanical hindrances, but boasts a story that both had me staying up later than I should have so I could see how things would progress, and leave the game idle for several minutes while I sat and contemplated what was being shown. It surpassed my admittedly low expectations, and resonated with me far more than most games do.