The gaming landscape of today is more vast and varied than any other time before us. In the past if a studio released a game to less than stellar sales figures, that studio would likely never see another release. In today’s world however, the landscape is such that a studio can release a moderately successful first title and go on to release smaller, more focused offerings. A developer such as Dontnod, based in Paris France would have most likely sunk into obscurity after their first offering, Remember Me. Luckily for them, however Square Enix saw potential and developed a publishing relationship with them to deliver Life Is Strange on Xbox One, PS4, and Steam.
An adventure game in similar style to earlier offerings from Tell Tale Games, Life is Strange is told over five separate episodes, each releasing approximately two months apart. You play Max Caufield, a High School senior that has just returned to her home town for her last year of high school. She attends Blackwell academy, a specialized high school for artists of varying types. Over the course of all five episodes you will be faced with various decisions and, depending on how you choose to confront those events, your story will adapt to those actions. Much in the same way Tell Tale’s games adapt, however Life is Strange twists the equation by adding in a time travel mechanic. Max is able to rewind short stints of time to undo conversations or certain actions you might have chosen. This is a welcome change, as now instead of wondering how a conversation could go should you push it in a different direction, you can simply rewind and see how the character would take it. I find this to be both a blessing and curse as by my exploratory nature I find myself reliving the same conversation multiple times over, just to see what happens. This mechanic isn’t just for choosing your experience though, as Max remembers the information you gain from these conversations, even if you rewind time. This is the crux of the game, and as a result you’ll be spending most of your time in conversation.
These conversations are some of the most engaging I’ve experienced in any game. The voice team employed by Dontnod is simply on top of their game, creating characters that are at once authentic and genuine, giving the player the feeling that these are real people, with real problems and motivations beyond what we’re shown on screen. It is at once believable and there’s something undeniably human about the entire experience. Without going in spoiler territory, there is a character that is being bullied for something she may or may not have done. She is a quiet individual, however just going into her room and speaking with her, you do learn about her, about her home life, and what she is like as a human being. Over the course of episodes one, two and three you have the opportunity to get to know each of the characters extremely well and develop a group of friends that each seems to have concern for Max and their own well being.
From a gameplay perspective, new ground isn’t being broken here. It’s extremely similar to Tell Tale games, if you’ve played those you’ll be at home here, however there is a distinct difference. Tell Tale employed a dual control stick method if you played with a controller, where the left stick controlled player movement while the right stick controlled a reticle which would select objects in the world and give your character the actions to use on those objects. Dontnod instead employs a single control stick and the face buttons controlling contextual actions within the world. It is at once easier to control, and serves the game better for it. That being said, there isn’t any kind of active combat in Life is Strange. That isn’t to say the game isn’t without its moments of tension, but this isn’t the title’s strong suit. The situations Max finds herself in are at times tense, however with the time rewind mechanic, I never felt in danger. Should I let the time run out, I could always simply rewind and start it over, now knowing what doesn’t work. In most cases this sense of safety prevails, however in some cases her time travel will falter, leaving you vulnerable again to the progress of time. It is these rare instances that I did feel tense and anxious at what could happen, but they come far to sparingly for my tastes. There just simply isn’t a lot of actual tension, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to try to add more in future episodes.
Graphically the game has adopted a quasi-realistic, painterly aesthetic that fits the feeling wonderfully. I found myself playing through as part participant, part photographer, snapping screen shot after screen shot that could pass for tasteful artwork were it hung on my walls. Just as important is the soundtrack, which is an eclectic mix of Indie Pop, Folk, Punk, and Rock. There is one particularly poignant scene in which Chloe and Max are sitting in a bed, reminiscing over recent events while Bright Eye’s “Lua” plays on Chloe’s stereo. I found myself also sitting and ruminating, despite being able to continue to play. These moments of simple quietude are sprinkled through, allowing you to breathe, to take in and think about what’s happened and what may come.
Life is Strange is one of those rare games that immediately grabbed me. I was hooked as soon as Max put in her headphones and Syd Matters began singing “To All Of You” as I walked to Max’s locker, preparing for class. It is a melancholic slice of life in which the world feels alive and larger than just Max, you’re only seeing a portion of it. I am very excited to see where the narrative goes, though I am cautiously optimistic, not because of my earlier experience, but for the potential for it to backfire at the last minute. Time travel is a difficult topic to cover in any medium, and if done right it is fantastic, but that line is extremely fine and I hope all the best for Dontnod. Regardless of how it turns out, Life is Strange is a game about the journey there, not necessary the end game, and I look forward to seeing their conclusion.
*NOTE: This review only covers my experiences with Life Is Strange up through episode 3. I played the game on PC, through Steam with a controller. Episode 4 is out today, and I would recommend jumping in now. The Finale is set for an assumed September release.