Developer: DOTNOD Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: January 30th, 2015 (Episode 1)
Platforms: PS4, PS3, XB360, XB1, Windows, Linux, OS X
The clever combination of tackling both the troubles of one’s teenage years and the supernatural is what the core of Life is Strange excels at. The narrative driven adventure is parallel to that of the Telltale Games formula, yet is still able to give itself its own identity with a great cast of characters, whose relationships have weight and meaning behind them.
The melancholic tone of Life is Strange centers around Max Caulfield, who after moving away from Arcadia Bay five years ago, has returned as a student at the city’s prestigious Blackwell Academy. Between dealing with the expected cliques and popularity contests that occupy the toxic social scene at the school, Max stumbles upon a threatening mishap which evokes a strange ability within her. Upon discovering the power to rewind time and change the course of events played out, Max begins to both learn to use these powers to her advantage while playing makeshift teenage detective in hopes of unraveling the mysteries that have begun to sprout around Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy.
Even though Max is the main character in this story, you can make a solid argument that her childhood friend Chloe Price steals the spotlight more often than not. Their half decade of separation has led the two of them in entirely different directions, and the disconnect and dysfunction between Max and Chloe was easily my favorite part of Life is Strange’s story. Like every one of Max’s friends, their issues become hers as well, which of course leads of Max trying to be the do-gooder in all situations. With their relationship being one of the focal points of the game, Chloe tops the list of friends whose aid you must come to the most. Even though a lot of the time is spent both helping Chloe find her lost friend Rachel or trying to get out of hairy situations with the local drug dealer, it’s the speed bumps of the two trying to rekindle their once solidified friendship that are the cornerstone of the development of both characters.
While we’re in the head space of comparing Life is Strange’s narrative format to that of Telltale’s, it should be noted that there are still a few technical glitches during character conversations, though not nearly as frequent. You’ll still get your typical janky facial animations, or character whose heads turn and face the wrong way mid-sentence. There’s also a number of animations that become almost laughable at times in their frequency, such as Max constantly wiping the side of her face while talking to other people. The rewind time option was also something of an inconsistency, and I occasionally would have trouble trying to find the correct moments to activate or deactivate my powers.
Max’s ability to rewind time still has its perks, and at times is executed beautifully. While rewinding and replaying events are one thing, Max’s time control abilities work well as a puzzle solving mechanic. For example, at one point you must find a way to acquire a person’s keys in order to break into their RV, and in order to do so you actually have to fail the task first to acquire them. This trial and error approach while clever is necessary for the story to progress.
There is one outspoken feature of Max’s abilities that did upset me however. Throughout the game, there are decisions you can make that are clearly indicated as points where the narrative will take drastic turns. Say you choose option A, after everything’s said and done you can still rewind back if you weren’t satisfied with the way your choice played out. I’m not a fan of the idea of not holding players accountable for their actions, but with the open access to time manipulation, it wouldn’t make sense to block out this feature at certain points.
The visuals and art design of Arcadia Bay are one of my favorite parts of the game. Centered around Max’s ambitions to become a successful photographer, Life is Strange takes that element and throws it into numerous parts of the game. Items that you can interact with are highlighted in a drawn out sketch themed outline, and taking photos around the town are a great way to capture the scenery that DONTNOT has succeeded in creating.
The narrative execution of Life is Strange handles relationships, mystery, and the troubles of adolescent years well. The rekindling of Max and Chloe’s friendship is one that’s palpable for players, and tackles real life issues in its portrayal. The setting and design of Arcadia Bay is a beautifully designed set piece that makes even the most unsettling of events in Life is Strange express a sense of peacefulness. Telltale Game’s influence in DONTNOD Entertainment’s narrative experience is noticeable, while still presenting itself in a way that allows Life is Strange to stand on its own.