The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”
Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.
Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.
The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.
The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.
Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.
There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.
What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.
The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.
There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.
What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.
One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.
Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).
The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.
Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.
There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).
That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.
In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).
I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.
The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.
Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.
I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.
Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.