|System: PC*, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360|
|Pub: Square Enix|
|Release: March 24, 2015|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence, Use of Drugs|
by Angelo M. D'Argenio
It is often said that our most innovative endeavors are also our most flawed. From the N64 analog stick to Sega’s early experiments with digital distribution, firsts are usually not bests. Yet without them, the path would never be opened up for followers who would later refine these experiments and make them commonplace.
This is the best way I can describe Life is Strange and its most recent episode, Out of Time. It has the guts to deal with some very serious issues like date rape, suicide, domestic violence, drug abuse, and other issues that many games won’t even begin to touch. However, in its quest to spin a compelling and devastatingly serious narrative the likes of which we haven’t yet seen in the gaming industry, Life is Strange trips over itself by making some simple and sometimes unforgivable gameplay mistakes. As a result, we routinely find ourselves roadblocked with busywork and strangely disjointed conversations on our way to getting to the narrative high points of this interesting indie movie-style point and click time rewinding adventure.
Lots of things carry over from the first episode. The decent graphics but somewhat stiff animations are the same. The amazing soundtrack and voice work are the same. Even the control scheme is the same, which is to say you are far better off playing this on a controller than with a keyboard and mouse.
Unfortunately, many of the flaws in the formula carry over as well. The game still tells you an objective, but doesn’t expect you to complete it right away. Instead, it expects you to ignore your objective and instead wander around talking to everyone and examining everything. You are actively punished if you do not seek out this extra info by missing out on choices and actions that can have impact on the story. I wouldn’t mind if, say, there was some downside to wandering around, like being late to your meet-ups or whatnot, but instead the only real choice is whether to experience all the game's content or not.
Episode 2 continues to be really bad about telling you what it actually wants you to do at any given point. You end up just futzing around clicking on stuff until you get it “right.” Heck, I didn’t even know I could take pictures as collectibles until this episode, and apparently that’s one of the main collectibles in the game.
The game also still forces you into making decisions with no good outcome. It’s clear now that the ramifications of these decisions will become more apparent in later episodes, as your decisions from episode one come back to bite you, but for now it just feels like you are just backed into a corner over and over again.
Now these flaws are joined by another ugly monster of game design: padding. There is so much of this game that could just be cut out without effecting the story in any way whatsoever. For example, before you leave your room in the beginning of the game, you have to get dressed. The game could have dressed you automatically in a cutscene or something, but instead you have to walk to your closet, click on your clothes, get dressed, and then leave the room. You cannot leave the room until you do this, so choosing to not get dressed has absolutely no bearing on the story. It’s just a meaningless hurdle you need to jump through in order to continue.
This happens far too often. Before you can leave a diner, you need to drink coffee, then play a game where you “guess” what is in your friend’s pockets by rewinding time, then examine a scene and explain it to your friend moment by moment, and then you can finally leave. If you choose the wrong option even once during these segments, your friend totally disbelieves in your super power and you have to play the scene all over again, which takes forever. Similarly, later in the game you have to find five bottles for your friend to shoot 'cause she is just such a rowdy wild girl. You are in a junkyard filled with cans, jugs, and all manner of things to use for target practice, but unless you find five very specific green bottles, the game won’t let you proceed. I’m not playing this game to experience Bottle Finder 3000, and considering these bottles barely play into the plot, the whole segment could have been cut and saved you 30 minutes to an hour of stupid random searching.
But once you get past all this, you get participate in the most fun activity the game has to offer: being a high-school girl. You weave this tangled web of relationships as you learn everyone’s secrets and slowly make new friends. Whenever the game is focusing on the people you know, it becomes enthralling. You want to know what the popular girls are planning. You want to know how your best friend is dealing with her broken home.
You especially want to know about Kate Marsh, the quiet religious girl who seems to be going through some tough times. Kate is the one character that the episode most focuses on, and her plot threads encompass the aforementioned date rape and suicide. If you were able to rewind time again and again in an attempt to fix the serious problems that Kate is going through, that would cheapen the entire experience. Instead, Life is Strange makes the bold move of taking your powers away. One of the subplots of the game is that Max, our main character, can’t fully control her power. Using it is harming her somehow and overuse makes it burn out for periods of time. So at some crucial moments when rewinding time would just be too convenient, Max can't do so. This choice to take your power away doesn’t feel frustrating, rather, it makes you feel profoundly vulnerable, which is exactly what the scenes call for.
It’s this mastery of tone that really makes Life is Strange stand out above other games of its ilk. The camera work is phenomenal, with interesting pulled out angles making you feel like you are being watched during conversations. It still shows great control of its musical score, fading it in at the right points to punctuate the emotional feeling of any particular scene. The characters feel complex and your fellow teenagers feel cruel in a very real way, which makes them perhaps more terrifying than any other diabolical video game villain.