|System: PC*, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4|
|Pub: Square Enix|
|Release: January 30, 2015|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence, Use of Drugs|
by Angelo M. D'Argenio
Life is Strange is the newest offering from RPG giant Square-Enix and Dontnod, the development studio that brought us Remember Me. It's best described as a cinematic game following in the traditions of Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead. It also tries very hard to give off an indie movie sort of vibe, telling a deeply personal story of a high schooler, reflecting on her choices as she makes her way through life. However, certain design choices both make the game more interesting and less compelling to play. Life is Strange seems to constantly be battling against its own concept. When it wins, it’s a fantastically artistic experience, but the struggle to show that artistic side can sometimes pull you out of the experience.
Life is Strange follows the adventures of Maxine Caulfield. Max is a photography student who left town five years ago to pursue her career as an artist. She recently has come back to her hometown of Arcadia, Oregon after a short time of living in Seattle, on a scholarship that allows her to attend an elite school for the arts. Unfortunately, life has changed in the past five years, and the choices that Max and her friends have made will forever change her future. Her relationships are not what they used to be, her friends have grown distant, and even the town itself seems to have a darkness about it, as missing persons posters and acts of school violence are becoming commonplace. You guide Max through all of this as she makes new relationships and attempts to find her place in the world.
Oh yeah… and you can rewind time.
On the surface, Life is Strange plays like any other Telltale-style adventure game. You walk around an area looking at things, touching things, picking up things, and speaking to people. There is some light puzzle solving, a lot of dialogue, and important moral choices that affect the plot. In this respect the game does well.
But after an early scene, Max realizes that she has the power to rewind time in order to change the past. The way Max realizes she has this power is a little forced and contrived, and the first few scenes where she experiments with it are incredibly awkward, but that can be forgiven. What is a bit harder to overlook is how this affects the rest of the gameplay.
There are two main ways in which this power is used. The first is the aforementioned puzzle solving. Max’s inventory and memory are not affected by rewinding time. The game will frequently have you pick up items that only become available after some catastrophe, then rewind time only to use that item in order to prevent said catastrophe. Similarly, you may find yourself getting railroaded down undesirable outcomes in dialogue trees, but these outcomes reveal new information that you can then use earlier in the conversation if you rewind. These puzzles are never really hard, only requiring rewinding a couple seconds at most in order to fix everything up, but they do give you a couple of neat “aha” moments. In this respect, the time rewinding mechanic works quite well.
The second way that your time powers are used is a little less rewarding. Much like in Telltale games, you will come to points where your actions or dialogue decisions will change the direction of the plot. You’ll be notified of this in the standard Telltale manner, through a dialogue box at the top left of the screen that says “he will remember this” or “she noticed you are uneasy” or something like that. In cinematic games, these are the big points in which you feel like you have an impact on the world around you. You made a decision and you have to stick to it.
Except you don’t have to stick to it in Life is Strange. Every time you make a serious choice, you can see the immediate effects of it, then just rewind if you don’t like it. Then you go through the dialogue again choose the other choice, see the other consequences, and you can go back again if you still don’t like them. It kind of puts training wheels on the whole idea of a cinematic game. You never make the wrong choices now, and more importantly it feels extra cheap when both choices you can make are bad. In this way, the time reversal mechanic actually makes the game less compelling.
That’s not to say Life is Strange is bad. On the contrary, there are lots of good design elements here. Character design, in particular, is amazing. The many characters in Max’s high school feel like real people, not just stereotypes. Sure, you'll get the snooty rich kids, the shy geeks, the punks, the outcasts, and the athletes, but as you continue to talk to these characters they feel as if they are less 80s movie stereotypes and more living breathing human beings. Teachers stammer over themselves and sometimes get hung up on their own lessons. Kids gossip in a natural way. The world feels living, not just a construct in service to the main character’s progression to the plot. This alone is a triumph in world building.