(This is a tentative review critiquing an ongoing series. As such, this review will contain no final score, but an individual critique and summary that is solely based on the experience of the episode. This game’s overall critique is subject to change in other episode reviews and will be determined after the final installment.)
(This review of Life is Strange: Episode 1 is spoiler free.)
What do you get when you combine the teenage drama of Mean Girls, the supernatural mystery of Twin Peaks, and the indie film, small town charm of Juno? The result is one sweetly refreshing and incredibly intriguing game called Life is Strange. Sure, it sounds like a bizarre amalgamation of incompatible tropes, but this episodic series handles them with finesse. I didn’t know what to expect going into this relatively unknown title, but if the first episode, “Chrysalis”, is any indication of the series’ narrative and gameplay quality, Life is Strange will undeniably become one of the most memorable adventure games in recent history.
“Chrysalis” introduces us to our protagonist Maxine Caulfield — a clear reference to Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield — and her turbulent start at Blackwell Academy, a prestigious institution for exceptional high school seniors. She’s your typical, socially awkward eighteen year old who has a penchant for analog photography and keeping to herself. Typical, except for the ability to envision the future and reverse time at will. Though she doesn’t sound like anything special, her characterization is done extremely well, especially when you delve into her journal entries, her thoughts and attitudes on various objects, and the other extras strewn around the game. There are some aspects of her personality that are determined by the player, but she’s still just as delightful whether I played her as a timid shut-in with the occasional inkling for revenge or as a more courageous, outspoken girl who just wants to help her classmates. And that’s why I think she’s a great character: she’s flexible as a digital character but also extremely believable as an actor in the story, which is a difficult balance. Max Caulfield is quickly shaping up to be one of the best characters of 2015 so far and possibly one of my top five of the year.
But Max isn’t just embroiled in droll teenage drama, battling the jocks and cheerleaders while championing her less than popular friends. This is where the Twin Peaks vibe comes in, as secret after secret reveals that each character isn’t what they appear. At first glance, these characters are cliches of the typical high school habitat, but there’s room shown and inferred that suggest they’re more complex than “the mean rich girl” or the “quiet bookworm”. Couple this with an increasingly fascinating plot and the game kept pulling me in after every new turn, after every new smart, self-reflexive comment.
This praise, however, does not mean that Life is Strange is without its narrative flaws. The writing falls pretty weak at some points and the voice acting is for the most part decent to sub-par with glimmers of brilliance. The biggest problem so far though is the pacing. Dontnod wants the player to really get into the action quickly, but it results in some rushed scenes and conclusions that seem forced. For example, Max’s acceptance of her new-found time travel ability is ridiculously hasty, to the point that she uses the power for about the second time before she basically states “I have the ability to rewind time!” without any other clues or inner conflict. What’s even more bizarre is the apprehension and disbelief of her power comes after her acceptance. It’s jarring to say the least, but it doesn’t cripple the story as a whole as the pacing was only off in brief, particular bursts.
Graphically, Life is Strange isn’t the most beautiful game; artistically though, the game utilizes a brilliant oil painting style to give Arcadia Bay a soft, charming appeal. If I had to give a cross-reference, it’s similar to Telltale’s style but less jagged. It succeeded at putting me into that small town setting, where there’s an air of bliss and a predominant sense of wholesome innocence. One particular detail throughout the world that I thought really tied the art style together with the narrative was the way pictures are portrayed. Instead of plugging in real life images into this temperate world, effectively breaking the immersion, the game uses watercolor portraits as pictures. It connects Max’s love of photography, its importance in the story and its symbolism with the actual art design of Arcadia Bay. Such a small touch, but one that shows ingenuity at the production level.
Life is Strange isn’t solely a narrative experience — it’s an adventure game. Most of the game is spent looking at objects, collecting objects and conversing with the wonderful cast to unlock new clues into the mystery of Blackwell Academy. Except there’s time travel. Max can rewind time to a certain degree and she uses this to correct her past mistakes or prevent something disastrous from happening. The mechanic itself is enjoyable and it’s a refreshing way to solve puzzles and progress through the game. Speaking of solving puzzles, the factor of time and its manipulation is expertly figured into the game as each tension filled situation runs in real-time as you solve it. One fantastic example, which occurs near the beginning of game, is that Max must stop a shooting by creating a distraction. I was frantic as I heard the same conversation over and over again, the words acting as a cue before the inevitable gunshot rang out and it was time to rewind my failure. Unfortunately, there are only a few situations like this in the game; most are incredibly basic and can’t really be called puzzles. Hopefully, this changes as the game ramps up.
Consequences, consequences, consequences. There are many major and seemingly inconsequential moments throughout Life is Strange that can have an impact on how the story will turn out. Like the Telltale games’ system, Life is Strange informed me of when something would impact the way characters saw me or how certain events would unfold followed by a little insertion of doubt from Max herself indirectly pointed at the player (Dontnod knows the adventure game crowd too well). The time travel mechanic makes it so you can change your decisions within a certain limit and the game does a pretty good job at making each decision equal in their positives and negatives. As for their impact on the story, they did change up my game quite a bit — definitely more than what I was expecting. Whether these decisions will have a grander, more long-term impact is still yet to be seen.
With “Chrysalis” being a smashing success in setting up the story, the characters and the odd mixture of time travel and a teenage driven mystery, Life is Strange is turning into one my most anticipated titles of 2015. Even after I was done playing the first episode a couple of times, the game’s unique brand of narrative driven entertainment lingered in my memory. Life is Strange is full of charm and wit, coalesced with equal measures of unease and intrigue. I would recommend episode 1, “Chrysalis”, to anyone who wants to play just a great game that is definitely unique to the gaming scene. The game’s heavy emphasis on teenage drama and punk/hipster culture might not be for everyone, but the quality and interesting spiritual(?) element are there if you’re interested.
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood