Life is Strange started as a simple episodic digital release but today gets the full retail treatment. The Life is Strange: Limited Edition hits shelves today with an art book, developers’ commentary and a licensed soundtrack. While I’d love to get my hands on that, I’ve already played the game and named it et geekera’s Game of the Year for 2015. However, I only reviewed the individual episodes. This review is for the first “season” of Life is Strange.
Spoiler Alert: There will some spoilers about the ending though I won’t directly spoil the decisions that you are given by the game. However, you will easily be able to infer what the likely endings may be.
Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game that relies on your choices and actions to influence the story going forward. Yes, it’s one of a growing list of games in this genre. Ever since Telltale Games had a hit with The Walking Dead, these episodic adventure games have been all the rage.
Unlike all of the current Telltale lineup, Life is Strange is a new IP from developers Dontnod. It starts Max Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who is in her senior year at Blackwell Academy, a prep school specializing in the arts. Very early on in the game, Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time which results in her reunited with her estranged best friend, Chloe Price, and the two go off on an adventure together.
While decisions affecting a game is fairly routine for a game, introducing the rewind mechanic gives Life is Strange a unique twist on the genre. In Telltale’s games, there is often a time limit to make a decision and you will have to suffer the short and long-term consequences of that decision. The rewind mechanic in LiS allows you to see the short-term consequences and hypothesize about the long-term impact of your decision. Should that not be to your liking, you can rewind time to make a different decision and second-guess yourself all over again.
Dontnod primarily uses the rewind mechanic as a means for puzzle solving but the strength of the mechanic is as a characterization device. Generally, the big decisions in the game are presented with time stopped and dramatic music highlighting it. After making your decision, Max will summarize what she thinks will happen and you get a chance to rewind time and choose again.
It’s these moments with Max that gave me the biggest indication of what she was like as a person and how she wanted to just fit in at Blackwell like a normal kid. It’s refreshing to be a character but for that character to be her own character outside our actions. In Mass Effect, Shepard didn’t have an internal monologue because we were Shepard and his/her conscience. The same is true of the main characters in Telltale games. We might be making the decisions for Max Caulfield as the player but she is still a person with thoughts and feelings underneath it all regardless of what we choose. Max Caulfield differs from the rest of the protagonists in this genre because she’s a character, not an avatar.
The strength of Life is Strange lies with the writing. While similar episodic games are occasionally successful in getting the players to feel something while playing, I think that LiS did a better job of making me care about the characters. If you asked me after the first episode, I never would have come close to saying that because it started as a generic high school drama. Right off the start of the next episode, the game grew up from teenage drama to something that was so much more mature than what I expected.
Starting with the second episode, Life is Strange started tackling some really heavy theme like rape culture, slut shaming, bullying, mental health, depression, grief, social stigmas over mental health, drugs and suicide. Most of these themes don’t work in video games because they aren’t really treated in the correct way. They feel very gamey. A lot of more “traditional” works of fiction have a hard time doing these themes justice.
Perhaps it’s because LiS is more of an interactive story than a more standard “game” or a completely hands-off experience, it has a greater impact and you feel something as a result of it. Your decisions will be informed by and affect the presentation of those aforementioned theme but it’s not like you can game your way out of the really dark turns this game can take as a result of those themes in the narrative.
Life is Strange does mix in some lighter themes so the game isn’t just sad and depressing. There is your standard coming of age story as Max and Chloe reunite after spending their teenage years in different cities. The girls also get to have their own detective adventure that ends up being a lot more satisfying than any of the so-called detective work that was in fellow Square Enix game Murdered: Soul Suspect. And there’s an endearing, light-hearted series of scenes in which Chloe and Max explore her time rewinding superpower.
Even as the game reached its conclusion and things seemed to take turn after turn for the more serious, there are some lighter moments mixed into the story. I’d say that by changing the tone of the story as it progresses makes the peaks feel higher and the valleys feel lower. Most games try to make you feel something but Life is Strange is one of the most successful in the industry at making players feel.
As is often the case for games that bill themselves as having a story influenced by your actions over the course of the game or “season,” Life is Strange’s ending was generally poorly received by gamers. Some people loved as evidenced by some t-shirts on Red Bubble that I love (but won’t link to because of spoilers) but many more felt that the endings took very little into account other than the final decision. We’ve seen plenty of games where outcomes seem to be largely defined by one last decision such as Mass Effect or most Telltale games so it shouldn’t come as unexpected but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somewhat disappointing.
While the final episode gave you a choice from two options to conclude Max’s story, I always thought that Max’s story had to end with her death. The game repeatedly teased us with moments where Max’s power would physically overwhelm her and she would either suffer a nosebleed, a headache or pass out as a result of abusing her ability to rewind time.
I thought that was leading us to this reveal that Max’s powers were causing her to kill herself. The plot seemed to be setting up a reveal of what she thought was a little fun or helping people out was actually hurting her most of all. It seemed to lead to a final decision where Max would have to sacrifice herself to save Arcadia Bay from the apocalypse or perhaps have an alternative option to save the town if the right conditions were met. The implication is that Max’s power that seemed to be causing strange phenomena in Arcadia Bay so why wouldn’t she have to stop herself to save the town?
That’s not to say that the conclusion wasn’t somewhat emotionally satisfying. Clearly, the developers spent more time with one of the two endings than the other. One involved a lengthy wrap-up scene and montage while the other was a short scene that seemed to be the developers trying to tell you that they had a preferred canon ending. That was disappointingly lazy.
From a visual perspective, Life is Strange doesn’t really have a unique art style so much as a unique visual composition. The characters and environments lie in a middle ground between realistic and cartoony. Certain features and colours are stylized in a way that seems like it was done in a way to make life easier on the design team and the hardware.
For a game taking place in an art school, LiS does emphasize the composition of the story scenes. The use of colours, lighting, framing, focus and music combine to create ambience in a way that not many games do. Okay, a lot of games use colour and music to create mood but I’ve seldom seen a game use a very standard approach to artistic composition. I’ve taken photography classes and learned the theory of framing, focus (aperture) and lighting to compose photos. This game seemed to me like the devs studied photography to understand their main character and it permeated into the look of their game.
So I suppose when I say that the art design was done in a way to go easy on the hardware, that doesn’t mean the visuals were low rent. The lighting, shadows and depth of field were on par with the best games that triple-A has to offer.
From an audio perspective, Life is Strange has the best licensed soundtrack this side of Grand Theft Auto. I found it kind of funny that I used to be on a radio station that focused on indie artists but Dontnod could find indie artists with not only great sounds but great albums and libraries when you look into them. I’m not sure if I miss the good old days at Radio Western but I don’t miss the music that I often heard while at the station. The jazz on the station was legit, though. For a game often derided as being hipster, there wasn’t any jazz in LiS.
The voice acting was pretty good as well. For the most part, the game was voiced by relatively unknown voice actors. It’s one of those decisions that would interest you on a bigger budget title. Your Troy Bakers and Nolan Norths and Jennifer Hales are in those games because they’re really good but because they’re good, you know their voices so they stick out a little because you go “Oh hey! It’s this person!” rather than immediately letting them blend into the role.
Anyway, the voice acting was carried by Ashly Burch as Chloe who carried most of the emotional weight of the entire series on her vocal cords. Her nominations for best performance awards were well deserved. She wasn’t helped by the dialogue writing. While it often hit the right notes, there were times when the dialogue felt like what a middle-aged white man thought cool kids said. It was comical at times and was certainly helped by the dialogue getting a little self-referential about some of the hella weird choice of words.
I often find when giving an overall score to a season of episodic games, I give a final score that’s a rough average of the scores of the individual episodes. Life is Strange isn’t the average episodic game, though. It’s far and away better than anything other game in the genre. (There’s your back of the box quote SquEnix.) To just say that a Game of the Year candidate that only got stronger as the story progressed is only worth an 8.5/10 because that’s the average score wouldn’t be at all accurate.
Life is Strange is one of those examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, it wasn’t always a perfect game but the story and characters and atmosphere meant more with every episode. While each episode built to its own crescendo, the series as a whole built to this amazing climax. When so many great stories struggle to stick the landing, Life is Strange did it in the same amazing way we’re used to at the end of every episode.
At its heart, Life is Strange was a game about making you feel something. It evoked something in so many gamers. It elicited a passion that is so often missing from modern gaming. For so many, this is a once in a lifetime game. I’m so glad I played this game. Even if it did make me bawl my eyes out regularly.
Life is Strange was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you can feel them feels.