Life Is Strange Review
I don’t have a huge amount of experience with these types of episodic games, but Life Is Strange was made by the people who made Remember Me (probably one of my favorite games of 2013), so I knew I had to give it a shot. For months upon months I waited for it to be completed, dodging spoilers like some kind of internet ninja so that I could play through the whole thing in one go once all its episodes were released, and it was totally worth it. That’s not to say that everything turned out to be as incredible as I had heard, of course; when the early episodes released, I heard a lot about how even small things seemed to have consequences, right down to whether you water your plant or not. Now that the entire game is available, it’s apparent that the only actual consequences many of these things have are small dialogue changes that don’t end up mattering. However, unlike The Wolf Among Us, which annoyed me with its lies about reactivity, Life Is Strange does change a bit in the middle of the game depending on whether a certain character is alive or dead. It’s also completely devoid of QTE sections, and includes little touches like the need to occasionally piece together clues or sneak around someone in a stealth section. Even without all of that, though, the writing is more than enough to make this a must-play title.
Its intrigue is back-heavy, but the early episodes are still useful
Life Is Strange begins with main character Max having a vision of a tornado, witnessing a girl being shot by a guy in a bathroom while she hides, and then discovering that she has the ability to rewind time. All this in the first ten or so minutes. After that, however, things slow down quite a bit as she uses her power to help out the people around her school in small ways. To be perfectly honest, episode 1 didn’t blow me away like I had expected it to, nor did episode 2 fare much better (though it certainly became interesting toward the end). The early episodes are devoted to setting up the characters in Max’s school, which sadly means becoming embroiled in some “mean girls”-type dialogue that I found incredibly annoying. This evaporates almost entirely in episode 3 and beyond, but I still questioned the need to include that kind of stuff early on.
After I had finished the game, however, I realized that those early episodes did a lot to set up the later ones. The entire game is centered around its characters and the mysteries behind them, from how everyone knew Rachel—a student who mysteriously disappeared—to their involvement in the drugging of one of Max’s friends. While the first two episodes didn’t win me over, the later ones definitely did, and I found myself remembering details from the first two episodes as I tried to piece together a theory of what was happening. Those early moments of seemingly unnecessary drama may have been a bit annoying at first, but much of it provided helpful clues that fueled my suspicion of certain characters. At worst, some of the early cattiness serves only to make certain characters memorable, which is helpful since the cast of characters is mainly comprised of ordinary students and teachers; it’d have been easy for many characters to be forgettable given their normalcy, and yet I found it remarkably easy to remember who was who.
Episode 3, unlike the first two, requires no explanation. In fact, the ending of episode 3 is one of my favorite moments in all of gaming, as well as the point at which I realized that I was unusually invested in the game’s characters (especially Max’s best friend Chloe, who’s like a second main character despite never being playable). The story also moves from individual character drama to a larger mystery, replete with vague references to things that allow your mind to wander to all kinds of crazy theories. The final two episodes wrap this mystery up despite things like the origin of Max’s powers being left unexplored, but I found myself loving every moment of it regardless. If I had to point out flaws in the story or pacing, I’d definitely criticize episode 5 for becoming a little tedious and heavy-handed toward the end, with Max falling prone to long-winded emotional speeches that no one will remember once she rewinds time, but all in all I was impressed. I’ve noticed that some people were unhappy with the way things wrapped up in episode 5, complaining that some characters’ personalities shifted out of nowhere, but having played through it all at once rather than spending months waiting for each new episode to release, I have to say that it all felt incredibly coherent. In fact, I had figured out who to trust and who not to trust by the end of episode 2 thanks to my mad detective skills, so it didn’t feel like a tonal shift when I was proven right. One complaint that’s entirely valid is that of the ending, however; no matter what you did or chose up to that point, you’ll be given a choice of two endings not unlike Human Revolution or Mass Effect 3’s “choose your own ending” buttons. A bit more choice there would have been appreciated, especially given the insane possibilities time-travel powers allow for, but both endings are fulfilling and natural in their own way despite being a bit on the minimalist and subtle side.
Rewind powers are like the memory remixes in Remember Me
One of the most prevalent complaints I’ve seen about Remember Me is that the memory remixes—where you rewind and fast-forward through memories while changing small elements to create a different outcome—were criminally underused. DONTNOD seems to have taken these complaints to heart, because Max’s rewind power is your go-to move throughout Life Is Strange. Right-clicking (on a PC, obviously) rewinds time whenever you want, and this allows you to explore different conversation options or make different choices to see the result. This comes with limits in the sense that you can only rewind so far, but it’s not actually a timed thing you need to keep track of so much as you can only rewind to the beginning of a scene or choice as the story moves forward. Basically, you can change things in the short-term, but long-term decisions are locked in once you move on to a new area or a cutscene moves the story ahead.
Rewinding is actually an interesting little power with a few unexpected advantages to it that the game clues you in on early. For one, you keep any items and information you had before you rewound (as well as Max’s position in the world), which means that stealing something from someone and then rewinding to before you stole it allows you to still have it in your possession without their knowledge. There’s also a point where you blow up a locked door, walk through it, and then rewind to when the door was intact so that you can open it from the other side.
Needless to say, this manages to be weirdly entertaining to play around with. You can even use information gathered after screwing up a conversation to complete said conversation in a better way, with a prompt showing up to tell you that a new dialogue option will be available if you rewind and try again. These types of things are only possible when the game wants them to be, however, so abandon any expectations of using your powers in creative ways not imagined by the developers.
The closest Life Is Strange ever gets to giving you the keys and telling you to figure out your own solution is during the rare stealth sections that pop up in episode 3 and 5. Basically, you have to avoid being seen, and since you keep your position through rewinds, you can manipulate where other characters are by rewinding them to a more advantageous point so that you can slip past them. The stealth sections play out like a really rudimentary (and easy) Metal Gear Solid because of that, but these types of games tend to be interactive movies more than actual games, so more traditional gameplay is always welcome to flesh things out a bit. Also fleshing things out is the problem-solving required at many points. From remembering a padlock’s combination midway through the game to noticing a Bible verse that’s crossed out, your constant snooping pays dividends and makes things easier. This is especially true in episode 4 during a section where you’re piecing together a bunch of clues in order to find a lead. This includes selecting which pieces of information are related and then piecing together a PIN code so that you can access a stolen phone (which is harder/more annoying than it first appears), so there’s quite a bit of actual gameplay involved at certain points. This proved to be a refreshing change of pace from The Wolf Among Us, which had little gameplay apart from QTE sections that didn’t even require player input half of the time.
A list of annoyances, irritations, and vexations
I’ve praised the game quite a bit by this point, but no game is perfect and Life Is Strange is no different in that regard. While I’d count it as one of the best games I’ve played in a long, long time because of how emotionally attached I became to the characters (I even choked up at one point, which is so rare that I can’t even remember the last time it happened), it’s still full of irritating little inclusions that could stand to be better. Note that most of this stuff stopped bothering me by the time I fell in love with the game, though the niggling little annoyances that always pop up whenever time travel is involved remained because I not-so-secretly think I could do much better with time travel powers than any Max Caulfield or Marty McFly. It’s just too easy to think up creative solutions to problems that never cross characters’ minds.
So clearly the first annoyance would be that Max (and Chloe indirectly) isn’t very smart with her powers. Through the entire first episode I was practically yelling at the screen, “you’re more than capable of proving you have powers, you fool!” I felt vindicated in the second episode when Max finally does just that and brings Chloe in, but then they go out and have fun shooting bottles. Never mind that Chloe is in debt and Max has powers that open up a million ways of obtaining that money. No, it makes more sense to just stay in danger and keep going to school. Because reasons. Obviously this happens to keep the story on its rails (it wouldn’t be a very good story if Max just used her powers to buy a winning Powerball ticket, after all), but there are various other scenes that I can’t elaborate on for spoiler reasons where I felt that she had better choices available. Eventually I explained this away by just accepting that the character is a high school student who doesn’t always make the greatest decisions, but I still feel that I’d be a more effective time traveler. Just saying.
Then there are the moments of tedium. The second stealth section feels too long for its own good, for example, forcing you to dodge several different characters at the same time in a dark area. Part of this comes down to it being preceded and followed by a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really add anything particularly meaningful story-wise, with a good portion of the whole sequence feeling like fluff. There’s also a section in the second episode where you have to run around a junkyard collecting bottles, and this, too, comes across as little more than padding. The save system is less than ideal, as well, with the game featuring an autosave exclusively that saves when you move to a new scene. This aggravates another irritation, that being that you can’t skip through lines of dialogue the first time you come across them, so if you play halfway through an area and have to stop playing the game for whatever reason, you have to sit through the same dialogue again. Only after listening to the dialogue a first time and then rewinding (to get a new dialogue option, for example) does dialogue become skippable, and some kind of option to allow players to skip through it the first time would go a long way toward making the save system more bearable. As is, playing through the game a second time to make different choices can be frustratingly slow thanks to the need to sit through a lot of dialogue you’re already familiar with. That second playthrough also highlights the final problem I’m going to mention, that being certain scenes where the correct way of obtaining something you need to progress doesn’t become available until you’ve tried the incorrect way. For example, in the first episode you find some tools you were looking for, only they’re out of reach. Turning on the washing machine knocks them down, but they fall to where you can’t get them, forcing you to rewind and put a piece of cardboard under the spot they land so that you can pull them within reach. If you already know that going in, though, it becomes a bit frustrating that you have to let them fall before you’re given the option to use the cardboard.
A genuine rendition of the Pacific Northwest, with lots of attention to detail
Max is an aspiring photographer in a photography program and a great deal of the game mirrors this emphasis on pictures, from the edges of the screen being blurred and displaying chromatic aberration to many scenes featuring prominent depth of field. Even the photo processing software you can see a few times on screens throughout the game is a dead-ringer for popular choice Lightroom, right down to the top-right menu being identical. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into things being realistic and based in the real world, and this extends even to the setting. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and playing the game was like revisiting it, which is even more remarkable when you consider that DONTNOD is a French studio. It’s just one of those many small touches that few players are likely to notice, but that definitely better the game and make it that much more enjoyable for those of us familiar with the region. Another small touch I came to appreciate was early in the game when you can turn on music and then sit down to play the guitar; rather than playing two different things, Max plays along with the song’s chords and tempo (regardless of whether the music is on or off), and it’s another one of those small details that does a great deal to make the game feel of an incredibly high quality.
Great character designs and a fair amount of licensed music
Something I’ve liked since Remember Me was DONTNOD’s character designs, which always strike me as being incredibly unique. Despite the vastly different art style of Life Is Strange and its characters being less detailed as a result, there are subtle similarities between the way the two games’ characters look that I can’t place (definitely something about the faces, though I can’t figure out what exactly that is). The graphics in general have a pleasingly smooth quality to them and the composition of each scene is of a high quality, so the visuals definitely work in the game’s favor. Some of the lighting creates ugly color banding, however, and the shadows can occasionally be a bit blocky. This seemed to be most prominent in the moody lighting of episode 5, as well as some of the darker scenes in episode 3, though it’s worth mentioning that I rarely noticed it while playing. The music is of a similarly high quality, with the soundtrack being mostly soft acoustic music that ends up suiting the game really well. Many of the tracks that play during pivotal scenes are actually licensed songs in the same acoustic style as the original stuff, and it all fits together naturally rather than sounding like a Grand Theft Auto radio station. I was unsure of it at first, but the music does a lot to aid the game’s beautifully cruel emotional gut-punches.