DONTNOD’s latest adventure isn’t a follow-up to REMEMBER ME, but instead an episodic, digital title. Does the developer have what it takes to square up again the other contenders in this expanding genre, or is the first episode of Life is Strange a forgettable adventure?
Life is Strange begins with Max, the game’s protagonist, waking up on a cliff near a lighthouse in a storm. No, that’s not right. She’s waking up from a dream. Max finds out she’s actually in her high school photography class where her teacher is going on about the history of photography. Life really is strange.
Yes, DONTNOD, who you might remember as the developers of REMEMBER ME, chose one of those dream scenarios to begin the game, and it was executed well. Oftentimes, games begin on a very dull and slow note, leaving the player to wait until things pick up. By starting the game off with the tensions raised and the player and protagonist in an unfamiliar place, it hooks them in, making them want more just to discover the mystery of what’s going on.
Speaking of mysteries, there are plenty to be uncovered in Life is Strange. That’s the focal point of the game: Max returns home from a five-year absence, having studied elsewhere before deciding to return to Arcadia Bay, the town she grew up in. Here, she finds that Rachel Amber, a popular classmate of hers, has gone missing. Max is then dragged into this mystery by certain circumstances and now she has to piece together what’s going on before it’s too late. As cliché as that may sound, it works out better in the actual game. The way that Episode 1 slowly reveals bits and pieces of the characters’ backstory and progresses with the mystery is engrossing. In the five hours it took me to finish Episode 1, there really wasn’t a dull moment to be found.
Like many episodic games today, Life is Strange sports a “choose your own adventure” format where you get to explore locations, while interacting with various objects and people, all the while making important decision along the way. These interactions with the environment are fun. It’s nice just sitting back and listening to the teacher drone on and on about photography stuff while the class participates and Max meanders about, looking through her pencil-case, magazines, and just doing high schooler stuff. And yes, you can take selfies.
While the game may take place in a high school, Life is Strange isn’t all high school drama — there’s a supernatural hook to it too. Not too long into the game, Max discovers an extraordinary ability: she can rewind time. This is where Life is Strange really starts to take shape. It’s essentially a mystery game where you rewind time to correct mistakes.
The time-rewinding portion opens up for the some interesting gameplay scenarios. In one situation, I was talking to my teacher, said something stupid, and decided to rewind back to the point just before starting the conversation. I was able to correct my mistake and say exactly what I needed to. Of course, if I wanted to, I could have chosen the same option as before.
To prevent people from abusing the time mechanic, DONTNOD has set a limit on what you can undo. While you can rewind time and choose different dialogue options, certain instances are locked after you do something. There was a part where I had the option to tell the principal about a student who was waving a gun in the bathroom or just keep my mouth shut. I made my choice, and saw the immediate effect and how the principal reacted, but leaving the area locked my choice. It presents an interesting dynamic: Do you keep that decision or change it based on the immediate results? It forces you to think less about the now and more about the future, because these actions will have consequences and that’s probably the most interesting part about Life is Strange. There have been games that do the whole “choose your own adventure” style of gameplay, but few that I’ve experienced that allow you to change your decisions and force you to REALLY think about how those decisions will affect your future.
In addition to using Max’s abilities to undo decisions, these powers can be used to solve puzzles. Most of the puzzles in Episode 1 are related to making decision. For one puzzle, you’ll need to decide whether or not to help a girl who’s in trouble. Other times, Life is Strange throws a more thoughtful puzzle at you, but these instances are few and far between. It allows you to absorb the story, but gamers who enjoy a lot of puzzles in their games might not be too thrilled. For a game that deals with a character being able to rewind time, the lack of more thought-provoking puzzles that really hone in on this concept is surprising. I would like to see more puzzles dealing with this element in future episodes.
As much as I love the overall look of Life is Strange, there’s one thing that really bothered me: facial expressions, or lack thereof. When characters talk, their mouths move and eyes shift, but they express their emotions with their hands, not necessarily their faces. There are a few times where someone will make a different facial expression but it’s not often. Conversing with a fellow student, Kate, who was down in the dumps, Max should have looked happy to cheer her up, or sad to kind of even up the playing field, so to speak. Instead, there’s a robotic expression on Max’s face, as if she isn’t quite sure what to do in this situation. Kate on the other hand remains sad, which is understandable, but throughout the brief conversation her facial muscles show no sign of her feeling anything during their conversation. Max’s request to go out for coffee is met with a depressed “no thanks” from Kate. She should have shifted her face here, but no, it remained the same, giving this awkward feeling to the whole situation.
Graphics & Audio
Life is Strange is a beautiful game. The art style used in Life is Strange encourages wide color usage and boy does it use it well. Colors pop, the environments look beautiful and best of all, the sunsets are gorgeous.
Life is Strange is a very interesting and captivating introduction to the five-part, episodic adventure. With character that feel like actual people, an interesting narrative and setting, and unique take on the “choose your own adventure” style of games, Life is Strange certainly isn’t a title you should miss out on.
+ Beautiful art style
+ Interesting narrative
+ Believable characters
– Characters rarely show different emotions on their face when speaking.