Investigate weird happenings around town and in the lives of your loved ones.
PC Release: January 30, 2015
By Ian Coppock
Life is strange. That’s both a fact of human existence and the name of the subject of tonight’s review. Most games that bill themselves as a critical examination of life spend more time lost in nostalgic musing than actually delivering the hurricane of emotions that life throws at every person. Life is Strange is different; it pines for simpler times just like all the proverbial Dear Esthers and Gone Homes but is much more visceral in its presentation of human emotion.
Life is Strange is the rarest of creatures: a modern episodic adventure game that wasn’t developed by Telltale. Rather, the game was made by Dontnod Entertainment, a French studio with a rather eccentric pedigree (including 2015’s less-than-memorable Remember Me). After Remember Me tanked, Dontnod decided to adopt the guise of an indie studio and focus on smaller, more narrative-driven projects. Life is Strange is the first product of that shift.
Life is Strange stars Max Caulfield, a photography student attending high school in the fictional hipster hangout of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Max discovers that she has the ability to manipulate time when she inadvertently rewinds a shooting in the school’s bathroom; she uses her newfound abilities to prevent the shooting from occurring at all and then continues testing her powers on the people around her. Max realizes that she can use her ability to undo mistakes and learn valuable info; the downside is that she periodically passes out and has nightmares about a hurricane wiping out Arcadia Bay.
As if discovering these powers wasn’t disorienting enough, Max is also unexpectedly reunited with Chloe, her best friend of five years ago. Chloe still resents Max for having moved out of Arcadia Bay and then ghosting her for half a decade, but agrees to hear Max out on the discovery of these new powers. Meanwhile, Chloe’s been busy searching for her best friend Rachel Amber, who suddenly vanished six months ago. To help make amends, Max agrees to help Chloe find Rachel.
In addition to searching for Rachel, Chloe and Max have their work cut out for them interacting with the various denizens of Arcadia Bay. Chloe’s home life is strained by an antagonistic relationship with her stepfather, while Max’s ability to rewind time can only do so much against the pressures of high school life. She still has to deal with an alcoholic principal, a paranoid security guard, a crappy dorm… and the popular kids. Those nightmares about a hurricane destroying Arcadia Bay don’t seem to be going away either.
Life is Strange is played from a third-person perspective and the meat of its gameplay is conversation. As Max, players can advance through the game simply by talking to people. Some conversations require using Max’s rewind powers to trick confessions out of characters or getting a certain reaction out of them. Much of Life is Strange‘s story is determined by Max’s relationships with these people; does she make nice with the popular kids, stand up for the nerds, or have nothing to do with either tribe?
Periodically, Life is Strange also forces players to make keystone choices that can significantly alter the course of the story. Max can use her powers to evaluate the immediate reaction of either choice, but Life is Strange is careful to put that choice’s ultimate consequence down the road a ways. As a result, players still have to take care when evaluating their decisions, especially since Max can only rewind or fast-forward so much.
The second leg of Life is Strange‘s gameplay is searching for clues in the game world. Keen attention to detail is a must in this game, as many hints about Rachel’s disappearance are hidden in plain sight. Of course, because many characters in Life as Strange will only divulge so much through conversation, finding their proverbial closet skeletons is the second best way for Max to find the information she needs. It also pays for Max to cover her tracks, so players who trash the place looking for clues are best off rewinding time to make it look tidy again.
Finally, Life is Strange comes packed with environmental and conversation puzzles. Max can use her abilities to manipulate items and open up pathways, be that tricking a drug dealer into giving her his keys or something more audacious like dropping farm equipment on a door. The best of these puzzles are the ones where Max has to trick information out of several characters in order to force an admission from a key person. Learn a compromising bit of info, rewind to make it seem like Max knew all along, and trick the suspect into spilling the rest of the beans.
The conversations in Life as Strange are much more than simply a means of progressing through the game: they’re among the best video game writing of the last decade. Max is eloquently characterized as a shy yet kind girl unsure about her new powers, while Chloe’s pain over her father passing (and subsequent punk rock attitude) are written with no less attention to character building. Both characters evolve believably over the course of Life is Strange‘s five-episode run. Players can influence Max’s evolution through conversation choices and, subsequently, her relationship with Chloe.
Dontnod’s writing skill extends to the other characters in Arcadia Bay as well. Every character (even the ones with only a few sentences of dialogue) is given multiple dimensions for Max to explore through conversation. Dontnod succeeds in fleshing out each character, taking them beyond stock NPC niches and making them believable people under the surface. Few games make characters as believable as Life is Strange does, and it’s thanks to both good dialogue and evenly paced development.
Although Life is Strange represents an achievement for dialogue in video games, its visual design is much more problematic. By Dontnod’s own admission, the bulk of the budget for Life as Strange went into voice acting and writing instead of visuals. That’s hardly the worst thing in the world, but it does result in Life is Strange suffering some embarrassing visual problems. The game’s lip syncing is robotic, and at some points it doesn’t kick in at all. Character animations vary wildly between being fluid and being stiff, the latter of which draws a stark contrast with the well-delivered voice acting.
Additionally, Life is Strange‘s game world is rife with blurry textures. The game attempts to write these off as a cutesy aesthetic not dissimilar to the pastel-like imagery in games like The Long Dark, but it’s an attempt that’s not difficult to see through. All is not lost, though; Life is Strange‘s world is brightly colored even if it’s muddily textured, and the resulting look is charming if somewhat primitive. The options menu underpinning all of this is decent, but could be more comprehensive.
Life is Strange‘s dated visual design still can’t hamper the game’s tense atmosphere. The story at the game’s heart is deliciously suspenseful, as Max and Chloe’s search for Rachel leads them to some dark secrets. The town of Arcadia Bay is chock full of ’em, hidden in old parts of town and behind the veneers of certain characters. The story is apt at delivering chills and thrills at an even pace, even if Life is Strange‘s episodes are uneven in length (episode four is at least twice as long as its predecessors).
Indeed, Life is Strange can be quite the heart-stopper, dropping surprising twists and tense conversations at just the right moments. In some places the game verges on being a horror title, but its suspense is much more in the vein of Firewatch than Outlast. As Max and Chloe get closer to finding the truth about Rachel, they also devote time to working out their own troubled relationship and those of characters around them. Life is Strange is a curious study in how so many seemingly disparate phenomena can be connected, which is certainly true of Max’s own experience in the game.
Life is Strange‘s narrative weight is also lent some heft by the game’s willingness to explore taboo subjects. The game examines bullying, suicide, and sexual assault with a more daring hand than other games that bill themselves as surveyors of those topics. Though these things are nothing to smile about, Life is Strange presents them in a tasteful manner, pulling no punches in its presentation of those motifs but also knowing when to pull back on them to give players some emotional breathing room. They serve to make the characters’ feelings more real instead of merely to provide shock value.
At the same time, Life is Strange‘s story does suffer a few design mishaps. The game contrives sudden rules about Max’s time travel with irritating frequency, a habit that may not sound all that bad on its own but has a detrimental effect on the game’s ending. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling; let’s just say that Max has an arbitrary realization about her abilities that feels like it was shoehorned into the story at the last second instead of having evolved naturally. Story-driven games have a nasty habit of doing that these days.
Life is Strange‘s narrative doesn’t hit every structural note, but boy is it a tear-jerker. Few are the games that can bring the visceral reality of human emotion to the small screen as effectively as this game does. Life is Strange‘s ability to do so hinges on the game’s stellar character writing and voice acting, as well as narrative pacing that delivers levity and heaviness at just the right tempo. This is a game that everyone—even gamers who normally avoid adventure games—should try. It’s one of those rare games whose emotions stick with gamers long after they’ve finished playing it.
You can buy Life is Strange here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.