Review: ‘Life is Strange’

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Life is Strange offers an engaging story and atmosphere mixed with somewhat flawed gameplay that has potential in future installments.

From it’s trailers, it’s hard to figure out what Square-Enix’s episodic Life is Strange is all about. Viewers are given a glimpse at an atmospheric game with the veil of high school drama and something about time travel while indie music strums softly in the background. The reviews from other sites are somewhat vague, often calling upon story-based darling Gone Home. Still, it’s an intriguing introduction for one of Square’s forays into point-and-click, story-based gaming. The truth is far simpler, and possibly even better than the trailer lets on, though Life is Strange certainly has its faults.

The game centers around Max, an 18-year-old girl who accepts a scholarship to a prestigious art school in her hometown. Having been away for five years, she struggles to find a proper crowd to fit in with, and is apparently loathed by the game’s version of Mean Girls‘ Plastics. Things go awry when Max, witnessing a murder in the school bathrooms, accidentally rewinds time to stop the event from happening. So kicks off a story in which choices are rewound and the story altered based on player decisions.

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The result is that Life is Strange is absolutely nothing like Gone Home or, as one review felt the need to cram in, a Stephen King novel. It’s not a scary or dark game, and the story of Max feels closer to something out Juno if Juno could warp time. It’s a much brighter game than many of the early screenshots and trailers let on, and it does create an engaging atmosphere for players.

Life is Strange is ultimately a point-and-click, with users encouraged to discover the world around them by interacting with nearby objects. Players are given free roam for Max, and the use of third-person perspective adds a level of depth to her character than many adventure games seem to lack. For backstory, players can also read entries in Max’s journal and scour through her backlog of photographs taken along her journey.

The world within small-town Arcadia Bay, Oregon is given life as Max explores her school campus, interacts with classmates, and finds herself getting deeper into the disappearance of a former student, Rachel. Along the way, players are given a few choices, often with the option to rewind if they change their minds, though many of the changes readily apparent only change a few dialogue options.

2015-01-30_00001The interaction and thoughts coming from Max are both a strength and a weakness to the game. Life is Strange is episodic, meaning only the first chapter of five has been released. The choices and dialogue options Max is given are interesting and certainly build a wonderful world, but many of the apparent changes only affect immediate dialogue. A few of the more important decisions are hinted as having a large impact on the story later, but many of those choices don’t seem to effect much in the first chapter, leaving players waiting until further episodes are released. There’s a lot of potential for far-reaching changes in the story, but those choices also have the potential to fizzle into non-issues in the same way many of the Mass Effect choices ended up being inconsequential.

The dialogue also exposes another flaw. The game’s indie, hipster feel is generally quite welcome, and many of Max’s issues are probably similar to what the game’s target audience also felt in high school. However, in trying to be indie, a few bits of dialogue tend to try too hard to be hip, often namedropping titles or figures in such a way that stretches the disbelief of the viewer. The way she discusses photography, for example, sounds nothing like the way photographers actually talk, as though the writing was done by someone who only looked up “Photography” on Wikipedia before putting words to page. It does not get overbearing enough to ruin the story, by any means, but those few moments take players out of an otherwise incredible atmosphere.

Tech-wise, the game is solid, though some corners felt cut. The landscapes, lighting, and Depth of Field use are all top-notch. The opening sequence in particular, involving a nightmare in a tornado storm, uses some impressive rain and lightning effects similar to those in Square’s Tomb Raider remake. However, the character models themselves turn out to be somewhat lacking in comparison to the way everything else is render, with people lacking somewhat in texture and smoothness. This is especially jarring when added with poor lip-syncing. Though the game takes place in Oregon, it’s apparent the game was either rendered using foreign voice actors first, or rendered before the actors even got in at all. The lips don’t just not match the voices; they are nowhere close in many cases.

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Perhaps the biggest issue will be the length. Hopefully, once all 5 chapters are released, the game will have a substantial amount of content for its genre. The first episode, however, can easily be finished in less than three hours, even if players are capable of interacting with every object. If a player is simply wishing to go through the story, there is roughly 30 minutes of actual content, cutscenes included. Thankfully, much of the joy of the game is in exploring the environment, so only those wishing to speed through to try alternate choices are likely to spend such a short time on the game. Given the price, Life is Strange probably gives about the right amount of content for the money, but it certainly teeters on the edge of “wait for a good sale.”

Overall, Life is Strange is worth checking out for fans of the genre. The time-travel aspect is fairly unterutilized, and many of the choices have yet to see an impact, but it’s an incredibly atmospheric story and world, a tale of lost friends and growing up as a stranger in high school. Those expecting another Gone Home or Alan Wake are likely to leave a little disappointed, but the game does not seem to be aiming to be a scary thriller. Rather, treat it as an interactive Ghost World of sorts. It has a lot of potential to be a nice charmer hidden among Square’s AAA titles, but the future episodes will ultimately determine where the game lands.

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