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‘Life is Strange’ (2015): Game Review (w/ Gameplay)

“Brick” meets “The Butterfly Effect” in this episodic graphic adventure whose tale of time travel and small town intrigue will stay with long after the credits have rolled. It’s Life is Strange.

Tapping into the market established by Telltale Games this latest graphic adventure shouldn’t however be considered another clone trying to cash in this ever popular market as if anything Life is Strange is a fiercely original title. Set in the fictional coastal town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon where photography student Max has a vision of the town being destroyed by a massive hurricane. However it’s not long before Max also discovers that she has the ability to rewind time a skill which will soon come in very useful as she finds herself reunited with her childhood friend Chloe (another great performance from Ashley Burch) as the pair discover that Arcadia Bay hides more than a few dark secrets while investigating the disappearance of Chloe’s new best friend Rachel.

Life is Strange

More heavy on dialogue and drama than action, this game very much follows the Telltale Games template, however stylistically is really where things really differ as Life Is Strange is the equivalent of an indie movie, something no doubt fitting for an indie game company I suppose, though despite lacking the budget of mainstream games this title certainly makes up for things in term of originality both in terms of presentation and plotting.

The plot, on the surface, might not seem to be nothing new. After all, the aforementioned The Butterfly Effect did a pretty thorough job of warning would-be time travelers. Just like The Sound of Thunder did about the dangers of changing the past. Here though, Max, outside of a couple of occasions, can only rewind time a few minutes and it is a mechanic used not only to give players a second chance at various situations over the course of the five chapters, but also to solve a number of problems based around her ability to rewind time but not move through space.

(Watch our gameplay)

What sets the story apart though is the layered plotting that writers Christian Divine and Jean-Luc Cano create. The plot is anything but straightforward as Max and Chloe investigate Chloe’s missing friend Rachel, the plot also brings in elements of cyber bulling, suicide, death and even euthanasia into the mix. Even walking the hallways of Blackwell Academy, there are numerous details or conversations with Max’s fellow students to take in that really add to the story. They help build a believable world, one which only adds to further develop the continually updating entries in Max’s journal. Of course this level of interaction is completely determined by the player, especially when a lot of this is more to provide colour and atmosphere than adding important elements to the plot.

Life is StrangeThe relationship between Max and Chloe is completely believable. The combination of the shy and retiring Max and outgoing and frequently volatile Chloe prove to be fun, more so as they reunite after years apart. It’s touching to see their friendship rekindle as the episodes go on, with the option there for some players to move it towards being something more even if you might not quite get the satisfaction you want from all this teasing. Looking at the choices made by other players it’s pretty clear how they also wanted this friendship to go.

While the plot is largely gripping it does however suffer a few stumbles along the way thanks largely to an overly smaltzy forth chapter with an attempt to save Chloe’s father by traveling back to the night of his death comes off as an unrequired misstep and seems to only have been included to set up the jaw-dropping finale of chapter 3 where you discover the consequences of your meddling let alone answer the question as to why she didn’t use her powers to save him.

Player choice once more plays an important aspect throughout the game as the choices that Max makes not only affect how certain characters respond to her, but can also lead to her needing to take different paths. For example, if Max chooses to be friends with the members of the Vortex Club then she can just walk into the VIP area of the party they hold in Episode 4. However if she decides to shun them the player is left trying to find an alternative route to enter the same area. At the end though, like so many of these games, everything falls on the final decision of the game and it’s also here that the game suffers one of its bigger pitfalls as the game seemingly punishes the player for making the choice they want rather than the one it feels they should make as seen with its endings. The supposed right choice getting a much more developed and longer ending than the seemingly wrong choice which in comparison feels kind of meh in comparison.

Life is Strange

For the pop culture fans there is also a ton of fun touches peppered throughout the game from references to both Battle Royale and Tetsuo: The Iron Man appearing in Max’s journal through to the car number plates which frequently giving away the names of cult movies and TV shows giving the player a fun game in trying to spot them all. For the completionist, there is also a challenge to take photos throughout the episodes which are hinted to in Max’s journal. These photos are a fun but not a mandatory part of the game, with the player often required to set up the shots through conversation or using her rewind ability. Frustratingly, these shots cannot be returned to once the opportunity has passed, meaning that you will often find yourself giving each location a more thorough search than you normally would, but considering how locations are packed with fun little details it won’t feel like time wasted when hunting down those more elusive shots.

Soundtrack-wise the music selections are a mixed bunch of hit-and-miss tracks with a heavy focus on shoegazer and acoustic tracks including those by Jose Gonzalez, Foals and Amanda Palmer, as well as an original score by Jonathan Morali of Syd Matters which perfectly serves to amplify many of the key moments throughout the game. I especially like that the music tracks are frequently not used as a background soundtrack but instead appear by Max turning on her stereo or in one of my favourite moments of the game, playing them on her Walkman as she walks through the hallways of Blackwell Academy.

Life is Strange

Unquestionably a memorable experience, the journey through the five episodes is certainly not without the occasional lull where the game feels like its spinning its wheels as seen with parts of chapters 3 & 4. That being said the game recovers well from these moments and is much more of an immersive experience than expected, especially for a game so dialogue driven. The fun time travel mechanic and general plotting and detailing of this world mean that scenes of Max and Chloe walking the rail tracks or finding that next big clue stay with you long after the game has finished. Like a great movie, you will no doubt be wanting to discuss each chapter as you complete it.

Currently there are plans for a sequel though no details have been released to say if it will see the return of Max and Chloe or if they will go the route of True Detective and use each season to introduce and tell the story of a different group of characters. Needless to say, I can’t wait to see where they take the series next. 

‘Life is Strange’ (2015): Game Review (w/ Gameplay)

Credits

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): Windows, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Release: 2015

4.5
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