Developers: Dontnod Entertainment
Publishers: Square Enix
Plot: Max, a photography student in college, has a vision of a tornado about to hit her town, quickly followed by the realisation, she can turn back time.
I have always been a big believer that monthly DLCs were a way forward for the gaming community. Sure, nothing can beat the big, blockbuster games like Farcry and the Elder Scrolls, but there is something very appealing about the smaller episodic games that have been making an impact on the gaming community. For one, they are often put together by indie creators and that is where small sparks of originality emerge from. Also, they are much easier to get attached to, cliff-hangers keeping the game fresh and surprising and slow-burning character arcs that get the gamer more immersed in the story being told. This is not taking anything away from the bigger games that I find just as good – at the moment better than – but it is just nice to have a different style of gaming to choose between. Much like, deciding whether to watch a movie or a TV show, when you log into a Netflix account.
Life is Strange is very much a TV show setting. In fact, it has embraced the genre more than ever other game I have played. Telltale Games are the big shark in this ocean at the moment, but even they are, to an extent, trying to appeal to a more mainstream crowd by including explosive set-pieces. Life is Strange feels more restrained and indie (not that this is completely good – we will discuss the bad points in a few paragraphs’ time). You play Max, a nervous out-of-town girl in a top notch photography college in Oregon. She is a talented photographer, but because she got into this course due to her skills with a camera rather than her money, she quickly finds herself the ugly duckling of the campus: worlds away from the socialite, bitch queen Victoria. Life is Strange spends most of its running time really getting into the mind frame of a teenage girl, trapped in the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of college. Sometimes, the shy girl protagonist routine gets old. We come to games to play the larger than life characters and sometimes the quiet hipster routine wears thin, especially when it comes to interacting with the supporting cast. However, it does well at hammering home the point that you are a small fish in a pond full of dangerous people: an over-enthusiastic security guard, a mentally unstable frat boy whose family funds the college and a Principal, who seems more concerned with keeping things stable, rather than dealing with the problems at hand. The best thing about Life is Strange is the outside world that is brought to life. Immersion seems to be a key thing on the mind on the developers here. Several small characters are created just to build a bigger picture of college life, achievements can be earned by finding ideal photo opportunities and every setting has so much small details hidden in the design that you can simply stop playing and admire your surroundings. While my personal taste in music meant I didn’t get much out of the repetitive acoustic soundtrack (one scene sees a main character rocking out in her bedroom to a simplistic melody being plucked out on a guitar), it obviously meant a lot to the developers, especially a pretty inventive and clever opening credits sequence. The outside world also comes to life in the closing scenes of Episode One: we have only scratched the surface of this universe and it is hinted that there are a few secrets and surprises to unravel in future episodes.
But a game needs more than a good story. Cue the time rewind feature. We have seen this before, mainly in the Prince of Persia series. It is an interesting concept, but one that needs to be well-planned out, in case it tears a plot hole into your story so big it is damning. So far, Life is Strange doesn’t stray too far into the ludicrous, although we are only on the opening chapter of this five part saga. That being said, the concept hasn’t really been pushed as far as the gamer wants it to be. The rewind feature feels trapped in the episodic, story-nature of the game, almost as though the real fun is being held back for later use. The only real time you get to properly tackle using the feature is in puzzle-solving. The one ingenious addition to the ‘rewind time’ genre is the choice part of the game. In Telltale’s brand of decision-making, you are given two seconds to commit to your path. Here, the rewind option allows you to finish one conversation and then reverse it to try guiding it down a different path. This is a clever bit of misdirection, because it fails to make the choice-making side of the game easier. It just tricks you into second-guessing yourself. I cannot wait to see where my choices have led Max in future episodes. Other places, the action is a little poor. With Telltale Games (and I hate making this comparison too much, but it is the easiest way of reviewing the game), the right analogue stick is used to pick out objects you wanted the character to interact with. With Life is Strange, you need to walk Max into a specific position to access certain objects. This is mildly annoying when you are exploring an environment, but downright frustrating, when you are in a quick time event, trying to save a girl from being shot, only to be unable to properly pick up a hammer on the ground.
But this is all stuff I can look past. The real niggling flaw that will really hurt Life is Strange’s future sales is the slow-burning nature of the story. Life is Strange is definitely playing the long game and at times, I can appreciate that. Hopefully, the more descriptive and exposition-led side of the mystery is being laid out early on to make the later chapters that bit more exciting. That being said, you must wonder what you actually do in the first episode of the series. You are introduced to Max, her world and later on, her lost friend, Chloe. This mystery begins to form and the time-reversing gift, on top of a hurricane predicted to hit the town in a week, really does ramp up the excitement. However, Chrysalis is so focused on the character development of everyone that it doesn’t feel like a game per se. Just as the story begins to hit the accelerator, it breaks away from the college setting and slows right down again. It looks promising, a subplot mystery involving a missing girl poster seen early on, cropping up. Right now, your enjoyment of this game will depend on how much you can put up with the expression ‘hella’.
That being said, as I put down the game and my ‘choices’ cropped up, I realised how much I actually missed. I apparently let a bird die somewhere in the second act and missed out on interacting with a handful of students. I am definitely going back to find all of these hidden details, so I guess, I have to mark Life is Strange up for that.
Final Verdict: A slow-burning mystery drama. Well-made, but is definitely a game for the patient. It does look like a promising series though.