TL; DR(eview) - The narrative of Life is Strange is among the best in the medium, regardless of the decisions you make. Despite leaning heavily on science-fiction elements like time-travel, the adventures and relationships of Max Caulfield and company are incredibly grounded and Dontnod refuses to shy away from telling a powerfully mature story.
As I have spent a lot of 2016 so far catching up on older games, I've been floating the idea of expanding my Game of the Year coverage this year to include a whole segment on the Best Non-2016 Games I Played in 2016. Not only has Life is Strange affirmed the idea with me, it's likely a front-runner for the category. If you're interested in my Episodic Reviews of the game, check out the links below. Otherwise, read on for my thoughts on the piece as a whole. As always, minor spoilers on the story ahead.
- Episode 1: Chrysalis
- Episode 2: Out of Time
- Episode 3: Chaos Theory
- Episode 4: Dark Room
- Episode 5: Polarized
Life is Strange tells the story of Max Caulfield, a photography student at a private academy in fictional Oregon town Arcadia Bay. Her world is turned upside-down when she mysteriously acquires the ability to rewind time. As a result of this strange new power she reconnects with her estranged friend Chloe and the two investigate the darker dealings happening at Blackwell Academy in a race against time to prevent a prophetic vision of a tornado destroying the city at week's end.
High School Life
In my initial Episode 1 review, I wrote about how many of the characters fit into standard coming-of-age story tropes but predicted that over the course of the next four episodes, they would each be fleshed out to reveal much greater depth. And fortunately, that's exactly what happened. Life is Strange is filled with a rich cast of characters with all of the central players displaying layer upon layer over the course of the game's five episodes. And if you choose to look for it, you'll even be rewarded with many of the background characters having their own fully-fleshed out miniature arcs over the course of the game's insane week.
As someone long out of high-school, Dontnod does an incredibly job capturing what it felt like to be that age again. Filled with life-changing moments and the transition from child- to adulthood, high school by its very nature makes everything seem like it is riddled with the most important experiences you have or ever will have. The highs are the highest and the lows are the lowest, making for an incredibly dramatic range of emotional storytelling. Despite wanting to tell many of these kids, "it'll be okay, life gets better! So much of this stuff won't matter in five years!" I was easily reminded of how I would have felt in the situation at that time in my life.
Be Kind, Rewind
Obviously, the element that most sets Life is Strange apart from many other narrative-driven adventure games is Max's rewind ability. Essentially a superhero origin story, this is a tale about a girl who has been given an incredible power and you get to help decide how she comes to terms with that power. Will she abuse it or use it responsibly? Will she finds ways to help others or herself? Fortunately, many of these opportunities fall more into a world of grey areas. Even something that appears at first to be the "good" option might have tragic consequences somewhere down the line.
By wisely not trying to explain exactly how or why Max got these powers, the game is able to expand or restrict these powers according to the needs of the story. Max is still human and as such has limits. That's pretty much all the game needs to tell you to explain why she might lose her powers temporarily when doing so makes for a much more powerful moment in the story. Conversely, the story allows for her to discover new aspects to her powers like being able to travel back in time five years. It is when Max travels back in time rather than simply rewinding it a few minutes that Life is Strange can tap into much bigger ideas like the power of something like the Butterfly Effect.
Even the slightest changes in these pasts can create drastically different alternate realities for Max and her friends. She might trade in one tragedy for something even worse. These sequences do an excellent job reinforcing the real weight of the decisions you/Max are making. All the while, Max and Chloe are responding exactly how you might expect someone to respond to the insanity happening around them, often commenting on just how "fucked up" things are, and that drives them even harder to uncover what's really going on.
Outside of the game's primary narrative thrust, the other chief gameplay aspect tends to involve searching a given area for the next piece of information or clue needed to proceed. This is often the most enjoyable when you have to couple it with your rewind power for maximum effect. Sometimes this will occur through dialogue options where your initial conversations will reveal a piece of information that you can then rewind and exploit as you talk to them again for the first time. Other times this will occur environmentally. For example, breaking into a locked room and setting off the alarm might cut your investigation short, but once inside you can rewind back to before you broke in and casually unlock the door from the other side.
It's the End of the World as We Know It
One of the common hiccups in episodic storytelling (be it games like those from Telltale or the more common example, a television show) is balance. Seldom does every episode knock it out of the park; usually you're much more likely to have some highs, middle of the road outings, and lows. Life is Strange manages to be the rare exception where each episode felt like it was going above and beyond what came before, steadily building to a truly impactful climax in the games' final moments.
That's not to say it's always building and building. The game is filled with smaller, more intimate moments as well (which in the end actually make the choices you make in the end game that much more personal). Often, it's in these intimate moments that the game's indie folk soundtrack really shines through, setting a tone for the game in the same way that someone like Zach Braff used music in Garden State.
Life is Strange tells and incredibly deep, thoughtful, and powerful coming of age story that isn't afraid to tackle tough subjects like depression and suicide but also doesn't become consumed by the darkness surrounding those topics. Capitalizing on its time travel mechanic and the framework of each chapter focusing on a day in Max's supernatural week, the story unfolds incredibly-well with layer after layer revealing new aspects of the characters and fleshing out the world around her. Lastly, it should comes as no surprise that a game where the protagonist is an aspiring photographer has hidden within it some of the most beautifully artistic images I have ever experienced in a a video game.
Life is Strange is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Steam. Visit the game's website for more information.