Life is Strange Review

The following multi-part review was originally published on Trevor Trove from February 16-21, 2016

Episode 1: Chrysalis

When the first episode of Life is Strange launched in January last year, I was probably busy catching up on some 2014 games I missed. Then as each subsequent episode came out and buzz around the game began to grow, it’s visibility on my “must-play” radar escalated in kind but I still never got around to it. But fittingly, during these early days in 2016, I can finally catch up on it. I’m going to try to play through the whole game this week with daily impressions on each episode and then maybe a final full review on the whole piece.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of Life is Strange, you play through this narrative-driven adventure game as Max Caulfield, a student at an elite preparatory school in a fictional Oregon town with a passion for photography. Episode 1, aptly titled Chrysalis, begins with her witnessing an traumatic incident and discovering she can rewind time and change the outcome of the event.

Most of the first episode is focused on introducing the cast of characters. With only a couple hours invested so far, it would seem that many of them check off very specific trope characters from coming-of-age stories (mean girl, preppy rich kid, rebel, cool young teacher, douchey step-dad, etc.). But now that this groundwork has been laid, I look forward to possibility of fleshing out these characters over the course of the next four episodes.

As far as gameplay goes, Life is Strange is definitely doing a lot with the adventure genre staple of walking around an environment and looking at a ton of objects to hear Max’s thoughts on the small details of her world. This is a great way to give me a better sense of things but also breaks up the pacing of the main thrust of the story.

The element that helps this game stand out from something like a Telltale game is the ability to rewind time. So far this has been implemented in three notable ways. The first is through environmental storytelling puzzles where you might need to witness the events that play out, then rewind time and make some adjustments so you’ll get your desired outcome to move the story forward. The second is through your standard dialogue options where you might get a crucial piece of information that you can then rewind time to use in the conversation. Lastly, when you come to those classic either/or scenarios, the rewind option allows you to test out how each scenario plays out before you move on with the game. Admittedly, you’re only going to see the short term result of your choice and I’m sure a lot of these choices will have varying degrees of weight in the coming chapters but it’s nice to be able to at least see both ways of how these initial scenes play out.

Lastly, I wanted to touch briefly on the soundtrack, as I find it really enhances the tone of the game. As the opening credits roll and you explore the school hallway, Max listens to some music with her earbuds and it felt very much like a Zach Braff movie (a la Garden State). I look forward to seeing how music continues to play a factor in setting the mood of the game.

Episode 2: Out of Time

Yesterday, I kicked off my belated review of Life is Strange. Rather than tackle this entire story in one go (like I did with Telltale’s Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands), I’m approaching this one episodically. Then when the whole story is wrapped up, I’ll likely put together a cumulative review as well. So yesterday looked at the initial chapter and today, I’m looking at Episode 2, titled Out of Time. Minor spoilers ahead as this review will touch on a couple of the spoiler-esque plot points of the episode.

While the thrust of the main narrative is obviously Max and how she is trying to grasp her new abilities, one of the most impactful side stories of the game so far as involved Kate Marsh, the good Christian girl who wound up kissing a lot of boys at a party in a video that has gone viral around school. At 30, I was in high school a few years before cyber-bullying became a prominent thing. Facebook didn’t hit until I was in college but my friends and I weren’t even on Myspace in high school. I’ve read some of the horror stories and see the idea portrayed in various television shows but this was the first instance where I’ve ever experienced it in a game.

Kate is clearly distraught over this perception of her as a slut because she kissed a lot of boys. I desperately wanted to scream at the television, “It gets better! None of this will matter in a couple years! Don’t let high school stupidity get you down.” Max, of course, doesn’t have my middle-aged (oh my god, am I really middle-aged now?) perspective to build from so those options of course weren’t available to me. Instead I did my best to calm her down. After a busy day of proving your powers to Chloe, the climax of this chapter of the story involves Kate jumping off the dorm. Naturally you rewind time but the game uses this opportunity to introduce the concept that your powers have limits. On the rooftop with her, Max realizes that her powers are drained so you’re only going to have one shot to talk Kate down off the ledge.

This stressed me out more than probably any boss fight in the past few years.

It is an incredibly powerful storytelling tactic. The entire chapter has been filled with you and Chloe dicking around with your powers for fun and a laugh. So when the developers take your power away at this critical moment, you’re left thinking what the character is most likely thinking in the back of her head: “if only I hadn’t wasted it earlier showing off for Chloe…”

This also touches upon another one of the great facets of this episode’s storytelling: a theory I call “the disarming power of comedy.” Basically the theory goes that by getting your audience laughing, when you hit them with a dramatic beat, it hits them that much harder. I always point to Joss Whedon as a master of this artform. He excels at getting you to love a character through relatable quirks and humor and then rips your heart out by killing them. In that same vein, by spending the first bit of this episode showing off to Chloe at her mother’s diner, filled with laughter and joking, the hard-hitting moments later in the episode are a bigger gut punch by comparison.

In conclusion, I think Episode 2 knocked it out of the park in terms of powerful narrative moments and I’m looking even more forward to see what comes next.

Episode 3: Chaos Theory

Following the dramatic highs of Episode 2, Life is Strange wisely doesn’t try to top the tension of the previously climax. While the school, and even the larger community of the town, are in shock over the events surrounding Kate in the previous episode, Episode 3 focuses on the relationship between Max and Chloe. Once again, minor spoilers to follow.

Earlier in the story, it was made apparent that Max and Chloe were the best of friends five years earlier, before Chloe’s father William passed away and Max moved away. Chaos Theory delves into this past. In their search for more information to hunt down Chloe’s missing person Rachel Amber, they sneak into the school after hours and break into the Principal’s office. Then the two enjoy a quiet moment in the school’s pool before the overnight security team interrupts and you flee.

Now the problem with time travel is that I was left in this moment just saying, “okay. Now that I know the guards are coming, I should rewind time and we can get out before they spot us.” But that’s not the puzzle the game presents. Instead, it places Max in the locker room and you have to learn the guards pattern, using your rewind power to avoid being spotted in there.

Once you escape, Chloe takes you back to her house and you wind up getting a bit more back story on what caused her father’s death, setting up the chapter’s end game where you somehow travel all the way back to the day William died. And you now have the foresight and ability to change that event. But that event, in turns out, has drastic consequences in the present day, leaving the episode on a great cliffhanger for Episode 4.

A few more clever puzzles fill out the episode but the real hook hear is the friendship between Max and Chloe. Occasionally during the loading screens I would see text suggesting that your actions affected the past, present, and future. I was left wondering how I could change the past and Chaos Theory answered that question spectacularly. I’m left pondering whether I made the right choices and if there’s a way I’ll be able to undo the events I’ve set in motion.

Episode 4: Dark Room

As someone who has experienced and studied a ton of different stories over the years in the form of television, film, theatre, literature, and video games, one of the greatest joys is when I come across a story that surprises me. And the end of Episode 4 of Life is Strange excelled at that. Minor spoilers to follow but I’ll avoid the episodes big climax.

When we last left off, Max had stumbled into an alternate reality where her actions in the past had drastically changed the course of history. As teased at the end of that episode, we quickly discover that in saving the life of Chloe’s father five years ago, Max only wound up trading one tragedy for another, even darker one. And it isn’t long before she makes her way back to the past to undo her actions and revert the story back to the original timeline.

Now some might argue that this brief stint into an alternate reality amounts to nothing since Max resets it anyway, but I would argue against that line of thinking. With a game and narrative centered around a concept like the butterfly effect, this quick jaunt into the “what might have been” does an excellent job highlighting just how much one action can affect the world around it. In particular, I recommend people look through the texts of this alternate timeline to see who “Maxine” is friends with, what people say about her, etc.

There is at least one notable constant between both timelines though: the disappearance of Rachel Amber. So it makes perfect sense that you dive back into that investigation once Max resets the timeline. And this was where we stumbled across one of my favorite puzzles of the game. In trying to figure out where to go next, you and Chloe pin up all of your clues on a pin board (a la The Wire or pretty much any detective story with a lot of pieces). And then the game trusts that you’re smart enough to figure it out. And much like The Witness earlier this month. I absolutely relished the feeling of solving the puzzle before me.

From there, Max and Chloe discover much more than they bargained for surrounding the mystery of Rachel’s whereabouts and wind up at the “End of the World” party being thrown at school. If I took issue with anything in this episode, it was actually this party, which is basically somehow a school-endorsed rave of course rife with drugs and alcohol. I don’t buy the school proceeding to allow such a party a mere couple of days after a girl jumped/attempted to jump off the school roof for the cyber bullying directly related to the previous party thrown by this club.

But compared to the rest of roller coaster this episode takes you on, that minor issue is certainly a fair trade off.

Episode 5: Polarized

Immediately after finishing my write-up of Life is Strange Episode 4 last night, I dove in to Episode 5 because the cliffhanger was so well done that I couldn’t wait one more moment to see who Dontnod resolved everything (I pity all of the fools who played through the game episodically as they were released and had to wait those three months). If you’re just joining us, you can check out my reviews of Episode 1Episode 2, and Episode 3, as well. As always, minor spoilers below.

Where Episode 4 gave us an extended glimpse into an alternate reality, the final chapter of Max’s story gives the audience a trip through many alternate realities as Max tries to bounce from picture to picture in an effort to rewrite the past week and free herself from the dark room lair of her captor. Knowing what we know after a week’s worth of investigations, I enjoyed how Max chooses to handle returning back to the game’s opening moments in Mr. Jefferson’s class this time around. We see a couple options that lead to what appear at first glance to be a happy ending, until that damn tornado from Max’s visions continues to try and wreak havoc on the town.

There is a standout sequence in this chapter where we effectively play through one of Max’s nightmares. The developers make the most of this opportunity by really going all-in on the messed up things that can happen in a person’s dreams. You find yourself repeatedly walking through the dormitory halls as various characters in the game in one moment. Another features a scene that serves as a literal mirror of the game’s opening credits scene in the school hallway with everyone walking and talking in reverse and even the button prompts and Journal text written backwards. You’ll encounter a stealth section where you have to use your rewind power to sneak past other characters as they taunt you. And a series of vignettes where characters embody all of the insecurities hiding within Max. Every one of these scenes leap off the screen, combining together to showcase a powerful trip through Max’s psyche.

After these series highlights, the game presents one final, heartbreaking choice. And I found myself wrecked weighing the consequences of each option. I actually got up off my couch and paced around the room trying to determine how I wanted my story as Max Caulfield to end. I’ve played a lot of Telltale’s stories but I’ve never put this much stock into any of my choices on those games. The fact that Dontnod was able to elicit such a reaction from me serves as a testament to the characters they created and the power of their hauntingly honest narrative. Part of me knew that the end was near and I wanted to put it off just a little bit longer. But part of me was genuinely weighing the pros and cons of the paths laid before me.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the game as a whole. Thanks for reading!

Life is Strange Full Review

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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