Fresh off the heels of PAX East with a game code in tow from their panel, I decided to give DONTNOD’s Life is Strange a try before it started collecting dust in my Steam library. Narrative-driven games like this are among my favorites – Indigo Prophecy was a cherished high school experience, and Heavy Rain only upped the ante – but for some reason I tend to ignore most of them. Perhaps it’s because a good chunk of the games that fall into that category are frauds – nothing more than pretentious experimental bullcrap masquerading as emotionally-fueled artwork.
This was certainly my fear when I heard that Square Enix was publishing an episodic story-driven series à la Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Even more so when I discovered that its developer DONTNOD’s first project was Remember Me, a game that, in a twist of pure cosmic irony, no one actually remembers. Thankfully, it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
At a first glance, Life is Strange pulls no punches when it comes to storyline. It’s a by-the-books indie teen drama, complete with acoustic soundtrack, cult movie references, and a rustic setting in the Pacific Northwest. I half-expected a befuddled Michael Cera to stumble across the screen as the game’s secondary protagonist halfway through the first chapter. You play Max Caulfield, a shy yet cutesy high school senior that looks suspiciously like Ellen Page. Max has an adorkable obsession with photography (particularly the kind you take with retro Polaroid cameras) and is attending the prestigious Blackwell Academy for her final year of school.
Despite this seemingly contrived plot line, Life is Strange manages to make its characters feel surprisingly down-to-earth. The dialogue is sprinkled with curses, cultural references, and hip teenage lingo that does a decent job of not sounding too forced, though it occasionally ventures deep into Diablo Cody territory. Tiny details like hand-crafted posters and angsty graffiti make the school setting feel authentic. What’s nice is that you get just enough contact with the other students to entice you to know more about how your relationships unfold in later chapters.
Where Life is Strange does break the mold is with Max’s apparent superpower – the ability to rewind time. By pressing the Control button, you can rewind the game at any point and watch as the other characters literally zip by you in reverse. As you might expect, this is how a majority of the game’s puzzles need to be solved, though its much more clever use is to remake past choices. Like most narrative-driven games, Life is Strange will expect you to make frequent dialogue decisions that the game explicitly states will have consequences later down the road. If you aren’t particularly satisfied with the outcome of one response, Max’s magic “undo” button will let you find out what would have happened had you answered differently, though you still won’t have any idea of its long-term effects, which nicely preserves much of the game’s tension.
This begs the question: If you could undo the consequences of all your actions, would you? Plenty of my choices foreshadowed negative outcomes – breaking a snow globe, or dropping some files in oil – but I debated keeping them anyway. After all, the game merely warns you about future consequences, not whether they’ll be good or bad. The nagging curiosity of exploring every possible story path gnawed at my soul.
Overall, the first chapter is largely spent exploring the school and meeting most of the characters. Much of the action takes place as branching dialogue choices between the other students, interspersed with a handful of puzzles. However, most of your time is actually spent simply interacting with the environment, which I would highly recommend doing since several ‘consequence’ notifications were triggered by the most innocuous choices (like watering your plant, for example). Still, Max’s thoughts on every object she passes by are frank and appealing, making it a pleasure to actually explore your environment while also revealing Max’s character. There are a handful of tense moments, however, and these are spaced far enough apart to keep the episode both suspenseful and well-paced.
Altogether you’ll spend about 3 or 4 hours going through the first episode. Even though I was tempted to call this review “Juno: The Video Game” (because who am I kidding, it sometimes feels like a complete rip-off of it), that would not be giving Life is Strange nearly enough of the credit it deserves. At its best moments, Life is Strange is soft, mellow, and stirs with the bittersweet recollections of a waning childhood. It’s one part high school survival story, another part poignant reflection of a girls return to her hometown and the memories she left behind. I’m not ashamed to say that at times I was hypnotized by Life is Strange, enraptured by the familiar feeling of nostalgia and longing one feels when revisiting long-forgotten places.
Thus far, Life is Strange has gripped my imagination, and it’s certain I’ll be returning to finish up the rest of its chapters once they launch. Unfortunately, until the second episode’s release later this month, I’ll have to go back to those other video games made for the knuckle draggers – Assassin’s Creed: Unity, most likely, but we’ll have to see. I suppose I can’t blame Andrew for waiting for the entire season to be out – for now I’ll merely be anticipating the next release with bated breath.
Final Verdict: Charming, intriguing, and at times genuinely moving, Life is Strange is an episodic game worth seeing through to the end.