Life Is Strange is a point and click adventure game in the Telltale style built around the concept of the butterfly effect. The first episode was released in January of this year, and now that we’re nearing the end of 2015, it is also time to close the book on the first season of Life Is Strange. You may have read our review of the first episode. Now it’s time to look at the full game.
I think it’s any budding journalist’s dream to happen across a “sleeper” hit in progress. A sleeper hit is a piece of media that didn’t get much attention when it first got released, but against all odds managed to capture a big audience later in its lifespan. Life Is Strange is such a game, and it may be the biggest surprise of the year. Expect some spoilers in this review, although I will do my absolute best to not divulge major plot points, but I will warn you before I do.
Even though the game hammers heavily on being focused on player choice, the same things that apply to Telltale games apply here as well: you won’t be able to change the course of the plot significantly. Your choices will influence little details and what people think of you. There are some cases where your choices have a more significant impact, but those instances are few and far between.
The game is centered around Max Caulfield—voiced by the relatively unknown Hannah Telle—self-conscious 18-year who moves back from Seattle to the fictional hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, to study photography at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. In the game’s opening dream sequence, we see the quaint town getting hit by a giant hurricane. It’s significance won’t become clear until the very last episode of this 5 chapter game, but even then it just serves as this looming threat instead of the sole focus of the narrative.
The threads of fate make her a witness of a shooting in one of the bathrooms on school grounds, prompting Max to discover that she has the power to rewind time. After rewinding and averting the shooting, Max discovers that the victim turns out to be Chloe Price—voiced by Ashly Burch, whom players might recognize as the voice of Borderlands 2‘s Tiny Tina—Max’s friend from when she grew up in Arcadia Bay. Together they start an investigation on Chloe’s friend Rachel’s disappearance.
What follows is a well-paced narrative, introducing you to a full cast of interesting characters and interesting situations that start off as mysterious, and at some point throws you into the downright fucked up (no other word for it, really). The game’s story makes some sharp twists and turns ranging from the predictable to the unpredictable, throwing you right into pitch-black territory as the game progresses. More often than not I was sat in front of my PC with my proverbial jaw dropping at the unexpected conclusion to certain events. It’s safe to say that DontNod didn’t shy away from taking the story above and beyond the expectations that you usually set for yourself with Telltale style games, and it’s done to great effect. The biggest reason why I keep coming back to games is because of the stories they tell, and the role you as a player has within those stories. Life Is Strange manages to deliver that story in spades, with a real sense of gravitas and an eye for character development.
The rewind mechanic allows you to check out every available option the game throws at you. If you don’t like your choice—and there are many choices to be found in this game—you can simply rewind and try a different approach. The inclusion of the rewind mechanic is a thing of genius for this type of game. This way you’ll never end up picking something only to discover Max isn’t saying what you thought she was going to say. Telltale games have suffered from the problem since time immemorial—Mass Effect also springs to mind—and to see it solved this way is rather refreshing and makes having conversations a lot easier to handle.
And those conversations are where the game really shines. The combined efforts of Telle and Burch as Max and Chloe is spot on, though some of the supporting characters have less talented vocal talents, such as Frank and Warren; they aren’t bad, just average. The two really seem to feed off each other, complementing each other’s performances, making the relationship between Max and Chloe feel like a real friendship. The dialogue itself is wonderfully cringy at times. Chloe especially seems to love using the word “hella” every chance she gets—it has sort of become an in-joke amongst fans—and Max has some eye-rolling lines as well; at some point you need to get a can from a vending machine, prompting Max to exclaim “release the kra-can!” unironically. I don’t really mind though. When I think back to the things I said when I was 18, my eyes will start to roll with such an intensity that it could power an entire city for a year, so I’d say that DontNod’s dialogue choices are in the ballpark. Hell, they even managed to work in a pretty funny and thinly veiled dig at Rush Limbaugh in there.
Even though the game’s graphical fidelity is that of a game released in 2008, the game’s art style makes Life is Strange look visually striking. The entire game looks as if you’re viewing it through an Instagram filter, with warm and saturated colors giving everything a certain glow. Life is Strange seems content with giving you tons of options to sit down somewhere and enjoy the scenery, and I often found myself just chilling out somewhere while I was listening to the music and Max’s internal monologue. DontNod also obviously seems to have respect for photography, framing each shot with reverence for the art form. Every so often you’ll come across a scene where you can let Max whip out her polaroid camera to take a shot
The original soundtrack, written by Syd Matters frontman Jonathan Morali, is a thing of beauty. Warm acoustic guitar strums are interlaced with slow bits of electric piano and electronic pads. It creates this calm, slightly solemn and mysterious mix that matches perfectly with the game’s art style and manages to inject a ton of atmosphere into what is already a very atmospheric game. Call it conditioning, but hearing the main theme gives me goosebumps even outside of the context of the game. In addition to the custom music written for the game, DontNod has managed to license a couple of folk and indie darlings like José González’s Crosses and Alt-J’s Something Good among others—all songs that add to the particular scene they’re in.
But not all that glitters is gold. The game has some glaring issues in the animation department, with thousand-yard stares and mouths awkwardly forming words. It gets better from episode 3 onwards, but it never reaches convincing territory. The overall animation of the characters in cutscenes is okay, courtesy of some decent mocap. There are also a lot of low-resolution textures that make the character models and objects in every locale look a bit smudgy. This was probably by design, because it makes everything look like a painting, but it could all have been a little sharper.
Life is Strange can be slow in some places due to some puzzles that don’t have an obvious answer. There’s this one puzzle with an electronic lock that I just couldn’t solve by myself, so I had to use a guide to help me get past that point. I’m not taking the full blame for this because the end result screen—the screen where you can compare your choices to those of your friends and the general public, not entirely unlike the one you find in Telltale games—told me that close to no one had been able to solve it without the help of a guide.
The game also relies too heavily on (major spoiler) Max’s ability to travel back in time through photos in the last episode. The conclusion to the story is a high point of the entire season and is both equal parts weird as it is hard to wrap your head around. I’m not going to spoil this one for you, but they saved the most impossible choice for last.
What DontNod has managed to achieve here is absolutely incredible. They may not have managed to convince the general public with the aggressively mediocre Remember Me, but Life Is Strange feels like it accomplishes everything it set out to do and then some. If you haven’t given this game a try yet or the first episode did not grab your attention, I would suggest you press on. I know this game has some superficial image problems that at first made me dismiss the game, but believe you me when I tell you that your perseverance will be rewarded with an experience that is both unique as well as compelling, with an ending that boils down to 2 impossible options. It’s due to this that the game has earned its spot near the top of my all-time favourites list.
This game was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on the PC platform.
Have you enjoyed your time in Arcadia Bay? What did you think of this game? Sound off in the comments and try to keep it light on the spoilers!
Life Is Strange is an impressive mixture of great writing, great voice acting, and interactive storytelling that'll pull on your heart strings like it's going out of style.