If the first episode of Life is Strange is any example of what the remaining series will be, players can expect a rather peculiar game. Readers should understand that Life is Strange does not come across as a bad game, but it does feel as though a team of foreigners have created an idealized but ultimately flawed version of American high school life. If a Western animation studio created a series on Japanese high school life and published that show in Japan, I imagine the feeling would be similar.This title reignites personal questions as to what motivates French developers to attempt to construct realistic stories featuring young, American women but include supernatural abilities.
The first half an hour of Life is Strange was rather unconvincing in that this teenage drama would result in much more than a life lesson about being shy in a world of mean, superficial people. As time goes on however, the elements of Life is Strange that unequivocally do not work are spaced out well enough that the player can begin to see the potential in this episodic series. The potential for this title is rather strong, as the developers restrain themselves from putting the protagonist’s abilities before establishing relationships but the Dontnod Entertainment creative team need to remember that they are not Telltale Games.
The story of Life is Strange is reminiscent of a combination between Beyond: Two Souls and the 2004 hit drama Crash. Those that have seen the polarizing film and played that disaster of a game by Quantic Dream will have a better idea of the clear pretentiousness both of those properties make a point of skirting. The risk of turning from a meaningful drama about actual, substantive issues in society to an art film that basks in its own superiority is razor slim. On the whole I do not consider Life is Strange to be as absurd and pretentious as Beyond: Two Souls emphatically was, but it does not quite hit the mark as of yet to make a clear point on what the narrative is indicating.
The social issues covered by the first episode of Life is Strange include but are not limited to abortion, alcoholism, domestic abuse, status in society, bullying, State surveillance and typical high school drama. On some points the game has an adequate level of nuance and the appropriate subtly to retain immersion but several topics are thrown into the player’s face with unnecessary exposition. A rather noticeable example is the cliché rich kid psychopath that is attempting to claim the campus as his own domain. This big plot point of the first episode is handled with the same elegance as the protagonist touching loose objects: specifically, nothing good comes of it.
A storm is coming to the small town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, quite literally and in the sense that the tension at a local private school is about to boil over. The protagonist of Life is Strange is Max Caulfield, a passionate photographer returning to her hometown to receive a specialized education at Blackwell Academy. She is introduced as shy, aloof and unsure of her future.
Despite her personal insecurities and general lack of confidence, Max has a deep passion for photography. Her parents are of very modest income but recognize Max’s commitment to her interests. Max’s family moved to Seattle when she was young but after a nationally famous photographer begins teaching at Blackwell her parents allow her to return for a highly sought after education.
Life is Strange implies that Max’s time in Seattle was not all positive but stresses her fascination with her instructor Mark Jefferson. Blackwell Academy is littered with his work and by all accounts Jefferson is a wildly successful photographer. Jefferson as a character is one of the very few that is presented as genuine, flawless and engaging with the student body.
Aside from Mark Jefferson’s charm and relaxed demeanor, the rest of Blackwell Academy is in constant motion. The students of the academy are shown to be relatively calm but the appearance of the school implies larger but unseen issues. There is strong implication that bullying at the school is rampant, staff members are incompetent or overcompensating for hidden issues and that social status at the academy has actual ramifications for graduation.
Nathan Prescott is the most emphasized antagonist at Blackwell Academy. He is from a rich family with deep ties to the school and the local community. Nathan does his best to come off as a wealthier version of Gary Smith from Rockstar Games’ Bully, otherwise known as Canis Canem Edit, in that he is volatile, seems to suffer from a mental illness and declares himself the sole ruler of the academy, but the character fails to offer anything but an extreme, throwaway villain. As far as antagonists go, Nathan is the only shown so far in Life is Strange without any redeeming qualities. His overzealous and emotive personality seems too obvious to be Max’s long term rival however. I would wager Nathan is not Max’s only enemy in the series. While he may be an obvious threat, I would hope there is something more to Nathan’s motivations.
Some adults are clearly less trustworthy than others, as are some students. The first episode gives the impression however that the students and faculty that seem honest come across as too good to be true. Chloe, Max’s former best friend and recent drop out of Blackwell, is a prime example of coming across as two-faced too early into the series. By appearances, players should sympathize with Chloe for her problems at school and unstable family life but there is plenty of evidence presented to question her character. There is a chance that I have misread the gestures by the creative team but it very much appears that Chloe, along with several other characters, should not be taken at face value.
The serious criticism one can find for Life is Strange in this first look, other than emphasizing characters as multidimensional too soon in an episodic narrative, is the terribly awkward dialogue. The issue is less about the characters that are arguably cliché and more in regards to the nonsense that the characters are saying. What stands out in the first episode is the performance by some of the voice actors despite working with an awful script. This game lacks the star power of Willem Dafoe, as seen in Beyond: Two Souls, but there are some members of the team that have the talent to take bad lines and read them genuinely enough that the player will stay engaged.
The visuals of Life is Strange work for what genre of game it ultimately falls into but are not distinct enough to be a defining factor of the title. The close environment, such as bookcases, poster boards and dorm room desks are detailed with the clutter one would realistically find in a lived-in setting. The distant backgrounds are noticeably blurry, although this appears to be part of the aesthetic. Animations on the other hand are unappealing and require more time investment by the development team.
Personal taste may impact my view of the music in Life is Strange, but a great deal of it frankly sucks. At some points the mopey guitar strumming works well, it fits with the atmosphere and the emotion of the environment, but the game overindulges in it. Not every young person in Oregon, or for that matter anywhere in America, likes indie music. Developers should look to the the skaters, the gamers and the jocks on campus. Each of these groups may have a personal taste in music and the developers should offer a more diverse collection of tracks for the environment. Blackwell Academy should reflect the sum of students and faculty, not simply Max’s preferences. Jimmy Hopkins in Rockstar Games’ Bully gradually shifts his level of influence in the school but Bullworth Academy as an institution stays the same. Max has returned to an existing environment with its own aesthetic but the music reflects the protagonist, not the academy.
The gameplay of Life is Strange is straightforward but will be considered by those already disillusioned with narrative heavy titles as tedious. If the player has sampled recent Telltale titles they will quickly grasp the controls of this game. The player can walk around the campus, interact with highlighted objects, speak with fellow students or a few staff members of Blackwell Academy and at specific points in the episode play with reversing time.
Players are given the option of checking Max’s opinion and known background of important characters in her journal. In the same way choices influence the story of recent Telltale games, the player can expect relationships and elements of the plot to shift depending on the decisions made. Some characters are clearly antagonistic towards Max but several of these persons can be essentially manipulated using knowledge of the future.
In some instances Max can alter her standing in the classroom, change her social standing around the campus and even prevent slight issues such as a dying bird, thirsty plant or a loose football. Max has the choice of being more direct in conversation, already knowing all of the right answers, but the game offers the option of exploiting her newfound abilities to shift existing relationships. Assuming the future episodes follow a similar formula, if Max talks to the right people in the most appealing manner, there is a very good chance her social standing will shift towards being more popular on campus. What consequences will occur from these choices will undoubtedly play out in the end.
(Reviewer’s note: The author purchased the copy used for this review. The author played this title on PC.)
This opening to Life is Strange is flawed but shows serious potential for the series.