Back when they were hitting fever pitch (early/mid-2010s), I was getting reeled into a number of episodic games. Dontnod's Life is Strange was among them. So, when it was announced that co-developers Deck Nine and Black Tower Studios were helming a remaster duo pack of this beloved first season and prequel, Before the Storm, I had a keen interest in revisiting it. The pertinent concerns become two-fold: how these entries hold up and if enough TLC was given by current remaster standards.
To properly answer the first concern, plus consider the quality gap between them, I'm compelled to initially split and assess each on their own merits. It's a helpful way to consider their disparate goals and circumstances before assessing the remaster's polishes. With that out of the way, let's begin with where it all started.
The Series' Chrysalis Stage
Life is Strange centers on Maxine Caulfield, a young adult hipster and gifted photographer in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. The first beat is a lucid daydream of a huge tornado hurtling towards this oceanside town before snapping back to reality. This mysterious event presages something even crazier upon witnessing a woman being shot: Max can now manipulate time. With a simple reflex, she “rewinds” herself back to her photography class. Not only is she impelled to navigate typical high-school anxieties but also comes to grips with this newfound power.
When you think of a modern high-school drama set a few angstroms from Portlandia, you can expect your clichéd template: social misfits, preppy rich kids, pompous artsy types, a goth girl, jocks, and the list goes on. Even with this roster, there’s an earnest energy to them and their respective voice actors. Of course, given Dontnod's French writing crew of middle-aged guys trying to capture angsty teenagers, there's a nice helping of cringe-inducing dialogue coursing through its veins too.
Reaching the zenith of cringe would be Max's long-time best friend: Chloe. Having recently returned to Arcadia Bay after a five-year stint away, Max's bestie is now bedecked in blue hair, punk clothing, and an adolescent's idea of a “rebel.” This rekindling friendship is also connected with Rachel Amber, Chloe's newer best friend, who's been missing for several months. Beyond just surface-level inspiration in locations or Easter eggs, the Twin Peaks comparison comes closest with Rachel being a stand-in for Laura Palmer. Despite trudging through Chloe's faux-anarchic attitude towards everyone, it still serves a purpose for the heart of Strange's story.
Earnest Intentions, Mixed Results
For better and worse, the story's ambitions are found in just how much it wants to explore. Much like the prophesied calamity coming to Arcadia, there's a whirlwind of covered topics: teen pregnancy, cyber-bullying, religious stigma, drug abuse (date-rape drugs included), euthanasia, and so on. Part of what kept the pacing up was just how much material (supplemental or not) they were working with. But this enthusiasm for broadness also sacrifices depth for most examples; a few mesh story & gameplay incredibly well while the rest are like 'topic curios' more than anything else.
Taken in accordance with other missed opportunities, such as the lack of on-screen development for certain side-characters and mismanaged tone, you can see how the five-episode structure didn't help in balancing what ought/ought not to receive player's full attention. School bullies at the beginning do get valid arcs by the end, but the majority is revealed via collectibles or off-screen revelations. Make no mistake, I'm a fan of environmental storytelling in general and most of Strange's collectibles add a number of great layers; however, an overreliance on them for emotional payoffs when setups were visually established before blunts their impact.
Even as its biggest strength, Strange's narrative has it nagging flaws; despite that, I still think it’s the entry that succeeds the most at its intended goals (in contrast to Nick Malliet's enthusiasm). There are so many little touches too -- like Max's journal further detailing her thoughts and experience charting back months before Episode 1, substantial visual metaphors, and other background details -- that maintain your interest. Even after the conclusion peters off (especially the now-canonical ending), it's impressive how a story with time travel and sub-plots around kidnappings (a la Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) still focuses so intensely on Max and Chloe's emotional journey. That's why its positives surmount this cluster of negatives.
Be Kind Rewind
Like most episodic titles, Strange is an adventure game with TellTale's ethos: modest episodes focusing more on dialogue choices and story over puzzle complexity. Replace quick-time events for time-rewinding tasks and Bob's your uncle. That contrast is what delineated Strange as its own thing. The snap decisions in TellTale's The Walking Dead always carried a sense of permanence. Even if most options were mere window dressing, it felt like something more in the moment. This setup is closer to a unique save system: exploring any and all consequences to your immediate choices and settling on your preferred option.
What sells this conceit is how poignant and relatable it compliments the setting. Given how tumultuous high school was for everyone, who wouldn't want to fix poor decisions or missed opportunities? It also maps on perfectly to Max's reserved attitude. She's still the new girl at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, with aims of improving her photography expertise. In keeping with that idea, she's slowly discovering herself and wondering if she'd made the correct choice; in essence, she's an open book for players to measure what her character ought to represent.
In concept, there are cool implications cocooned within this gameplay structure: the high-school anxiety of saying the wrong thing, incorporating her photography into the story's motifs, and so on. It's just a shame that's not always used effectively. Dialogues choices are one core example; although often binary in nature, there are occasions where you can disinter new information by rewinding and selecting a new underlined option. It's neat in a "time-traveling Nancy Drew" way, but it's also employed for time-wasting that just treat the first two variants as a façade, like at the beginning of Episode 1 - Chrysalis.
Looking Past Time
Although not as cool conceptually as dialogue choices, the rewind-focused puzzles are often satisfying -- if simplistic. They rely on grabbing items, mentally organizing how to get said items by rewinding time, and then executing on said plan. Pretty basic throughout its runtime; to its credit, it also holds some of the best comedic opportunities. In Episode 2 - Out of Time, Chloe's temporary comeuppance when exploring Max's powers was hilarious. The biggest missed opportunity for Strange’s gameplay was never incorporating intricate Rube Goldberg-esque systems. It's a shame, but the abundance of different creative scenarios typically keeps your attention anyways.
Each episode also has one-off mechanics that are usually shoe-horned in, by comparison. Episode 3 - Chaos Theory and Episode 5 - Polarized have rudimentary stealth segments to varying success; the latter being among its worst portions. Episode 4 - Dark Room's biggest deduction puzzle is a poor man’s CSI: Arcadia Bay. Rather than something like older Sherlock Holmes' games with a different UI layout for deduction, each piece of evidence here is treated like an environmental object that blurs out all other information. Transplanting the same visual scripts when assessing the world as this deduction board is unnecessarily clunky.
This motley crew of limited mechanics comprises the majority of Strange's gameplay. Oddly enough, the one foundational quality that deserves more credit is the series' emphasis on downtime: the inquietude when the protagonist gets lost in their head as a melody or licensed song plays in the background. While this is going on, the camera jumps between one vibrant shot to the next. Only this element and dialogue choices have uniformly been in each entry.
Overall, your mileage will vary based on two considerations: how you respond to other "TellTale-like" adventures of that epoch and its missed potential. It wasn't short on creative, emotional set pieces that explored Max's powers, but the chance for greater mechanical exploration (in dialogue or puzzles) was rarely utilized. That doesn't dismiss the interesting concepts nor the remaster’s subtle quality-of-life polishes, but you always feel like there should be something more.
Weathering The Tumultuous Storm
In my eyes, Before the Storm exemplifies that even honest sincerity can still make for tragic results. A new developer like Deck Nine taking up the mantle had potential by mere fact of seeing Chloe from a fresh perspective. Now fans of the first season had their chance at the steering wheel. But rather than taking issue with storytelling missteps or too-conservative game design like with Strange, Storm's fundamental issues feel more akin to a train wreck in both respects.
Arcadia Bay, 2010. Max has recently moved away. At the younger age of 16, Chloe Price is attending Blackwell Academy. After sneaking out to attend a party at the old mill, she bumps into the beloved Rachel Amber during an intense situation. As if turning over a new leaf, Rachel insists both of them skip school the next day. This catenates into Chloe and Rachel making an unfortunate discovery that precipitates their budding friendship and Chloe's unresolved issues of her father's untimely death.
When looking at the basics, there’s a genuinely good backdrop here: protagonist racked with internal pain of a lost loved one, coming-of-age drama less distracted by supernatural powers, and so on. But even from the first minutes, Deck Nine is attributing a veneration for Chloe that Dontnod didn't reflect with her before. Hopping a fence to give it a middle finger and dissing a bouncer who asks "Isn't it past your bedtime?" with... "Isn't it past yours?" to gain access implies they unironically think she's the queen of comebacks. The writers’ erroneous application of her permeates throughout most of the story.
Where Storm's narrative takes a worse turn is with Rachel Amber. Now upgraded to a mobile plot contrivance, she's the infectious personality everyone likes at school, the straight-A student, the adored lead actress, the 'rebel' maverick who sneaks out to an alt. rock concert, and potentially... someone who controls the wind. That last point is a bit hazy given the situation, but it's just a temporary distraction to amplify an emotional moment. The Laura Palmer connections are more vivid here (a la Firewalk With Me); unlike with Lynch's character, she doesn't have an abusive upbringing or dark backstory haunting her. She's been seemingly well-off and supported by her milquetoast, upper-class parents her whole life. So, those scenes for her being manipulative towards a fawning Chloe are just there because the plot demands it. Deck Nine mistakes a Swiss Army knife for a compelling three-dimensional character.
Speaking of wild misses, a particular plotline found in Episode 2 - Brave New World still blows my mind. One of the most visually impressive and cathartic moments of Storm is Chloe's on-stage performance in The Tempest. In my playthrough, queen bee Victoria's attempts to drug Rachel to steal the lead part before the play begins. One method of handling this is Chloe and Rachel pulling a switch-a-roo, resulting in her toppling over in front of everyone backstage. Naturally, the show must go on! Chloe decides to replace Victoria and everyone just... leaves her lying unconscious. If it was done as a comedic bit, it landed flat on its face.
Some Positives, Followed By More Negatives
To avoid a repetitive pile-on, some credit is due to Storm’s handling of loss. Despite the ham-fisted dialogue, those moments of rage or grief are among its best. Aping from Strange's background storytelling, Chloe's ever-expanding compendium of discovered trinkets and diary entries adds some nuanced personality too. Her prickly demeanor towards Max in Strange is given new light in this journal; Max's rare communique after her father's funeral, some unsettling drawings, and her described sense of isolation adds an uneasy & tangible dynamic.
One aspect that's always confused me about the narrative praise for Storm was the emphasis on it being "plotless." It's as though otherwise disparate moments meld together for a slice-of-life colleague. To me, those lower stakes and its meandering structure forces Episode 3 - Hell Is Empty to cram so much plot into half an episode. One random schoolmate who had roughly 5 minutes of screen time transmogrifies into this... dangerous incel/stalker who... also makes an interesting criticism about Rachel too. Everything around this underwritten setup & scenario is so uncomfortable. After that exchange, there's still more time dealing with the main antagonist and getting an unsatisfying conclusion.
As if fate wasn't against Deck Nine enough, the majority of voice actors (new and returning characters) were underwhelming; in fact, some sounded downright awful. Since this happened during the VA strike, most were essentially non-union "newbies." Even Ashley Burch was out of Chloe's role except for the Farewell DLC episode; that said, her replacement (Rhianna DeVries) did a decent job. Beyond that, the presentation and direction was more lifeless than its Season One counterpart. Even cinematic basics like shot/reverse shot felt incredibly stilted.
Once the credits rolled, I had no idea what the writers were thinking. Even considering the sparse quality moments, they're drowned out by a slew of problems: terrible pacing, cardboard dialogue, underwritten characters, pitiful plot development leading to a bland conclusion, and silly contrivances to name a few. It's insane how many rakes this narrative steps on.
Don't Talk Back
Remember where I'd previously mentioned insulting the bouncer? In lieu of Max's time travel abilities, Storm's main gameplay replacement is the Talkback system: volleying successful insults based on what your opponent previously said. That's why Chloe's "bedtime" rejoinder is practically a meme; the developer's essentially gas-lighting you into thinking that this win insult battles. For example: if your opponent says "why don't you scram, kitty cat" then your best comeback might be "yo, I'm more of a jungle cat that’ll devour you." The Sultaness of Sass, everyone! Although it's effectively used on rare occasions to examine Chloe's own self-destructive attitude, the vast majority are a waste of time.
The problem is there are no other supplementary mechanics besides this and the typical TellTale-esque design. Replace Max's Polaroid with Chloe’s Sharpie for collectibles and you have the same identity as Strange's easiest puzzles: walk around a designated area, collect an item or two to unlock something, and complete this straightforward task. Outside of putting your memorization skills to the test with The Tempest or rifling through an office for a code, this may be more barebones than certain TellTale titles.
Remastered Duo Pack
Now that I've looked at each title's qualities separately, it seems apropos to fuse their most similar qualities together. How much love has this remaster been given?
The painterly aesthetic that began with Strange still captures my attention. Given the obvious budget limitations these episodic games had, the soft-texture look was an effective approach that's aged relatively well. Even the smaller details like the film burn animation when Max's rewind hits its limit or the white-crayon texture incorporated into the UI fits perfectly. The way lighting and atmosphere are played with between various episodes is also commendable. Storm relies on most of these templates, but some relatively modest visual updates shouldn't go unnoticed.
Before production values shot up with True Colors, one of the series' biggest foibles was its inconsistent technical chops: robotic lip-syncing, texture loading, occasionally protracted loading screens, and so on. Similar to many TellTale games, fans knew there was an insistence by publishers to meet tight deadlines. So, it's a shame this remaster pack wasn't as spit-polished upon release. Make no mistake, there were noticeable upgrades in facial animations and image crispness; however, it also released in a rushed state with weird framerate drops, disappearing textures, and more. To their credit, whoever’s handling updates (Deck Nine or Black Tower) have been working to correct these issues.
These frustrations carry over to sound design too -- especially when dialogue audio drops out during a cutscene segment. What remains a constant in both Strange and Storm are the solid soundtracks; in fact, the one aspect where Storm beats Strange is the licensed track selection. I could expound on how Daughter's melodic tapestry evokes emotion far more effectively than Storm’s contrived writing, but I'd start sounding like a broken record. Both Dontnod and Deck Nine really excelled at capturing this mixture of indie, folk, and alt-rock music for Arcadia Bay.
Considering how Strange and Storm are (currently) a forced package deal for $40, it still leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but it’s hard not to consider this with the plethora of launch-day tech issues. Granted, they’ve been pared down since then. The issue is less about a baseline cost and more of today’s threshold for a quality remaster. Fans, those most likely to grab it at launch, should at least expect a consistent product.
After The Storm
When it's all said and done, Life Is Strange Remastered Collection is essentially a dual-pack of the series' best and worst (speaking for myself). As cringe-inducing as its dialogue can get across either game, Strange's multifarious thematic layers -- woven in through gameplay and story -- showcase a team excited to make their own mark on the episodic game trend; conversely, Storm serves as a woefully-misguided prequel from top to bottom. What's worse, this genuinely good and bad are slightly harmed by sizable tech problems that should've been handled before its launch.
TechRaptor reviewed Life Is Strange Remastered Collection on Xbox Series X with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It is also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, and PC.
- Both: Mellifluous Indie Soundtracks
- Both: Painterly Art Design
- Season One: Earnest Story (Even If Also Flawed)
- Season One: Time-Rewinding Concepts (Gameplay & Story Scenarios)
- Season One: Endearing Characters & Solid Voice Acting
- Both: Annoying Technical Issues & Bugs
- Both: Cringe-Inducing Dialogue
- Season One: Gameplay Could've Gone Further
- Storm: Awful, Misguided Narrative
- Storm: TalkBack Dialogue System
- Storm: Most Replacement Voice Actors Sound Lifeless