The follies of adolescence. A period of cherished naivety, comprising so many individual moments that keep us fretting into the early hours of the night in paroxysmal remorse. Days flecked with uncertainties, impulsivities and decisions that can make for fruitful campfire tales, but all too often have us wishing we’d taken the other road.
Incidentally, in Dontnod’s Life is Strange, ‘the other road’ remains very much within our grasp. But with the ability to turn back the clock, the game’s courageous narrative demonstrates that power in this game is rarely empowering, and the strenuous vulnerability of youth never really leaves us.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: PS4
Also Available On: PC, Xbox One
Release Date: Out Now
A copy of this game was purchased for the purpose of this review.
Life is Strange’s premise is such that it’s difficult not to make it sound like another schlocky teen flick. Set in the autumnal seaside-town of Arcadia Bay, you are Max Caulfield, an introspective young wallflower who attends a prestigious photography Academy. Undoubtedly, she keeps a diary crammed with selfie snaps and teenage anxieties, existing amidst waves of contemplative indie folk and archetypal school drama. It’s all very typical; so much so, indeed, that Max’s discovery that she can rewind time after saving her best friend Chloe from getting shot doesn’t come as much of a surprise. After it transpires that she has the power to do-over past mistakes, the narrative develops around Max as she comes to terms with her power, raising Catcher in the Rye-esque themes surrounding death, pain, authenticity and identity.
Indeed, my initial conception of Life is Strange’s was very similar to those for Rye’s Holden Caulfield, and not just because of the namesake. Life is Strange longed for my emotional investment, yet it appeared so adamant to keep me at bay with its odd characterisation. Such isms as the ‘photo-bomb’ felt inputted for that relatable-teen-vibe, whilst decidedly achieving the opposite effect. The copious selfie-puns and conversational Twitter-speak just feels forced, and rather than offering a quirky layer of familiarity within its lamenting teen characters, it can actually appear one-dimensional at times.
Life is Strange is, for all intents and purposes, a point-and-click adventure game. Much like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones series, the game’s complexity lies rather in its narrative than control schemes or mechanics. You control Max as she wanders the realms of Arcadia Bay, and mostly progress via interaction via dialogue. Command options are scrawled about the world in the style of Max’s reflectively penned thoughts, and are characteristically simple. You can examine, interact and occasionally photograph objects, whilst the game’s most notable element – Max’s ability to rewind time – often surfaces more than it should within. You can obtain useful information, rewind, then use it against freshly unwitting enemies, or uncover the result of certain dialogue paths to find the appropriate response.
French developer, Dontnod have made it clear that subversion of stereotypes had been at the forefront of their character design, and whilst its script stutters considerably, it’s something done amicably through the gameplay. As you wander around the autumnally-hued Blackwell Academy, you’ll initially find yourself in the David Attenborough equivalent of the high school scene. The jocks, the militant father, the preps, the nerds are all here, but it’s when you stop and chat to them that truer colours begin to show. It’s a cast of fragile people, and there are moments that force the player to choose between them, without any concrete knowledge of how it will ultimately pan out until Max’s precious thirty-second-window has already come to pass.
Putting off a talk with one friend for the sake of another that needs help could well drive them to desperate measures, or lying about drug use to protect Chloe from her beligerent father might hurt your own chances further down the line. The more events unfold, the more heartbreaking decisions tend to become. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and just how easy it is to screw things up in Life is Strange makes it difficult to put down at times. Even if all appears well, there’s always another side, and the game communicates that sense of equality in a way that is barefaced and beautiful.
There are objectives that do feel shoehorned in; trivialities that often detract from the pacing, and they’re not necessarily distributed evenly with each episode. On one occasion, you’re yoinked from the touching developments between Max and Chloe to mosey around collecting bottles instead, for no specified reason other than the scripted notion that it’d be a laugh. Had this been executed in a more interesting way, as opposed to essentially assuming the role of a languid treasure hunt, there’d be more justification behind the quest’s intent. But suspending player enjoyment in favour of a bit more material doesn’t do wonders for narrative-driven games, and one can easily be thrown-off when the story inevitably picks back up.
They can, however, be incredibly effective, without asking much at all. You might stumble across items that seem useless now, only to discover their use later in the game, and remembering a password that cropped up earlier to unlock a door really adds to high-school-mystery that hums beneath the game’s . This being said, they’re reasonably straightforward. Even if you happen to become stuck, Max’ll probably tell you it after a brief moment or two, so it’s always made clear that you’re playing a story, rather than a game.
And I say that in the best way possible. Life is Strange is at its most powerful when its themes take the reigns. Not even Max Caulfield has the power to call upon time whenever she wants, and when suddenly put on the spot to evaluate how well I’d come to know a character – without the luxury of asking for a re-do, I felt vulnerable. Like each and every character of this angst-ridden universe, and it is that vulnerability that makes the game a truly memorable experience.
This all occurs against the gorgeous backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. For all its tropes, Arcadia Bay certainly feels alive; whether you’re gazing idly at the sunlit beach stretches from The Two Whales Diner, or observing the robust exchanges between Chloe’s floundering parents, there’s a nostalgic sense of community emanating from Life is Strange’s small-town world that you can’t fully detach from.
Despite no major changes surfacing in the game’s physical release, Life is Strange: Limited Edition comes with a few tangible goodies. Included is a 32 page artbook, in the guise of Max’s diary (sans the rustic tattiness), comprising some concept art and character sketches. Included too is Life is Strange‘s on-disc soundtrack, in its wistful entirety; complete in a case decorated to resemble a touching moment in the game. If you’re primarily interested in playing the game, of course, downloading the complete season for £15.99 is perhaps the best option. But if you’re a physical media enthusiast, a fan looking to furnish your display shelf, Limited Edition comprises some thoughtful collectibles for the reasonable £10 extra.
Life is Strange is a tale that takes admirably bold risks, portraying themes with an honesty and integrity untouched by most games. It is these themes, however, that serve to highlight the game’s own teen troubles. Characters can feel pandering and some episodes shine whilst others seem veritably half-asked, but its unremitting honesty regarding how an experience affects a person – regardless of how ‘real’ it is – is where the game’s true strength lies.