Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Date of play: 9/12/15
Play time: 3 hours
A year ago, I wrote a piece about why I hated Life Is Strange. Well, since then, I got into PC gaming, and it was on sale, so I got the entire season. And I’ve since played through the entire first episode, and it’s better than I gave it credit for. Yes, the first half-hour or so is kinda unbearable, but once you get into the swing of things and get nostalgic for teen dramas, it’s a great story, with some slight hiccups in the game area.
Our story centers around Max Caufield, an (apparent) hipster in her senior year of high school (12th grade). She attends a photography school and deals with the drama that all teenagers deal with: bitchy girls, asshole jocks, friends, and of course, there’s a guy (kinda). Surprisingly, the narrative sets up some interesting plot threads, with its surprisingly diverse cast of characters. While they’re all stereotypes, they show a degree of depth. All the characters conform to their designated stereotype to a degree, but look a bit further, and they do have layers. Plus, sometimes it’s good to have some teen drama stories, if they’re well-written. The plot threads vary from typical teen stuff like an upcoming big assignment and interacting with the alpha bitch to more mature themes like domestic abuse and rape. And of course, there’s the time travel powers. While they’re not really given much explanation – they literally just manifest – they do become more focused on in the last few minutes of the episode. And during all of this, you’re haunted by the presence of a missing girl, who feels like she’ll be very important to the story. The choices you make feel like they will actually matter, and while I’m cynical on that thanks to Telltale, with the more grounded nature of the stories and choices, even my cynical ass can’t help but feel invested. And yes, the dialogue is still pretty bad throughout this episode, especially when a certain character shows up (you’ll know them when you see them).
The aforementioned time travel mechanic plays a role in gameplay, but only just. It’s used to solve puzzles, which you’d think would make an interesting game mechanic. But Max will inexplicably tell you exactly what to do if you don’t get it within a second, which is kinda disappointing. However, it can also be used at any time, including right after you’ve made a dialogue choice. This is functionally the same as a traditional dialogue tree, but it does allow conversations to feel more realistic and flow better. No more Commander Shepard awkwardness! Plus, when you inevitably end up snooping through people’s things (this is a videogame after all), some will; react to it, and rewinding time so that you never touched it, but still have knowledge of whatever you found, also helps to make the game feel more unique and real.
Speaking of which, one of the big benefits of the time travel mechanic is the ability to go back and change your significant story choices, at least within reason; once you leave an area, your choices will be locked down. Because of this, you can actually see the immediate consequences of your choice after you’ve made it. Plus, it’s easier to ponder the consequences of your choice after you’ve made it, and Max will do the same, in case you didn’t think of something. It’s a nice mechanic, and my increasing reliance on it is probably something the game is subtly discouraging.
Visually, the game is beautiful. The painted style works with this Summer Vacation vibe the game’s going for, and it really makes the game look unique in an age where games must use all their tech to show that their characters live in the uncanny valley (looking at you, Until Dawn). The constant orange tint everything has creates that small-town atmosphere that makes everything feel more small and personal. The one downside is that the focus on photography comes off misplaced. I can appreciate photography, but the pictures, with the painted style, more resemble paintings than photos. This is because the pictures genuinely do look painted, as opposed to a posed 3D model. A somewhat minor complaint, but it’s noticeable.
Along with the visuals, the game’s beautiful soundtrack nails the Summer tone. Soft, and knowing when to stop, it really is something special. And I swear there’s only 4 tracks in this episode. It’s a nice, understated soundtrack that just works. Plus, there’s some licensed music that helps makes this game feel like a teen drama show, which is a plus (well, for me at least). The cast are decent, with the standout being bad-slang character who I mentioned, but not really anything special.
Life Is Strange is a weird little thing. It does so many things right: the stories focused on teen drama are great and it’s a beautiful looking and sounding game. It’s got problems when it comes to regular gameplay, and some of its dialogue is genuinely awful, but it’s something that is so earnest in what is is that you can’t help but appreciate that.
Episode Rating: 4/5
Originally published here on the 16th of December, 2015.