Life is weird enough just being a teenager. No need to throw the supernatural into this, yet here it is.
Gameplay: Oh where to begin? As some of you may have noticed, I like making the statement where if a game knowns what its core is going to be and does it well, from there you can build and add whatever quirk or experiment you so please and you will usually end up with a decent enough game. It is a sound strategy to have a strong foundation that works followed by supports to strengthen your vision and whatever ideas you may conjure up and in the opening episode of Life is Strange, Chrysalis, we get just that. Taking cues from Telltale, who have nearly perfected the art form, DONTNOD have managed to create a unique game with its own twists without breaking the game. The key feature is the ability to reverse time to a previous point. Not time travel, mind you, but leaping back in order to change your answers or solving a puzzle, which are all done very well (Okay, technically it’s time travel).
Although many can see this as a cheat of sorts, especially in this genre, being able to change your choices after seeing the results, the mere act of choosing to go back in time has its own consequences, and instead of having a handful of outcomes, the whole system is complicated tenfold. The game plays like most others in the genre at first, but has its charms and vibe. More on this later. This mechanic also proves to be extremely useful later on as puzzles start to incorporate the time leaping in order to get a successful outcome.
Audio: The game boasts a “Distinct, licensed indie soundtrack” which may set off a lot of alarms for people. Truth is, the music plays an important role in the story and how it is told. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea when hearing the songs played (mostly indie in nature), it doesn’t really matter, because the music is a reflection of the people within. In the opening sequence for example, after leaving the photography class, Max, the character you play, decides to head towards the girl’s restroom and like most teens having a moment, tunes out by tuning in, and puts her headphones in, taking away all sounds of the crowded hallway of students, save for the lovely song being played in her ears. It’s such a simple design in sound, but has a powerful and relatable effect.
I know I used to do it all the time and still would if I had the ability to. On top of that, the general audioscape of the game is done very well, capturing the sounds of nature of the area, set in the Pacific Northwest as well as the sounds of a somewhat small college in what some may call nowhere. The other thing that seems to have rubbed some others the wrong way is the language and words the characters use - yes it is hipster lingo, but, strangely enough, isn’t done so in an ironic or mocking way and that adds to the characters. They, especially Max, doesn’t alway sound so confident with their lines, some citing bad acting, but that’s her character, she isn’t confident, she isn’t a socialite, she isn’t an outgoing person, and on that end of things, it all works out so beautifully well.
This is continued on throughout the entire season, with music playing an integral role in the plot and have been selected not just as cool songs, but composed or scored just for the story like any other tv show or film, and I think that was the point. Everything I’ve seen, heard, and even felt in Life is Strange was crafted like a film rather than a game.
Visuals: From the opening scenes of the first episode, Chrysalis, Life is Strange offers up a strong image of the world which Max occupies, full of saturated colors, bright and vibrant, a detour from the normal grime of other games, from the clothes the characters wear, to the landscape itself. There’s an almost anime influence seeping in here and there without overtly taking over the style. Hand drawn menus and watercolor effects litter the game along with retro filters of reds and oranges, everything just screams “Instagram-Culture,” but just like with the audio, it is done out of love of the movement, if you could call it that, instead of an imitation of the thing they are portraying.
This to me, is no more apparent than in the opening, when you’re sitting in the photography class and the teacher is talking about “selfies” and how they, despite what the masses believe, are not a new revelation coming about in the advent of smartphones and digital cameras, and that painters having been taking selfies since art has existed, Van Gogh, DaVinci, Grey, Warhol, to kings and pharaohs, and before then. It was wonderful to hear such a thing be talked about in a positive way, even if it is just in a video game.
Story: Speaking of this being a videogame, I often forgot that I was playing one, not in a bad way - this isn’t a Hideo Kojima game after all, but more in the sense of how the story plays out. It doesn’t take you very long to figure out the bases of most of the characters, you feel the past, present, and futures of most just from their interactions with you and that is not an easy task to pull off, but pull it off this does. With a game like this as well, it is hard to tell if something is a plot hole or something waiting to be filled in a later episode, but even if there were any, they are tiny and in the background. The story is so engaging at times that I forgot that my character has a superpower, and like before, this isn’t a bad thing. It gives you time to absorb the person you’re playing as well as those around you. You even get more information as you meet new people in your journal and text messages from your parents or friends. All of these adds to their respective characters as you see who Max is as a person and how others see Max.
Content: Life is Strange is one of those gems, that despite its flaws, and yes, there are some glaring ones, it is refreshing on such a level that it’s doesn’t matter if it stumbles awkwardly like Max at a school dance. There is plenty to explore, both physically and mentally, even spiritually at some points, with the people and places, but most importantly, it isn’t what’s there which rounds out Arcadia Bay, but what isn’t. There are places in the game where you can just sit and let the ambience of the area you’re in take over. These moments of silence to be became perfect places to pause the game without pausing, and I for one hopes this becomes more common in gaming.
Design: Continuing the retro theme, the menus and action portions are hand drawn, but here is where a simple change is what separates Life is Strange from other games in the genre. When you move to an area that has a set of actions, those items highlight, nothing new there, but once you’ve selected what item or person you wish to interact with, you don’t need to drag your mouse across the screen to that area, instead it is kept in a small radius as you hold down a mouse button and make your selected action. This streamlined approach makes such instances that much less intrusive to the story at hand, it was one of those things that really bugged me about The Walking Dead or others. Just about everything else is made to be as part of the environment as possible and that is a noble goal to set as gaming becomes more and more like an interactive story you’re a part of instead of an outside entity.
Performance: Being primarily a PC gamer, I often spend the first few minutes of a game tinkering with the settings and nothing bothers me more when the lowest end settings seem like a completely different game from the mid-range and higher end settings, yet more and more developers have been finding ways of making sure the lower end of the spectrum still looks great. Life is Strange is one of those that once I found my happy medium that I was amazed that the colors and textures were still decent and that my screenshots still looked good. Of course things aren’t perfect, one of the biggest issues is that the mouth sync is pretty bad most of the time, something I didn’t notice until midway through the first episode because I was focused on the subtitles, something I do with games like this just incase I miss some subtle hint or foreshadowing.
That said, the usual suspects are here: clipping, V-Sync issues, and lag spikes, but that’s forgivable for this stylized game. Had this been from a larger developer, than these would definitely be marks against them. For Life is Strange, it just adds to its faulty charm.
Verdict: Life is Strange runs out of the gates with confidence and its head held high at what has set out to do, even if its legs are shaking with anxiety and uncertainty. It doesn’t pander or cater to anyone, and simply is. With influences like Twin Peaks and music from the heart, one can only imagine where Life is Strange will go and that is alright - I’m strapped in and ready to go.