I’m not sure that I’ve played a game quite as properly titled as Life is Strange, Square Enix’s new episodic adventure. It doesn’t waste time explaining its premise: you play as Max Caufield, a shy girl with a penchant for photography and a discovered ability to rewind time. But this doesn’t take place in some sort of superhero-centric world; instead, you’re in Arcadia Bay, a sleepy town in Oregon home to a premiere photography school. Some technical difficulties aside, by blending great story and atmosphere with deep character development, the first episode of Life is Strange sets the stage for a great season of gameplay while reminding players how strange their own lives really are.
If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, can it cause a hurricane in Hawaii? Just how far do the effects of our actions reach? In Life is Strange, there’s really no telling. Max is new at school, the one nobody really pays attention to…until she witnesses a girl murdered in her high school’s bathroom. Suddenly, she’s able to undo the event and save the girl’s life. Her intervention begins a chain of events that only make her life more complicated, forcing her to navigate the life of an everyday high-schooler while delving deeper into a mystery involving suspicious school security guards, powerful rich families in town, the disappearance of a student named Rachel Amber, and visions of a tornado threatening to destroy the town. But Max also deals with a clique that bullies her, homework assignments from her idol/photography teacher, navigating a semi-romantic relationship with her friend Warren, and rekindling a lost and broken friendship with her old best friend, Chloe. Each situation provides choices to make, choices that developer DONTNOD Entertainment promises will ripple through gameplay to the story’s conclusion.
Episode 1 is littered with choices to make like most good modern adventure games. Life is Strange stands out by offering not only the large, macro-effect plot choices to alter the story, but a number of micro-effect choices that you may not even realize will shape the game until you see the choice recap at the end of the episode. Like life, every moment offers choices that ripple through the world and shape the lives of people around you, but Max’s ability to rewind time also gives her the chance to change any of those moments after they’ve happened. Even with that ability to rewind, both macro and micro-choices each feel significant, with both good and bad consequences stretching out from each decision. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, no matter what I chose, I wasn’t making the “right” choice…It actually makes those choices feel more difficult and significant, knowing that I had the ability to go back and change the past. It added a dimension that often feels like cheating in games when creating multiple save points to see the potential results of my inputs.
Conceptually, Life is Strange feels absolutely brilliant. The game oozes “cult-classic,” taking cues from games like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Deadly Premonition as well as non-game media like the TV show Twin Peaks and Ashton Kutcher’s The Butterfly Effect. Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy immerses players in a world full of people who feel like they all have their own lives, attitudes, and personalities. Aside from the story, the game visually stuns as well; the nature-focused backdrop of Oregon makes the beauty of nature present at all times, whether its exploring a lush, verdant college campus, or simply seeing the red-tinted sunset creep in through a bedroom window.
Life is Strange’s highlight is its uncanny ability to mix the magical with the mundane. The game displays stark visual style displays by giving photo-realism to the in-game world, but using a watercolor-like art style for any photographs not taken by Max herself. Items that Max can interact with are overlayed with a white colored pencil-like highlight, giving the world a feeling that it could be found in the pages of a diary. Max also carries a journal which updates as you progress through the game; each entry feels like it was written by Max herself, fleshing out both her world and herself to the player simultaneously. Combined with a gorgeous, acoustic guitar-led indie soundtrack that sounds fresh out of a Portland coffee shop, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported to Arcadia Bay yourself during gameplay.
Unfortunately, as stellar as the game’s writing is, poor lip-syncing often distracts from the crisp voice acting. Especially during the first couple hours with the game, I kept wondering if I was suffering from bad lag, or if there was a native language setting I needed to change the game to. Also, Max tends to talk to herself a bit too much when she’s alone, reiterating pieces of plot that already made themselves evident during gameplay. I felt at times like I was being transported back to Final Fantasy XIII, with Lightning’s flat-and-obvious-and-too-long monologues smattered throughout the story. For a game so grounded in the natural world, it seems uncomfortable with silence, and could stand to have future episodes let the plot and the gravity of the storytelling speak for itself instead of using Max’s internal dialog spell it all out for the player. After all, the writing is frequently crisp, subtle, and effective; they’d do well to make sure it all feels that way.
Strange: Episode 1 sets a fantastic platform for the rest of the game’s season, and is one of the first episodic titles I felt a strong drive to play through again the second I reached the end. With improvement in the lip-synching and internal dialogues, Life is Strange may put DONTNOD on the map as a strong rival to Telltale Games in the ability to tell a gripping, immersive story. Titles like this offer more than entertaining gameplay; they create realms for thought and introspection that I’d love to see more of in the future; thankfully, Episode 2 comes out in March.