(I’m keeping this post mostly spoiler-free for those who haven’t played it!)
I’m not normally one for Steam sales, but over the holidays I picked up two titles that had a strong word-of-mouth push behind them: Undertale (which I haven’t played yet) and Life is Strange. I knew very little about Life is Strange other than some people really, really liked it, so I more or less went into it blind.
I think if someone told me that it was “like Telltale’s adventure games but better,” I would’ve jumped on board sooner.
I played through all five episodes over the span of a week (it took me about 16 hours in all), and I’ll agree — this game is seriously great. It has flaws, some big ones, but the experience as a whole is flat-out amazing if you take the time to really get to know this slow-paced adventure title.
Life is Strange puts you in the shoes of Maxine Caulfield, a somewhat shy hipster 18-year-old who’s moved back to her home town of Arcadia Bay to attend a prestigious art school. During class one day, she has an apocalyptic vision and subsequently discovers that she’s developed the unique ability to rewind time to a point. This is the gimmick of the game, that you can take actions or make dialogue choices, see how they play out, and then rewind and choose again if so desired. Of course, there are limits — Max can only rewind so far and after enough time has passed, those choices are set. Plus, you never quite know how every choice, big and small, will affect things (and they do in so many more ways than Telltale Games’ choices).
Over the course of a week, Max reconnects with her childhood best friend who is now an angry punk, starts investigating the disappearance of a popular girl, and explores what her powers can do. While it’s part sci-fi, the real meat of the game is just in getting to know the people and locations. Life is Strange does a wonderful job putting dozens of players on a stage that you think you know on the outset and then are surprised when you keep interacting with them over the week. You learn their secrets, personalities, relationships, motives, regrets, and deep-rooted pain. I think the fact that the entire cast felt quite real to me by the game’s end was a testament to how immersive this title was.
Some people call this game “high school simulator” and it is, sort of. But it’s also so much more. You get texts from other characters, can peek through their stuff and computers, take interesting pictures of small details, and read Max’s ever-developing journal to see her thoughts on the situation (and illustrations). Making choices that affected others could often be agonizing because it’s quite hard to figure out what will help or hurt in the long-run. The game is more fair in this respect than Telltale, which would sometimes just jerk you around for picking a nice answer by doing something horrible to you.
Life is Strange borrows heavily from other sources and doesn’t apologize for it. Its episodic, story-driven format with choice-and-consequences hews really close to Telltale, obviously. The main character, a young female art student with a constant inner monologue and a cheeky spirit, reminded me so much of The Longest Journey’s April Ryan. Then the setting and plot are equal amounts Twin Peaks (Rachel Amber is the new Laura Palmer) and Donnie Darko (time manipulation and Halloween). Sometimes the homages are a little too heavy-handed, but the feeling that this quaint seaside town has a much darker underside with a tinge of supernatural happenings makes up for it.
I do have my criticisms, of course. I never really warmed up to Chloe as a person — she’s too rash and abrasive, and I always felt that Max should’ve hung out with Warren all week. The lip syncing is off, which is a shame because the voice acting is quite well-done. And probably my biggest complaint is that some of the major mysteries are never explained (particularly concerning how and why Max got her powers). People are very divided on the ending, but I’m OK with it — I think it could’ve been handled better, but as an overall story it does the job in bringing everything to a close.
There are a few stunning moments in the game that will rattle your brain for a bit as you adjust to what has just happened, and Life is Strange genuinely earns those moments by laying down a lot of foundation for each. Some twists can be seen while others caught me by surprise. The soundtrack and art style are both major assets for the game as well.
So yeah, if you like adventure games or even a really good story, pick up Life is Strange.