Life is Strange is a game that wonderfully encapsulates the feeling of isolation one in their formative teenage years can experience. The actual mechanics of the game almost feel like a secondary peripheral to the primary story and characters. As such, those who are staunchly in favor of gameplay significantly overshadowing everything else in the game will find nothing to love in Life is Strange. However, if you can get over that you are playing this game for story, not gameplay, you’ll find a story that has been lovingly crafted in its first episode as well as a mechanic that keeps you interested enough to what to progress with the story.
It’s hard to talk about the plot of Life is Strange without spoiling it but I’ll just talk about what the trailers for the game have already revealed. You play as Max Caulfield, a private high school student majoring in photography. One day, she discovers a strange ability to reverse time during witnessing a fatal crime. Add in reuniting with an old childhood friend and the disappearance of a local girl her age and there’s a lot of emotional drama happening in Arcadia Bay, Oregon.
The first episode does a lot of setup for what is sure to be the overarching plot and instead focuses on engrossing you in the setting and the characters and it does this extremely effectively. You feel for Max and her inner insecurities and struggles to understand herself and her place in this world. However, you also as a player can appreciate and savor the simplicity of everything around her. Everything in Max’s life feels like it moves at a relatively slow pace and that can be intoxicating. It’s the feeling of being young and having the rest of your life in front of you, no matter how daunting it may be. The first episode does a great job of setting the stage and conveying the tone the rest of the story will most likely have. It’s like playing an indie movie.
The game itself is an adventure title in the vein of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. You’ll walking around, searching for objects and people to interact with in order to further the details of the story. You’ll also have to make decisions that will affect the story later on in future episodes. However, a big difference from those titles comes from the time manipulation mechanic. At any time, you will be able to reverse time and redo actions you’ve done while maintaining any information or items you’ve acquired. It’s necessary to use this mechanic to solve some of the easy, minor puzzles in the first episode. However, a double edged sword of this mechanic is it takes away the urgency in making decisions as you can just reverse time to redo it. The game doesn’t let you reverse from later on in the game but it still dampens the gameplay experience.
Graphically, the art design is simply beautiful. The soft colors and pencil sketches captures the simple and indie feel of the story. However, from a technical standpoint, there’s some stiff animations and, quite frankly, awful lip synching. It’s the one technical issue I ran into that would pull me out of the experience. Despite that, the presentation is still spot on. The voice acting is incredible, the soundtrack is wonderful (if you’re into indie folk) and the art design trumps any technical graphical issues. One last issue is the way you interact with stuff with the mouse and keyboard controls is a bit confusing. Using a controller is much easier.
I’m sure some will look at a game like Life is Strange and see it as pretentious. With its indie flick vibe, high school setting and slow pace, it’s easy to assume that it’s probably saying less than it actually thinks it is. While the future episodes will tell whether that’s true or not, episode 1 does make a great first impression. This definitely is a game that has a story that’s not commercially appealing but it doesn’t need to be. The best trait of Life is Strange is the characters. I feel for Max, I want to understand Max. I may not feel like I am Max but I want to know what happens to her. If you’re someone who loves characters in a story and how they think and react in obtuse situations, Life is Strange – Episode 1: Chrysalis is currently the best representation of that in video games.