My So Called Life meets Twin Peaks in Life is Strange, the new episodic adventure game (available on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360) from DONTNOD Entertainment, developer of the 2013’s Remember Me. While Remember Me was heavily influenced by games such as Uncharted and the Batman Arkham series, Life is Strange is clearly inspired by the Telltale Games series such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. And in a stark contrast from Remember Me’s cyberpunk Neo Paris setting, the game instead takes place in modern day Oregon and deals with the trials and tribulations of high school life… and possibly something more sinister. Episode 1: Chrysalis is a great start to this new series, and Life is Strange could very well possibly be the sleeper hit of 2015.
In Life is Strange, you play as Max Caulfield, an 18 year old student returning to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon for the first time in five years to attend Blackwell Academy, a prestigious high school for seniors. Shy and introspective, she is more adept with her passion for photography than being social. She describes herself the best when she says she’s “always looking”, whether it be through a viewfinder or a window. The game begins with her having a nightmare of a raging tornado approaching her town, and soon afterwards, when she witnesses a girl get shot, discovers that she has the ability to rewind time. Chrysalis deals with Max discovering and learning to cope with her power, and sets up the world and characters of Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy.
Right from the beginning of the game, not everything is what it seems. While Blackwell may look to be a typical rich kid’s high school, there are certain oddities surrounding it. The school is built on ancient Native American spiritual ground and, according to a teacher, is a source of power; the “Vortex Club,” the clique of the most popular and influential students at Blackwell, is shrouded in mystery; and even the janitor speaks in cryptic sayings. However, the oddest mystery is the sudden disappearance of a student named Rachel Amber, a mystery that hangs over the setting through the various “Missing” posters scattered across campus as well as the various rumors and memories of Rachel from those that knew her. On the surface, the students and staff of Blackwell seem to be comprised of various cliches and tropes of high school settings, but there is a genuineness in how they act that makes them realistic, and there are definitely moments that are (sometimes painfully) accurate to actual high school/young adult experiences. Moreover, a deeper look at these figures reveals that there is more to them that meets the eye, and hopefully further episodes will explore the stories of the people Max interacts with.
Gameplay is point-and-click exploration and branching dialogue choices during conversations. Many objects in the world can be interacted with or commented on, with many of the comments giving more insight to Max’s character. There is an especially amusing comment where Max insists that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, a fun nod to publisher Square-Enix. Just like the Telltale adventure games, actions and dialogue choices have consequences that may alter the story in some way. However, this is where Life is Strange separates itself from other games of the genre, by giving you the ability to use time to change and manipulate your actions. Rewinding time doesn’t change your memories, position, or inventory, and the puzzles in the game revolve around that ability. Gave the wrong answer in a conversation? Rewind time after finding out the right answer and give the correct response the “first” time. However, you are limited on how far back you can rewind, and many decisions have both pros and cons, with no true “right way.” For now, most of the decisions don’t have an immediate effect, but it will be interesting to see in later episodes how Max’s actions will play into the story.
Unlike the highly detailed and realistic world of Remember Me’s Neo Paris, Life is Strange goes for a much simpler look. It’s closer to a painting than reality, with textures from photographs to computer monitors looking like they were hand-painted. The constant hazy glow of the sun gives a feeling that is both serene yet melancholic, which fits well with Max’s internal struggles. The biggest issue with the graphics is with the lip syncing, or rather, the complete lack of it. It’s a little jarring to have the character’s mouth movements not match up at all with the dialogue, but it isn’t a deal breaker. The dialogue and voice acting ranges from good to great. Some lines come off as not sounding like something a high school student would say, but for the most part, it’s more hit than miss. Hannah Telle, who made her video game voice acting debut in Murdered: Soul Suspect, does a great job as Max, conveying awkwardness and quiet sadness in conversations and internal dialogue. Ashly Burch, best known for her her role as Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2 and her live action comedy series Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’?, is also fantastic as Chloe Price, Max’s former best friend. She nails down Chloe’s anger and bitterness over the loss of the people she cared about; from her father passing away, to Max initially leaving years ago, and to Rachel’s sudden disappearance, whom she was very close to. Max and Chloe’s conversations were the among the best interactions of the episode, and their relationship looks to be one of the most interesting dynamics of the series.
There are five episodes planned for Life is Strange, with Episode 2: Out of Time scheduled to be released in March. With its combination of characters, setting, and intriguing overarching plot, Life is Strange is already establishing itself as a game definitely worth checking out. March cannot come fast enough.