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Life is Strange Review

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Please Note: Many reviewers out there seem to think it is appropriate to discuss the events of previous episodes of Life is Strange as if everyone who would read it damn well should have already played the previous episodes.  It has been my experience that if you have held out this long and haven’t already played this episode then you are most likely wondering how the game progresses throughout the season and will decide whether or not to buy when all episodes are out.  This is why each episodic review is spoiler free for the entire season, not just this episode.

Episode 1: Chrysalis

Adventure games have always been a bit of a split for me.  I was never good at them, never completed many of them, and thus I wanted to write them off as worthless but what they did for storytelling is undeniable.  TellTale somewhat switched up the definition of what goes into an adventure game, but try as they may I was hindered by either losing investment in the story or just not valuing these games any more than my current frustration with trying to beat Grim Fandango Remastered because I had never played before.  I guess the biggest problem for me was the balance is never quite there.  In a point-and-click adventure game there’s too much emphasis on puzzle solving and figuring out the developer whereas the TellTale games traditionally have too little and stand as nothing more than slightly interactive movies (that always seem to end in the same place regardless of those decisions).  Life is Strange stands out because developer Dontnod (known previously for the great action title Remember Me) acknowledges the reality that you are a player interacting with an environment, but also allows you to relate to the person on screen so distinctly that you get the best of both worlds.

The life of the high school teen...

The life of the high school teen…

I think the least said about the plot the better for a game like this, but the basic premise revolves around a just turned 18-year-old girl named Maxine (Max) Caulfield who is currently enrolled in an art academy in Oregon.  Both the academy and the town (Arcadia Bay) are significant because Max grew up in that town and when her family relocated to Seattle five years ago she apparently abandoned that life for reasons unknown at the start of the game.  Her main interest is in photography – the main draw as to why she would return to Arcadia Bay and attend a school she doesn’t seem too fond of save for her photography class – and while she does come off as a bit of a loner, I was glad to see that she is aware of most of her limited number of classmates.  Early into the game Max discovers that she has the ability to reverse time and uses it to protect someone, which later gives way to a slew of problems.  The story develops with the player being able to interact as much or as little as they please with the environment and the people in it as the story naturally progresses.  The game proves that it’s not just putting the episodic format to waste by creating branching storylines that don’t evolve much in this first iteration, foreshadowing the future, and creating an overall conflict that will no doubt take the entire five episodes to reconcile.

Interact with anything of interest, you never know what you might find

Interact with anything of interest, you never know what you might find

Life is Strange initially intrigues you for how effortlessly it captures the world it creates.  Those late teenage years are awkward for everyone and the way important issues are brushed off and pointless interests becomes the focus of the universe for these students reminds me of the days when I was in that same position.  There’s no beating you over the head with any specific character and the range of individuals you can get to know, or completely ignore, is placed with skill like a series of figures on a bookshelf that can be appreciated if the onlooker so chooses.  One of my biggest gripes for all adventure games is that I am being forced into difficult decisions without knowing the immediate outcome and then I have to live with them.  This may be the way real life works, but in video games it takes control away from the player and may force you down a path you never intended to take and thus don’t invest in.  Life is Strange allows you to see the immediate effects of any of the game’s handful of major binary decisions and then make your choice, but it’s clear that the consequences of these actions are tucked away to be thrown in your face later.  Now I know there are some that would sneer at this transparency, which is justified, but the the game doesn’t stop you from committing to a decision without considering the consequences and save for a few puzzles you are never forced to rewind time and consider a decision.  In short, it’s the true Choose Your Own Adventure video game, complete with the freedom read the first page of each decision.

Chloe, Max's former best friend, is an part of episode 1

Chloe, Max’s former best friend, is an integral part of episode 1

With only one episode in and a release date of March 2015 for the second, Life is Strange looks like it will take the greater part of this year to fully progress, but from this initial outing I’m invested in full.  Much like its previous title, Dontnod has taken aspects that we all appreciate from a handful of games and combined them together into a stronger cohesive whole.  Here’s hoping that the adventures of Max stay as strong through each of the five episodes as it did for the first.  My confidence is further heightened by the fact that this first episode was riddled with a lot more drama than action, meaning that there’s no need to outdo itself in the future.  As for now, it’s one hell of a pilot.  (Original score was 5 out of 5)

Episode 2: Out of Time

I was quite taken with my initial impressions of Life is Strange, the episodic game that’s part modern adventure and part Choose Your Own Adventure, but there’s a part of me that acknowledged many works have started with fantastic openings and fall short at the end.  In fact, much of the first episode was probably how the game was pitched for development.  Typically the second outing, especially in the case of episodic titles, give us a much better feeling of what the overall title is going to be like and allows us to gauge how effectively or ineffectively the unwinding story and gameplay goals are executing.  It’s also important to note that almost universally the second episode is hit with the largest amount of criticism and negative feedback, if only because it’s a focused burst of reality on the high hopes of the first episode, but also because it’s an awkward in-between time for the plot.  I wish I could say Life is Strange overcomes this potential hitch, but it does appear that like most of the others it just doesn’t quite pack the punch of the first.

life_is_strange_ep2_1When we pick up with Max, a lot has been dropped on our plate at the end of the first episode.  In a predictable but thankful way the first half of the episode is rather mundane, although the basic functions of getting started with your day and dropping by dorm mates had some surprising depth.  A new side story is introduced that is so mainstream to these characters you have to take a moment and wonder if you missed this plot point in the first episode – I checked by replaying just before I started on this one, it’s not there.  The plus side to this sudden new turn of events is it gives Dontnod excuses to have you speaking with people you know well and seemingly just caught up with in the first episode, which does come with it all that teenage angst, hypocrisy, and childlike behavior that I enjoyed from the first episode.  On the other hand, it also puts you in an odd position depending on how you treated this character in the first episode because regardless of whether you were friendly, her protector, or just plain apathetic towards her you are suddenly appointed to closer friend and protector given this new news.  I may be crazy here, but I’m betting it doesn’t usually work that way with teenage girls in real life and it definitely didn’t work for this teenage boy in his life.  You are the center of your universe as a high school senior so someone’s downfall or emotional distress is either viewed as something you’d like to avoid or competition with your problems (or both), but never a call to action.  It was even more odd that while you could be different degrees of concerned, you couldn’t be dismissive.  This comes full circle at the end of the episode but given spoilers I’ll just say that this was the first instance where I learned that Dontnod is willing to etch the game to my decisions, but it isn’t going to let me avoid watching the side effects.  It’s hard to dissect without getting specific, but suffice to say if I ignore a person most of the time they are going through a rough patch, I don’t understand why I would be in the situation at the end, although the concerned hero types will definitely feel satisfied.  And that’s when I suddenly realized that painful truth I had been trying to ignore: there’s a path the developers want me to take and they aren’t going to make it worthwhile to wonder off that path.

life_is_strange_ep2_3Major drama aside I was also pleased to see that some of the plotlines from the last episode progressed slightly whereas others were almost absent completely.  Since these points were large parts of the first episode I’m sure these were conscious decisions, but probably the most blaring of the progressing plots was washed over quite loosely.  That’s not to say it won’t become more focal at a later point in time, but I don’t think the developers get it both ways – making me suddenly focus 100 percent attention on someone I may not have been that aware of while also brushing off this dangerous situation in my own life.  I also felt that the biggest part of the episode, another day with Chole, was lacking on all fronts.  Max (your character) and Chole get too familiar in a short period of time, especially for two people who have had a lot of pent up aggression about the breakup of the friendship five years ago.  This goes double when Chloe starts having Max do time travel parlor tricks and then putting her in situations she’s not comfortable with, it’s too fast to simply trust her like you would your problematic best friend.  They just aren’t there anymore.

life_is_strange_ep2_2I also hated the way the world looked at these girls and the apparent suggestion, whether conscious or not, that females in high school need protecting.  It just didn’t seem natural.  By the time I was eighteen and wrapping up high school, people had started to allow me to make my own decisions and mistakes.  Sure, I might have been stopped by a parent or teacher if I was going to do something blatantly harmful or that would affect my future, but otherwise things like heading downtown to catch a show were my decisions to make (even if my parents were worried sick).  That’s not the case here, instead Max is for some unknown reason set as the protector and righter of wrongs in the whole episode.  Even at the very beginning, you have an arbitrary opportunity to prevent Alyssa from getting bullied by warning her of someone about to pick on her, which is what you did in the first episode as well.  Alyssa is upfront in both episodes that she’s used to bullying and can handle herself, but to not warn her in both instances results in a sulking and depressed Alyssa.  Clearly you are supposed to “protect” her by warning her, which just struck me as a bit too parental.  The same is true of this character going through some issues (really forcing myself not to use her name here); it’s fine if a person in trouble comes to you for help or you let them know you’re there for them, but it seems out of character to pry and then start a crusade in their name.  This is also true of Chloe, where her mother asks you to protect her and see her safe as well as a situation later on where you literally have to protect her.  This is weird because of all the people that can handle herself, the life that Chloe has led up to this point suggests that she’s much more capable of protecting herself rather than you.  As the father of a young daughter I worry every day about the outside factors that my daughter will be subjected to in her teens, but I also acknowledge that overbearing parenting or the full protection model is probably the worst way to prepare her for the real world.  As a result, even if it means me getting an ulcer, I’ll probably have to let her learn these skills and make these mistakes on her own, especially when she’s topped eighteen and isn’t in school anymore.  Whatever your parenting opinions may be, it’s pretty clear that someone on the writing staff not only has a younger or teenage daughter, but that they are having serious insecurities about that girl’s ability to get along in the world.  This sadly bleeds into the whole thesis for the episode and I found myself noticing it without even trying, then being unable to ignore it once I did.

life_is_strange_ep2_4

It’s not all bad, though, because this is only the second episode after all.  Life is Strange still retains these strong characters, despite some of them being a bit too vulnerable this time around, and it still captures that daydream feeling of zoning out to some music that you literally did as a teenager and literally do in this game.  While I might not agree with some of the tones, the plot does continue to progress and I’m genuinely still hooked to finding out how it all goes down.  With the new storylines presented and only mild touches on the plots of episode one, it appears there may be more branching plots and a wider scope to Max’s life than I thought.  There is a decent amount of point-and-click problem solving that is not only unnecessary but made me roll my eyes because this great backtracking system was being wasted on finding the right way to grab a bottle or performing a stupid act I knew would result in self injury just because I could undo the mistake.  Still, this title seems to have more merit to your decisions than The Walking Dead or even Mass Effect ever did because the end of episode two can be drastically different based on several decisions you made since the beginning of the game.  I’ve been playing each episode with two personalities that are almost opposite one another and discovering the interesting differences along the way, but I was a bit annoyed to find the information and plot points to be much more similar and streamlined this second time around.  Hopefully in the third episode some balance between not knowing central important plots based on decisions and being forced into every situation regardless of them.  As it stands, some flaws are beginning to emerge but it’s in no way hindering my piqued interest in the overall season and without sounding too negative, I was expecting this.  With episode three we will get to see a more comprehensive look at what the whole season has to offer and I’m betting that like most other episode games, I will likely be more impressed.  Only time will tell.  (Original score was 3 out of 5)

Episode 3: Chaos Theory

The story of lead character Max, her best friend Chloe, and the various people that cross paths with these girls in the small Oregon town of Arcadia Bay continues.  We are now on the third episode of five, which is the time where typically the twist of the season presents itself and the direction for the overall story arc begins to come into view.  I don’t know where Life is Strange is headed – the twist at the end I never saw coming and it only furthered my intrigue – but I am pleased to say that the flaws I was detecting in the second episode are quite absent this time around.  In fact, it feels like perhaps two different teams at Dontnod are programming episodes because Chaos Theory feels more like the first episode and might even be able to get by if episode 2 didn’t exist (save for a plot point or two).  Needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed this third iteration, although despite my gripes from episode 2 being resolved, all new ones have emerged that prove there’s still room for improvement on this project.

life_is_strange_ep3_1Whereas the last episode felt forced, without much care to the characters that inhabit the world and chock full of annoying parlor tricks, episode three starts right off with something we had yet to see in the series: stealth.  Frankly I’m getting sick of this mechanic being forced into genres it never belonged in – and this is no exception – but the time manipulation mechanic makes utilizing stealth an optional affair.  Crisis averted.  Another thing you start to notice is that your decisions of the past are continuing to affect the storylines of the present, which is quite impressive when you play two different save files for each chapter like I do.  There are facts about characters that one of my saves has known since episode one that continues to be a large driving force for why they act the way they do, but on the other save I’m completely oblivious to these facts and have an entirely different opinion of that person.  The same is true of plenty of side characters and as far as I can see the game has chosen, at least up to this point, not to reveal that info if you never discover it.  This impresses me and shows off that the branching information and slightly altered storylines aren’t so much smoke and mirrors like other titles, but rather just subtle differences that allow a streamlined creative process.

life_is_strange_ep3_2In the last episode I didn’t like the dynamic between Max and Chloe because it felt forced that two girls who, despite being best friends, had not spoken to each other in five years.  They connected too quick – this fact is even stated near the end of episode two by Chloe – but that didn’t prevent the plot from forcing this companionship on you.  Whether it’s the activities you do with Chloe in episode three or perhaps the reality that I’ve now embraced we are supposed to be close friends again, this deep friendship is much stronger and it felt more natural in this episode.  Chloe is very influential and whether this is the game’s design or my willingness to become a sheep, I found myself losing independence at times to succumb to her will and give in to her peer pressure.  With the character change comes that feeling of freedom that often accompanies doing things out of character.  I bring all this up because as each character develops, and we continue to see a rock solid job of almost all main players developing this time around,  so do you the player.  It may not be that big of a deal to most players, but I was taken with how I was developing and changing in my personality for Max as I spent more time with the characters of the story.

life_is_strange_ep3_3Another new change, and one that kept me playing this episode a bit longer than I would have liked, is a ramp up in difficulty.  To be clear, Life is Strange is not a hard game and with the rewind mechanic it can be downright impossible to find a death state, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get stuck.  Yes, like the adventure games of the past, you might find yourself in a predicament where you don’t know what to do next.  This is developer Dontnod trying to test you about what you have learned so far and showing you that this game is about to get a hell of a lot more dynamic.  You need to know how to properly manipulate time and understand how freeing that can be, especially with complex tasks.  You need to know how to navigate a room, remember specifics about the people you interact with, and even know who to name drop to someone in order to get them to give up information.  It’s no Sierra point-and-click, but you will probably find yourself trying everything on everything at least once or twice throughout this episode, which was new for me.  None of the situations requires that much deep thought or you getting stuck for too long, so I urge everyone to try not looking up a solution to the situation so that when the answer eventually comes to you, you can experience that small rush of accomplishment from those days long gone.  It’s all just backing the fact that as the episodes continue to release, this game is evolving.

life_is_strange_ep3_4With the strong storyline continuing and my love for these characters also growing at an exponential rate, I can’t help but say I’m all in again.  The ramp in difficulty and new utilization of old gameplay mechanics is a misstep and prevents you from getting what you really want out of Life is Strange, which is more of the story.  Still, it’s not a deal breaker and provided that they reign it in, can be a welcome addition to future episodes.  I have to admit I was blown away with the direction the story takes at the end and while I thought I knew what the twist was and had it all figured out, the actual twist and direction for the next episode blindsided me.  I’m not saying it’s the greatest plot mechanic of all time, but it’s definitely raising the bar in terms of episodic storytelling in games.  I hope TellTale is taking notes because this new kid in town is showing me what I should be seeing out of future releases for all games of this genre.  I might have been disenchanted by episode two, but with this new direction I can’t wait for the final two episodes of Life is Strange.  (Original score was 4 out of 5)

Final Score: 4 out of 5 (review policy)

Given that this game is episodic, this review will continue to build upon itself per episode.  Posts of each episode will go on the main page individually but this link will stand as the comprehensive review for all episodes.  Each episode will be given its own score initially, but the comprehensive review will have an overall score that will update with each episode (and may not necessarily reflect an average of the scores as this is not the method to scoring).  This game was purchased by the reviewer and played on PC, however it is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC (including Steam), Xbox One, and Playstation 4 at a price of $4.99 for Episode One and $19.99 for the entire five episode run.  Episodes are available individually for $4.99 each and require at least episode 1.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 13, 2015 at 2:19 pm

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