Life is Strange is the latest in a long line of narrative-driven adventure games, where player choice and exposition is pushed to the forefront of the player’s experience. Indeed, this sub-genre of video games has been popularized heavily since the release of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead in 2012, and since then, these titles are starting to become somewhat ubiquitous, with Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands, and now Life is Strange all joining in the craze. However, developer Dontnod—best known for producing last year’s sleeper hit, Remember Me—is seeking to inject its own unique spin on the genre with the addition of a time-travelling mechanic.
Described by the studio as something of a ‘sweet spot between indie and triple-A,’ Life is Strange differs from its contemporaries in the sense it presents you with everyday life choices, with players controlling a seemingly ordinary 18-year-old student, Max Caulfield. You’re not battling against the undead or living in an extravagant fantasy realm here; Life is Strange is rooted firmly reality, and its characters and scenarios feel refreshingly down-to-earth as a result. At least, that’s how things seem initially, until Caulfield, upon returning to her hometown after a long absence, soon discovers she is anything but normal compared to her fellow students.
Life is Strange starts off innocuous enough, with Max harmlessly daydreaming in class, unaware that her life is about to change drastically. In terms of basic mechanics, Life is Strange’s paradigm should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played The Walking Dead or its various familiars. Players can examine objects, fiddle with them to discover more info, and walk around the campus interacting with an extensive and eclectic cast of characters, ranging from students, teachers, old chums, to meat-headed jocks. The ability to manipulate time comes into play pretty sharpish, although it’s introduced in a pretty seamless, natural way, as Max witnesses what would have been the murder of a long-time friend while cowering in the school’s bathroom.
From there on, things progress with fine pace and intrigue, as Max discovers just how she can influence everything from the mundane to the potentially life-changing. Life is Strange creates a strong juxtaposition here, with Max, a seemingly ordinary girl with extraordinary powers, set against the backdrop of regular high school drama and normal folk that inhabit the everyday life of Arcadia Bay. Players find themselves becoming involved with all manner of situations. For example, one instance I witnessed a friend smacked by a football kicked by a careless school jock, only for me to rewind time—done by simply holding the back shoulder button down—and warn her, allowing said chum to duck. The ball subsequently collided with a window instead.
Other situations prove far more damaging. Max finds herself hiding in the cupboard of a mate, only for her to hear her friend’s step-dad berating her for smoking pot; you can either come out of hiding and take the blame yourself, or late your pal take the rap. Other times, you can be a bit sneaky, such as chatting to your teacher, rewinding time, and then saying the right things or answering his questions correctly to put yourself in his good books—it’s great fun, and shows Life is Strange isn’t always just about potentially life-threatening situations, and adds a warmth and depth to Max’s character. She’s just a highschool kid, after all, and her actions reflect this.
One of Life is Strange’s greatest strengths is that it never hands you the ‘right’ choice. Sure, the time mechanic allows you to repeat events to view each possible outcome, but there isn’t a clear outcome. For example, I intervened in an argument between a school friend and security guard, which won me the respect of my friend, but had the guard breathing down my neck. I then opted to rewind the event, and stayed in the shadow; this ultimately had my friend berate me for my lack of concern for her, but I didn’t suffer the wrath of the security guard.
The implications of your choices definitely give you food for thought, and I was encouraged to try out different variations—something which I imagine will lead to great replay value for when you have all the episodes ready to play in front of you. However, some of the game’s events feel a little inconsequential, and it isn’t clear if they’ll have any lasting effects beyond the first episode; I could only remember a handful of major choices I made, even though I used the time mechanic many times during my playthrough. The game’s cast also didn’t get much time to shine, with only Max’s close friend really getting any significant airtime during the game; it’s a shame, as there’s a diverse cast on display, and I would have liked to have gotten to know them more throughout the episode.
However, things start to turn darker towards the episode’s climax with an impending catastrophe looming, and there was no doubt I was eager to play episode 2 and discover more about Max’s life; in that sense, Life is Strange’s narrative and characterization is an undeniable triumph. And, while not a sandbox by any stretch of the imagination, there’s plenty of opportunity to explore, and chatting with characters and interacting with various objects of interest gives you ample info to read in your journal, which helps flesh out the game world more.
There’s a palpable warmth to Life is Strange’s quintessential depiction of American suburbia, from the wind-swept autumn paths, sunlight school halls, to the homes that dot the landscape. The hand texture-painted visuals work brilliantly, and more importantly, characters are able to display subtle emotion as you guide Max and her new-found powers. Some textures are pretty ugly up close, and there’s a lack of detail in some far-off objects, although your attention is likely to be fixed firmly on Max and her friends, rather some conspicuously flat tree or building in the distance. Likewise, our heroine is totally believable as a modern-day teenager, with some brilliantly nuanced performances from both Max and chums, packing in some terrific colloquial banter that resulted in 30-something blokes like me scratching their heads in confusion.
In particular, Max’s realization with her time-altering powers and her reactions to their various consequences are superbly realised, and I was genuinely gripped by her transition from an ordinary, timid girl to coping with a life-changing discovery. Life is Strange is complemented but a rocking indie soundtrack mixed by Jonathan Morley, which ranges from subtle, melancholy riffs to more exaggerated ditties, depending on what’s happening at the time. Again, Dontnod has nailed that angsty teen mood right on the head, and you can almost imagine Max sitting in her dorm room, plucking away to anyone of these tracks on her trusty six string.
Life is Strange, Episode One: Cathylis is a joyous, gripping adventure that has laid down a strong foundation for the rest of the series. Its time-travelling mechanic is a great spin on traditional narrative, choice-heavy video games of similar fashion, and is backed up by brilliant characterization and superb storytelling. It may not be perfect, but there’s absolutely no way you’ll want to miss out on Max’s adventures.