I recently played Life is Strange as it was on sale. While I’m late to the review period, I didn’t read the professional reviews beyond the scores. It was generally well-received by the gaming press and I can certainly understand why. From here on out, I will be entering mild spoiler territory. You have been warned.
The game’s protagonist is Maxine “Max” Caufield. An eighteen year old photography student attending a pretentious art academy in Washington state. Max favours polaroid cameras and like many millenials, she enjoys “selfies”. A lot of the game play emphasizes taking photos of the environment. At some points in the game, this becomes important to the plot but also serves to scratch the achievement whoring itch.
The most immediate comparison to mind was the Telltale game series. Both are episodic adventure games with a heavy emphasis on binary choices. However, the ability to rewind time does give the players the opportunity to pick and choose based on the immediate outcome rather than in the moment (or without reloading). Your rewind power does remain limited to a single “scene” although later on, you find you have the ability to rewind yourself into previously taken pictures if Max was present in the shot. Like Telltale, the puzzles are few. This is no Sierra Interactive game. Instead, the focus is on the story choices rather than convoluted puzzles or insane game logic to progress. However, where I find Telltale relies on contrived or “in the heat of the moment” decisions to create fabricated conflict and choices, Life is Strange doesn’t feel that way. One example will have you decide whether or not to intervene in a confrontation between Chloe and her stepdad. The consequences appear minor when compared to The Walking Dead however there is far more weight because you don’t feel like the game and story is forcing a conflict for conflict’s sake.
During a bathroom break between classes, Max happens on a confrontation between a punk rocker chick and a preppy school boy which results in the death of the former. Horrified by the events, she wishes it never happened and comes to the discovery she has somehow been given the power to rewind time and prevent the murder. This causes a chain of events where you follow the would be victim Chloe, a former best friend to Max, and try to solve the disappearance of a missing girl she befriended while Max and her family lived in Seattle for five years. To add gravity to the proceedings, a recurrent nightmare serves as a harbinger of doom on the sleepy town where Max grew up and currently attends school.
I found it refreshing to have a primarily female cast compared to most games I’ve played. Max and Chloe aren’t treated as sexual objects except by the villains and only at the climax of the game. The story does rely heavily on implied rape and sexual abuse to give it a darker tone. One would be victim narrowly escaped and contemplates suicide but was too drugged to remember details. Despite the subject matter and figuring out the true mastermind ahead of time, I felt the mystery, story and characters engaging enough to pursue. Although, there are at times a “mean girls” vibe from some of the secondary cast which I was largely disinterested in.
The story does fail a few times in the early going. For example, a large dilemma for Maxine involves outing the aforementioned preppy boy to the school principal . The principal is reluctant to act even in the face of significant evidence because of the preppy boy’s father has significant influence in the town. What bothers me is Maxine chooses not to go to the authorities with additional circumstantial evidence when the preppy boy and his father text her threats or when the boy breaks into her dorm room and writes “DIE BITCH” on her wall.
The game teases the exploration of alternate timelines in its narrative but doesn’t fully explore it beyond one timeline where Max must make a heart wrenching decision on Chloe’s fate; foreshadowing the ending. The episodic nature of the game limits this exploration and perhaps in hindsight it might have detracted from the main story. I’d like to see a future game deal with this more in depth. The writers of the game have proven deft in such a somber topic I feel relatively confident they can handle such a story adequately.
Another point in the game which I found irksome was the final sequences before the ending. In one of the few “puzzles” the options to resolve it are not all immediately available to you. Instead, you have to go through trial and error, then rewind before additional options become available. This is a clever trick, but gets tiresome quickly. Finally, I won’t spoil the ending. I chose the least darkest path but the final cutscene involved characters which I felt should not have been included. I went ahead and watched the alternate ending which reinforced my decision.
All in all, I’d give the game a 9/10 in story, and 6/10 in gameplay. Very simplistic gaming elements except for two stealth sequences but it services the plot.