I'm glad Life is Strange exists. Developer Dontnod (which made 2013’s Remember Me) isn’t afraid to focus on narrative and challenge the player with choice, but even more impressive are the subjects that are usually taboo for video games. Life is Strange is genuine, grounding itself in real-life struggles, but throwing in enough twists (like the ability to reverse time) to make things exciting. Dontnod plays to its strengths to create an outstanding opener for this episodic adventure.
The story follows Maxine, an 18-year-old photography student who has recently moved back to her hometown. Maxine’s life has revolved around her passion for photography, but she’s also dealing with self-doubt and fear of rejection. When she witnesses a murder, she discovers her ability to reverse time and change the outcome. As Maxine finds corruption and mystery in her hometown with this ability, Life is Strange’s most intriguing theme surfaces: How would knowing the results of a situation impact your decisions?
Reversing time is an interesting mechanic to use in a choice-based game. You still have uncertainty as to what the long-term effects of your decisions are, but Life is Strange gives you the opportunity to gain more insight by seeing their immediate outcomes. The game alerts you when a decision will impact the story later, so you can rewind time and change it before proceeding. Some choices come down to deciding between building a relationship or pursuing evidence. Will that relationship be important later, or will you need that evidence even more to get out of a jam? Dontnod has said these choices are far-reaching, even going as far as to determine the fate of certain characters. I remain optimistic, but I won’t know how satisfying they are until future episodes.
What I enjoyed most about these decisions is their ambiguity. Do I turn in a shady character to the principal, or will that just cause me more problems down the road? Even taking the rap for a friend so she doesn’t get in trouble for dabbling in drugs can have vicious consequences. Conundrums like these are exactly what choices in video games should provoke. I just went with my gut; a “right” decision is never available. Too many times I feel like I can predict the optimal scenario in adventure games, but Life is Strange kept me guessing. The rewinding of time works best for these consequential decisions, as it’s not nearly as engaging when you’re using it to find information for new dialogue options.
The most refreshing part of Life is Strange is its focus on realistic issues, which are at the forefront of the story. I could relate to Maxine’s insecurities about her craft, her day-to-day school life, and her attempt to mend a broken friendship. Issues like abuse and assault make their way in, and I like that the game isn’t afraid to delve into these topics. The best moments in this game are in the relationship with Maxine and her estranged friend Chloe; the two are very different, but their struggles bring them together and on new adventures, like investigating the disappearance of a fellow student.
I love that the writing taps into raw emotion, but practically all the characters are walking clichés in this first episode. It’s like the My So-Called Life of video games. You have the rich mean girl, the good friend gone bad, the religious virgin outcast, and a nerdy guy friend crushing on Maxine. Every character falls into this trap and it diminishes the impact of issues addressed by the story, such as abuse. I hope that Dontnod takes these well-worn archetypes in new directions in future episodes.
Outside of rewinding time, the majority of the gameplay consists of exploration, with no combat at all. Tons of items are peppered about waiting to be found, and they add small tidbits to the story and characters’ personalities. You find some cool references to Thomas Wolfe, the movie Akira, and even John Lennon. I was sometimes unsure how thoroughly I was expected to scour places, especially when other characters were present. In one instance, I passed over a pregnancy test I found in another character’s room because I was afraid she would yell at me for being too nosey. How much you should pry isn’t clear, and it breaks the immersion when you don’t face consequences for being a snoop.
The next episode will surely define what Dontnod is out to accomplish, but Life is Strange’s introduction is a good look at the characters and dilemmas. It did its job of getting me interested. I have some minor concerns about how original the subject matter will turn out to be, but the focus on realistic problems is refreshing and the care put into Maxine’s world and the relationship-building holds plenty of promise.
This review pertains to the PC version. It is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.