Life Is Strange. A nice catchy title, and one that evokes ideas that we can all share in. The glorious weirdness that even the most boring, lethargic life can be accustomed to, whether you’ve been visited by ‘sod’s law’ or tormented by a deity, is something that we both delight in and reject. Life Is Strange takes the minutiae of human lives, that of photography student Max Caulfield and those around her, and lets you poke and prod your way around their world. Of course, Max’s life is made that much stranger as she discovers that she can rewind events in her recent past, allowing her to undo wrongs, prevent catastrophes, or just get the right answer in art class.
It’s almost plain to see the flow-chart design at work that fashioned Life Is Strange’s style, with it hitting key notes from teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, My So Called Life and One Tree Hill, through to its science fiction underpinnings that prompt memories of The Butterfly Effect, Donnie Darko and About Time. That idea, of the causal nature of time travel, is at the centre of the game, whilst it’s dressed up in the alluring audio-visual appearance of an American independent movie.
The game’s opening finds Max caught near a cliff-top lighthouse, in the middle of a huge storm. With the lightning flashes timed with the rumble from your pad it’s an immediate and gripping introduction, and as you push towards the top of slope you’re greeted by the sight of an immense electrically charged tornado. Just as you think you’ll reach the safety of the building, a boat is tossed by the storm into the side of the lighthouse, which then begins to topple towards you.
You wake up in Max’s art class, suddenly welcomed back to the normal world. Whilst you’re confused and unclear what the vision means, you find yourself embroiled in school life, with an art teacher looking for the answer to a question you have no way of knowing the answer to and a variety of ordinary items to explore on your desk, opening the first insight’s into Max’s backstory.
In essence, you’re viewing this point and click adventure game in third person, with hand drawn arrows pointing to various objects and people, offering you different options on how to interact with them as you move about. Very often it’s just to look at something, which will trigger Max’s internal monologue, giving you a broader understanding of the character you’re playing and the events at Blackwell Academy or in Arcadia Bay. Max is an inconsistent narrator though, and indeed part of that comes from your future use of the rewind function, but she’s a bit flaky and at times unlikeable, which possibly means that Dontnod have nailed the character of an 18-year-old perfectly.
The developers have done a great job of mixing the unnatural with the everyday life of a young student, so you move from visions and violent acts to calming a pair of squabbling roommates, or dealing with the ire of your school’s entitled queen bitch Victoria. Despite never having been an 18-year-old girl, a lot of the experiences felt authentic to me, as were Max’s responses to them.
The game’s voice acting is on the whole very well done, with Ashly Burch – Borderland 2’s Tiny Tina – doing a great job as Max’s emotionally damaged friend Chloe, though again it’s Max’s delivery that occasionally fails to hit the spot. Part of that could be the fault of the script though, which tries too hard to come off as trendy or ‘down with the kids’, and instead at times comes off as being heavy-handed and childish. The game would have been better served without shoe-horning in the awkward teen-speak, which will date the title far quicker than the story’s broader teen dilemmas and sci-fi trappings.
The game has a lot in common with Telltale’s adventure titles, though the rewind function in some ways removes the worry that “… will remember that” elicits in The Wolf Among Us et al, replacing it with “This action will have consequences”. There’s still the worry there, but you can explore the different options available to you before settling on one, rather than the snap-decisions Telltale often expect of you. There’s a sense that even small decisions will have some kind of benefit or cost in a future episode – even watering your plant – though only time will tell to what extent that works. Either way, at various points you’ll remain conflicted over your choice, agonising over the direction you’ve taken.
Visually Life Is Strange is a definite step up from Telltale’s work though, with the setting of Arcadia Bay and its various locations being particularly well drawn. The key perhaps is the gorgeous lighting, which brings out the best of Unreal Engine 3, and evokes that emotive teen drama and indie movie aesthetic exceedingly well. Saying that, the engine did seem to suffer from some late texture pop-in as areas loaded on Xbox One, though nothing that would affect gameplay, and possibly something that won’t be quite as apparent on PC or PS4.
The characters are less of a step-up, lacking the detail afforded to your surroundings, and in a crucial failure for this kind of game, their lip-syncing is completely detached from the spoken voice tracks. I found it incredibly distracting watching the characters chat away while they looked like part of a badly dubbed kung-fu movie. Whether this is something that they will remedy in a patch, or whether they don’t see it as problem, it certainly cheapens the good work they’ve done elsewhere.
Life Is Strange makes a strong start to its season, with the first episode introducing a number of interesting characters, and raising a number of questions that left me needing answers. The visuals paint a solid, and often beautiful world, and despite the occasional misstep in the dialogue or execution Dontnod have the beginnings of a worthy and memorable entry in the adventure game genre.
Version tested: Xbox One