Pitting players against the greatest obstacle in life – the choices we make – Life is Strange is an interactive story with powerful themes and effective emotional scenarios.
Set over five days, the game focuses on upcoming photographer Max Caulfield (Hannah Telle) as she returns to her hometown, Arcadia Bay, to study photography under superstar photographer, Mark Jefferson (Derek Phillips) at Blackwell Academy. Only, after a nightmare that destroys the town, Max wakes in class and learns she has the power to rewind time when she saves Chloe (Ashly Burch), her estranged best friend, from being shot in the girl’s bathroom. Later, the former childhood friends reunite and, over the course of five days, set out to investigate the disappearance of Chloe’s friend, Rachel Amber. This leads them to discover many things about Arcadia Bay, Blackwell Academy, the people that populate it, and themselves.
Gameplay focuses on Max’s interaction with the people that populate the town and school. Through this, she learns more about them and the greater mystery at hand. The level of detail about each character and their lives is immense and creates a sense of Arcadia Bay being a living breathing world. Throughout the game, players are offered choices, stemming from simple conversation prompts to story changing actions. In this way, Life is Strange is little more than an interactive story. Yet, the story is so engaging and well-conceived that only players who dislike story-driven games will be disappointed.
In theory, the diverging storylines provide high replayability, since decisions effect the way the story plays out. However, in the end, players are only offered two conclusions, which detracts from the effect of previous choices. Fortunately, within the game, players do see the effects their choices create.
The game’s rewind mechanic allows players to undo actions within a scene letting them test which response responds best with their nature and which one provides the best player outcome. With the exception of one scenario near the end of episode five, where the game is so dark players can’t see what they’re doing, the gameplay is free of frustration.
The story itself is a mix of genres, ranging from a teen melodrama as Max becomes involved in the lives of other students, to a mystery as Max and Chloe investigate Rachel’s disappearance, and a love story when it focuses on their friendship and history. It’s also a psychological thriller because of moments of tense action and anxiety and the way player choices affect not only the game, but how they react to it. The story also confronts some important themes for teens and adults, , such as suicide, and deals with them in a mature way. The developers aren’t afraid to show their science-fiction influences either, with nods to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Planet of the Apes, amongst others.
For the most part, the story is well paced, ranging from inner school conflict to tense run-for-your-life moments. That said there are a few lulls close to the climax when the story should be at full-pelt. Still, this doesn’t ruin the game. Surprisingly for a game, dialogue is well written and delivered even better by some fantastic voice actors. It readily captures the urban slang of teenagers, and while there are a few moments of duff dialogue, these moments are rare.
Delivered over five episodes, each one has a unique tone, focusing on different aspects of the story. Each episode feels fresh, except the final one, which rehashes a lot of dialogue players have already heard, perhaps in an attempt to catch up players who haven’t played for a while.
The game has a cinematic quality to it, helped by the beautiful motion-captured graphics. Characters look and behave with life-like mannerisms and the environments portray a convincing town and school. The audio design plays a large part in this, offering atmospheric cues and music appropriate for a game based on the life of a teenager. This helps players further immerse themselves in the experience.
Overall, Life is Strange is an immersive experience and its few flaws are never enough to ruin it. Unless you dislike story-driven games, I highly recommend everyone experience Life Is Strange. It demonstrates the power video games have as a storytelling medium.
4 ½ stars