Life is Strange gave me an experience I wasn't really expecting. From what I knew of it, it was about a girl who could send herself shortly back in time. I also knew it was a choice driven experience similar to what you would find in Telltale games. The game did deliver on those two aspects, but had them mostly in the background while it dealt with a cliché high school experience and incredibly one dimensional characters. As the credits rolled on the first episode, I was intrigued with where the story was going, but was frustrated with how poorly executed some of the aspects of the game are.
The game centers itself around an 18 year old high school girl named Max. She is the typical geeky outcast who only has a few friends and her hobby to keep her sane. Her hobby in question is photography, which is an important aspect in the game. The story starts with Max having a dream during her photography class about a huge tornado destroying her town of Arcadia. Afterwards she makes her way to the bathroom, has an angsty moment that involves ripping up her recent photo for reasons, and witnesses the cliché "my family owns this whole town" rich kid shoot another student. Horrified by what she saw, she reaches her hand out and miraculously finds herself back in the classroom she just left.
From that point on, Max realizes she has the power to travel back in time for a short distance. The game gives you a tutorial on the power in an interesting way, forcing Max to please her teacher with the right answers before she can go stop the murder. Once she successfully stops the murder, the story kind of just stops. You get introduced to new characters left and right, and learn more of their backstories, but the main focus of the game is oddly missing. The time traveling aspect takes a back seat to Max dealing with the typical mean girls and reconnecting with her ex-best friend.
That isn't to say there isn't significance or meaning in everything that happens after the attempted murder, but it's a sharp turn in tone. The urgency of the beginning is replaced with a rather boring and uninteresting middle portion that only goes back to urgent in the last five minutes. I understand that it's the first episode, and it should mainly focus on setting up the world and characters, but I kept going through it hoping more questions were answered or addressed. The ending did leave me curious to check out the second episode, but overall the narrative was lackluster.
The game focuses itself around the choices you make, constantly telling you that your actions will have consequences. The thing that sets Life is Strange apart from other choice based games is the fact that no choice has to be immediately permanent. If you don't like the immediate outcome of a choice, you can reverse time and pick the second option. It's an interesting feature because it gives you both sides of your actions so you can really think about which one you want to pick. Granted, you can't see how the choices impact the game in the long run yet, but it's still a nice addition.
Ultimately, the choices you make in this entry feel unfulfilling. Again, this is the first of five episodes so most outcomes won't be apparent right away, but the fact that you don't get to see the big results of anything is a bit disappointing. Maybe I expected too much, but some different dialogue between some of the choices didn't really satisfy me.
Life is Strange plays similarly to a Telltale game, meaning most of your time is taken up by dialogue, walking, and examining things in the world around you. Going back in time is done by holding down a button for however long you feel like going, up until Max reaches her limit. Typically you can only go back about a minute or so, but the animation takes a while so you can speed it up by holding down another key. You also have the option to immediately jump back to the last important decision you made, which is a nice touch.
Beyond the time travel mechanic, you basically just walk around your school campus and interact with objects. Things you can examine are very apparent as you get near them, but sometimes multiple items are right next to each other, making it more difficult than it should be to look at the item you want.
In the end... that's basically it. There are no combat/action sequences, no quick time events, nothing outside of moving Max around. It's simple and to the games credit, I'm glad it was. The narrative never needed anything outside of the simple things, so it wasn't throwing unnecessary controls your way.
Life is Strange is not a visually striking game. The game keeps a steady balance of acceptable to ugly and never really goes beyond that to something better. The character models are gross, always pulling me out of the experience because they just never looked right. Their hair is the worst offender, with most looking like they had playdough on their heads. Beyond that, most faces were bland and simple looking. There wasn't any sort of detail put into them, or if there was, it was covered up by the muddy visuals. The environment doesn't fare much better, looking just as muddy and odd as the characters. You know it's bad when a majority of the ground, especially the grass, looks like it was, again, molded from playdough. One big patch of undetailed green does not convey a normal backyard to me. Getting past the really unsightly parts, the game looks fine, with plenty of color around making the world feel a bit more alive.
The writing in Life is Strange ranges from passable, to cringe-worthy, to just bad. Characters constantly spew out phrases or terms that were popular, but still dumb, years ago and it's prevalent in almost every scene. I'm sorry Max, but your apology to Chloe doesn't feel real or sincere when you use the term "cereal" instead of serious. Yes, the setting is a high school where those terms were popular, but if your trying to craft a serious game that focuses on real issues like drugs and abuse of power, I don't want to be rolling my eyes at what every character says.
Sometimes characters just make no sense in what they do. Chloe, after talking about how Max abandoned her when she needed her, immediately throws her under the bus when her step dad walks in and finds weed. It felt so inconsistent to what the scene previously was that it made me laugh. In a game that is one hundred percent about story and characters, you need to be consistent with how you write them or you fail.
As I said before in narrative, so many of the characters are complete clichés. You have the mean girl squad, the old friend turned rebel, the typical rich punk, and Max, who overstates how much of an outcast she is at every turn. Maybe future episodes will give everyone some depth, but I walked away not caring about any of the character because they were so one dimensional.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the music and voice acting. For as bad as the writing can be sometimes, the voice acting makes it at least bearable. Actors hit the right emotional beats for their characters and never let a scene get awkward because someone wasn't giving it their all. The music set the tone and themes well, and the few licensed songs they got into the game fit rather nicely. Hopefully, the inclusion of licensed songs continues because it made the game feel more human, at least to me.
Since Max has time traveling powers, you can get the most out of the game's choice driven nature by experimenting with your options. Most choice based games have you pick one option and then move on, always making you wonder what the other avenue could have lead to. While it might feel cheap to some to be able to pick both options, experiencing the immediate outcome of both made me think hard about how it would affect later episodes. Instead of wondering what could have been, I was wondering which path would lead me to the best, or in some cases the worst, results. It's an interesting feature that I would honestly like to see more in choice based games.
At the very beginning of 2016, this first episode costs around five dollars. For that entry price you get about an hour and a half to two and a half hours of gameplay, depending on how much you want explore the environment. You can have three different playthroughs going on at once, so if you really wanted to see how different choices affect character dialogue, it's a perfectly viable option. While you can't skip cutscenes on multiple playthroughs, the meat of the game can be pretty much rushed through if you wish to see potential different outcomes.
All in all, Life is Strange succeeded in what it was trying to do. For the next 24 hours after beating the first episode, it was all I could really think about. While a lot of negative aspects of the game, like the writing, cliché characters, and muddy graphics, lingered on in my head, it was the paths I set and the bigger questions left unanswered that kept it in my mind. While it is far from a perfect game, I'm honestly looking forward to checking out the second episode and beyond. Life is Strange isn't for everyone, but to those who experience it, it's hard to get it out of your head.