Episodic gaming has become increasingly popular over the last few years with the likes of Telltale Games spearheading the genre with a variety of adventure games based on existing intellectual properties such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands and now even Minecraft. However, throughout the year a lesser known developer Dontnod have been quietly releasing episodes of their own original adventure called Life is Strange. As the year has progressed, Life is Strange has developed a growing fanbase and now the series has come to close, I’d thought to take a look back at this intriguing title and how it turned out to be one of 2015’s most refreshing games.
Life is Strange places you in the shoes of Max Caulfield, a photography student attending art school in her old hometown. Her adventure begins when she reunites with her old best friend Chloe, who is now a tough talking teenager with more attitude than Sonic and matching hair colour. From the start, you are very much thrown into the dilemmas of adolescence, which on first impressions may seem cliché. But once you reach the second episode, it’s clear to see that the developer’s are far more interested in depicting teenage life in a more thoughtful and considered way, often not shying away from more difficult and taboo issues such as drug abuse, suicide, domestic abuse and even hints of sexual violence. Yet the game manages to tackle such issues in a relatively mature and refreshing way, building mostly believable characters.
This is most true of the main protagonist Max, who isn’t your stereotypical teenager as she’s intelligent but quietly confident and manages to covey real human reactions to the variety of predicaments she finds herself in. She becomes decidedly less typical when at the start of the game she develops time travel powers. This not only becomes a main thread in Life is Strange’s plot, it becomes a main gameplay mechanic.
Like most episodic adventure games, you are tasked with making decisions in Life is Strange yet Max has the uncanny power to rewind time and change these decisions. These decisions can range from the mundane such as watering a plant or taking the fall for smoking pot in front of Chloe’s step Dad, to the more extraordinary such as changing the way a violent argument with a drug dealer can be resolved. This gives you the opportunity to not only change the fates of certain characters but to replay events until your achieve the best result, which in some situations is more difficult to define as the consequences of your actions aren’t exposed till further in the game. This makes the dilemmas thrown at you more difficult as you’re never entirely sure how your actions will affect your future timeline (or should that be timelines)
However when it comes to the plot, these more sci-fi elements start to unravel as the game just struggles underneath the weight of various plot twists, timelines and sub plots. Max’s powers are never really explained and when certain plot points revolve around what Max can and cannot do, it starts to create plot holes that become especially frustrating during the story’s climax.
Despite a faltering plot, especially in it’s conclusion, Life is Strange still feels worthwhile through it’s believable characters, touching relationships and living and breathing world. The relationship between Max and best friend Chloe is one of the most realised teenage relationships ever found in gaming. Their understanding of each other, along with their interesting quirks makes them believable and likeable. This is carried through to Life is Strange’s wider world which is filled with posters, flyers and open laptops, which are yours to discover and explore at your leisure.
Despite being set in a fictional town called Arcadia Bay, these small details give the sense of a larger world that is connected and related to our real one. A world that is brought to life with a simple, painterly-like art style, that feels unobtrusive and allows you to soak in the environment. For a game in which he hop across timelines and locations, it’s the smaller moments in which time passes slowly which stay in the memory. It may be switching on the CD player and listening to some apt hipster music, trying to coax some squirrels out for many of the game’s optional photo challenges, or just chilling with Chloe in her bedroom, all these elements create a genuinely realistic portrayal of teenage life.
Yet just as your impressed with it’s realistic portrayal of teenage life or it’s mature sensitivity on tricky subject matter, glaring clichés are thrown at you along with some decidedly dodgy voice work and dialogue. Interestingly, it’s the adult characters who come the worse off delivering lines of staggering patronising or belligerent ignorance. Some of the other less drawn art college students also come out a little less realistic often falling into stock stereotypes. It never undoes the mostly great work Life is Strange does at conveying the painful struggles of adolescence, but it is frustrating at times.
Despite its flaws, it’s clear to see that developer Dontnod didn’t have any lack of ambition. If anything it’s the fact that they were simply trying to handle too many plot threads and characters to really nail a cohesive game, with a stand out conclusion. However, Life is Strange closing chapter isn’t a total failure, but sudden twists, lack of character motivation and unexplained plot holes keep the overall experience from delivering on the promise it showed in earlier episodes. Despite this, the rather binary ending is decidedly apt and no matter what choice you make, both outcomes carry a sense of melancholy that reflect the series as whole.
Final Verdict 7/10
Life is Strange is a game with more ambition than it can handle, but its realistic portrayal of teenage adolescence will linger long in the memory.