Life is strange, isn’t it?
For as long as humans have existed, we’ve tried to answer the question of “Why?”. Why do we exist? How did everything get to Earth? Was it simply chance, or part of something greater? And if life has no meaning, why do we try so hard in life if death is inevitable? It’s a question which has sparked historical conflicts, a huge variety of religions all claiming to know the answer, and yet we’re no closer to knowing the answers despite thousands of years of contemplation.
And so we go about our daily lives. We wake up, we go to work, we do our daily chores before returning home to sleep and waking up to repeat the process. This pattern can waver slightly: something more exciting might happen. You might meet someone; you might go somewhere new and exciting; you might get married, experience the thrill of love – or the inevitability of death.
In a world somewhere not too far from here, you might even realize that you have powers.
In Dontnod’s latest game, Life is Strange – their first since the enjoyable but sadly underrated Remember Me – that’s precisely what happens to Max, an eighteen-year old girl who has left her family in Seattle to study photography in her hometown of Arcadia Bay. After a particularly bad lesson, she makes her way to the bathroom to calm down, where she witnesses the murder of an old friend. When she reaches out to help, she rewinds time and finds herself back in the lesson she was in earlier – with a chance to reverse the wrongs that had happened and save her friend. Now equipped with this power, she turns her mind to another matter: solving the disappearance of her best friend.
Inbetween the decisions Max has to make, she also has to go about her daily life as a student and trying to fit in at a new school. Despite the obvious character stereotypes – there’s the blonde bitchy girl, the fat nerd, the male friend who’s very obviously in the “friendzone” – Life is Strange does a good job of depicting student life, tackling issues such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, and bullying. These aren’t issues you typically see in videogames, and it’s refreshing to see a developer trying to draw attention to them, and Dontnod should be commended for tackling them in a believable and sensitive manner.
It’s an aspect that the television and film industries have just about gotten a grip of, but which video games are still moving into. A lot of people have even started to go as far as to compare video games to interactive movies now, which could be deemed quite accurate – I mean, just look at the graphics in The Order: 1886.
However, in the case of Life is Strange, this isn’t quite right. Although the graphics do have a certain charm to them and do a good job of conveying the small-town Americana setting, they don’t feel as though they belong on the current generation of consoles, the engine betraying its last-generation roots. The lip-synching is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, characters’ hair is immobile and looks like it’s made of plastic, and there are some incredibly… interesting uses of camera angles, to put it politely. Environments are quite beautiful though, and clever use of lighting and soft-focus lens effects are used to create a decent atmosphere; but when it comes to the characters, Life is Strange‘s visuals are sadly nowhere near perfect – perhaps a sign of the reduced budget that Dontnod had to work with.
Life is Strange‘s gameplay is also fairly simplistic – at least in this first episode – but thankfully no less enjoyable because of it, and this first episode performs a decent job of making you look forward to the next episode. In a time when point and click adventures are enjoying renewed popularity, a lot of developers are trying their hand at creating their own additions to the genre, with varying amounts of success. Dontnod’s solution to stand out from the pack is by giving its protagonist the ability to rewind time. But how much difference does this actually make?
The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, quite a lot. When I first heard about Life is Strange, my initial thought was “Oh God, not another point and click game”. Luckily, my cynicism was misplaced. As it turns out, the time-travel mechanic affects your decisions substantially, as well as providing the solution to the game’s simple puzzles. You can rewind time, change your decision, and find out how events play out from a different perspective, and decide on your final course of action from there.
Fortunately, Dontnod places a limit on the amount of times you exploit Max’s newfound power, which prevents constant rewinds. They’ve also promised that the full consequences of your decisions won’t manifest until further down the line – limiting your ability to choose the “correct” outcome. We’ll find out soon whether the game lives up to that promise, as it’s one we’ve heard far too many times before.
Aside from the temporal trickery, Life is Strange doesn’t really depart from typical point-and-click adventure games, although there is a lot to discover. Even someone as thorough as I – the girl who cleared each dungeon in Skyrim of every bit of gold on offer – managed to miss some things on my first playthrough, and upon being shown my choices at the end of the game, realized that there were in fact a substantial amount of things which I hadn’t discovered. Although the replay value isn’t really substantial enough in Life is Strange – this is a small episodic game, released in 203 hours chunks – it’s a nice idea that you can go back and attempt to find all the things you missed the first time around.
The music is worth a mention, even if the visuals are of somewhat debatable merit. The entire soundtrack in Life is Strange consists of songs which feel straight from an early-90s high-school movie. The music works well with the atmosphere of the game, and somehow manages to correspond with the personality of the main character: quietly innocent, earnest but ever-so-slightly maudlin.
Life is Strange is a good example of the point and click genre, but so far, based on this first Episode, it doesn’t do much to set it apart from the competition. With mechanics that will lose their charm after a while, and characters which can become annoying and overly stereotypical the more time they spend on screen, the first episode of Life is Strange sets the mood for the second episode well, but the game as a whole has the potential to become forgettable if Out of Time continues to make the same mistakes as Chrysalis has. Chrysalis is a good first episode then, but doesn’t do anything to stand out from the crowd. Hopefully Dontnod manages to raise the bar when the second episode arrives (slightly late) later this month.