Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: January 30th
This review, outside of one gameplay choice (described in a way devoid of as few plot elements as possible) and the basic synopsis shown in trailers, is spoiler-free. It will look at the scope of both Life Is Strange Episode 1 and its place as a launch pad for a full season of content.
For all intents and purposes, Telltale Games popularized an adventure game sub-genre in the “choice-driven narrative adventure.” That gameplay facet become so ingrained in all of their recent releases to the point that any and all games that deeply incorporate overarching choice and consequences afterward will be (fairly and unfairly) compared to its style. Surprisingly, Life Is Strange is one of the first major releases since to try their own take on the gameplay style, yet already managed to flip the novel concept on its head. The result; delaying the stress of important decisions until it’s too late to change them.
In Life Is Strange, you play as 18 year-0ld Max Caulfield, a photography student who returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after moving away to Seattle 5 years prior. It’s more coincidence than a yearning to return to her roots for Max, as Arcadia Bay is home to the prestigious Blackwell Academy and its renowned photography program is the main draw back home. That won’t get in the way of fate, as she runs into her former best friend Chloe Price under the most dire of circumstances. Together, they will investigate the sudden disappearance of student Rachel Amber, with Chloe suspecting foul play.
What makes this game so different is that, due to unknown circumstances discovered minutes into the game’s events, Max can rewind time to her benefit. It has its limitations, however, as it only works for a certain length of time in one area of the game. Max’s main use of this weapon is to avoid death, learn bits of information in order to find an optimal choice when rewinding time again and to see how difficult choices end up in each scenario. It will help her navigate through the cruel ways of student, adult and natural life.
Normally, such an ability should render gameplay utterly trivial. Life Is Strange does something quite brilliant with this mechanic; make all options seem plausible. Episode 1, subtitled “Chrysalis,” sets the stage for Max and the cast of characters in her tight-knit group of fellow students. The story doesn’t see much payoff in the early going, but more importantly the game makes the player make small choices here and there to relatively unknown results down the road. You can change your decision any time before leaving the area in which a major choice is made, but after that it becomes permanent.
It’s an important narrative tool for two reasons; players get to see how the story plays out from each fork in the road without multiple playthroughs, and it plants the seeds of uncertainty and doubt in the player’s head due to an evenhanded logical approach. For example, early on Max sees a fellow student get bullied by an authority figure overstepping their bounds. You can choose to either back her up directly or take a picture with your camera, secretly from a distance.
Either choice has Max question herself, as getting photographic evidence is key when dealing with adults disciplining adults. On the other hand, your friend will only see you standing there, thinking you did nothing to help. Instead of finding a concrete answer, the game puts a pin in that story in order to revisit later.
It’s that dilemma that makes Life Is Strange effective as an episodic game; by putting the player in the middle of a minefield of choices early on, the story takes on a complex path of “sub-stories,” similar to that a spider web. There are tons of ways things can go off the rails, especially when picking one option can have someone make it their mission to hunt you down and uncover your truth.
The fact that I still don’t know whether I made the right choices, despite the power of reversing time on my side, is a feeling worth holding onto…
Ultimately, though, there is one set path to go down throughout most of “Chrysalis.” While some may argue that linearity in an adventure game defeats the purpose, Life Is Strange balances it out with intriguing logic puzzles. Max might have to go through a scene once to learn a new piece of information in order to rewind properly. Sometimes, it’s not that clear what is needed of Max to find a hidden photo-op, or what story progression is required in order to get that extra tidbit of missable information that may prove useful in episodes to come.
You can tell that the story and gameplay are sold distinctly separate, despite being intertwined by the game’s design. When you need to progress, it’s clear that logic puzzles take precedence. When the story needs to progress, outside of rewinding major choices, gameplay takes a back seat. It’s the journey that makes the experience worthwhile, and the developers knew how to strike the perfect balance in the early going. The fact that I still don’t know whether I made the right choices, despite the power of reversing time on my side, is a feeling worth holding onto throughout a slow story burn that awaits the coming episodes.
Next: Getting The Mood Right & Episode 1's Final Score