Welcome to Blackwell High and angsty teenage hell!
After Telltale’s success with The Walking Dead games rejuvenated the adventure game genre it was only a matter of time before other developers jumped on the bandwagon. Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment join the party with Life Is Strange, an episodic game consisting of 5 chapters in its first season. You play as Max and 18 year old senior student with a passion for photography that suddenly discovers that she has the ability to turn back time. This ability comes in handy as she starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of a fellow student. However, there is a lot of high school drama to get through first.
The game plays similarly to modern adventure games like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain. The primary focus is on the story so the gameplay mainly revolves around exploring areas and interacting with objects and characters. What makes this game different is the ability to rewind time. Throughout the game you will be faced with multiple choices concerning Max’s actions and the dialogues. These choices will have consequences for how later scenes will play out or how your relationships with different characters evolve. While the ‘Choices and Consequences’ concept is nothing new in games, Life Is Strange lets you explore the different possibilities before making your final choice. At first glance it may seem like a way to ‘cheat’ your way to a ‘perfect play through’ instead of facing unpredictable results. Fortunately, Dontnod has found a good balance between the immediate results of a choice and the uncertainty of how your actions can affect the future. The ability to rewind time is not without limits: you can usually re-do one choice multiple times, but you won’t be able to go further back than that. Once you leave the area you are in you cannot go back to change the choice again. Thus, when you are faced with the choice of teaching the class bully a lesson or taking the high road and be friendly instead, the choice has two layers. While you are able to explore the immediate result of both choices, you also have to consider how it will affect Max later. While getting back at the bully that has been harassing you is very satisfying, will further antagonizing this person make life even harder for Max in the future? Will being nice to them change their attitude or are they just playing you to get out of trouble? Only time will tell.
While the ability to rewind and play with choices is a very interesting concept, the first episode doesn’t let you use this power in any exciting ways. The episode feels like a long tutorial where all you do is use your power to alter your interactions with the characters. If you say something that someone reacted negatively to you could always try the conversation again. While I’m sure that most teenagers would have loved to have the ability to turn back time to ensure that they are liked by as many people as possible, it does not make for very rewarding gameplay. When you finally get to the point where you get to manipulate other things with your skills the episode is essentially over. While it does leave me with hopes of better gameplay in the next episodes, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed with the introduction. I was excited to see how time manipulation would work in an investigation, but instead I feel like I have just played through 3 hours of High School Sim 2000.
Despite that the premise of the game is that you get to investigate the disappearance of a female student, the first episode pushes this plot-line to the background for the most part. Instead, you will spend your first couple of hours discovering Max’s life as a student and meeting her classmates. Depending on your own experiences in school you might find her world strange or disturbingly familiar. For me it was the latter, and Max’s mental state reminded me a lot about my 15 year old self. Max is an introvert, a geek that does not fit in. She is overly critical about her own work and tends to view the world and the people in it with a bit of contempt. She is not a bad person though; a lot of what she does after getting her power comes from a desire to help people. Personally, I was able to connect with Max almost immediately. I understand her situation having lived through a version of it myself. I have to give the writing team kudos for creating a very believable scenario and main character.
Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t stay at this level. The characters inhabiting Max’s world are based on the classic archetypes we have seen so many times in film and TV. There is the cocky jock, the beauty queen, the gorgeous cheerleader, and the bullied overweight kid. They are all there and the game does nothing to try and defy these stereotypes or add something new. The script also leaves a lot to be desired. The writers have made some effort to throw in slang terms here and there in an attempt to make the characters sound young, but it feels so unnatural and forced when the voice actors deliver their lines. Other lines are just plain strange, as if the writers haven’t considered how people actually talk in real life. While unnatural lines are old news in video games, it becomes a big problem in a game that is focusing so much on story and character relationships. It is clear that Dontnod want this game to have heart and for us to connect with it emotionally. It’s a shame that the writing becomes such a problem that it hinders the immersion. Personally I didn’t feel any particular connection with any character except Max, but this might change as the game evolves in the next episodes.
The story is also developing very slowly. As previously mentioned, you will spend most of the chapter exploring your school and meeting the supporting cast of characters. The girl that vanished is briefly mentioned here and there, but no one seems overly concerned about what happened to her. I finished Episode 1 with a feeling that nothing really happened with the exception of Max getting her new powers. Hopefully now that all the introductions are done, Episode 2 will deliver a lot more plot and mystery. There is an interesting twist to the story near the end that pulled me in, and I’m really interested in seeing how that development will affect the story going forward.
The first episode of Life Is Strange lives up to its name: Chrysalis, the pupil stage of butterflies. The Episode establishes Max’ character and world and acts like a long tutorial on how to use her new powers. I would have liked to see more of the mysteries that we were promised prior to release, but I have a feeling that it will be a central plotline in the following episodes. Chrysalis shows a lot of potential, but fails to deliver an engaging experience. The game suffers from the overuse of character archetypes and too much focus on high school drama. The mystery plot is pushed to the background, and the storytelling doesn’t feel very balanced as a result. This is often the case of the first episode of any game or series, so the next episode could potentially be a huge improvement. I am interested in seeing how my choices will affect Max’ future and relationships. I am also intrigued by the small twist at the very end of the episode. In the end I’m looking forward to Episode 2 and I hope that the developer will take the game from its pupil stage and let it become the butterfly it has the potential to be.
Life Is Strange is available as a digital release on: PS4 (played), PS3, PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360