Life Is Strange Review
Being a fan of narrative-driven games like Heavy Rain and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, one would assume I'd be all over Dontnod Entertainment's well-received episodic series, Life is Strange. But I really don't like playing games piecemeal and furthermore, I'm not sure issuing reviews for individual episodes is a good idea. Not only does it give a disjointed and incomplete view of the product for the consumer, but...well, it's also a ton of extra work. I don't shy away from the latter, of course, but it only seemed logical to wait for all five chapters in Dontnod's great new game to become available. Then, I could issue a comprehensive analysis and that's what we get here.
Visually, there are some intriguing highs and lows. Thankfully, the highs definitely take center-stage, mostly due to the excellent atmosphere and wonderful hand-painted style. We always need to become immersed in a captivating environment, especially in a story-driven interactive experience, and Dontnod excels in this respect. Arcadia Bay is lovingly crafted and presented, and the player continually feels connected to and even emotionally invested in the narrative, which continues to push the comfort boundaries. More on that in a minute but for now, let's just say these graphics won't win any awards but they convey a certain aesthetic feel that is essential. The only downside is the terrible lip-syncing, which is an odd and disappointing blemish on an otherwise riveting palette.
Despite my relative disinterest in some of the core themes, I will say the soundtrack is a huge highlight and actually one of my favorites of 2015. This is a highly varied, intense score that enhances just about every element of the story, especially in regards to the powerful character development. Episode 1 concludes with a fantastic piece from Syd Matters ("Obstacles") and the licensed music just keeps striking every resonant chord, which tightens our connection to the town and its inhabitants. Personally, I would've liked some original tracks to give us a bit more depth and diversity, but that's a minor complaint. The voice performances are great and in some cases, remarkably poignant. This is another critical point, given the heavy dialogue.
Players are introduced to the heroine, Max Caulfield, and those of a particular age may quickly start to relive their teen years. This isn't one of those conflicted characters we know little about; rather, this is someone who brings you deep into her personal life and even asks you to control it. You will have the option of rewinding time to see how a different decision might affect Max and those around her, which makes us all ask the same question: What if we could hit that rewind button? How many times have we wanted to do that in life? Such an intimate character portrayal is rarely seen in video games (unfortunately) and to have a heroine we care about, a virtual character that taps into the deeper questions facing all humanity, we have to applaud.
Granted, there's a definite emphasis on the more modern problems facing teens, particularly girls. The series tackles difficult topics like depression, pregnancy, and even suicide, so it's an extremely dark yet often enlightening journey. This journey might be better received by females who can identify with such issues on a personal level, but the quality of the narrative is such that anyone can appreciate it. Max's return to her hometown of Arcadia isn't an easy one, and her reunion with childhood gal pal Chloe Price isn't exactly straightforward, either. Nothing is in this emotionally charged story, filled with numerous memorable scenes. One possible flaw is that the story insists upon itself and is actually too blunt and overt; subtlety and mystery isn't really in the script.
But that is, of course, part of the reason why the gritty, dark narrative is so gripping. It's true that too many entertainment writers today have lost the ability to "show" and spend far too much time "telling," but I once again cite the fantastic background for this story. Dontnod certainly put a lot of thought into the setting, style, tone and central themes, and the result is a deeply intriguing and constantly branching adventure. Much like Until Dawn utilizing the Butterfly Effect in its narrative, Life Is Strange tasks the player with making tough decisions, and those decisions can have far-reaching implications and consequences. How you interact with the citizens of the town is often entirely up to you, and you'll learn more about the neighborhood and the protagonist as well. Our personal journeys are, after all, cross paths with so many other journeys in our lifetimes.
There are a few problems to go along with the poor lip-syncing, though. For instance, the writing isn't exactly stellar, which leads to awkward dialogue and even entire scenes that feel forced or flat. Then there's the question of all those choices... I've always taken issue with the idea of "freedom" in games where the decisions we make almost seem cosmetic; i.e., tacked-on for the sake of implied freedom of choice when in fact, the actual narrative remains mostly unchanged. If you're going to claim that our choices really are akin to the Butterfly Effect, then I had better see the effect of my decisions as the story unfolds. Until Dawn did this very well; I don't think it's done quite as well here. Some decisions, however, are extremely well implemented and really make the player think.
These shortcomings aside, each chapter continues to shine thanks to the aforementioned style, setting and characters; voice actors Hannah Telle (Max) and Ashley Burch (Chloe) do a remarkable job of bringing these virtual people to life, and despite the questionable impact of some choices, many do have that "ripples in a pond" effect. Plus, unlike other narrative-driven experiences, this game allows you to explore, which is a big bonus and lets the player become even more intimately acquainted with Arcadia and the civilians. You're allowed to wander through different areas at different times, and this sense of freedom plays into the decision-making side as well. It all works together quite nicely, actually, and having that rewind feature nails down the interactive aspect. Some people will complain that it isn't "interactive enough" but I certainly won't.
As for the episodic delivery style, I've never been a fan of it but at the very least, this rollout was consistent. The first episode launched on January 30 and the fifth and last landed on October 20, with the chapters releasing approximately eight weeks apart. This gives the game a sense of consistency and the added tension of wondering what might happen next keeps it relevant. As I said above, I didn't play the waiting game in between episodes but as far as episodic goes, this appears to be the best possible scenario: We have enough time to finish a chapter and get excited about the next one, and we never go so long that we might forget the previous events. Still, I would always recommend playing such games when all episodes are finally available and you can enjoy the adventure in its complete form. That goes double for narrative-driven adventures.
Life Is Strange is an ambitious story that doesn't shy away from difficult and controversial topics, and it allows the player to become attached to its vibrant characters. Due to excellent voice performances, a mysterious, sleepy little town that has plenty of intrigue and secrets, the added benefit of some exploration, and the undeniably appealing rewind feature, the game has a unique and extremely absorbing feel. The characters seem real and interesting, the individual stories tend to be remembered long after experiencing them, and the continual decision-making keeps us thinking. Those decisions aren't always super "impact-ful," though, and the writing tends to fall shy here and there, which generates some disinterest on detachment on the part of the player. But in the end, it's a personal, emotional, sometimes jarring journey that is well worth taking.
The Good: Great setting and atmosphere, along with very "real-feeling" characters. Fantastic voice performances and a great soundtrack. Powerful, emotional story segments. Many tough decisions for the player to make. Some freedom via exploration. Rewind feature is tantalizing and never gets boring.
The Bad: Terrible lip-syncing for some reason. Some forced and awkward writing. Our choices don't always have visible effects.
The Ugly: "Such great voices...and lip-syncing from two generations ago. Geez."
12/28/2015 Ben Dutka