By Jen Carman on February 24, 2015 at 9:38pm
Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix have partnered up to bring us “Life is Strange,” “a five-part episodic game that sets out to revolutionize story-based choice-and-consequence games.” As of this writing the Steam User Reviews stand at “Overwhelmingly Positive” so, really, how could I resist? After this I just wanted something to redeem graphic adventures for me and “Life is Strange” did it.
The game opens with your character, Maxine, in a park in the middle of a massive storm, trees being uprooted, and an enormous, raging tornado out over a bay. She doesn’t know how she got there but as she runs to the lighthouse for safety, a boat is thrown out of the tornado and into the lighthouse which shatters and comes crashing down on top of her through the driving rain and flashing lighting...
...And then Max wakes up in photography class. She is sure she wasn’t dreaming. No time has passed so she didn’t fall asleep. What the heck just happened?
From then on you are Maxine Caulfield, a student under a photography scholarship at a private high school called Blackwell Academy. The game very quickly becomes exploratory, clicking posters and objects, getting to know the environment of the game but just as you get into that comfort zone you are thrown back into action with a confrontation in the girl’s bathroom (it’s better than it sounds) where she discovers she can rewind time.
Soundtrack and Graphics
The thing that really defined my very first impression was the music. Even in the Steam trailers the soundtrack really sets the atmosphere as calm and maybe even a little ethereal. I know “Indie folk” might not be on everyone’s music list but, for this title, it just fits so well.
My second impression was the graphics. That first intense scene really catches your attention and the Unreal Engine makes all of Arcadia Bay crisp and clear and beautiful. My roommate watched me play for a while and he sort of laughed and asked, “Does this entire game takes place during the golden hour?” Most of Episode 1: Chrysalis is a bit glowy-golden, but it does start at the end of a school day and then progress into the evening. The developers mentioned that they wanted to use that lighting to help define Max’s relationship with Chloe, a friend from her past that she is reunited with when Max returns to Arcadia Bay. I expect Episode 2 will begin at the start of the next in-game day.
Dontnod Entertainment is not a total newcomer to the Unreal Engine world - their previous project was the action-adventure game “Remember Me.” The experience developing “Remember Me” paired with the now-improved version of Unreal Engine 3 helped them improve their design and effect abilities for “Life is Strange.” The artistic “time-rewind” effect also gave them an avenue to utilize goodies like double-exposure and screen space particles that give those events a really neat warped and scrambled feeling.
Writing and Voice Acting
This first episode creates depth. A lot of situations and relationships are introduced and not explored but the main Chloe/Max interaction feels resolved to a point and the episode leaves you with a tiny tease which kept me interested in what could happen next.
Maxine, as a character, is admittedly, a little stereotypical as the shy, talented, teenage misfit that is pushed around by the popular kids and genuinely just tries to be nice to everyone but I think you need that little bit of space in a choice-driven plot for the player’s decisions to fill the gaps in her personality and to create her place in the world. Some characters are fleshed out a bit more, like Chloe, but others are still a complete mystery, because this is only the first of five episodes.
A lot of the interactions are a little awkward but I think it comes across like that because of the stiffness of the animation. I’ve also read a few reviews that complain about the lip syncing being off, but it didn’t really bug me that much. The lip movements aren’t precise like watching a real actor speak and because of that it felt like a design choice, to be honest. Looking past those issues, if you want to call them that, I think the writing is fine for an introduction to what is clearly a longer and (hopefully) more involved story. I think it’s premature to judge the story itself because we’ve only just met everyone. We also haven’t spent any really meaningful time outside of Blackwell Academy and, as the closing sequence teases, I think it’s clear that we are intended to eventually explore the rest of Arcadia Bay.
I began this review admitting that I played this to recover from my less-than-stellar experience with “Journal.” Graphically, this is an unfair comparison. “Journal” is a 2D-side-scroller and if you read that review you’ll remember that the art was the one thing that I liked about that game. It was the hallow-feeling story and the fact that the choices you made had very minor consequences that brought “Journal” down, in my opinion.
That is where “Life is Strange” feels very different, however, since this is a 5-episode series (4 of which was are not yet released) I do not yet know how my choices have affected my game-play. So this is what I have done. I have two games saved. One is my initial play-through when I picked answers and interactions that I thought were “right” or “best.” My second game I tried to play as differently as possible, picking opposite reactions, or deciding to nose into some business I left alone the first time. As the episodes are released I will play the first saved game first and then go to the second and make different choices. When I start to see some real difference in character reactions or new paths that might open due to past choices, I will put it in my review of that episode. I may also go back and start a third save file just so I can wander around and hunt down all the easter eggs.
I am extremely hopeful that this will continue to be wonderful and I truly cannot wait for Episode 2 to release in March 2015.
Oh, also, this game really makes me want a Polaroid camera.