Navigating high school is hard enough when you are not part of the cool cliques, popular or rich. This is exactly where Maxine Caulfield, the protagonist of dramatic episodic adventure Life is Strange finds herself. Not dorky enough to be a total geek and not cool or rich enough to hang with the popular kids. She is more than happy, or at least pretends to be, to cut her own path as a self deprecating hipster photographer.
Max is an 18 year old student, who after being away for years, has returned to her old Twin Peaks inspired town of Arcadia Bay to attend Blackwell Academy. Scratch beneath the surface of this picturesque seaside town and prestigious school and you will find things are not quite what they seem and things can take a dark turn very quickly. The less privileged are mere playthings for the sadistic rich and the whole town seems to be run by the villainous Prescott family. This, however, may be the least of the town and it's denizens problems as the whole world appears to be coming to end. With crazy weather and animals dropping dead by the dozen. A sudden snowstorm in the middle of summer, an unscheduled solar eclipse and a huge tornado in a town in which they are not common.
It is with this tornado that Episode 1 Chrysalis begins. With Max fighting her way in the dark towards a distant lighthouse. Whilst the aforementioned tornado rages in the background, tearing up her childhood home. As the world appears to be crashing down, Max awakens at her desk in a photography class. It is here where the game introduces its main gameplay feature, that is Max's “superpower” of being able to rewind and manipulate time. Being able to control time in this manner leads to some really interesting puzzles and interactions with the other characters as Max can "fail" a conversation, learn something, rewind time, then use the information she learnt to advance her relations with individuals.
This may just be the cause of all the weird behaviour and weather, but it may also make Max the only person who can save the world.
It all sounds very grandiose, but where Life Is Strange really excels is in its ability to set an incredible pace. More akin to a great TV show. This is a huge story which takes it's time to focus on the small things. The world of Arcadia Bay and Blackwell is beautiful. Rendered in a hand drawn, painterly, fashion which Paris based developer Dontnod Entertainment allows the player to revel in. Whilst there is a great sense of urgency to the game, there are lots of different opportunities scattered throughout each episode (so far 4 of 5 are released) to just sit back, reflect and take in the beautiful surroundings. On many occasions Max will find places she can sit, be it on a fountain or against a tree. Upon doing so, the camera will pan around the environment, Max will narrate and the fantastic soundtrack will kick in. These scenarios only end when the player wants them to. In fact during my play through of episode 2 Out of Time, I chose to stay in bed whilst the whole of “Lua” by “Bright Eyes” played on the stereo, the sun shining through the bedroom window. It truly has become one of my favourite moments in gaming.
It is with this fantastic pacing that you get a feel that Dontnod really know what they are doing and where they are heading with the story. The whole of Episode 2 is pretty much taken up with Max and her recently rekindled childhood friend and self styled sidekick, Chloe, goofing around with her superpower. Yet at the same time they are able to masterfully move the story along and leave you anticipating the next Episode like you would your favourite TV show.
The game wears its Twin Peaks references on its sleeve (see Chloe's license plate for the most obvious example) also one of the main plots of the game is the mysterious disappearance of local girl Rachel Amber and the effort in finding out who could have done her harm. Much like Laura Palmer in David Lynch's eponymous TV show. To me though, Life Is Strange has many other influences, whether intentionally or, on a personal level, inferred by me. The discovery and evolution of Max's powers reminds me a lot of found footage superhero film Chronicle whilst the overall atmosphere and high school setting (and great soundtrack) is reminiscent of Donnie Darko.
Life is Strange deals with some dark material from murder, date rape, bullying and suicide. It also explores scientific themes such as cause and effect, chaos theory and the butterfly effect. Max's ability to alter and ultimately travel in time leads to some huge decisions that have to be made which can send the universe down multiple different paths and forces Max to question what is better and whether she has any right to be the one who decides.
I really can't go much further into this without spoiling the game but let's just say that things get very, very dark. So much so that as my jaw was still hanging open at the end of Episode 4 Dark Room an in-game message instructed me that if I was affected by any of the content in Life Is Strange to visit the website where the developer has dedicated a whole section to discuss the themes and content in a mature and safe environment.
Overall Life Is Strange has garnered positive reviews, but one criticism which most seem to agree on is the dialogue used by the main cast, who are 18 year old art students remember. The vocabulary they use is very, very hipster. But based on everything they have achieved so well in this game I give Dontnod a huge benefit of doubt and to me the dialogue seems very self aware. For the most part Max knows she is a pretentious hipster. I don't think she believes she is cool by talking the way she does and I don't think Dontnod are asking us to believe she is either. Plus I have no idea how 18 year old art students talk these days. Let alone 18 year old girls.
As I have mentioned a couple of times already, Life Is Strange has the best soundtrack I have ever heard in a game. I have not stopped playing the Spotify playlist since I started this game. The music chosen, is so deliberate and so perfect to the tone of the game I do not believe that Dontnod could have done a better job in this regard if they tried.
It features bands and songs I am familiar with, like Bright Eyes, Alt-J, Jose Gonzalez and has introduced me to some new favourites; Angus and Julia Stone, Syd Matters, Message to Bears Mud Flow and Amanda Palmer
Dontnod are very quickly gaining a reputation of creating great worlds and stories that feature realistic and strong female leads. Life Is Strange is a follow up to the Capcom published Remember Me. I remember reading that one of the biggest challenges that Dontnod had whilst pitching Remember Me to prospective publishers was the fact the protagonist was female. I do not know whether their next game Vampyr features a male or female lead, or maybe both. I do believe however that after Remember Me and Life is strange they should not have any issues pitching whatever they want. Although so far, they have not worked with the same publisher twice. Remember Me being Capcom, Life Is Strange; Square Enix and Vampyr will be published by Focus Home Interactive.
I would absolutely love to write in more detail here about the plot, the characters and what is going on in Arcadia Bay but I really can't for fear of spoiling for others what to me has been an absolutely revolutionary narrative experience. I love the Telltale games but Life Is Strange really, really puts them to shame with it's story, characters and decisions that have huge, often devastating consequences.
Once the series has finished. After I have composed myself and stopped crying that it is over I would love to do a follow up piece to see if overall the series managed to keep me as captivated as it has to this point.
For now I say to all, go play this incredible game so we can talk about it!
Episodes 1-4 are available now whilst the 5th and final instalment; Polarized, will be released later this year.