Review: Life Is Strange (Episode 1)

A somewhat cumbersome UI and some graphical issues don't keep Life is Strange from presenting an indeed strange and interesting game.  Subtle humour offers a dash of flavour and some absolutely brilliant voice acting helps this adventure game stand out among others.
Review: Life Is Strange (Episode 1)
Date published: Feb 2, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Life is Strange is an adventure game developed by DONTNOD Entertainment and published by Square Enix.  Life is Strange is one of those games that will be lumped in with titles like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther. It will no doubt be given the title of walking simulator or some other similar classification. This is a shame, as while it's narrative driven, it has far more in common with games like Grim Fandango, Sam and Max and the TellTale series of games.

The focus is nonetheless on the story,
one that presents a surreal take on humour

The emphasis of life is Strange is on the narrative aspect of the game. The story of Life is Strange is heavily inspired by David Lynch's work on Twin Peaks as well as modern day television serials shown on premium channels such as HBO, AMC and Showtime, boasting a subtle macabre humour.  Its primary function is to tell the story of Maxine—a young teenager studying at the prestigious school of Blackwell. She has a gift for photography, but other than that her life is fairly unremarkable. The story is told through the external influences of rather unorthodox events that suddenly befall her, thrusting her into situations that place her out of her comfort zone, with slight supernatural themes.

Life is Strange's narration is told via Maxine's inner monologues, as well as everyday conversation, diaries and and optional scraps of paper and computer screens she can interact with. Through these numerous stimuli, a story of deceit, corruption, mystery and intrigue—grounded mostly in reality unfolds.

Life is Strange centers around a rather interesting core mechanic

The gameplay for Life is Strange has its own unique take on the traditional adventure puzzle formula. While a lot of the actual gameplay involves just observing and taking the story in, you are prompted occasionally to make dialogue decisions. Depending on the gravity of the situation, the dialogue may be optional and throwaway or it may have serious consequences.

The game always lets you know when you've reached a junction of choices that will have later consequences on how the story unfolds. At this point you can either accept the choices you have made, or once you get to a certain point in the game you will have the ability to play with time. Thise is where the game's strong point shines. the decisions are often full of very grey areas and you're never completely sure you made the right decision until the related consequence rears its head. In this way, the game really feels lik your decisions matter. You never know if helping out your friend with an errand in exchange for decreased school status was worth it. On the flip side if you decide not to help out said friend, the game will give you just enough doubt in Maxine's monologues to wonder if you made the right decision.

Similar to Nilin's memory remix ability from Remember me—DONTNOD's last foray into the game market, Life is Strange lets you alter time as opposed to memories. Upon meeting one of these junctions and making a choice, you'll be alerted of consequences following on from it. At this point if you're dissatisfied with your choice you can reverse time via the right mouse button. While you can reverse a decision most of the time, there are certain instances you can't reverse, for instance after leaving an area. 

There is a finite amount of time that Maxine can reverse time in. Anything past that, and she will strain herself, being unable to manipulate it further. The game allows you to rewind directly to the last important decision, taking you directly back to that point in time. You can rewind past that point too, often being able to pre-empt another characters actions while retaining objects and information obtained from the future. This information and the retained items can then be used to solve puzzles you previously encountered in the past. The main gameplay issue is having to drag and drop the cursor to get Maxine to act on anything. While the extra optional info is a nice feature, ultimately the majority of it is pointless and serves no purpose other than fleshing out the world.

The art design might leave something to be desired,
but the sound design is praiseworthy and well-done

The graphics for Life is Strange are really nothing to write home about, with an odd uncanny valley look to them while being a mix between realism and anime. This leads to odd times when you are unable to deduct the age of a particular character as well as any innate detail on the world. The graphics work fine enough and oddly feel at home with the feel of the game, but initially takes some time getting used to. While the graphics feel more at home within an era of gaming roughly five to six years ago, they aren't terrible and they perform their function well enough for what the game demands of them. This game is by no means taxing on the old graphics processing unit, but it is pretty, full of vibrant colours and unusual esoteric imagery as you progress further.

The sound design is another of the game's strengths, with the voice acting being top notch. From major to minor chracters, every voice performance feels like quality talent and really helps bring the characters to life. Maxine's voice actor is especially impressive, always displaying the right level of emotion or in trepidation in her voice. it really helps drive the narrative and make her an extremely likable and sympathetic character. The folk music by artists like Syd Matters really lends to the mundane normal feel of the game, despite the supernatural influences. The music never overpowers dialogue and the mix of sound effects vs dialogue is well balanced. It's clear from the beginning of the game that a lot of time an effort was put into the sound design and it really ties the package together.

The Final Word: Recommended - This game is going to cop a lot of hate from people displeased at the method pushed by journalists on the side of the political correctness police and it's a shame. Unlike other narrative driven titles, Life is Strange feels like a unique entity unto itself. Borrowing puzzle elements from classic point and click adventures, as well as subtle witty banter and dialogue accurate to how teenager's actually talk, Life is Strange is a title that for most, mileage will vary. That said, at this early stage Life is Strange is an intriguing story that boasts a lot of potential. Time will tell if the full story delivers on such promise.