G&G Reviews: Life Is Strange

 

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment

Publisher: Square Enix

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC

 

While a lot of media attention gets placed on action-heavy games like shooters and RPGs, another genre, the narrative-heavy adventure game, is quickly gaining popularity and critical acclaim.  These games have attracted a following not through the depth or complexity of their gameplay systems, but through their strong writing, and their challenging themes and moral decisions.  French studio Dontnod Entertainment has just released the fifth and final episode in their adventure game Life Is Strange, a coming-of-age drama about a young girl who finds herself thrust into some extraordinary situations.

In Life Is Strange, you play as Maxine Caulfield, an 18-year old high school student who is returning to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, after her family had moved to Seattle five years before.  Max has come back to spend her senior year at Blackwell Academy, a prestigious arts school where she is studying photography.  One day, when Max has stepped into the restroom between classes to gather her thoughts, she witnesses a disturbed boy and a punky, blue-haired girl walk into the restroom and have a heated argument, resulting in the guy pulling a gun and shooting the girl to death.  Max steps out from her hiding spot, raises her hand, and suddenly…finds herself back in her last class.  Somehow, she now has the ability to reverse time, and promptly uses this power to save the blue-haired girl from being killed.

Shortly thereafter Max encounters that girl again, only to discover that it is Chloe, her best friend from when she lived in Arcadia Bay as a kid.  The two reconnect, and Max learns about Chloe's search for her friend Rachel Amber, who has been missing from Arcadia Bay for six months.  Together, they start putting the pieces together to uncover the mystery behind Rachel’s disappearance.

The greatest strength of Life is Strange is its excellent writing, particularly its character development.  Arcadia Bay is full of interesting and mysterious characters, and your interactions with them are at the core of the game’s impact on the player.  Throughout the course of the story, you’ll be forced to make a number of challenging moral decisions while interacting with others, decisions with consequences that may not be fully realized until later in the game.  Making the right choices and carefully navigating through these tricky conversations kept me engaged in the game from start to finish.

The overall plot is also well crafted, with plenty of unpredictable twists and turns to keep you on your toes.  While the supernatural elements play an important part in the story, the game manages to stay fairly well grounded in the characters’ interactions, and in fact deals with a number of tough real-world issues (bullying, suicide, faith, abortion) in a more direct and emotional way than I have ever seen done in a video game.  If I have one major gripe about the writing, it is that the ending of the final episode falls a little flat; it wraps up the loose ends that need to be addressed, but fails to do much more, and left me feeling somewhat apathetic (which stands in stark contrast to the other pivotal moments of the game, which always left me filled with emotion, whether it was joy, sadness, fear, or anticipation).  The lackluster ending couldn’t tarnish the incredible journey that came before, though, and it is still a serviceable conclusion to the series.

It should be mentioned at this point that Life Is Strange is definitely not suitable for kids.  The game’s willingness to address those aforementioned issues means that the audience is expected to have a certain level of maturity, and an understanding about the harsh realities of the world.  Life Is Strange may not have the same amount of outright violence as a lot of other big games, but it doesn’t pull its punches when dealing with tough subject matter (which does include some deadly violence at times).  This game probably shouldn’t be played by anyone who isn’t at least high school age.

Life is Strange is a game with very few actual game mechanics (relative to most other games released these days).  Most of the your time is spent walking around, talking to Blackwell students and the other people you meet in Arcadia Bay; occasionally there will be a puzzle that needs to be solved in order to progress with the story.  The main gameplay mechanic present through all of this is Max’s ability to rewind time.  Max uses this power to replay conversations with new information, test the results of different choices, and solve puzzles that otherwise couldn’t be completed.

On the surface, it may seem that the lack of many gameplay mechanics would make the game boring, but the experience is far from it.  The complex character interactions and weighty decisions held my attention throughout the game, and often stuck with me long after I had finished an episode.  It always felt like I was doing something important when I was talking with other characters, even when it was relatively idle conversation.  In a way, this resonates with me as a Christian; God cares about all my interactions with other people, even small talk, and I may never even know the difference that it makes.  Certain choices may have a big impact on someone else’s life, or on my own, or maybe they won’t make a huge difference at all; what matters most is not how big of an impact my decisions have, but making the morally right decision at the time.

Life Is Strange is an excellent, well-written game with memorable characters, and it does something that most other games don’t even dare to attempt: it tackles tough, real-world issues, with all the emotional struggles that come with them.  It’s a game I won’t soon forget.  And to top it all off, the developers have officially labeled these five episodes of Life Is Strange as “Season 1”, and earlier this year they raised the possibility of telling new stories with new characters.  I would love to see more adventure games from Dontnod, but even if they decide to move on to something else, I look forward to seeing what they’ll come up with in the future.

Content Score: SUPPORTABLE

Overall Score: A