By: Joe Lomán and Damla Karadenizli
Life is Strange is a unique game. Aside from some Telltale’s inspiration, it is clear that this is a game very different from the rest. It’s been a long time since story-telling became the central focus of some games, as well as having the player be responsible for their own choices, but no game has ever addressed this the way Life is Strange does. Dontnod gives the players the ability to rewind time, but not like every game where you die and respawn. In this game, rewinding time has real long-term effects. Some good, some bad. It is a story told in an atmosphere incredibly human that feels heartwarming since the very start. Sure, it’s far from being a perfect game, because there are so many times where it loses itself, but there’s no denying the emotional experience this game offers is quite memorable. It is a very deep story about friendship that at the same time focuses on telling you that rewinding time is a great power… but it is no game either. It’s a 5 episode journey that makes you think about the real consequences of “what if I had done things differently?”
Like I said, right from the very start you’ll instantly get the vibe that this is no game you’ve played before. The main menu appears with the Life is Strange musical theme that made me think of a gentle soul that can be broken with ease, which is what we foresee of the game. Hoping into the game itself, the atmosphere is quite unique. It’s probably the strongest element of the whole game. Firstly, the music accompanies the game in a very appropriate way. The cel-shaded graphics are a very charming sight for sore eyes. The characters are very memorable and they make you get along well with them, as well as hate others for how big their role is. Perhaps the voice acting is the only polemic topic about it, but it doesn’t make the characters less appealing.
This world is seen through the eyes of a teenager, Max, who is driven by hopes and dreams and aspires to be a great photographer one day. That’s why she went back to her hometown to study Photography at prestigious Blackwell Academy, where the only thing she cares about is having a normal, yet awesome, university life. But as you can guess, it is everything but normal. After a long day of school, Max only wants to clear her head a bit in the bathroom, but ends up witnessing a girl being shot right in front of her eyes. She screams as she rises her hand in desperation and next thing she knows, she’s back at her classroom, restarting her day exactly the same as some minutes ago… She just discovered she has the ability to rewind time.
Ok, you might say “Is that it? That’s how it starts?” and you have all the right in the world to ask that kind of question, since it is, literally, how it starts. But please, don’t get disappointed just yet. Yes, the introduction feels out of place. Instead of awing us with an epic introduction to make us excited about being able to rewind time, it feels like Dontnod just said to us “Here, you can do this. Have fun”. The good thing is that most of the rest of the game makes you forget about those awkward 5 minutes.
The world is not only about teenage problems. Something weird is going on in Arcadia Bay. Max has a vision about a potentially catastrophic eco-disaster, and somehow she believes everything is related to the mystery of a missing person that apparently everyone loved or hated, as well as to the “gift” she didn’t ask for. All this journey will make you discover the truth about several different mysteries.
And it is because that power to rewind time is what this game is all about. Max finally has a chance to impress people by redoing her actions and answering the right questions, as well as help people in distress. Max is living every teenager’s dream: the opportunity to go back in time and do the right thing. Situations where Max would normally give an embarrassing answer that would make everyone think she’s a weirdo are transformed at her own will having the complete opposite effect. Previously knowing what was the right thing to say, she now is becoming popular. It’s even adorable to see her excited about helping others because she knew what was going to happen.
But like it was said before, there’s more to Life is Strange than just a teenager’s life. And this is because all this is achieved through one of the main reasons for the game to exist. Those who have already played Telltale games are familiar with this kind of gameplay mechanics: choice making. It is quite obvious where the inspirations of this mechanic came from. A la The Walking Dead, most of the dialogue will have different options for you to choose what to say, including the option to keep asking more background story to the characters or going on with your life. But Life is Strange does a remarkable job at being its own original game instead of a carbon copy of another one that follows the same philosophy.
These are the key moments where rewinding time does its job at its best. After you have chosen to mock a character for being rude to you before, Max herself will doubt and wonder if she should have chosen to comfort her, motivating you to rewind and see what that other outcome is. But guess what? There is no “good” answer. Having the ability to know different short-term outcomes leaves Max with a lot of doubts as to what the long-term consequences will be. It is an extraordinary move from Dontnod to make us realize that the fact that you can undo your actions doesn’t always mean you’ll find the answer. You finally have the “but what if…” answer, but will a choice you make always be like you thought it would?
One might think that we can have the game already solved since the beginning but, actually, once you have left an area you’ll realize you can’t undo those previous actions anymore, a clear warning that you’ll have to be responsible for what you decided to do.
Again, Walking Dead style, your choices will not be for nothing, as at the end of every episode you’ll see all of your choices in the screen and the statistics of players around the world. However, unlike Telltale’s game, something quite nice is that you have two screens that show your decisions: one for the major choices, one for the minor choices. As you can guess, the major choices are the ones that will impact further episodes, but it is a nice touch to see that minor choices also have their own importance.
In addition, even during the course of the game, you’ll easily identify which ones are the major choices because you’ll be interrupted by a time-freeze with two different answers. It really helps the suspense grow, as you instantly know that this time you really need to think things through. You will still be able to rewind and choose a different answer, but it’s quite cool to know which moments will be key for future progress.
Before we continue, I’d like to point out that I personally believe it was way more dramatic that TWD gave us always a time limit to decide something without the chance to go back. But I also believe it is kind of cool to think that the time-freeze screen is some kind of self-defense mechanism for Max to avoid choosing wrong because, you know, she can now manipulate time. Which means extra points to Life is Strange for being original on its own.
And of course, it’s not that the only times you have interaction is through the dialogue. There are many things you can do to get distracted from the story. Max is a photographer, so you will have some opportunities to photograph some trivial scenarios that Max thinks are worth photographing. You can also speak with other characters and learn more about the story behind Blackwell, Arcadia Bay, or the mysteries itself. So you do have some freedom, too.
What Dontnod didn’t exactly took advantage of was the chance to create puzzles that involve this innovative mechanic. There are a few ones every now and then, but it was a great opportunity to fully exploit the potential of Max’s new ability. Fortunately, the plot itself steals the show most of the times so it is not a real problem. Although if you are the kind of gamer who prefers puzzles over story… maybe this is not the right place for you.
Regardless, as you keep progressing in the story, even since the first episode, you’ll understand why this game feels so humanly touching. As you explore the university and talk with your classmates, Max will always have a comment that suits her teenage spirit because she struggles to understand why things are the way they are, as well as expresses why she thinks something is cool or not so cool, including her crush on her favorite teacher, Mr. Jefferson.
After playing a little bit with time, the situations she just shaped the way she wanted will make Max’s best childhood friend, Chloe, reunite with her. This is the exact moment when everything begins to have a purpose. Chloe’s life has been too hard since Max left Arcadia Bay 5 years ago and now that they are together again, with the help of Max’s new super power, they are planning to solve all of the mysteries together. Max and Chloe’s relationship is something that keeps the magic of the game going.
Nonetheless, as we mentioned before, the game doesn’t have the best start. We are now talking about Episode 1 itself. It was not a bad episode, per se, because it had its moments. For example, discovering the awesome effects that rewinding time has or the emotional moments when Max and Chloe are reunited, the first interactions with very memorable characters that will make you wonder if they have a real purpose on the story and other crazy and twisted plot points that clearly are worth playing. But we really thought it needed something more because it never stops being just an introduction instead of an episode itself. Too many questions are aroused, and not in a “wow, what will happen next?” sense of the word, but in one that confuses us as to what is going on.
As the episodes go by, however, literally everything begins to change. During the course of the second episode is where we started to understand the real purpose of the world of Life is Strange. All those warnings about “choose wisely…” before the game even starts make sense at this point. More exploration, more character development, more background story, more time travelling stuff and definitely more jaw-dropping moments will totally make you instantly fall in love with this game. And we kid you not! Everything the first episode could have done better is now present in episode two. And the first incredibly shocking ending will be there right in front of your eyes.
Moving on, as you progress in the game with further episodes, the story becomes way too engaging to be true, honestly. Now that we know what to do and where to go, and are confident enough about our time travel power, everything plot wise becomes more engaging.
However… during the course of the episodes, there will be moments that are slightly boring because some of your decisions will not be dramatic anymore, as they are strongly related to previous choices you made, so it’s like you already know what to choose without thinking too much… at least that’s what happened to us. What makes it worse, too, is that as you progress even further… decisions become a bit too linear for a choice-driven game. There will be less moments where choices have drastically different outcomes. You will see the real consequences of some of your decisions from previous episodes, which is good while it lasts. But it really feels like Dontnod forgot a little bit about the impact of your potential choices to tell the one single story.
Which is definitely not exactly bad! The story itself is what will force you to keep playing and playing. Yes, choice making will definitely lose its relevance (until some point), but that doesn’t make it a bad game at all. As you keep going and going, everything starts becoming a plot twist with many shocking moments. And one thing that is for sure is that every single episode will end with a SERIOUSLY shocking cliffhanger. The story and the mechanics might lose their charm every now and then, but if there is something Dontnod does right, is to create a wonderful ending that makes you forget about those moments and continue to the next episode.
As you proceed to the conclusion… well, we have to be honest with all of you. We honestly believed it ended right the way it started, having very little impact on us. The conclusion is probably the most tedious part of the game. Don’t get us wrong, it isn’t a bad episode, either. There are epic and extremely heartbreaking conclusions to theories that you will probably make up along the way. But we do believe that it didn’t pay proper tribute to what the rest of the game had been so far. In any way, the endings will definitely satisfy you. Yes, you heard us right: there are different endings. So, we do recommend you: choose wisely.
I think Life is Strange is a game that carries inspiration from other games, but does a great job at being very original on its own. The story takes its time to make sense, but once it does, it never (and I mean NEVER) stops being engaging as it has a lot heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. Plus, the ability to rewind time and undo your previous action really becomes something truly innovative in video games. I also want to give extra points to the game for not making the whole game “solved” by undoing every one of your actions. The fact that Max’s powers have their own limits helps you be responsible for every choice you make. The bad thing I’d point out is that sometimes the game loses its way and forgets about what it was supposed to be. I also believe this time travelling mechanics allowed a lot of opportunities for many puzzles. It has some, yes, but it doesn’t feel like the game took proper advantage of that. However, we know that the game’s main priority is the story. And that is performed in an amazing way. The atmosphere, I mean the music, the art style, the characters, everything reminds you of how humanly real this game feels.
Everyone knows that if the theme is “time travelling”, chaos is inevitable. Life is Strange is a game that shows us how complicated and harmful it is to play with time even if it seems enjoyable and amazing to have the ability to rewind time, in the first place. Like it has been said before, there is more to Life is Strange than a teenager’s life and dreams. It’s a detective story, a thriller experience and more. Another point of view is the environment that the game has. In every episode, you see new places and realize that the game really focuses on making you see how the small pieces of the environment are important, from simple graffiti that act as a warning to the posters on the walls. And this game has secret messages in the background; these are the things that make the game more wonderful. Even if it has faults, Life is Strange has heart and that’s why it’s a game that must be played!