On Monday evening, I completed episode 5 of Life is Strange, the episodic adventure by Dontnod, the creators of Remember Me. I call this review the aftermath because of how the game has affected me. I haven’t played anything that tugged so heavily on my heartstrings since DA2, and it’s been more thought-provoking than Bioshock Infinite, or any other game I have played. In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and managed to convince one of my friends to buy the game, even though there is no German translation for it. Experiencing her reactions now is like savoring the game a little longer. I use a spoiler plugin, to keep this text as spoiler-free as possible, while at the same time offering spoilers to those of you who wish to read them. Reveal at your own risk.
It’s a game in the vein of Telltale adventures like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Gameplay-wise, it has two major differences from the Telltale offerings: there is no time limit on any of your dialogue choices and there are no Quicktime events whatsoever. Instead, it uses a mechanic that they apparently fell in love with when they did Remember Me, but it’s used differently here: the ability to rewind time.
Our protagonist is Maxine Caulfield, short Max. She’s 18, and is a highschool senior at Blackwell Academy in small fictional Oregon town, Arcadia Bay. Max originally used to live here, and had a best friend, Chloe, BFFs, never to be parted, but they did part, when Max’s family moved to Seattle. At the beginning of the game, Max hasn’t met Chloe again yet. The first episode starts very slowly, and mostly serves to introduce all the characters that you will meet throughout the series. The other students, teachers, the pushy security staff, etc. My first thoughts were that it was weird to play a game that felt like playing a teenage drama, maybe a bit dull. But early into the episode, we learn that Max has a supernatural ability. She can rewind time, and change the course of events that way. She discovers this ability when she saves her old friend Chloe from being shot by the school’s rich kid and drug dealer Nathan.
Whereas in The Walking Dead, e.g. you always have the rush to quickly respond to events because of the time limit, you have a different problem in Life is Strange. Most decisions are agonizing. As you can rewind time, you can re-do every conversation. Sometimes you can use information you gained from a previous conversation after you rewound time. Sometimes you just listen to all reactions and then go and pick the one that’s best for you. Sometimes there are no options that one could consider good, like the heartbreaking conversation with Chloe at her sickbed in episode 4. And then there is this final moment when you can’t rewind at all and are stuck with those two options, both of which are crushing.
I have watched Felicia Day playing Life is Strange, even though I normally don’t do Let’s Plays, and when she played episode 2, I think there was one decision she re-wound like 5 times, because she just couldn’t make up her mind. Sometimes, it’s just nail-biting and not so easy to pick what feels right for Max.
Life is Strange is a dark game, with serious subject matters. It involves murder, substance abuse, abductions, cyber- and RL-bullying, hints of date rape, and has a perfectly creepy villain. Playing through early episode 5 and interacting with him closely has been one of the most chilling game experiences I ever had. It felt personal. I hated the villain, from the depths of my heart.
With each episode throughout the series, I felt the story got more intense, and as a result more emotional. Ultimately, it’s the story of Max and Chloe. Max saves Chloe, they reconnect, and they go through the worst of times together. Max is the good girl, the good student who wants to be a photographer, create art, whereas Chloe is the highschool dropout who has blue hair, digs punk, does drugs, and mourns her best friend Rachel who has disappeared six months ago. She has a lot of anger, and she’s a terrible influence on Max. There are times you want to smack her on the head, to get some sense into her. But just like Max, we start loving her. In my case, it was very obvious to me that my Max -really- loved Chloe, not in a platonic way. I am sure others play Max in a way that she didn’t, but I did. Jewel from Healing the Masses managed to explain it all a bit better than I can, but beware, spoilers!
Of course I now know that I am not alone in Max loving Chloe that way, because the ship has an official name, and it is Pricefield, and it has its own subreddit. I haven’t even checked Tumblr, there’s probably pr0n about them…
After playing the final episode, I dreamed about it all night. There’s this sequence where Max is losing it a little bit, and just reading her journal in that segment of the game really fucked with my head. It’s that part of the game that feels very David Lynch-esque, in a very compelling way. I was freaked out the whole time.
I mention a journal. Max has a diary, and it’s very entertaining to read it, especially her reactions. Also, when the time travel stuff gets heavier, it’s interesting to read it to make sense of Max and how her changes have affected the people around her. You also get to read text messages she receives, which really enhanced the game for me. I got excited every time she received a message. When they all turned to hate messages in episode 5 during the storm, I cringed a lot.
The game is not without its flaws. It lives and falls on the dialogue and the story. When it comes to its gaming elements, that’s probably the weakest part of the game. In episode 2 in particular Chloe makes you prove your time abilities to her, and the gameplay wasn’t particularly fun. Also, could the junkyard be any more confusing? Additionally, the voice acting has very uneven quality. This is mostly because a relatively small cast has to voice-act a much larger cast of characters. I found it the most grating with Kate Marsh’s voice acting, because it was very obvious she was also Alyssa. In episode 5 there was this scene when it became very noticeable that some adult characters had the voice of the students, etc. But ultimately, it’s what we call “Jammern auf hohem Niveau”, whining on a high level, in German. The voices that matter the most, Max and Chloe, but also e.g. Victoria or David Madsen, they were pretty good. Especially Ashley Birch as Chloe was shining in some scenes, for example when you finally find out what happened to Rachel Amber. Her sobs were killing me. Life is Strange is a budget game, despite Square Enix backing, and I am pretty sure Dontnod were nervous going into it. Remember Me was no huge success, so this episode game was a risk. I hope it pays off in gold for them.
All in all, I cannot praise this game enough. It’s definitely the game of the year for me. My SO is not into video gaming as much as I am, and she kept asking me to play. We played it together, because it was that good. After every episode, we took a break and watched Felicia Day playing it, because we wanted to see how she did and experience her reactions. So many twists and turns, so many decisions, so many reactions. We both were pissed when her brother Ryon joined her for episode 4 and at first talked over the game so much that it kinda ruined the experience for us. It felt disrespectful to the game. We weren’t the only ones as people on Twitch and YouTube complained and he noticeably got more quiet. We’re waiting for the final Let’s Play, and I really hope she leaves her brother out this time. We are currently planning on my SO actually playing it in January, and me just watching. We should be aiming for 100% photo ops, hah!
Life is Strange is currently a download only game, available on PS3/4, XboxOne and 360, and through Steam and Square Enix for PC. A limited boxed edition will be released in January 2016, including the full soundtrack, an artbook and director’s commentary, plus subtitles in several languages, and you can bet your ass that I am so going to pick one of those babies up. At least for Playstation, you can pick up the first episode for free, and a season pass runs very little money, IMHO.
If you enjoy Telltale games, or stories like Heavy Rain or Gone Home, it’s really almost a mandatory purchase, if you ask me. Go play it already! remains in denial about people enjoying Fallout 4 instead