Life is Strange Review
Dynamic causation for a charming time-traveller and her boisterous sidekick
Time is always moving forward, but what if it could be reversed? What if you could go back in time and fix your mistakes? If you misspoke, it could be corrected; if you caused an accident, it could be avoided. But there is a catch. Some minor corrections might set forth a chain of events that create devastating problems. Welcome to the world of Life is Strange, a fascinating adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment, where mistakes are just a trial run and friendships last forever.
This is just the second game from Dontnod Entertainment, following their action game—Remember Me—from two years ago. Unlike that game, Life is Strange is a subdued adventure that is similar to the recent story-driven games from Telltale. This means frequent conversations, some adventure puzzles and a few branching choices that alter events. Presented across five substantial episodes, it revels in the quiet and emotional moments.
Arcadia Bay is quite the scenic locale
The events in the game take place in the fictional seaside town of Arcadia Bay, based in the American state of Oregon. Players assume the role of a photography student, Max Caulfield, who is just a regular teenage girl going through high school at Blackwell Academy. Well—she was a regular girl—until she witnessed somebody die in front of her eyes. At that very moment, Max gained the ability to rewind time. And with a short trip back through time, she saves the victim and changes history. The victim was none other than her best friend, Chloe Price, whom she has not seen in five years. The narrative focuses on Max’s ability to rewind time and her relationship with Chloe as they explore the town and unearth dark secrets.
Dontnod has created a clichéd and quirky town with Arcadia Bay. Fortunately this is actually a good thing when it comes to time travel. Characters and situations are unforgettable and the developers have applied a unique lens that amplifies them even further. Blackwell Academy is the biggest source of stereotypes; there are the nerds who get bullied, the dumb jocks, a stuck-up overachiever and even a creepy janitor. These clichés extend to the few characters outside the school, like a hostile drug dealer or a hard-working mother. It is easy to keep track of these stereotypes when travelling through time, and they all seem like red herrings in a story about a missing person. A girl, Rachel Amber, has been missing for months and your main goal is to find her with the aid of the time-rewind ability. Max also believes a storm is coming to destroy the town and, after witnessing bizarre weather events, she could be right. The adventure will lead Chloe and Max through dangerous obstacles as they cross paths with shady characters and environmental hazards.
With time travel and a gun, what could go wrong?
No character is as impressive as Max’s rambunctious sidekick, Chloe, and together they share awkward and poignant moments as a result of their rekindled friendship. They used to be best friends, until Max moved to Seattle and ended communication. Chloe became a rebel after her father died—dying her hair blue, failing at school and clashing with authority figures. Max is anything but a rebel; she is a shy, softly-spoken and talented artist who strives to do the right thing. These differing personalities sometimes clash, but it is the rebuilding of their friendship that holds the story together. Their friendship captivates, and you will want it to succeed. Chloe’s voice actress is a perfect match for her personality; Ashly Burch brings exuberance and craziness with a voice that matches Chloe’s movements and expressions, from dancing on a bed to firing bullets at bottles in a junkyard. Chloe is such a likable character that she becomes the ideal partner in time. For most of the adventure, she is the only one in Arcadia Bay that knows, after a fantastic proving sequence, that Max can rewind time.
Max’s unique ability to reverse time is nearly always available, but it typically only covers the last few minutes. Once you leave an area, like the school dorms or Chloe’s house, the decisions become permanent. Likewise, various hidden checkpoints prevent rewinding time beyond the latest conversation. Life is Strange encourages rewinding—it wants you to experiment with dialogue and situations. Max often tempts the player, asking herself if she did the right thing. This experimentation allows you to approach situations with less caution and ensures you are satisfied with the outcome before moving on. Being able to rewind time does not negate replay value either, as future events provide new perspectives.
Conversations form the bulk of the adventure and they can lead to different outcomes. As with games from Telltale, selected responses can make the characters react positively or negatively. It is not about being good or bad—Max always tries to do the right thing. The real strength comes from rewinding time and finding more dialogue. There might be multiple choices with only one right answer, or extra details that can be used in the past. Major decisions are clearly indicated and will have the biggest impact on the story; characters can be injured or die, friendships can be severed, text messages will change and you may even solve different puzzles. The branching choices do not alter the main events much but there are many subtle changes. The dialogue blends naturally and it is sometimes surprising how early decisions are reflected in late conversations. Having a small cast of predictable characters keeps the time travel from getting confusing—you can see conversations in the future (and past) with more clarity.
Major choices will blur the screen so you know things could go bad
Unfortunately lip movements are often mistimed or incorrect for the corresponding phoneme. Considering the importance and frequency of dialogue, it is disappointing that the lip-syncing is worse than many older games. It is initially distracting and something you will have to tolerate. Another conversation problem is the reuse of major voice actors for minor roles, which was especially jarring in the fourth episode when you need to access a VIP area during a party. There was even one small piece of dialogue, during episode two, where a main character spoke with a different voice. With a few more voice actors and better lip-syncing, the presentation of conversations could have matched the quality of their content.
Rewinding time is also fairly important when completing basic adventure tasks scattered around the town. The adventure is linear, but you are free to explore areas before moving on. Among other things, Max can read notes, take photos and use computers. Areas have many objects to examine and this helps sell the world. It does result a bit of rummaging around, just to find the item that will progress the adventure, but it is never without reward. There are basic environmental hazards to avoid and standard adventure items to collect. One of the best time-puzzles occurs when Chloe and Max enter Blackwell Academy after hours. When accessing one of the locked rooms, Max triggers alarms that will surely get them in trouble. Once inside, she merely rewinds time—resetting those alarms—and opens it from the inside. This is an excellent demonstration of her power although not something that is regularly achieved. Towards the end of the five episodes, the time mechanic becomes rigid; you will probably know when to use it and for what reason. The last episode is rather shallow when it comes to puzzles, focusing instead on heavy exposition. Nevertheless, the time mechanic is clever when mixed with adventure tasks or conversations.
Careful scene composition is a major strength
A mixture of smart camera placement, careful lighting and easy-listening music make for an audio-visual treat. Scenes regularly use warm colors—red and orange—often produced by the Sun at dawn or dusk. Fortunately the game is not afraid to de-saturate environments and use silhouettes when the mood demands. Characters have smooth, hand-drawn textures to give them a flat, almost cartoonish, appearance. Dynamic lighting is used often, like the blue glow from an indoor pool or the white point-light from Max’s phone. Camera angles during conversations are particularly thoughtful with a depth of field effect that draws the eye. Even panoramic views or close-ups are combined to keep scenes interesting. Many of the scenes are perfectly composed, with objects and characters carefully placed. The music that plays during these major scenes is also great. It is reflective, calming and melancholy—matching the themes and characters. Soft guitar or mandolin strumming and gentle voices are the main ingredients in the slow tempo music tracks. The selected music and well-crafted scenes highlight all the special moments in the adventure.
The experiences through Arcadia Bay are what you will remember most when the dust settles on this tale. After completing the 10-15 hour adventure, it is possible that both endings will be disappointing given all that has transpired. But Life is Strange emphasizes the journey above the destination. The moments between Chloe and Max will be hard to forget—like a late night swim or sitting by a lighthouse as the sun sets. You can make that journey last forever, by rewinding time over and over, but then it would never be a memory.
There is always time for a musical interlude
Dontnod Entertainment has created an endearing, time-bending and memorable adventure with Life is Strange. It takes you on a journey with two friends uncovering the truth in an idyllic seaside town. Chloe and Max are remarkable characters and you are right beside them as they experience joy and sorrow. It gains strength from clichés because they become anchor points through time. As you rewind time and alter history, outcomes change and the dialogue bends naturally in response. Rewinding time also helps to solve basic adventure puzzles, merging effortlessly with a story of a normal teenage girl that commands time and space. All this is more than enough for a strong adventure title, but it comes with magnificent scene composition and soothing music. Life is Strange is a great adventure that will stand the test of time—in fact, it already has.