Life is Strange: Episode 1 review

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to write about games. They’re either so awful that I can’t think of anything diplomatic enough, or they’re so fantastic that I can’t stop myself from gushing about it. Life is Strange is a Dontnod game. The last Dontnod game I played was the fantastic Remember Me. I was hoping beyond all hope that I’d be gushing by the end of playing this.

Life is Strange, then, is an episodic teen based drama centred on the main character of Max Caulfield. Max is an 18-year-old student in the town of Arcadia Bay, returning after a 5 year absence in Seattle, to her childhood home. This episode starts with the feeling that Max is looking to find herself again, find the happiness in her life by returning to the place where she felt the most fun. Things have changed in Arcadia Bay though, as Max will discover throughout this episode. There was much made of the fact that Life is Strange includes a female lead and in truth, that is where the similarities between Remember Me and this game end.

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With the onus on being an adventure rather than action-centric, the story is pretty much a digital choose-your-own-adventure. From the very beginning though, things feel a little different, is history repeating itself, has Max become psychic? By accident, Max discovers that she can reverse time and maybe, just maybe, change the events that have unfolded before her. To alter this butterfly effect, Max reverses time and plays out the choices again. You can skip some of the interaction if you go too far, but like any paper version of the choose-your-own, there comes a point where you’ll have to come down off the fence either way and move on, regardless of the consequences.

The initial introduction to this rewind power sees you in class at the Academy, playing out a number of scenarios in order to introduce a number of the main, but incidental, characters. This introduction carries on through the halls of the school, until you bear witness to an argument in the girl’s restroom. Nothing unusual there, you might imagine, until Max witnesses the murder of a girl in the restroom. The stage is set when you are placed back where you started, with the slowly dawning realisation that you can save this girl’s life.

Throughout the game, as you explore, you can interact with pretty much most characters in one way or another and the interactions are highlighted in an obvious way. Using this medium means that there will be very little that you’ll miss if you have the time to explore the grounds of the Academy. There are, indeed, a few Easter eggs in the game for those of us with a nosey turn of mind so it’s worth spending that little extra time on having a good old root around.

The grounds themselves are presented beautifully. The graphical nature of the game lends itself very well to the story, with the changing environment and weather effects represented well in the visuals. Arcadia Bay is a symphony in colour and light, with this episode illuminated by the setting sun. Each character is individual and fits in perfectly with the interactive surroundings. Max’s wet look is a little concerning, however, with the effect making her look like she’s been dipped in cling-film.

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Max and her co-stars all move very fluidly, I saw nothing that would suggest anything other than a polished graphical offering here, other than the rain effect. From the birds, to the skittering squirrels, to the cars and individual rooms, all have a definite personality stamped on them. This is all wrapped together nicely with a gentle and complimentary soundtrack. The other incidental sounds, again, sit nicely in the environment. The trees rustle, the birds in them all sing nicely and even some of the additional characters all shout and laugh in the background. Life generally goes on around Max as she makes her way around with a single-minded purpose only a young woman could muster.

Any young woman would keep a journal, and Max is no different. This journal is central in keeping track of the other characters, the environment, some useful post-it hints and indeed, links to one of Max’s other staples, her text messages on her mobile. The other medium that Max can use to interact is her camera. You can earn achievements by taking the right picture in the right environment all under the pretence that she’ll submit one to her tutor at the Academy. There is an element of being led around by the nose here but the choices you need to make give it a fresh feel, even with the mechanic of rewind giving you the ability to find information out and change the fact that you’ve even been there.

Each scenario is designed to learn more about Max and to help her develop as a character. There are a few hurdles that Max has to overcome in the course of finding herself. Personal milestones that will either help or hinder depending on the choices you make during the course of the episode. There is an on-screen hint system to help you with these choices, and using the rewind mechanism, you can also change your mind and provide the right answer, if there is one and therein lies the dilemma. Is there a right answer? The moral and social dilemma of rifling through another character’s room gives genuinely uncomfortable moments. This helps you really connect with Max as the episode progresses, even though, ostensibly, this episode is an introduction and scene-setter.

So, what stops this game being simply the best episodic drama adventure out there? What could make Life is Strange even better? The reactionary acting is a little sterile. The Academy Principal for example, while his head has a wobble football manager Harry Redknapp would be proud of, does seem massively over-calm when presented with a particularly serious accusation. Indeed, some of the dialogue is hugely out of vogue. 18-year-olds don’t tend to use the word ‘hella’ or the phrase ‘for reals’ quite as often as Max and Chloe appear to.

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Chloe for example, bearing in mind the voice actor is Ashly Burch, Tiny Tina from Borderlands 2, looks the part, moves the part, but when she speaks, I’m left wondering who the real Chloe actually is. Perhaps I’ve hit on it, maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. It’s probably the most disappointing aspect of the game as a whole. Some characters are there purely as a moral decision, Chloe’s step-dad is an eminently dislikeable bully, yet even interactions between him & Chloe evoke a response in Max that needs a decision from you, even if they aren’t earth-shattering or have the consequences you were expecting.

Life is Strange, episode 1 is a cracking start, a great introduction to the saga of Arcadia Bay and the life and abilities of Max Caulfield. It falls short of making me gush though. The voice-acting is weak and the storyline could encourage this to be a little better, but sadly doesn’t. There are some aspects of the dream sequences that are baffling at times and the less I say about Max’s wet appearance, the better. It’s a good start, as I say, hopefully, the next episode will build on this and draw me in to Blackwell Academy and Max’s choice-making even further.

Thanks to Square Enix for supplying TiX with a download code

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