Rewound: Life is Strange (Review)
Life is Strange, an episodic game by Don’t Nod Entertainment, was originally released in instalments over the course of six months between January and October of 2015.
I bought the first episode of Life is Strange a few days after it was released, having read good reviews on Steam and other websites. After playing through it I was thoroughly impressed. Enough so that upon finishing episode 1, I stumped up for the remaining 4 episodes there and then.
Now, a year later, having waited for the other 4 episodes to be released, and having the time on my hands to devote to playing it, did the series live up to the promise of that initial episode?
18 year old Max (Maxine) Caulfield, returns to her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, having moved away 5 years previously with her parents as a 13 yr old. She returns to enlist as a photography student in the prestigious Blackwell Academy in order to be tutored by renowned photographer, Mark Jefferson.
Before she moved away, she spent most of her childhood with her best friend, a girl named Chloe Price, and the two were absolutely inseparable.
Shortly after the death of Chloe’s father, Max had to move and never kept in touch. Something she had felt guilty about over all those years. Returning to Arcadia Bay and not contacting Chloe had only compounded those feelings.
The story proper begins in Blackwell Academy. While photographing a butterfly in the female toilets for a school project, a guy enters, muttering to himself like a madman. Max decides to stay out of sight and wait until he leaves before she comes out of hiding.
It turns out to be a drug deal gone bad, and the guy, a rich kid bully named Nathan, owes money to a drug dealer. However the transaction goes bad, tempers flare and the drug dealer’s collector gets shot and killed in the resulting argument by Nathan.
Shocked to her core, Max immediately finds herself back in class 5 minutes prior to the events described above. She discovers she can prevent the shooting by being able to suddenly rewind time itself, and this then becomes the main game-play mechanic throughout the 5 episodes…
It’s not a huge spoiler to reveal that the person shot in the toilets was an unrecognisable Chloe, who has since completely changed how she looks from when Max last knew her. Max and her reconnect shortly afterwards, and they begin to rebuild their old bond of friendship.
At this point the game begins to assume its main story arc, that of investigating the disappearance of a girl named Rachel Amber, who had been best friends with Chloe in the years Max was gone, and secondarily trying to prevent a cataclysmic tornado that will wipe out the town killing everyone in it…
The Butterfly Effect
Over the course of the journey, it becomes apparent that meddling with time has serious consequences. Not just on a personal level, with Max suffering increasingly severe headaches and nosebleeds as a result of her use of her power, but reflecting the game’s chaos theory motif, the apparent butterfly effect of her actions also begins to impact the larger world around her.
To the point where the constant use of her time-altering powers may actually be causing the increasingly freakish events that begin to unfold within Arcadia.
Was the wait worth it?
Bear in mind I played the first episode in February of last year, but I left it until all 5 episodes had been released in order to play my way through the entire season in rapid succession. In a way similar to how you may binge watch an entire season of a show like Netflix’s Daredevil or Jessica Jones, I binge played all remaining 4 episodes of LiS within the span of a couple of days, nearly a full year after the release of episode 1.
Hell yes it was worth it!
Playing it this way meant that certain cliffhangers, such as the death of a major character at the end of episode 4 (no names), were quickly dealt with and resolved within an hour or so by carrying straight on into the next episode, rather than having to wait an agonising 9 weeks or so until it was released to find out what happened next.
Other Characters & Back Story
The incidental characters, their stories, situations and choices all helped sculpt a rich back story to the main story, and the cataclysmic choices being faced by the main characters.
Do I save this character’s life? Do I let this character get the shit beaten out of them? Do I rat out this character to his wife about his activities? All these minutiae helped carve out a fuller, richer storyline and helped build the history and backstories of the main characters themselves.
These are all set against the backdrop of the two main story threads mentioned above: Investigating the disappearance of Rachel and trying to find a way to prevent the destruction soon to be wrought by the monster tornado.
A sense of loss
The game wasn’t without it’s problems, sure, but as with life, strange or otherwise, it’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey.
After I finished playing I felt one thing in the main: empty.
In exactly the same way as you do when you finish a really great novel that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed and devoured the many pages of within very few sittings?
The world that the characters inhabit becomes your whole world for that short period of time, and the characters become like friends that you’ve known for years.
Their relationships, their troubles and situations become as intimate to you as your own, and when it’s finally all over? And you realise that you’ve come to the end of your journey, that your time with these characters, these friends, is at an end?
It’s like a small death, a sense of mourning for what’s been lost, but feeling richer nonetheless for having spent time with them.
That’s how much of an impact these characters, Max & Chloe, had had on me over the course of the 14 or so hours it took me to finish all 5 episodes.
Art & Sound design
The aesthetic of the game is very artsy, in keeping with the entire theme of photography and artwork that features heavily throughout the course of the entire game.
Characters and environments aren’t photo-realistic, and are reminiscent of the art-style of Team Fortress 2, certainly in the environmental design. Textures throughout appear more painterly in style, and it works really well. Check out the beard art on the photography teacher, Mark Jefferson as an example:
Sadly lip-syncing of characters, something becoming increasingly more common in games for purposes of realism, is poor throughout, and during one conversation in the final hour, breaks completely. Max’s lips fail to move at all when talking, but once done with the conversation in question, it immediately rectifies itself and the previous lip-syncing, bad as it was, resumes.
The soundtrack too deserves a mention. It’s light and subtle where it needs to be, and its hipster style is fitting with the somewhat angst-ridden theme of millennials in over their heads.
At this point, there needs to be some discussion of the endings. There are slight spoilers for the end of the game without content first, which I’ll hide behind a spoiler tag, then full and complete spoilers including the content of the endings within a second spoiler tag, so if you don’t want to know anything about what happens at the end of the final episode, skip over the next bit.
[su_spoiler title=”Slight spoilers lie within…”]The ending though, was flawed in that ultimately, none of the choices you’ve made over the course of the 5 episodes had any impact on the ending you saw.
Reminiscent of Mass Effect 3’s “Pick an ending” debacle, this was the sole and major let down about the game as a whole. That none of my choices over the past 14 hours, none of the people I’d saved, helped out, rescued, brought together or seen die, that none of these choices, at the very end, had any bearing on what happened right at the death?
A major disappointment, but not one large enough to ruin the entire experience, unlike that of ME3…[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Full spoilers for the game’s ending lie within, so be warned!”]Ultimately, the game boils down to a straight up choice:
- Sacrifice the town of Arcadia Bay to be with Chloe, either as her friend or lover, depending on how you play the game.
- Sacrifice Chloe, and save Arcadia Bay and everyone in it, by going back in time and allowing Chloe to be shot by Nathan, thereby negating your involvement in any further time-altering shenanigans and preventing the strange series of events that culminated in the tornado.
Disappointingly, none of the choices you’ve made over the course of all 5 episodes can change either choice.
You either throw away all the work you did trying to improve the lives of the residents of Arcadia Bay, and presumably allow them all to be killed by the tornado, or throw away all the work you’ve done over the previous 5 episodes constantly trying to save Chloe’s life, time and time again, and allow her to die.
Patently, given the design of the ending sequences, the developers fully expect you to follow your head, and sacrifice Chloe, as that ending gets a fuller sequence showing her funeral, the characters that you’d saved and had an impact on.
If, like me, you follow your heart instead, the ending received upon saving Chloe and sacrificing the town is considerably more perfunctory, simply showing you riding through the wreckage of Arcadia Bay with Chloe, and driving out of town onto a new life together.
No repercussions or emotional fallout from having condemned hundreds of people, including Chloe’s mother and stepfather or your friends and schoolmates to a horrific and violent death.
Nor any recriminations from Chloe herself for sacrificing the many for the one, which, I’ll re-iterate, included Chloe’s own mother.
Disappointing, there’s no doubt about it. It could have, and should have been handled better by the developers.
Ideally I would’ve liked my previous decisions throughout the game, or even just the final episode to have had some sort of impact on the ending sequences, if not on the final choice itself. If you save Chloe, you see nothing of the Arcadia Bay residents at all, and it focuses the short ending entirely on their drive through and out of town.
Flawed as it was, however, the ending was merely a coda on an otherwise excellent game and story experience.
Would I recommend that you pick it up and play it?
It’s an excellent game, with characters, main and incidental, that I came to care about deeply over the course of my play time. Their characterisation was spot on. Both main characters were flawed, genuine and more human than the “heroes” in most other games.
Sadly, and ironically, my time with them is done, and I am feeling left emotionally raw. This is clearly an experience that will remain with me for some time still to come.
A second season has been confirmed, but according to the developer is likely to feature a different cast of characters, which saddens me, as I’d like nothing more than to spend more time in the shoes of Max Caulfield, Time Warrior…