Review: Life is Strange – Episode 1 (PS4)
Maxine "Max" Caulfield is breaking new waves at Blackwell Academy. She's finally pursuing her life-long aspiration to study professional photography, and the return to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, has brought with it many old memories, as well as many new changes. Most notably, and to her perplexity, she can now rewind pockets of time.
Approximately 3.5 hours if taken leisurely.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Graphic Adventure/Slice of Life
Release date: 01/30/15
Price: 4.99 (Single Episode) or 19.99 (Whole Season — 5 Episodes)
Seeming to jump on the popularity bandwagon harnessed by other studios, such as Telltale, Square Enix presents their first episodic adventure. Far removed from their staple role-playing game priorities, Life is Strange was developed by Dontnod Entertainment to try something completely different.
Seeing as I’m a long-standing fan of Square, and a recent convert to episodic series thanks to Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, I have high hopes for this game’s future. So far, it has done little to disappoint, though some content concerns will be addressed down the line, which may not resonate well with Christians or other religious audiences.
Life is Strange presents itself with a confident, indie vibe I’ve never seen before in a videogame. To clarify, it does not seem like an indie game, but a game with real-world, indie-cultural themes. I can’t help but be reminded of the 2007 comedy-drama film Juno while playing it. The artsy character cast help populate what is a very narrative-driven experience, focusing mostly on struggles with identity and how life changes–not always for the better.
The opening is a deep contrast to the remainder of the episode, with Max traversing a violent thunderstorm near Arcadia Bay’s local lighthouse. Over the bay, a massive tornado is looming, ready to destroy everything in its path. Suddenly, startled into reality, Max awakens in the midst of a classroom session with one of her favorite professors, a figurehead in the photography world. The player is given access to Max’s journal, which outlines many of the key characters you’ll be meeting in this episode (all while maintaining that same creative influence on every entry of the journal, through quotes and pictures drawn onto each page). From there, Max stumbles her way through the rest of the hour, blundering each choice encounter and prompt. As the class ends, she retreats into the college halls of Blackwell, soothing herself with an acoustic song through her headphones, which helps further encapsulate the posture of the game’s themes.
The day progresses, and Max witnesses a murder, learns secrets, navigates social circles, and otherwise tries to survive and master her newfound ability (which doubles not only as a storytelling element, but a gameplay tool for figuring out how different dialogue trees will result). Eventually she comes upon childhood friend Chloe, who has undergone quite a few life transformations since Max has last seen her. It’s up to the player how to develop this friendship, but one thing is for sure: no matter what, Chloe shows signs of critical importance to future installments. Make your decisions wisely, because things could steer any direction from here forward.
The pacing of Life is Strange is slow, but not boring. Casual is a fitting word. Most of the game plays like a day-in-the-life, with no urgency to get from one story event to the next. If the player so desired, they could likely breeze through the game in an hour or so, but that would be a huge disservice to both the developer and the consumer, as there’s much to be absorbed in the beautiful environments of Arcadia Bay. In lieu of how I usually handle these sorts of games, I sought out every single interaction I could find… and was not disappointed.
Regarding characters, Max is a soft-spoken, emotional rag-doll easily thrown around by her alpha peers. The genesis of the rewind ability changes this to an extent, as it grants her a new level of control, but it does little to alleviate the innate anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion when it comes to reading people and dealing with stressful situations, especially when her rewinding reveals that not every situation has a good outcome–just some that are better than others. Relationships are built between friends like Dana and Warren, as you engage and interact with their own, independent life problems. Adversely, enemies are made when you scorn a paranoid security guard and the town’s cruel, entitled children. Do you stand up for the abused or mind your distance to protect yourself? I know one of my decisions to do what I believed was the “right thing” ended with a close friend getting beaten black-and-blue a couple hours later in the game. The player must be mindful of what they’re doing.
Another major character, Chloe, shows telltale signs of abandonment and emotional abuse, with cues to her past self (back when she was friends with Max). But her priorities seem to have derailed somewhere along the way, and now it’s hard to tell exactly how to talk to her or which direction her motives will swing in the future.
The amount of thought put into Arcadia Bay’s setting is astounding. It’s clear the developers pride themselves in the geographical accuracy of their design. Discussion of the art style will be outlined further down in this review, but the hand-painted drafts used to add life to Max’s surroundings are another example of the capacity for video games to be beautiful without looking realistic. Between the halls of Blackwell, the girl’s dormitories, the open-campus, Chloe’s apartment, and everywhere else in the game, you can see signs of Dontnod’s ambition for a world with immersive potential.
In terms of the dialogue (this is covered more in the “Content Warning” section), first and foremost, there is a lot of vulgar language in this game. That aside, the scripting implemented in the dialogue is one of the game’s strongest features. Each character is grafted with a different voice, a distinct temperament, and even their own specific, culturally-catered slang remarks. Combine this with the wittiness utilized by most major characters, and you have a fun, but serious, adventure through the personal lives of rapidly more realistic characters, each with their own agenda.
There’s no shortage of typical curses. Some examples include numerous uses of “d****t”, “s**t”, “a**”, “b***h”, and “f**k,” as well as various other, far more colorful combinations, sometimes including crude sexual remarks. Aside from this, there are just generally mean things shared between characters. Chloe’s stepfather is referred to with several openly hateful names, such as “step-fuhrer” or “step-douche.” Thick sarcasm is a weapon wielded by some of the more vicious characters, like Victoria.
Max witnesses a murder at gunpoint early in the episode. Depending on your choices, one friend can get into a fistfight with a school bully (leaving him with a black eye and other wounds for the remaining duration of the game), and another friend can get back-handed by a family member. Other acts of violence might occur depending on earlier decisions, which I did not witness.
Chloe is viewed in one scene as having a bra visible beneath her sleeveless shirt. One debacle occurs with Dana involving the fidelity of her boyfriend, though this is only spoken of and never witnessed. Chloe’s sexual orientation is uncertain, though there are hints of homosexuality due to her overwhelming fondness of a currently absent female character. Perusing through messages left in the female dormitory reveal a couple different disconcerting statements. The word “bi-friendly” is used on a flyer to describe a girl-only party night, and “Will bang for Jesus” is scrawled on a marker-board outside one room.
I did not find many definite references or allusions to Christianity or other religions outside of the “Will bang for Jesus” note above. Another girl’s marker-board quotes Ghandi’s famous “Be the change you wish to see” line. Otherwise, there are no obvious religious or spiritual inclusions.
One student seems to be running an underground drug trade within Blackwell Academy, learned through eavesdropping on their conversation. Max’s journal remarks about how the Blackwell principle seems to smell of alcohol. Chloe is engrossed in a drug-laced lifestyle, with pictures and paraphernalia of the habit scattered around her room. She is also actively seen “blazing” to calm her nerves, while Max works to fix her broken camera.
But not all is bad. There are several instances where Max is given a call-to-action, whether that’s telling the truth of an unpleasant situation, taking the fall for a friend, or standing up to campus bullies. Despite player decisions, Max’s natural disposition seems to suggest non-aggressive solutions to trouble. She has an ear to hear the concerns of her contemporaries, a heart to want to help them, and a tenderness that is fragile and makes the player want to emote and protect her.
Since Life is Strange has no illusions to being a narrative-driven experience, any players looking to play it should understand that it does not present much variety in terms of gameplay. There’s only one game “mode,” and that’s the main story. The controls are smooth and easy for directing Max’s attention to certain items or characters. The general 3rd-person camera angle doesn’t get in the way or move lopsidedly, and is sometimes used in a more novel fashion. There’s a segment where the player may briefly take command of a remote-control aerial drone, which carries the camera around the campus square for a bird’s eye view. Elsewhere, Max is given several opportunities to just relax, at which times the camera takes the liberty to capture her from several stylized angles. Appropriate, considering the importance of photography in the story.
Rewinding time has a fast learning curve and is useful for exploring most dialogue options. Naturally, so as to keep the power manageable, the player is only able to reverse the continuum so far, usually one or two decisions back from their current location. Sometimes it can even be used as a mode of protection, such as turning back the clock so a tree doesn’t fall on you.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first.
The lip-syncing is appalling. Probably the worst I’ve seen in a year or two. The words are spot-on for maybe… twenty percent of all the dialogue? Honestly, for once I suggest reading the subtitles over looking at the faces. It’s less painful.
Okay, moving on. The voice acting isn’t likely to win any awards, but it’s hardly bad. Intonations and inflections rise and fall in the right spots, and each actor has adopted their own signature voice for each respective character. The strong script helps a lot, as it flows naturally and doesn’t work against the voice actors in any way, forcing them to read gaudy or convoluted lines.
Art director Michel Koch created entirely hand-painted designs and textures, which he fancied as “impressionistic renderings,” to capture the intrinsic themes of the game through soft, autumnal expressions and colors. The portrayal and pioneering of new life experiences in-game under these influences grant a surreal nostalgia to the player, making them feel sentimental towards things that never directly happened to them.
Jonathan Morali is responsible for the musical score of Life is Strange and helps strengthen its already modern, indie tone with his patented, related musical taste. The soundtrack is one of the things that stays most with the player after completing the episode, as it informs the player of exactly what kind of feeling they should have while sinking into Max’s world. A few other licensed artists make an appearance in the soundtrack, including Jonathan’s own band, Syd Matters, and Mogwai.
Honestly, I’m excited. This was a stirring debut for a promising, episodic franchise, with characters who’ve already cemented themselves as endearing and worthy of attention. Here’s hoping Dontnod can carry their creative momentum through the next four installments, and I’ll play my part of waiting patiently for their delivery.
God bless, think of your friends, and always remember to smile.
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VERSE OF THE DAY – Proverbs 14:22
“Do not those who plot evil go astray? But those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness.”
SONG OF THE DAY – “To All of You” by Syd Matters (Featured in the Life is Strange soundtrack)
+ Unique "hipster" indie vibe conveyed through the narrative, art, and musical score
+ Story and camera angles have underlying influences from cinematography
+ Personal, engaging characters
+ "Rewind" ability is useful... and has ominous undertones
+ Dontnod's style is a breath of new air for Square Enix
+ Appealing pop-culture references
+ Low price
- Numerous content concerns
- Not much in way of actual gameplay mechanics
- Too early to tell if your choices matter in the long-run
- "Episodic" nature of the game means waiting six weeks between each installment
- Awful lip-syncing