Review: Life is Strange: Episode 1 – Teenage Wasteland
Thinking back on what teenage life was like during those awkward transition years from high school and college, the title of Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix’s latest game, Life is Strange, is definitely accurate: life is strange. Aside from that, it’s often cruel and punishing, if the first episode of this new game is to be believed.
Coming from developer Dontnod Entertainment, previously of the sleeper hit Remember Me, the studio’s last title’s Strange moniker fits: Life is Strange is certainly unusual compared to many of the titles releasing during the quieter months of the year, especially in the cold wintery January.
Setting players into the role of Maxine Caulfield, a newly-turned 18-year-old fluctuating between the everyday life of high school, and soon after starting the dormitory life of college, features a story and world that plays out like an interactive indie film.
Its premise is certainly far removed from what we may be used to in other adventure titles, with the game inevitably drawing comparisons to the latest titles from Telltale Games, yet its oddities and quirks are more than just surface level aspects of the game.
Instead, these aspects help the game stand out, making it an unusual but memorable entry in the recent growth of episodic, narratively-based adventure games.
Played from a third-person perspective as players take control of Max, the title takes players through Episode 1: “Chrysalis,” a story of a young girl dealing with both the social and personal emotions dealt with during young adulthood, while also mixing in elements of the supernatural through the game’s central gameplay mechanic: Max’s ability to rewind moments in time.
After discovering her newfound “gift” accidentally, the time-rewinding mechanics of the game provide its biggest draw and differentiators from other games in its genre, especially when compared to other recent adventure titles like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us.
Compared to said titles, the levels of danger in Life is Strange are relatively low-stake: compared with hordes of flesh-eating zombies or dangerous fairy-tale monsters, the scenarios in Max’s adventure aren’t nearly on that level.
With the game’s puzzles comprising of low-key but interesting problem-solving challenges, such as finding a way to prove to Max’s friend that she didn’t cheat on her roommate’s boyfriend, or getting a group of obnoxious girls to move outside your dorm room by splashing a nearby can of paint onto them, Life is Strange doesn’t take things into the post-apocalyptic or fantastical, but instead provides a more surreal version of everyday slice-of-life.
Though Max’s time-rewind abilities are most certainly out of the ordinary, her struggles in early adulthood life are definitely relatable to those that experience at times hostile and awkward stages of high school and college.
With Max able to rewind moments in time, the game’s differentiation from other adventure games is simple, but truly effective at making decisions meaningful and impactful, toward what I’m sure will affect later moments of the upcoming episodes.
Initially, rewinding time may seem like a bit of a cheat: able to rewind time back up to a certain degree, Max can essentially reverse the outcome of events if things go unfavorably, use knowledge and information acquired in one timeline to rewind and make an event go differently, and more as Episode 1 unfolds.
However, instead of coming off as a “rewrite” button, the time rewind function acts as a way to see all of the options and outcomes before you. Given that the time rewind only affects the past, Max’s abilities make it interesting to see all of the ways that an event can play out, but still consider the consequences of each outcome.
In one instance, when one of Max’s schoolmates was under the harassment of a faculty member, the options of whether to intervene and stop it or hide and stay out of sight provided new ways of how to use the time rewind mechanic effectively.
While intervening would have stopped the altercation immediately, hiding could provide valuable information in a later scenario, making what my be an unfavorable outcome in one situation turn out for the better in a later event.
Likewise, in conversations using Max’s time rewind could open up new conversation options and paths, such as incorrectly answering a teacher’s question in one case, rewinding, and then providing the correct answer to progress the story.
Although the situations of Life is Strange can’t quite compare to zombie apocalypses or more fantastical scenarios, the dynamics of its high school and college world make it unique compared to the struggles of characters like Lee in The Walking Dead or Bigby in The Wolf Among Us.
Even though Max isn’t solving a murder mystery or struggling to survive, Episode 1‘s explorations of young adulthood, such as being exiled from social groups or cliques, experimentation with drugs and sex, domestic struggles and abuse, and more are still aspects explored and touched upon admirably.
Set in the idyllic and peaceful landscape of Oregon, the locales are brimming with details of high school and college life, from scrawled-upon whiteboards outside dorms to notebooks filled with sketches of doodles like a bored teenage girl might scribble.
Taking a visual inspiration from the Ellen Page film Juno or Fulbright’s acclaimed indie title Gone Home, the gorgeous Northwestern American-based Blackwell Academy provides plenty of scenic views and picture-worthy moments, even if the game’s environments don’t provide a whole lot in terms of exploration or things to find.
As a narratively-heavy title in the vein of Telltale Games’ titles or other story-based experiences like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, it’s an unfortunate step that the weakest elements in the game come from its characterization and instances of some stilted, awkward dialogue and writing.
With the game revolving around the world of teenagers and young adults, hearing “hella,” “chillax,” and “the social medias” in conversations often makes the game come across as a parody of modern teens rather than a genuine take on its characters, which it aims for but falls short at points.
Life is Strange is certainly the type of game that may be a bit more divisive than most, given its angsty teenage trappings and some oft-putting and clunky conversations that may leave more eye rolls than they do heartfelt messages about growing up, but Dontnod’s latest title still intrigues with Episode 1‘s promising setup and a strong dynamic between Max and her long-adrift friend, Chloe.
Though the writing and weaker elements of the game do trip up the experience at some points through the two to three hour experience and the time rewind ability isn’t quite utilized fully for more complex puzzles or scenarios, the first episode still sets up an experience that will, at the very least, be memorable, with a powerful ending that seems to set in motion the rest of the season.
The title of Dontnod and Square Enix’s latest game is definitely apt: life is strange, unrelenting, and often cruel in the situations it gives to us.
But, by the end of Episode 1 of Life is Strange, the game at the very least also proves that life is filled with rewarding challenges and beautiful moments, even if they fade like a weathered old photograph.
Good or bad, you’ll at least still remember them.