It’s not often that a game makes me to sit and take stock of it on multiple occasions.
Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Remedy’s Alan Wake and Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite are just three that have done so in the past few years.
And now another has been added to the list in Life is Strange.
Dontnod Entertainment’s second bash at a video game, coming off the back of 2013’s Remember Me, Life is Strange is a sci-fi-teen-drama-murder-mystery crossbreed that picks up steam throughout, and constantly kicks you in the heart as the story plays out.
Warning: major spoilers occur from this point on so, if you are in the process of playing the game or you don’t want to see how the story plays out, turn back now.
You play as protagonist Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student who returns to the coastal town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, to study at Blackwell Academy after five years away from your childhood home.
In the middle of one of her photography lessons, taught by the renowned Mark Jefferson, Max blacks out and has a vision of an impending tornado that will destroy the entire town.
Then, taking a break in the girls’ bathroom between lessons, Max witnesses the murder of her childhood friend Chloe (unbeknownst to her at the time) at the hands of fellow Blackwell student Nathan Prescott.
It is here that Max uncovers her superpower – the ability to rewind time – and uses said power to prevent Chloe’s murder.
What occurs from that point on is a whole slew of time bending adventures as Max helps Chloe try to track down missing ex-Blackwell student and friend Rachel Amber, uncovering a plot by the Prescott family to take over Arcadia Bay and prevent the tornado wiping out the town itself within a five day period.
And every other teenager thought they had it bad.
Much like Telltale’s now famous in-game mechanic, Life is Strange sees you interact with fellow students, Blackwell staff and townsfolk, making choices about what to say, via the options presented to you, as you go along.
The beauty with Life is Strange, however, is that Max’s ability to rewind time allows you change your answers as you see fit.
Not happy with how someone just blew you off? Rewind and tell them what they want to hear, based on the previous interaction, and they’ll like you for it.
Need help with solving a particular puzzle? Work your way into a room, reverse the timeline and find that you’re now in said room without having to overcome any major obstacles.
It’s a mechanic that works extremely well, and gives the player the opportunity to find out what each response results in, before the player can decide on what actual action they want to take.
Of course, this power doesn’t always work and, like Telltale’s games, there are certain instances where you have to get by without it.
One such incident, at the end of episode two, sees Kate Marsh, a devote Christian and Blackwell student, attempt to commit suicide by jumping from a rooftop after a leaked video shows her partying and making out with a number of different guys at a Vortex Club party.
Yours – and Max’s – choice of words here decides Kate’s fate – make the right ones and she’ll come down, but choose incorrectly and she jumps to her death.
This is the first time that Max realises her powers cannot be relied upon, and that she cannot save everyone all of the time.
It is another clever plot point conjured up by Dontnod and shows the player that, despite what they’ve done up until that point, their powers cannot be relied on to get Max out of every terrible situation.
Decisions like this continue throughout the rest of the game, such as bringing Chloe’s dad back from the dead (a choice that ends up leaving Chlor wheelchair-bound), saving Chloe from certain death time and again, and trying to help Max escape being kidnapped and held hostage, among other such events.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking decision, though, is left until the final act of episode five.
As the tornado looms large over Arcadia Bay, Max is presented with an ultimatum – save the town, or save Chloe.
It is this gut-wrenching choice that you have no alternative but to carry out.
Are you selfish in deciding to save Chloe, the one constant throughout who you’ve repeatedly helped escape Death’s clutches?
Or do you help your childhood best friend in performing a selfless act, to save the many innocent lives that you’ve touched throughout the entire story?
It is a terrible choice to make, and perfectly encapsulates the game itself.
Up until this point, Max’s decisions can be viewed in much the same way as the microcosm put forward in as the final choice in the game’s finale.
On one hand, her actions can be conidered selfish; she keeps Chloe alive in spite of fate’s attempts to kill her off and despite this repeated action causing a gigantic tornado to descend on Arcadia Bay.
And, on the other, Max’s selfless acts that have brought hope, optimism and home truths to those the player encounters throughout the story’s arc.
It’s an excruciating choice to make, and one that took me a few minutes to go over in my head.
As devastating as it was, I made my decision – and sacrificed Chloe.
It seems I wasn’t the only one who took up this painful option, with the end-of-episode statistics showcasing that a fellow 53% of players doing likewise.
And it also appeared that this is what Dontnod wanted gamers to select, with a longer cutscene, showing Nathan Prescott and Mr Jefferson at the hands of the authorities, Chloe’s funeral and Max atop the cliff near the lighthouse at sunset, wrapping up proceedings as Foals’ Spanish Sahara plays out.
Compared to the ending where Chloe is saved – the town is destroyed, every other resident dies in the storm and Max and Chloe drive off into the sunset – it’s no small wonder that some players felt dissatisfied with the ending they received, given that every supporting character in the game is killed off without either Max or Chloe seeming to care one jot.
This isn’t the only complaint with Life is Strange, for me, either.
Much has been made of the animations since Life is Strange was released last year, particularly those concerning close ups of the characters speaking, with the synchronisation between mouth movement and voice acting looking lacklustre at best.
None more so was this evident for me than in episode five when Max’s mouth failed to even open during her conversations with those present in the Two Whales diner – the gormless look on her face as the subtitles and voice acting carried on as if nothing was wrong took me out of the moment entirely.
The animations of other movements too during conversations seemed to imply a lack of resources, with many characters having a select number of moves during talks with Max that were repeated over and over again.
For instance, the folding and unfolding of arms when Max and David spoke to each other on occasion made for a frustrating, if slightly amusing, battle of who would uncross their arms first.
The loading times when entering certain areas is another gripe, along with a couple of story threads that weren’t completely tied up (where does Max get her power from? And why does Mr Jefferson do the classic villain spiel of “Let me tell you my wicked scheme from start to finish”), but both are minor compared to the above issues
Life is Strange, however, isn’t supposed to be a game that relies heavily on its art style, animations or culmination.
It is a story that transports players back to their own teenage years, with those moments of uncertainty, insecurity and general wondering of their place in the world and universe, and how we all wished to be able to turn back time to rectify our own mistakes in spite of the problems it could cause.
It’s also a story about friendship, sticking up for your mates and savouring the memories that you create with those around you.
Max’s relationship with Chloe, in particular, is one that will resonate with anyone, and causes us all the reflect on our own relationships with our friends and family.
It is this emotional pull that makes Life is Strange what it is, and its story will leave a lasting mark on me for a long time.
Verdict: An emotional rollercoaster ride, Life is Strange provides a fitting alternative to Telltale Games’ narrative-led games. It could have used a tad more polish, but the sci-fi-murder-mystery-drama holds its own and offers up a thought provoking, nostalgic tale of friendship, life and fate. 8/10