Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Life Is Strange

Post-Launch Review
Life Is Strange (PC)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Released: 2015 (first episode January, last episode October)
Played: 100% complete in 15h (all 5 episodes)


Max Caulfield returns to her home town to attend an art school for photography, but when she sees her childhood friend attacked, Max discovers an ability to rewind and alter time. Max initially uses her power to help people in minor ways but soon uncovers a dark secret lurking behind Blackwell Academy and the town of Arcadia Bay - and she believes that solving the mystery is the key to preventing a massive tornado that will destroy the town in five days.

At Launch

Reviews for Life Is Strange were positive, averaging around 80% overall. Reviewers were very impressed with the character development, time travel elements, mysteries, and puzzles. Opinions were more divided on other game elements, such as themes of self-exploration, the ending, dialogue writing, and voice acting. Reviewers noticed problems with lip sync - character's mouths moving at different times than the dialogue required.

Post Launch

It's a little trickier to do a post launch analysis of an episodic game - is "post launch" after the first episode, or after they've all released? Anyway, over time, episode 1 has permanently been made free to play, additional subtitle support has been added, lip sync was improved, and various bug fixes were implemented.

I knew very little about Life Is Strange when I started playing, just that it was an episodic adventure game and that it had some kind of supernatural or sci-fi element. It wasn't a game I was raring to play - I heard good things about it, picked it up on a Steam sale, and booted it up when I had time for shorter gaming sessions (3 or 4 hours). But everything turned out better than expected.

The visuals are pretty good - there's a distinct art style that looks slightly posterized or animated, kind of like Telltale's games. Animation leaves a bit to be desired, especially in characters' faces, which don't move a lot and look wooden when they should be strongly emotive. On a related note, voice acting is often a little weak, and the way a lot of the dialogue is written really pulled me out of the game at times because the delivery sounded really awkward, like adults writing and acting teen slang that they're slightly out of touch with - but then, maybe I'm finally getting old enough that I don't get what "kids today" are saying? I'm not sure about that, I just know it often felt awkward to me.
My other main negative, though I'm not really sure I should call it that, is all the teen drama. A bunch of interactions and circumstances felt really immature. Before I call that a flaw in the game, I'll be clear - that's not a genre I'm into, and by no means was that everything - for the most part the characters seemed genuine and human. Anyway, enough about the negatives - that stuff is pretty opinion-based and I'm not sure I can call these objective problems with the game.

Life Is Strange does three things really well: character relationships, investigation, and time manipulation. They're all kind of tied together, so I can't really single them out and talk about them individually. By allowing the player to rewind time and try different conversation paths - as a legitimate game mechanic rather than loading saved games - you get to see a lot more sides of the various characters than you might otherwise. And that's especially true when you go back and change major events and get dramatically different reactions and information.
The emphasis on long-term consequences for your actions seems much more interesting when you have the chance to change your choice in the immediate aftermath but not later on. You can see all immediate outcomes and decide which is better, but you also have to weigh the possible impacts later on. For example, certain small actions, depending on the outcome, will later make it easier to save a character from death, and that character's survival makes it easier to accomplish certain tasks later. Don't want to be too specific because spoilers, but a lot of seemingly minor interactions will make future tasks easier or harder, or affect how other characters interact with Max. Perhaps surprisingly, the ability to rewind and see the other options makes choices feel even more impactful - you're not guessing at the short-term consequences since you can rewind and view them all, but you know you won't be able to rewind once you pass that moment.
The whole investigation, while still linear, feels more thorough and involved than anything I've seen in, say, the Batman Arkham games. In particular, there's a bit where Max lays out all the clues that she and Chloe have gathered, and you need to sift through the scraps to find what's relevant, then combine the clues to discover your destination. There are also a bunch of dialogues and scenes that require you to work through a conversation to gain new information, then rewind and use that information to uncover a new angle. There are some neat puzzles, both conversation and physical/exploratory, that play very well with the time control in a way that feels better than a simple "push buttons until you find the right one" style of puzzle in a lot of other games.

There are some really powerful moments scattered throughout Life Is Strange. Some of them have no real impact on the overall story but still feel heavy. Others will have serious consequences either way and it's hard to weigh the real impact. And others are just difficult - do you do the thing that's morally right but might make your best friend hate you? The game made me feel, at various times, warm and fuzzy, gross, disturbed, tense, and even had me tear up once or twice.
The two endings are a little off, though. Many - maybe even most - people will find the "good" ending touching and satisfying, though some groups will find legitimate bones to pick. The "selfish" ending, by comparison, is skeletal and offers no closure or any hints as to what happened to the rest of the cast. Neither ending provides any real explanation on how Max got her powers, whether she still has them, or what lessons she learned about using them. That said, I was very happy with the ending until I started reading about its flaws, and now I can't unsee them.

Overall, Life Is Strange is a great game with excellent puzzles and mechanics and very strong character writing and development. I found the dialogue awkward at times but I was very happy with the gameplay and the strong sense of choice and discovery. I hear there's going to be a sequel, and I'll definitely be buying it (and hoping it fills in some gaps on Max's powers).

Recommendation: play it.

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