Life Is Strange is a new episodic, story-centric game from Dontnod. You may remember them (heh, sorry!) from their action-adventure debut Remember Me a couple of years ago. Life Is Strange sheds the gritty, digital and futuristic themes of Remember Me in favour of a softer, more natural and nostalgic experience, though there are still parallels to be drawn from both games’ differing takes on memories and finding yourself. The first episode, Chrysalis, is available now as a standalone purchase or as part of the season pass along with the four remaining, as-yet-unreleased parts. In a way this is a review of part of a game, a prologue at least, so I’ll be bearing that in mind when it’s relevant.
At its absolute simplest, this is a story about teenagers at school dealing with heaps of typical teen drama. It’s got pretentious art students, mean girls and dense jocks, turbulent relationships, an overly militant rent-a-cop, a creepy janitor and more. Would you like a side of cliché to go with your tropes? Good, because the main character is just discovering that she has a superpower: she can rewind time, allowing her to change the past and undo any devastating events from the last few minutes from someone getting seriously hurt to answering a question wrong in front of the whole class!
Now, while technically accurate, that basic summary makes the game sound far more crude and shallow than it actually is. In all seriousness, it may be a theme that’s been done countless times, but it’s worth remembering there’s a reason for that: it’s relatable. That’s not to say we all had teenage years like the characters in this kind of story, but that stage of life very much exemplifies and puts under a microscope the underlying feelings of change, uncertainty and adjusting to the future while trying to hold onto the past which we all know in one form or another. It’s a setting which can evoke some kind of past experiences for a lot of people, and good storytellers can utilise it to touch on real and emotive themes which you don’t have to be a teenager to be affected by. Dontnod certainly start to explore some pretty serious ideas in Chrysalis, so hopefully this will expand into some powerful moments later on no matter what age you are.
In fact, I often felt like Life Is Strange is as much targeted at older generations for whom these years of their lives are only memories and photographs as it is at the younger players for whom the subject matter is much more contemporary. That might just be me seeing the game through my own bias, but for a game whose central mechanic is the reversal of time to undo previous actions and try something else it seemed that the Chrysalis episode spent a lot of time looking at things you can’t change. From past conversations had in happier times to people who are no longer around to relationships which have changed from what they used to be, some of the kind of things Chrysalis brings up are those you tend to become far more aware of the older you get. If I were to try and describe the main theme of the first episode of Life Is Strange in one word it would be transition, and from the title of the episode I’m sure that’s what Dontnod were aiming for.
Using a photography student to tell a story about time travel was a fitting choice, as the narrative swiftly points out in the first conversation you hear by mentioning an Alfred Hitchcock quote about capturing little pockets of time on film. The fact that the collectibles in the game are photographs only emphasises that link, especially as almost all of those pictures are of brief, fleeting scenes rather than unchanging landscapes, making them seem even more like frozen moments.
That early Hitchcock reference is the first of many quotes and references on which Chrysalis leans to make its point and invoke the desired feelings of nostalgia and change as you listen to the conversations with the stereotypical “hip teacher” Mr Jefferson or Max’s own internal narrative as you explore the little details sprinkled about the environment. When these hit their mark, I felt they were used really well to flesh out the characters and inject whatever feeling the writers were aiming for. Sometimes though it started to feel like a little too much; there were a few points where it seemed like the references were just there for the sake of it, as if to tick some boxes with a specific target audience. I can see how they were probably intended to help the player get to know the characters’ interests better without having to insert too much text into a mostly audio-visual experience (a design choice which I do agree with for the game), but once or twice it made conversations sound entirely lifted from a written script rather than natural speech, which was a jarring reminder that these are actors reading lines.
Speaking of lines, it’s hard to deny that the story is almost entirely linear. I found plenty of optional conversations to have and minor choices to make along the way, as well as all sorts of items you can interactive with all over the place to learn more about Max and her surroundings, but if you don’t like being hand-held along a preset path at all then the way Life Is Strange guides you from scene to scene with no way to deviate from the map laid out by the writers may grate with you. I’ve got a lot of love for the kind of open-world games which let you explore and get distracted by countless side quests to the point where you forget what the main point actually was, but I still think there’s plenty of room for guided, interactive narrative experiences as well. So even though it’s no Heavy Rain, I wouldn’t say Life Is Strange is hampered by its rails.
The only other criticism I have is actually one I’m not sure is a fair judgement to make at this stage. Having played through Chrysalis twice, once just making whatever choices felt best and once more to see all the opposite options, I didn’t really notice much variation between the outcomes of any of the forks in conversations. The wording of future events changed a little, but the actual events themselves didn’t. I don’t want to mark Life Is Strange down for this based purely on Chrysalis though, bearing in mind the point I made earlier: this is episode one in a five-part story and it’s entirely possible we’re just too early in the plot to see any real deviation. We’re still in the ‘setting the scene’ part of the story where a lot of the groundwork needs to be laid and players need to be introduced to the people and places that are going to be important going forwards, and even in other games which have done multiple endings and deviating story arcs spectacularly well the paths don’t get to fork off as much in the opening chapters as they do later on. In the first couple of episodes I’m willing to give some benefit of the doubt to the writers in that regard in the hopes that once we have the full ‘season’ in our hands this will be a complete non-issue. I’d very much like to be apologising for being wrong about this when I finish episode 5!
The strong emphasis on photography in Life Is Strange spills over to its artistic style, and that works really well at making it feel more like a real story than just a video game. The lighting, effects and textures lend the game a style which is evocative of the instant photos Max loves taking at every opportunity, and every menu and prompt has a handwritten scrapbook feeling to it. The sleepy, autumnal colours bring you right into that nostalgia which I keep finding myself mentioning. They also provide a contrast against a couple of more vibrant, brightly-coloured elements which perhaps hint at the disruptive concept of change looming over the horizon, from the bright blue butterfly which appears the first time Max uses her powers to the blue-haired girl in the same scene. I would be surprised not to see these two opposing colour schemes battling it out more obviously in the later episodes as the cosy, familiar embrace of the Past dukes it out with that ever-uncertain beast we call The Future. Let’s hope that these first uncertain wing-flaps of Max’s own personal Butterfly Effect don’t cause too much of a storm!
As a prologue and an introduction to Life Is Strange as a whole, Chrysalis does rather well; it builds a solid foundation for Dontnod to build future episodes on, giving players a taste of what’s coming in the rest of the story and leaving enough questions unanswered to keep us wanting more. It is very clear that it’s just a beginning though; I find myself very awarr of the amount of times I’ve had to offset possible criticisms against words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘later’ because so much of the overall game remains unseen, so if you’re not sold on it yet it may be worth waiting to see some reviews of thre later episodes before passing judgement. For me at least, episode 2 can’t come soon enough!
Formats Available: Windows, PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360
Format Reviewed: PS4