Games Review: Life is Strange – Episode 1 (PlayStation 4, 2015)

Life is Strange – Episode One, like its protagonist Max, is kind of a weird kid. Part Twin Peaks, part Juno, with just a pinch of Veronica Mars, it borrows liberally from the episodic point-and-click formula that’s been so successful for Telltale Games. It does, however, try to present something we haven’t seen in the genre before and, in that endeavour, is mostly successful.

The first episode – entitled Chrysalis – introduces us to Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old girl, a wallflower who is fascinated with photography. Having recently moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon from Seattle to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy, she begins to experience intense visions of a gigantic sea-bound tornado devouring the town.

She soon discovers that in addition to the visions she can rewind time in extremely short bursts, allowing her to reverse any clumsy decision she may make and try something else. Max’s school is filled with high school archetypes – she deals with rich kids, an overbearing janitor, mean girls and even a photography teacher who appears to be trying his best to draw her out of her shell. She also reconnects with childhood friend Chloe (deftly voiced by YouTube star Ashly Burch) and the two begin the process of rebuilding their friendship and uncovering Arcadia Bay’s dark secrets.

Life is Strange plays in a manner that recalls Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead episodic titles. We play as Max for the duration of the episode and guide her through two different kinds of gameplay experiences.

The first is dialogue – guiding Max through the game’s hundreds of conversations is a big part of the game, particularly in this episode’s exposition-heavy first half. While some of the dialogue feels like it’s trying just a touch too hard to emulate real world teenage lingo, the game’s very talented voice cast try to make it work. Sometimes it feels natural. Often, despite their best efforts, those lines will land with a thud. The phrase “hella” pops up every few sentences, for instance, and I don’t think a single member of the cast was able to completely sell it. There’s an awful lot of high school drama going on here too, which may cause some to cringe, myself included, but the characters are strong enough and the unimportant bullshit they bicker about true enough to life that I was able to muscle through it. One thing that made for a nice change here was developer Dontnod have eschewed Telltale’s stressful timer on dialogue decisions, meaning you can take a moment to decide which option to take rather than being forced into moving forward.

The second gameplay type on offer is exploration. Switching to a third-person view, Max is able to explore several different locations, including her school and Chloe’s house. Information on various topics can be gleaned from just about everywhere – people, objects, places, even graffiti will lead you in surprising new directions as you start to arrange the initial pieces of Life is Strange’s broader story.

It’s Max’s newly discovered superpower – her ability to rewind time short distances as often as she wants – that really sets the game apart. Without it, this could be quite easily dismissed as a Telltale clone but it’s inclusion makes that impossible. Get asked an important question by an NPC and get it wrong? Get the answer from them, then wind back time a few minutes and answer correctly. Need to hide in a hurry? No problem, wind back the clock a few times while you look around at your own pace.

It’s a clever mechanic and the complete opposite of Telltale’s approach to the genre. Telltale’s games are about permanence. In a Telltale game, the decisions you make stick and can’t be changed, forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. Life is Strange wants you to experiment, it wants you to mess around and find the optimal outcome through multiple attempts. You can’t manipulate everything, though – sometimes you’ll be asked to make a decision before moving onto a new area and it’s the the bait-and-switch design of these decisions that’ll haunt you because you can’t go back and change them later.

There are a few puzzles strewn throughout the episode’s 2.5 hour playtime and though they aren’t going to tax you too hard, they also make clever use of the time travel mechanic. The real meat of the game is in the details and your ability to parse the massive amount of information the game is throwing at you moment-to-moment.

The look of the game is fairly simple and while it won’t wow you with its visuals, Life is Strange has a painterly quality to it that fits its tone and uke-heavy hipster soundtrack perfectly. Character designs are quite nice and the animations walk the line between lifelike and a little stilted.

Most of the environments aren’t too massive and were designed quite well – I was rarely in doubt as to where to go next and I didn’t often miss anything important. Each environment is quite detailed despite the deliberately low-fi look of the game, each area brimming with things to read, inspect and manipulate with your time rewind power.

Life is Strange starts slow but lays the foundation of an interesting narrative arc as the episode progresses. While it seemed like should have been called High School Drama Simulator 2015 for the first hour or so, once Chloe enters the game the narrative starts to gather momentum and by the time it ended I was intrigued and hungry for more.

Dontnod says that a new episode will drop every six weeks until all five episodes are available. I’m looking forward to seeing where Max’s story goes next.

Review Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Time travel mechanic is great, smart design
Lowlights: Takes a while to get moving, some clunky dialogue
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square-Enix
Released: 30/1/2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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