Life is Strange is a modern approach over the classic Point & Click adventure genre, driven by an emotional storyline. You play as Max Caulfield, a teenage girl who can’t wait to go back to her hometown, Arcadia Bay, but this time to ingress into Blackwell Academy, one of the most prestigious senior high schools in Oregon, specialized in Science and Arts.
Going back home is not that easy, but Max is excited, and it’s just not because the well known and famous photographer Mark Jefferson is teaching at Blackwell, it’s also because life in the big city of Seattle isn’t as special as it sounds.
Max grew up in Arcadia Bay with her best friend Chloe Price. Together they made the little fishing town their own playground, but since all good things come to an end, so did this too. Chloe’s father died in a car accident, and Max left soon after it, creating an even bigger void in Chloe’s life. Now, Max is back in town, and these two forces of nature are inevitably bound to meet again, and when they do, the whole world changes.
On her very first semester in Blackwell, Max hasn’t yet contacted her old friend Chloe, but she thinks about her daily, yet she keeps being pushed back by her own insecurity. Life however, being Strange and all, had other plans.
Max does indeed meet her friend, but not in the perfect circumstances, as she witness Chloe being murdered in the school’s bathrooms. The terrific scene breaks with Max waking again, just a few moments before the tragic incident occurrence. This is the very first time the player can change things through Max, reverse time, and save her best friend.
Life is Strange presents a very distinct story driven by two different patterns; a crime thriller, adventure, and a time-travel Sci-Fi experience. These two factors join together in what is, without a doubt, one of the most relevant video-games of the decade!
Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment (Remember Me, Vampyr), and published by Square Enix, Life is Strange shines through the rich storytelling, fantastic developed characters and detailed setting which sets a small world alive like we rarely see.
Mechanically, Life is Strange plays out as any other Point & Click game, but the player has full control over Max’s real time movements, other than just point and click on a specific location. It’s definitely a more modern approach into the genre, and appropriated for new-players not used in the classics. This also brings a more depth and closed-relationship with the environment and its NPC’s. Max can Look at objects and people, Talk and Act. Just like traditional and popular games such as Day of the Tentacle and Broken Sword.
You won’t have any of the traditional puzzling, but dialogues being one of the most important aspects of the title, the player has the ability to rewind time and interact differently with characters, to get a better answer, or just use the new learned information from previous conversations.
Time management works really well when interacting with NPC’s, using extra knowledge for information, help, or just progress through the story. However, one can use this just for the fun at any point in the game, even though its linear path shows limits, it’s a fantastic implementation of freedom. Rewinding time is not only used when needed, it’s an ability that can be used anytime, anywhere, and that makes it even more special. As Max rewinds time, the world changes around her, but objects kept from previous timelines remain, so you can imagine some fun happening!
Playing through this emotional adventure one can see some interesting influences surfing up such as the proclaimed US TV Show Twin Peaks, and the Australian hit Top of the Lake. Movies such as 12 Monkeys and The Butterfly Effect come out as references as well, but it’s the very specific and unique atmosphere that creates a very particular place for this game.
Although linear, the world is quite alive, as one can learn a lot of things by reading the flyers, posters, specific objects and interact with different type of people. This brings the detective inside of us, and Max is great at snooping around. Her diary is filled with clues, details and extras, allowing the player the browse it every time something interesting catches the eye! Learning about Arcadia Bay and its people will lead you to a much more sensitive path, as real struggles start to appear.
Character creations are over the top, not only for the main duo, in which Max is an introverted, quite and simple girl, while Chloe is your stereotypical punk-rock girl with trust issues. Overall NPC’s have their own personality, tastes and agenda.
Along the progress, Max will face some serious decisions. Options matter, and have a deep meaning across different episodes, changes outcomes, and may even end up saving lives. But overall, they have small impacts on characters daily life that become huge eventually. It’s not extremely complex, but it’s not random either. A cause of action and reaction, that influence both Max’s relationship with Chloe and the crime-thriller based story line. Whatever the player chooses , it will be stuck with across the five different episodes. That’s how the save-game works, and even though it may not sound like it, it’s for the best.
Artistically, Life is Strange shows a huge different color palette from what we’ve used to in Unreal Engine 3 games, going with a much dedicated and customized style for both art and design.
Characters are built aesthetically, with small details that brings them alive in their role, position, style and age. Everything else, however, sometimes looks like it’s a world painted on canvas, with brush effects over walls or random objects. In particular, objects gain a lot of detail with just shadow-play, and the variations of colors.
Truth is, Life is Strange would be a very plain and boring game to look at, without as many small details covering up every area. Rust, dirt, a specific rock in a very peculiar position, or even a tree that cuts the sunset bloom, it just brings a whole new visual effect into the table. Small details like these are what saves this game, and at the same time, end up giving it such a strong atmosphere!
Right from the very first minute, we can tell DONTNOD did a fantastic job portraying the high school life, with an attitude in their design, from graffiti, vandalism, the subliminal messages, the whole aura surrounding the popular groups from the skaters, the nerds remaining aside, and all the social effects of sociopathic behavior. However, life in Arcadia Bay isn’t much different, it’s not what Max remembers… It’s somehow decaying, and it’s almost just a shadow of what it used to be. To create this effect, I deeply believe the studio imagined Arcadia Bay at its prime, and slowly started to corrupt it with abandon. Sounds pretentious, but it’s actually an amazing way of understanding how much thought went behind this concept in order to give away such idea.
(In this picture, we can see Max has several objects to interact with. A controller is also supported in the PC version.)
Atmosphere, feelings and design go hand-with-hand, forming an unique experience of emotional overwhelming, and it’s no surprise directors made such explained events, like in Chapter 2, where Max takes a ride to the diner, and watches the changes through the bus window, watching and wondering about life in Arcadia Bay, all of this, with just the power of suggestion. There’s a lot of atmosphere to be enjoyed, and this is just perhaps one of the most memorable moments, but more are available along the adventure.
In the end, Life is Strange is directed almost like a TV Show, in fact, a TV Show would have very similar moments to those present in the cut scenes. Each episode ends with an outstanding perspective of the events caused by the player, with a small teasing for the next one, as for each new episode, it gives a small recap of the previous. This is your typical clever TV Show behavior, and suits extremely well!
As story unveils, more and more secrets are uncovered, in particular, with adult subjects. Life is Strange is definitely an adult themed game, with subjects like bullying, suicide, predatory behavior, and many other issues that haunt many teenagers and adults alike. It’s impossible not to be emotionally touched by this game and its events, in particular because the character development is so well made, they gain more than just a name and an appearance. The directors made sure the engagement with NPC’s would have the necessary impact to matter, and ultimately create even tough decisions for those playing, which adds a huge replayability for this title!
Life is Strange gains a whole new meaning thanks to its amazing soundtrack! It’s a top-tier mix of bands such as Syd Matters, Bright Eyes, Sparklehorse, Alt-J, and many others covering the most important ambient moments in the game, with great indie folk/rock tunes, with that specific hipster style so commonly known! Some extra tracks are also available, created by DONTNOD to add that special tune in specific in-game situations. They are also included in the official soundtrack, and by its own is a fantastic mix, and was included in the physical special edition of the game!
There’s more to the sound than the music, and voice-dialogue adds a fantastic motion to the game, making it pleasant to hear. Each character has a tremendous detail in their voice. Accent, emotional direction and even appropriate age come in as a top notch performance, where voice-actors put their voices and souls into the acting. Together with a well placed script, and there’s a recipe for success.
Thankfully, PC players can activate and deactivate Chromatic Aberration, by browsing User Documents and locating the specific .ini file. Console users, however, are forced to go through this amazing experience with this weird and bizarre filter that has gained both lovers and haters.
Other in-game options are very simple, and customizing the settings for a better performance usually requires AA to be down as well as Light and Shadow effects. Overall offers a decent amount of customization for PC users.
Life is Strange is an adventure of introspect love, nostalgia and moments of desperation that can only be saved by friendship. A story of overcoming obstacles, dealing with each others problems and life itself.
Although the characters were built to serve as a realism point of view, and the Sci-Fi elements work as a metaphor, Life is Strange is much more than that. There are several theories online, that everyone is advised to check upon completing the game, I still feel this journey as a very intimate one and should be judged based on everyone’s perspective, in particular, since Time Travel is such a complex subject, it’s impossible not to bring fantasy into the whole concept.
An unforgettable experience, and by far one of the best games I ever had the pleasure to enjoy.