Life is Strange is the second game from Dontnod, who made the intriguing but ultimately lackluster Remember Me. Life is Strange is a much greater success, blending Telltale style gameplay and storytelling with a nifty little time travel mechanic. Although there are multiple issues in the presentation and some clunky writing, Life is Strange ultimately emerges as a massive success, offering an experience which had me emotionally hooked from beginning to end.
Max Caulfield is a shy teenager who has returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay after having moved away with her family several years before. She has enrolled at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, where she is pursuing her passion for photography. One day in her class, she has a vision of a massive tornado destroying Arcadia Bay and soon stumbles into the girls bathroom, where she sees her childhood best friend Chloe shot and killed by Nathan Prescott, the son of a powerful local family. In her distress, she discovers the ability to rewind time and saves Chloe from her death. Taking place over five days, Life is Strange tells the story of Max and Chloe discovering a dark secret at the heart of Arcadia Bay, all whilst the storm looms in the horizon.
The immediate impression that Life is Strange gives is of a self consciously ‘indie movie’ aesthetic. It can all be a bit much at first and the fairly cringe worthy attempts at ‘teen’ dialogue don’t help. I’m fairly sure nobody has ever described anything as ‘hella’ something. The soundtrack, the tone, everything about it initially grated, but at some point everything clicked. I’m not sure where, but it did. It stopped trying so hard to be an quirky indie movie and became its own thing; I like that ‘hella’ is now used fondly by the Life is Strange fan community. The real success of Life is Strange lies in its characters, moreso than its plot. Chloe is the absolute star of the show, vibrant and dangerous and never quite possible to pin down, but Max is a compelling and likable protagonist. Almost every character conceals depths which will be explored later on and unlike many other games of this type your choices really do matter. By the end, I cared about Chloe and Max as much as I cared about Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead, which is no easy feat.
Although the time travel mechanic adds some basic puzzles, Life is Strange is still a mostly narrative driven affair. You’ll be walking around, talking to people and making decisions which ripple down the series. There are several much more open areas than we have become used to seeing in Telltale games and a lot of the little interactions which make Life is Strange special are skippable. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to as I became rather attached to this circle of teenagers and the wider Arcadia Bay community and wanted to talk to them as much as I can. You can, at most points, rewind time with a press of a button which is used in some puzzles and sometimes to improve the outcomes of conversations, now armed with more information from the get go. It’s not particularly deep or anything, but it adds a very nice twist to the narrative which works well. Interestingly, after most major decisions you get the option to rewind and change your mind, meaning that you often get to see the immediate fallout whilst the long term ramifications remain clouded. These lead to some extraordinarily tense moments where the short term result is very bad and you have to make a decision whether to stick with your gut and flip in the knowledge that everything could get even worse in the other timeline. Where Telltale games are based around blind luck half the time, Life is Strange gives the player more agency.
The voice acting in Life is Strange is flawless, with a wide range of characters feeling broad enough to be defined without resorting to simple stereotypes. The music selection is lovely as well; I initially found the twee indie burblings a bit grating, but the music choices become more story appropriate as the game moves on, with some nice Amanda Palmer being my personal highlight. The biggest drawback of Life is Strange is its visual presentation. Although the environments look absolutely lovely, with some particularly beautiful lighting effects, the character models are horrible. Everyone looks like they’ve been molded from plastic with rigid, unexpressive facial movements. The lip synching is…well, non existant. There is seemingly no connection between the words they say and the movement of their mouths, which is more than a little off putting. It is a testament to the quality of the writing and voice acting that the game manages to rise above these issues; these problems could have sunk a lesser experience. If Dontnod make another game in this style, and I sincerely hope they do, working on the character modeling and lip synching must be their top priority.
Life is Strange is the kind of game which latches into your head, refusing to be shaken out. If you’ve enjoyed Telltale games in the past, give Life is Strange a go. Dontnod put their own spin on a now familiar formula to create a truly special experience.