For those of you who have been living under a rock when it comes to emotional, story driven games, you may not have heard of Telltale Games, the company that seemingly went from obscurity to stardom after releasing their critically acclaimed episodic game series, The Walking Dead. The company has since seen much success with a tried and tested formula of making story driven games, that weight the choices of the player in a way few other recent games have. As with any successful formula though, there are always going to be people who try to copy it. Hence comes Life Is Strange, the latest from game developers DONTNOD, creators of Remember Me, and published by Square Enix.
Life Is Strange tells the story of Max, an 18 year old young girl and amateur photographer, attending the Blackwell Academy in Oregon. The game opens to a scene of Max finding herself somehow alone in the middle of the woods during the storm of the century, but then cuts to show her in her photography class, appearing to have dozed off and dreamt it all up. During this little preamble we get an introduction to the some of the characters, which seem to have more or less come out of a book of American high school clichés. There’s Max, your average, shy new girl in school with serious low self esteem, Victoria, the popular, rich, queen b*tch, Kate, the lonely, seemingly depressed girl who’s quite obviously the target for bullying, and of course, Mr. Jefferson, the cool teacher, whom all the girls love (And who, if my knowledge of such cliché is correct, is totally gonna be evil.)
After you get to leave this classroom, the real fun begins, just like in real life! You wander through the halls, again being bombarded by American high school clichés, and make your way to the bathroom. In here, aside from getting a wonderful picture of a butterfly, you witness Nathan, the most popular boy in school having a meltdown while you hide behind a bathroom stall. He’s followed by a mysterious, blue haired girl who then tries to blackmail him into giving her a large amount of money from his rich family. However, things turn for the worse when Nathan pulls a gun on the girl and shoots her right in front of Max. With nothing to do but scream in horror, Max throws out her hand, but something strange happens. The scene slows down, eventually turning completely in reverse, and Max finds herself back in her classroom, listening to the same photography lecture she just experienced. Max can turn back time.
The rest of the game plays out as you’d expect, Max freaks out about her new powers, tries to save the girl in the bathroom and the whole story turns into a sci-fi twisted teen drama. Though admittedly, this one is slightly more interesting than anything you’d find on 90210. I won’t go in depth to the story for the sake of anyone who wants to play it, so don’t worry, there will be no spoilers here. Suffice to say DONTNOD seems to be hung up on the topic of changing time. While Life Is Strange does use a slightly different mechanic to Remember Me’s memory remix system, it does make you wonder if this is going to be the DONTNOD equivalent to Insomniac’s obsession with sliding on rails. That said, there are worse obsessions. I quite liked being able to reverse time and pretend I’d never made that awful choice or broken that expensive vase in Life is Strange. It’s a terrifying idea in story driven games that the choice you just made might have been the wrong one, so being able to explore multiple options within the same play-through was a nice change. Though, this doesn’t mean you’re off scot-free on anything you do. For major choices, there is no going back, once you leave an area, your choices are locked and you’ll just have to live with them.
Now, let’s talk choices. As with the Telltale style, every little choice has an effect, even down to whether you chose to eat that candy bar or not. Then, when you complete the game, every choice you made is compared with everyone else who’s played the game and you get either a percentage of like minded peers or a diverse and interesting spread. Usually the choices are pretty varied, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at choice statistics and seen anything under 15%. However, in Life is Strange, as I was reading through the available statistics and found one or two choices that I didn’t know existed, and according to the statistics, no one else noticed them either. Only 3% of players even realized that something you did killed a bird. Now I feel awful about myself, so thanks game!
On another note, while you can rewind the majority of things, the locked in choices do get quite annoying halfway through. For example, there is a section where you can either step in to help a situation, or take a photograph of the situation and stay hidden. Based on previous experiences in the game, you’re told that whenever you rewind time, you retain any information and items you gained before the time-skip, which makes for some interesting puzzles as well as a get out clause for awkward conversations! So I went into the above choice thinking “Okay, I can snap the picture, then rewind and keep it, and step in to help the situation, just in case I need photographic proof later.” This turned out to be untrue, as when I was talking about it later in the game, my character kept saying how much she wished she’d taken the picture. So apparently you only retain items and information as long as it conveniences the plot.
Also important to note, and something that I hope the developers clean up before the second episode is released, is that of all the things DONTNOD took from Telltale’s book of tricks, they missed a rather crucial point. Show, don’t tell. The opening sequence of Life is Strange practically rams you into a wall of text. Max’s diary, the mechanic for keeping track of items, locations and photographs you take is filled with 9 pages of exposition from the very beginning. Nine pages! There is scarcely a gamer alive that will sit still long enough to read 9 pages of a teenage girls diary when they could be reversing time! And then you step into the hallways and get explanation after explanation of every person standing in it, whether they have speaking roles in this story or not. I’m sorry girl sitting in hallway, but by the time episode 2 comes around and you actually speak, I won’t remember your name.
All aside, did I enjoy Life Is Strange? Surprisingly, yes! I’m not ashamed to admit I wasn’t a fan of Remember Me, so my impression of DONTNOD as a developer was pretty low. Add to this fact that no matter how you spin it, you cannot help but compare this game to a Telltale. It reeks of Telltale! And Telltale Games casts a pretty big shadow. So my expectations were pretty low to begin with, but somehow, I found myself liking this, and wanting to replay it to see the other choices (I want one play-through where I’m just a complete ass to everyone). Despite the clichés, and the high school drama and the admittedly very robotic facial movements on some of the characters, I was sucked into the story, and I enjoyed my experience. However, I will have to wait to see if that enjoyable, replayability is still a factor, as the next episode doesn’t release until March 2015.
Life is Strange is available now on Steam as either a full 5 episode pass, or a single episode. Feel free to try it out and leave a comment letting us know what you thought and what dastardly villainous choices you made!
Engaging story, gameplay needs work! 7/10