The strange charm of “Life is Strange”

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Courtesy of Square Enix.
Courtesy of Square Enix.

If anything, “Life is Strange” showed me the viability of episodic game releases. I tend to have an aversion to paying for things I have to wait for, and my only other experience with episodic game releases was Valve’s “Half Life 2” debacle from 2007. Why yes, I am still bitter after all these years.

While this does mean that my review of “Life is Strange” as a whole is rather late, the last episode only came out Tuesday of this past week, and I’m a staunch believer in reviewing things as a whole. I also can recommend “Life is Strange” despite the fact that the score you see up there isn’t a “4” or a “5.” While it is by no means a bad “game,” keep in mind that it does have some glaring issues and certainly isn’t as good as most people say it is.

Our story concerns Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an 18-year-old student at the Blackwell Senior Academy, which is considered prestigious despite having only two classrooms and about four faculty members. After a fellow teenager is murdered in the bathroom, Max discovers she can rewind time and sets out to right all the wrongs she can find in her local area while simultaneously getting to the bottom of a sinister mystery concerning the school and the surrounding Oregon town. There’s also some nonsense about an approaching tornado that the game treats like a big deal but most of the characters seem unconcerned about until the end of the game. In fact, most of the murder and mystery subplot takes a back seat in the narrative, as Max spends a majority of the game using her power to impress her classmates and teachers.

The game handles world-building very well, with most of the supporting cast being surprisingly well written and acted. The game avoids painting things as too black-and-white, with even the antagonists being thought out, each with their own wants and desires. The school and surrounding town feel very much alive, and most of the characters and in-game props can be interacted with. While one could easily rush through most of the episodes in about an hour, unskippable cut scenes notwithstanding, I spent hours and hours listening to the radio, reading my diary and interacting with every interactable scrap of trash that littered Max’s floor.

One of the most common criticisms of the game that I heard was that “Life is Strange” isn’t a game as much as it is an interactive movie. I don’t think this holds water, however, as the game features a fair amount of puzzles that make good use of the time-rewinding mechanic. This makes the game more than a teenage-girl simulator with unresponsive controls. There are a couple of engaging scenes in the first few episodes that make good use of the established mechanics. The second episode shines the brightest amongst all the others, featuring the best puzzles and a resounding climax that really kept me on the edge of my seat.

Where the game begins to fall apart is in its pacing. Most of the genuine tension and investment I felt was in the second episode, and much of the intermittent episodes are dedicated to a bunch of nothing. There’s a deranged murderer on the loose and a cataclysm approaching, and Max and her friend spend a fair amount of their time taking nature walks in the forest and breaking into the school swimming pool. I feel that the narrative could have been served if more of the high school nonsense was concentrated at the start of the story, with the tension and suspense concentrated at the story’s back end. I know that an engaging hook is needed to captivate an audience, but putting your best plot points and story moments at the start of a narrative makes the plot feel lacking toward its end.

I feel that there was much to be desired game play-wise in the later episodes as well. While the earlier episodes make impressive use of the time manipulation mechanics in episodes one and two, the latter episodes start introducing forced stealth sections, their difficulty compounded by the game’s janky controls and animation. One of my least favorite of these was towards the end, when constantly rewinding and moving led to me being simultaneously discovered by four different guards at four different portions of the map. This froze the game and forced me to perform a hard restart on my computer.

There are also large sections of the fourth and fifth episodes that are merely long cut scenes. While this isn’t a problem with other movies and television, having a game with long stretches of no actual game play really starts to wear on my patience. This is exacerbated by much of the dialogue being what adults imagine teen slang sounds like, and the lip-syncing of the dialogue lines and facial animations giving everything the aesthetic of a poorly dubbed anime.

Out of everything though, the biggest flaw comes from the game outright lying to the player. It is constantly mentioned that every conceivable choice made in-game has a consequence, but this simply isn’t true. This is akin to saying that walking across a room will have far-reaching consequences in any game, while the only actual consequence is that your character is now on the other side of a room. For example, if you water your plant in episode one, it won’t be dead in episode two. While this makes logical sense, the game treats every minute action as world-changing, playing a little jingle with an accompanying animation that reads “This action will have consequences.” Without trying to spoil anything, the only choice that actually matters in game is the last one, and it only decides which 15-second closing cutscene you get to watch. This pissed players off when “Mass Effect 3” did it, and it hasn’t gotten any better since.

I still like “Life is Strange,” despite its numerous flaws. The overarching narrative shows genuine art and care on behalf of the creators, and I was able to stay drawn in throughout the entirety of my play through. Its uniqueness and wit kept me engaged, and if you can get past its issues you won’t be disappointed.

 

Rating: 3.5 stars

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