Title: Life is Strange
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4. (Reviewed on Xbox One)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out now
Price: £29.99 for the Xbox One/PS4 collection, £19.99 for the PC version
Family Focus: Click here to read more.
Verdict: March yourselves right down to your closest game store to pick up a copy. Right now.
Let me kick this off by saying how long I have been waiting for this game. I’ve been dodging spoilers all through 2015, just so I could get to the moment where I could play through all five in complete blind bliss. And for the first time, I wasn’t disappointed. Life is Strange is a beautifully emotionally draining experience which sets the bar really damn high for storytelling in games, and proves just how much depth AAA games have been missing this new console generation. This is one for the collection.
BE WARNED: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR ALL FIVE EPISODES AND THE ENDING.
Remember the trailer for Silent Hill 2 you can find on the disc, with all sepia tones and soft music? Yeah, don’t be fooled by this game’s trailer, either. Life is Strange has a lot more depth than I initially gave it credit for. In a way, Max gaining her powers plays second fiddle to all the stuff that’s going on in Arcadia Bay. It’s about the people, not the universe. You’re zooming in on a very short space of time, and really immersing yourself in that world; you feel what Arcadia Bay feels. It’s almost disorienting in the level of detail it produces.
Graphics wise, this is something that is pulled off really well. I’ll be the first to admit the textures are horrible – Max’s hair during the tornado sequence is the best example, and none of the clothing appears to be made of actual fabric, but the style in which this is done is pretty good. A big theme of the game is artistry and photography, and the slightly blurred textures and graphics, especially in the environments, give the feel of a watercolour painting. And when you’re watching Arcadia Bay at sunset, it’s a breathtaking sight.
While the artistic approach works for the set stages, it really doesn’t work for the character models themselves. The environments are a bigger expanse, and you don’t get a particularly close look at them, just a sense of presence. Each room announces something about a character, you just have to search for it, which ties in really well with the gameplay. You’re exploring the world through Max’s eyes, and the simple point and click element is akin to her wandering around a picking up objects, though it seems a little contrived at times. People have no problems with Max messing about with their laptops, yet Dana really leaves a pregnancy test out in the middle of the floor for the world to see? It’s the little details that really flesh this world out, but when you have horrible textures and a lip sync that isn’t even close to being accurate, it really breaks the immersion. There’s some cracking voice acting, but the dramatic scenes are almost spoiled by the wonky animation. There’s beautiful detail in the clothing and hair designs, and I really liked how they’d used more than one body type for the Arcadia Bay students, but imagine all of that in true current gen graphics. You’d move from watercolour into masterpiece.
The gameplay is wonderfully simple, in a point and click style that’s become increasingly more popular over the years. It allows you to focus more on the plot, and in this case, helps you rationalise the decisions you’ve made. If you snoop around enough, you’ll be able to find clues that give the situation a little more context; this is key to saving Kate, or, in a less heartbreaking setting, being able to rewind time and try the conversation again with the knowledge you’ve just found. Though time travel is a sticky plot device that should really not be in the hands of writers who don’t know how to use it properly, this time, it’s used to perfection. There’s risk. There’s limits. There’s chance for abuse, and in the end, what really is the right choice? Do you risk yourself, risk others, risk objects, risk places – what is the right choice? And as you carry on exploring Arcadia Bay, those lines become increasingly more blurry.
FROM THIS POINT ON, THERE WILL BE MULTIPLE PLOT SPOILERS.
And now we come to the crux of it; the plot and characters. The series is kind of marketed with the idea of “What if you had the power to change everything,” and refreshingly, didn’t go down the route of having their protagonist and everyone who crosses their path be a flawless little angel who would never dream of misusing their powers. At the core of it, Max is an eighteen year old girl who is inherently selfish and manipulative, but most important of all, she’s human. She’s using her powers to trick people into liking her, to make herself look like a better person. Truth is, I didn’t find her particularly likeable. She complains about being bullied, yet doesn’t really do much until she gets her powers. It’s the same story with Chloe.
She’s brash. She’s selfish. She’s got more issues than Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII and she’s undoubtedly a bad influence. But Dontnod have done something rather remarkable here; they’ve pulled off making genuinely flawed characters. No one in the cast is truly good or truly evil. Some may be batshit crazy, some might be deeply troubled, and others may be good at hiding that they’re horrible people, but I cannot stress enough how much this makes the game come to life. It builds on all the choices you eventually have to make – do you pick the selfish one, which will ultimately leave Max happy, but at catastrophic cost to everyone else? Or do you prioritise everyone else’s happiness?
In a way, it’s rather short sighted, especially when it comes to the ending, a lot of these choices. Max doesn’t consider that not all of their problems will go away just because they stopped Jefferson, found out what was going out with Kate, or even if you picked Chloe over the town. The pair of them are like chalk and cheese, and Chloe is a particularly clingy, jealous person. I don’t think they make particularly good friends, never mind a couple, and probably won’t last the year, but that’s the beauty of it. Max is young, she’s selfish, and can make stupid decisions, and that’s perfectly okay in terms of life lessons and plot structure.
I kept seeing a lot of complaints about the ending, too, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. The most common one is “they could have saved her because they saved Kate,” and I have the simplest analogy here for it: Chloe’s death is a fixed point in time, because stealing from Doctor Who is what I do best. The universe can repair the holes from you meddling with Kate and William and chucking paint over Victoria, but trying to save Chloe throws the universe off balance, and it keeps trying to fix it. Note that in every episode, Chloe has the potential to die, and Max has to keep saving her – the universe is trying to right that wrong with the freaky weather, the whales beaching, the two moons, and the tornado is the crux of it. A big theme in LiS is learning to grow up and let go, and essentially, this is what the ending is all about.
It’s kind of weird how this game is marketed as primarily about the supernatural, yet a lot of the plot elements are kind of mundane, especially when it came to Rachel. I went poking about on GameFaqs and Reddit, and so many people had some very interesting ideas about what happened to Rachel, but nope, she’s just dead, and her disappearance is down to some lunatic with a camera. I feel the plot could have been a little more original rather than opting for the same tropes –not to say that it’s bad, but when you’re dealing with fantastical elements, use them! As well as that, there are a few discrepancies with the writing, the biggest one being the incident with Kate at the Vortex Club party. There are a few hints indicating her depression has been building for a while (a letter from her mother, her violin stopping playing, not smiling for a month), but apparently the party and her jump are about five days apart? And apparently Max is bullied at school, but where do we ever see this? Likewise, the alternate universe Chloe and the plea of euthanasia? Very weird. I love that they’re dealing with sensitive topics, but I felt sure Chloe choosing between herself and her dad was imminent, something to force her to grow up.
But anyway, in summary:
- Art style all around is gorgeous.
- In depth plot and characters.
- An emotionally draining, heart wrenching experience.
- Awful textures.
- Lip sync is way off.
- Some oddities with the writing – Max as a character feels flat, and the odd plot hole or two.
This game is a 16, and with good reason. It deals with pretty heavy themes of depression, self destructiveness, murder, and euthanasia, among others, and has the potential to be upsetting with scenes of suicide and violence. I wouldn’t recommend it as a kid’s game.