To read my review for each episode of Life Is Strange, please visit Darkstation.com.
Life Is Strange, the time travelling adventure game set in the Pacific Northwest, presents the unique and, well, strange life of Maxine Caulfield. On the surface, Life Is Strange has all the beats for an angsty CW-esque teen drama. The town of Arcadia Bay looks like postcard from a coffee shop gift store with its lush forests, pristine coastline, and arresting sunsets. You can almost feel the coziness of a warm flannel jacket and scratchy wool knit cap as you navigate the game’s picturesque main menu screen. Max is a student of the prestigious Blackwell Academy, an institution that is one part high school, one part art enclave. All of the familiar high school tropes are here: the jock, the bad girl, the weird kid, the queen bee, the religious girl, and the spoiled, bored rich kid. Max’s life changes when she witnesses a confrontation between two students that ends with one being shot. Without explanation, she’s able to rewind time to before the girl is shot thereby setting off a life altering chain of events.
The episodic adventure game genre was largely dominated by Telltale Games. There may be other studios that dabbled in the episodic format but in my experience, it was Telltale that honed it down to a science. Their choice-basred design easily fit within the scope of the numerous properties they licensed, from The Walking Dead to Borderlands. I developed feelings of apathy towards the genre after playing through a few Telltale joints and as such, I didn’t expect much from Life Is Strange. The originality of its setting and a story that wasn’t pigeonholed into a pre-existing property was so refreshing that it renewed my interest in the episodic format. It also helped that it was developed by a different studio.
Life Is Strange is noticeably less humorous Telltale’s more jaunty games, like Back to the Future and Tales from the Borderlands. It isn’t afraid to tackle heavy subject matter and uses bullying, rape, suicide, and drug use to show that all is not perfect in Arcadia Bay. The choices the player is confronted with across all five episodes are often difficult and uncomfortable. Laughs are served in small doses as the series reaches its end. Max is confronted by increasingly difficult situations as a result of the butterfly effect. Though she and the player are making the right decision, the game’s bitter truth lies in every action having an unintended effect. In the grand tradition of time travel narratives, if something is affected in the present, then something bad will assuredly happen in the future. And there’s no going back once that future moment arrives, leaving the player to cope with their decisions.
The moments where Max is free to be happy are some of the most endearing and enchanting parts of the game. These scenes are mostly set against her interactions with Chloe, a rebellious young woman and Max’s childhood friend. Chloe changed after Max moved away, forging a friendship with Rachel Amber (who is found to be missing at the start of the game) that kept her afloat following the tragic death of her father. Stuck under the thumb of her new stepfather–the head of Blackwell Academy’s security, no less–turns her into a bratty, pot smoking miscreant. It’s when Chloe and Max reunited that the other girl is made vulnerable allowing us to look past her rebellious exterior. Also, Max and Chloe’s friendship feels real. Watching them hang out in a junkyard, the school pool, and Chloe’s bedroom offers intimate moments of friendship as they reminisce on the events that shaped their lives. Chloe becomes Max’s confidant and the only person in Arcadia Bay who knows about her time travel powers. As they work together to find Rachel, their deep friendship is rekindled and brought back to the closeness they once had as children. Their time together hits the feels hard because theirs is a situation we’ve all experienced in our lives; that feeling of loss, despair, and distance when life forces us to break the pinky oaths of eternal, unbreakable friendship.
The game’s secondary cast of characters are just smartly established as Max and Chloe. Chief among them is Kate Marsh, a devout Christian girl that serves as a focal point for the game’s second episode. A target of bullying by Victoria, the Mean Girl ringleader, she suffers the undeserved slings and arrows of a community that abhors her righteousness in light of her actions at a party held before the start of the game. There’s a moment between Max and Kate that, if done incorrectly, casts a painful shadow throughout the rest of the series. It’s entirely possible to reach a positive outcome, however I discovered that the route I found myself on gave a real sense of urgency and weight to remainder of the story. Nevermind that it turned me into a blubbering mass of tears and sadness.
Beyond the experiences and situations that made Life Is Strange so fascinating, its selection of licensed music for the soundtrack really sets the mood. Apart from its few pieces of incidental score, the track list was chosen to mirror the style of music to come out of the Pacific Northwest, a sort of rock/folk indie sound that I normally don’t listen to. The music is just right and easily one of the best video game soundtracks of the year.
I had no expectations for Life Is Strange when I started reviewing it for Darkstation. And I was pretty ambivalent about their last game, the action oriented Remember Me. I was immediatly hooked after the first episode and it proved an unique juxtaposition against Tales of the Borderlands, which I reviewed in between episodes. They are two completely different properties yet the wonder and freshness of Life Is Strange went a long way to show just how long in the tooth Telltale’s games felt to me. Life Is Strange was a remarkable experience that created a long lasting impression.
Life Is Strange is available on Steam, Xbox One [reviewed], and PlayStation 4.