Life Is Strange

A PC game review by Bobulous

Life Is Strange is a game played in the third-person view, looking over the shoulder of your character Max (never Maxine) Caulfield, a young woman who has recently been accepted into the prestigious Blackwell Academy back in her home town of Arcadia Bay, where she hopes to develop her talent for photography.

screenshot: Max sat in class, contemplating whether or not to take a selfie with her instant camera, while Mark Jefferson lectures about photography in the background.
Max in the classroom, unsettled after her nightmare.

Awakening in art class after a vivid nightmare about a devastating storm, Max heads to the school bathroom to splash some water on her face and calm herself down. While Max is tucked away at the back of the bathroom photographing a bright blue butterfly, an unhinged classmate bursts into the bathroom and pulls a gun on a strange woman with bright blue hair. Their argument intensifies and leads to the blue-haired woman being shot dead, leaving Max so shocked and outraged that she discovers by accident that she can rewind the passage of time to find herself back in art class a few minutes earlier. Realising that she knows what's about to happen she rushes to get back into position at the back of the bathroom, determined to change the outcome this time.

The overarching story is one of hunting for clues to the fate of missing Blackwell student Rachel Amber who disappeared shortly before Max returned to Arcadia Bay. Reunited with her childhood best friend, and feeling emboldened by her strange new power, Max sets out to uncover the truth about Blackwell Academy. The events unfolding in Arcadia Bay, combined with Max's ability to mess with time, lead to a week that Max will be unable to ever forget.

As you wander about each scene you can interact with selected people and items, which are all clearly labelled. Chat with schoolmates, read posters, take a closer look at the wildlife. If you say or do something which has a negative effect you can simply use Max's rewind power to travel back to an earlier point in time and have another go at saying or doing the right thing. Sometimes you can learn something useful from a first, abortive conversation which allows you to say exactly the right thing on a second attempt. Other times you have to try your luck and rewind several times before you stumble upon the correct course of action.

screenshot: Max's journal, filled with her thoughts about the events which have taken place so far.
Max's journal records her thoughts about unfolding events.

As you complete each scene, Max's journal is updated in her words with a record of recent events. Other sections in the journal contain notes about the main characters you've met, reminders of the letters, posters, and items that Max has investigated at each location, and a portfolio of the photos Max has taken along the way. Alongside the journal you'll also find Max's phone, allowing you to read the SMS messages received from friends, family, and others.

One oddity about the rewind power is that Max can remain where she is, which means she can effectively get ahead of people and hazards by rewinding everything else around her. And anything she is carrying she keeps, allowing her to smash her way into a room, steal an item, then rewind to the point before the door was damaged so that there's no evidence of her intrusion (except the theft of the item itself). This allows for some interesting puzzle solving, and allows you to outmanoeuvre trouble with relative ease.

With its hand-drawn art style, the game initially seems very cutesy and sweet (despite the bathroom murder), but over the five episodes of the game (packaged as "The Complete Season") it proves to be a very dark, grim tale which doesn't flinch from harsh situations. Unusually, the game features the sort of strong language that real teenagers would use, which is refreshing when so many games feature serious violence but shy away from using believable language. And the dilemmas and decisions forced on you by the developing story are often shocking. At one point I tried to save the life of a major character but failed, and I figured that was just the way it was meant to go. Then, at the end of the episode the game shows you what percentage of players managed to save that character's life and what percentage failed. Numerous scenes in later episodes are affected by this outcome.

screenshot: Max stood in the golden light of the setting sun on the cliff by the lighthouse, Chloe sat on a bench nearby.
Max and Chloe take in the sunset at their childhood haunt: the cliff by Arcadia Bay's lighthouse.

I found that each episode took me about four hours to complete, so the whole game was finished in about twenty hours and felt neither too long nor too short. For long stretches of the game you often don't have any need to use Max's rewind power, so this is more of an interactive movie than an action game. But it works very nicely. The need to decide on one course of action or another (with the option to rewind if you feel things could have gone better) keeps things interesting, and the scenes and events are often gripping. The story also does a great job of hopping from one timeline to another when Max discovers that she can use certain photos to take herself back to that earlier moment in time, often leading to even worse consequences than Max was trying to escape in the original timeline. It could have become a real mess of confused gibberish, but the writing and execution carry it off beautifully.

Seeing as it is a modern game, there is of course a side quest. While wandering around you can be on the lookout for specific photo opportunities which will add a photo to Max's journal. In Steam these trigger the usual in-game achievements and, as is the case in most games, I only managed to find eighty or ninety percent of these hidden goals within each episode despite searching for them. But the optional treasure hunting adds a nice bit of fun alongside the weighty main story.

The use of terms like "episode" and "season" did have me worried that the game would just end on a cliffhanger without taking the story anywhere, as is so depressingly common in American TV shows these days. But for once there was no need to worry: I found the storytelling very satisfying, building to a powerful and devastating finale. As grimy as it gets in the middle, things become impressively dark and shocking in the final episode. And yet Max's sweet and determined nature carries you through it without giving way to despair or irony.

The game is not perfect. The pace in the middle is not quite as tight as in the earlier and final episodes. In certain scenes some characters talk without actually moving their lips, or without even turning to face you. In hindsight it feels as though the game could have done more with the interesting powers that Max has, such as offering more puzzles to solve and offering different ways to reach certain goals. And, as with (almost) all tales of time travel (especially those which allow parallel universes), there is some inconsistency in the way that concepts such as the flow of time are handled. But none of these things was serious enough to reduce my overall enjoyment of the game.

Life Is Strange is unusual and refreshing, so it's difficult to hold it up against something else for comparison. But if you like the sound of playing the role of a time-warping photography student who has to navigate the consequences of intervening in catastrophic events then you should give this a try. (And trying it out is made easier by the fact that you can play the first episode for free.)