My biggest concern with writing a retrospective review of a game that I know was well received at the time of launch is that I might not like it. While it really shouldn’t matter, as every review is just one person’s thoughts, in reality it’s a little intimidating. A negative review, even if it is my genuinely held opinion, would surely be scorned upon. A storm in a teacup perhaps, but it’s my bloody teacup. It was with no small amount of relief then that I flippin’ loved Life Is Strange.
A game that is ostensibly a coming of age, sci-fi, crime thriller about an angst-ridden teenage girl starting college may be something of a hard sell for many. Indeed, this might have factored into the decision to release Life Is Strange in an episodic format back in 2015. The game is centred on Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student. She’s recently returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay, having moved away with her family five years previously. We first meet Max while she’s seemingly dreaming of trying to find a lighthouse in a tornado, which it emerges is more than just an excellent metaphor for many of the game’s themes.
Max’s anxiety around homework and teenage drama is apparent from her inner dialogue and a flurry of diary entries. However, this is quickly eclipsed when she witnesses the murder of a girl in the college bathroom. In the midst of this, Max discovers she has developed the ability to rewind time, snapping back to the middle of the class she just finished. She uses this power to save the girl’s life, kick-starting the events of the rest of the game. A hell of a day, for sure! It turns out the girl she saves is actually her childhood best friend, Chloe. The two fell out of touch after Max moved away, but their friendship is soon renewed as they join forces to try and find Rachel Amber, another of Chloe’s friends who recently went missing. This investigation is the driving force behind much of the game’s story.
As an adventure game, Life Is Strange combines classic point-and-click style exploration and puzzle solving, with branching dialogue and story-changing choices. Max’s developing time rewind powers, as well as being a major plot device, are used as a mechanic for resolving the puzzles. These puzzles are quite varied, including re-running conversations until you get a favourable outcome, and playing around with time so you effectively bypass locked doors. They aren’t too tricky, with one or two exceptions, but they are good demonstrations of Max’s abilities and fit into the context of the story well.
That story is quite the emotional roller-coaster too. Over the course of the game the narrative covers a number of themes, some of which are unusual for a video game to cover. Bullying, mental health, grief, depression and sexual violence all feature over the course of the game. It is to the developers’ great credit that not only did they choose to explore these all too real issues, but that they did so in a way that felt like natural extensions of the overarching plot. It never felt as though anything was being done purely for shock value or to sensationalise the story.
Where Life Is Strange really shines though is in its characters. For all its timey-wimey shenanigans and its complex themes, Max and Chloe are the binary stars of the show and the game’s beating heart. Their relationship is complicated, not least because Max left town just after Chloe’s father’s death, stranding Chloe in Arcadia Bay. Their friendship is entirely believable however, and acts as the motivation for most of Max’s actions. While it is ultimately up to the player to decide just how far Max will go to keep Chloe safe, it’s clear they care deeply about each other. They are ably supported by an array of well-realised friends, enemies and acquaintances, most of whom have hidden depths. In fact, it sometimes feels like the game sets up characters to appear one-dimensional just to provide epiphanies later.
Throughout all of this, there’s an ever-present sense of melancholy. Despite Max’s abilities, there’s a sense of inescapable loss; the feeling that no matter what, you can’t move forward without leaving something behind. In that respect, it’s the perfect allegory for adolescence. People grow up, change, move on and in the process create new worlds while destroying others. This is emphasised by heavy foreshadowing (there is always a Max, always a lighthouse), as well as a terrific soundtrack. At the same time though, there funnier, lighter moments. What I’ve described so far might sound pretty bleak, but there are teenage kicks to be had. While Max is hesitant about her new powers, Chloe absolutely isn’t and together they manage to have plenty of fun along the way. This juxtaposition of light and dark is actually one of the game’s key themes.
Objectively speaking, the game is not without flaws. The pacing sometimes suffers as a result of some momentum-killing moments. There are a few fairly lengthy conversations which you may need to repeat before you get a good outcome. Although you can skip scenes you’ve already seen, they’re still a bump in the road. Additionally, there are a couple of stealth sections. I’m not a fan of those in general, but especially as here given you’re able to just rewind time if you get caught; it fundamentally removes any tension. Also, while the game does a great job of ensuring the choices you make are meaningful, it does equate inaction as choice. For example, I missed a choice regarding whether to sign a petition in episode one. I was then was chastised for not signing it in subsequent episodes, even though in reality I was entirely unaware of it.
Overall though, I adored Life Is Strange. It’s a brave, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking experience with moments of real joy. I’m already considering doing my own kind of time rewind and giving it another playthrough. There’s so much that I want to go over again, little things that seemed innocuous but make more sense now I’ve finished it. The characters are so engaging that I genuinely agonised other some of the choices I had to make. With Max consistently voicing her self-doubt, few decisions ever felt like the definitely correct one. I’m intrigued by the imminent release (at time of writing) of the sequel, which although apparently a completely separate story is set in the same universe. There’s also a prequel, Before The Storm, set three years prior. After having Life Is Strange sat in my game backlog for far too long, I’m delighted I dug it out. If you haven’t played it, I would highly recommend you try it too.
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