Life Is Strange - Episode 1: Chrysalis Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
Over the past few years, the interactive story genre has become a norm in videogames thanks to the work of Telltale Games, with the 2012 classic The Walking Dead considered to be one of their best releases. Subsequent projects have varied in quality since that masterpiece, which has led to a need for more competition within the genre. Following their work on Remember Me, developers Dontnod Entertainment hope to be the answer to this cry in the form of their new game, entitled Life Is Strange. Despite releasing to little media attention or hype, the pilot episode named Chrysalis has managed to blow away any expectations we held for the genre and set up a world we can’t wait to continue exploring in future episodes.
Life Is Strange puts you in the shoes of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old girl who is returning to her hometown of Oregon to study photography at Blackwell Academy. During a class our protagonist experiences a strange vision which leaves her dazed and confused, and consequently needing a bathroom break. Here, not only does Max witness the murder of a fellow student, but she also discovers her ability to rewind time which puts her right back in the class she just left. Befuddled but determined, Max returns to the scene of the crime in the hope that she can prevent the murder from taking place again, which she succeeds in depending on the player’s actions. It is later revealed that the previously murdered student is Max’s old friend Chloe, who appears to play a major role in the overall narrative of the game. We don’t want to ruin too much of the plot, but by the episode’s finale we had a good idea of where the story may go in future chapters, including the disappearance of a pupil, a terrible storm and how Max’s time travelling power fits into all of this.
Dontnod have created one of the most believable worlds we have ever set foot in along with a host of supporting characters. Every person you meet feels authentic, including the sinister security guard, the popular girl that everyone pretends to like, the clingy friend and the teacher who tries way too hard to look cool and down with the kids. But Max is the most interesting character of all, a socially awkward girl that keeps to herself and tends to blend into the background. As the episode progresses the player learns more about her history and the friendships she holds, and by the end of this first chapter we felt like we’d made friends with Max ourselves. She’s a down-to-earth character that we can both relate to and sympathize with, as well as interesting and believable in the real world.
If you’ve ever played a game from Telltale before, you’ll feel right at home here. Players control Max with the left thumbstick and then select people or objects they want to interact with using the right thumbstick, at which point they press the corresponding button on-screen. But what sets Life Is Strange apart from any Telltale game is the ability to rewind time, which can affect both your actions and the way a conversation plays out. Just like in other interactive story games, the player will often be made to choose between two different actions or pieces of dialogue which can have different ramifications depending on what you choose. However, thanks to Max’s time travelling ability, here the player can choose to see how one choice plays out and then rewind time to see the other option in action. After having seen both choices, the player can choose which one they feel is best and then continue the story. This ability mitigates the problems we’ve faced in other Telltale games where a scenario hasn’t quite played out to our liking, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it. The mechanic innovatively turns the entire interactive story genre on its head and gives it a new breath of life, allowing us to see different paths play out and then let us choose which one we think is best. It truly does put the power in the player’s hands.
Another area in which Dontnod excel is that your choices actually feel meaningful and pivotal to the overarching story. Situations can play out completely differently depending on which option you choose, for example in one instance we were accused of supplying drugs to a friend, but with a time rewind and the selection of a different option we were thankfully free of any accusations. Even the most simplest of things may have an impact later on in the story, as we are intrigued to see how something as simple as watering the plant in our dormitory could have consequences in the future. While we won’t be sure how much our choices shape the story until the final episodes, the path we are taking at The Digital Fix already feels personal enough to the point where it could be completely different to another player’s.
Not only does Life Is Strange shine in its gameplay, it also boasts some beautiful graphics. The game chooses art direction over technical marvel with its simple character designs and low levels of details in environments which help to amplify the generic nature of a school’s hallways and classrooms. Even the game’s soundtrack works to build a connection between the player and Max, as the opening song and credits only kick in once Max’s earphones are put in place. Other songs in the game come from Alt-J, Mogwai, Local Natives, Syd Matters and others, all of which fit perfectly in the world of the game.
Unfortunately this first episode has one flaw, its lip-syncing. This may not seem like such of a big issue in other games that are based more around their gameplay, but in a game that is so heavily focused on its story, it can be quite off-putting. While it never took us out of the experience, it does draw attention to itself when the character is speaking but their mouth appears to be completely still. Thankfully since Chrysalis is only the first episode, this can be fixed for future chapters.
Life Is Strange is off to a near flawless start. Its story, characters and world are all incredibly interesting and in combination have built a fascinating plot that we can’t wait to continue in the second episode. Max’s time travelling ability is an innovation in the interactive story genre that allows us shape the story exactly to our liking and is a compelling plot device in itself. If Dontnod can iron out the lip-syncing problems and continue the quality of Chrysalis in future episodes, then we have something very special on our hands.