Life is Strange: A Review
This week Square Enix released the first part of their new episodic game Life is Strange, produced by Dontnod Entertainment. I've been watching the teasers with interest over the past couple of months, and I'm excited to say that it did not disappoint. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. (There will be some mild, general spoilers in this review, though I won't spoil any of the main plot. )
The game follows 18-year-old Maxine Caulfield, an introverted photography student attending an elite private school. There are a number of things to like about the game, but I have to say that Max is probably my favorite, and she's the main reason that I like the game as much as I do. For one, it's always nice to see a female protagonist in video games. But, Max is particularly special to me because she does nothing to conform to the stereotypical role of hero, even amongst female protagonists. She is not a gun-toting, ass-kicking tough girl, nor is she a brilliant genius, using her intellect to outsmart the baddies. She is just a normal 18-year-old girl, who finds herself in a difficult situation. She struggles to deal with people. She's awkward. She makes mistakes. She needs help sometimes. And she is still the hero of the story. To me, this makes her all the more heroic. She sees her faults, but continues to try and overcome them, to do the right thing. Or, as she calls it, to be an everyday hero.
Considering her as a character, it makes sense that this doesn't play like your typical action game. Gameplay consists of exploring and puzzle-solving, though the puzzles themselves are also not typical. Instead of scaling cliffs, or picking locks, Max has to find a way around the local clique of mean girls, or she has to navigate her way through a difficult conversation. There is a lot of point-and-click exploration of the environment as well as conversations with other characters. All of this serves to bring the town of Arcadia vividly to life.
Honestly, the limitations of the game felt a bit stifling at first. It was so frustrating that I couldn't just make something happen, that I couldn't just talk my way out of everything. That I couldn't just pull a Commander Shepard and interrupt Renegade-style . It's what normal games allow me to do, after all. But a strange thing happened once I'd been playing for a little while. I began to feel like I knew Max. I began thinking like she was a friend of mine. What would I tell her in this situation? How would I get out of this? She's just so normal. I began to relate to her so completely, because I know all of her struggles so well. (Ok, maybe not all of them.) The brilliance of this, of course, is that Max is a mundane character thrown into the most bizarre of situations. You get the benefit of relating to her completely, with the thrill of action and mystery. And there is plenty of that, lest you worry that all the normal characters would be boring.
There are plenty of other things to recommend the game as well. Max is surrounded by other well-developed and believable characters, each with their own personality and agenda, their own quirks and preferences. Dontnod uses the short form effectively, giving you just enough of each character to form an idea of them, but never showing their whole hand. Even after playing all of Chapter 1, I still have no idea who is trustworthy and who should be avoided. Much like a good book that ends on a cliffhanger, I am dying to get my hands on Chapter 2. I can't wait to know what will happen. Which of my choices will have big impacts and which will be insignificant? I was skeptical of whether or not Dontnod could effectively establish a setting and a story in such a short amount of time and also make it compelling, but they have entirely exceeded my expectations and I'm really impressed.
I also want to point out that the game is a gem when it comes to music. The score is a lovely blend of indie music which compliments the setting and cast so well. The score includes contributions from Syd Matters, Bright Eyes, Mogwai, alt-J, Sparklehorse and Jose Gonzales.
And as a book nerd, I was intrigued and delighted by a number of literary references. A poster in Max's dorm looks very similar to the cover of The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. Couple this with the fact that Max's last name is Caulfield, and I can't help but believe that the parallels are intentional. Nontraditional school, introverted character, teenage angst and rebellion. I'm excited to play Chapter 1 again and hunt for details to support this idea, and I'm equally excited to see if the theme extends into the next Chapter.Suffice to say that I'm a sucker for literary Easter Eggs.
My issues with the game are all fairly small, though they are frustrating. Getting used to the controls was difficult, and the tutorials didn't always help. The lip-syncing was fairly bad. The graphical quality was fine overall, particularly for the format, but occasionally the camera would zoom in on a part of the scenery, like an animal or a tree, and the graphical quality was jarringly bad. The lack of consistency was what bothered me most. I'll be the first to point out that these concerns were minor, but because the game is so short they left more of an impression. However, my experience is solely on PC, and I'm not really sure if these issues extend to consoles, so ymmv.
For anyone interested in playing it, you can find it here or on Steam for $4.99. There is also the option to buy all 5 chapters together for $19.99. You essentially get one chapter free. This price seems quite low, but keep in mind that it only took me about 2-3 hours to play through it the first time, and I'm confident that if I play it again it'll take me less than an hour. The advantage of the game being broken up in to such small chunks though, is that Chapter 2 is scheduled to be released next month, though no exact date has yet been listed.