From time to time I make an effort to try something outside of my comfort zone. I think we can learn a lot from experiencing works outside of the target demographics in which we exist; in video games, that comes in the form of playing things that aren’t intended for us.
My point here is that I, a grown-ass hairy man, played Life is Strange, a game about teenage girls angsting at and around each other in an artsy high school setting. And I liked it! Maybe the excitement of peeking into a realm not intended for me has clouded my judgment, but I found Life is Strange to be deeply absorbing. And I have thoughts about the game to share—so what follows is my (very delayed from release) review of Life is Strange with spoilers. I figure the game has been out long enough that I can discuss it freely. For those who haven’t played Life is Strange and are interested in a review, I’ve marked below when the spoilers begin—read no further beyond that point if my review makes you think you’d like to try the game for yourself. Okay? Okay.
Life is Strange is set in the (I think) fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, where you play as Max Caulfield, a student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. Arcadia Bay—and, by extension, Blackwell—has something of a seedy underbelly, and Max finds herself investigating the disappearance of Rachel Amber, another (former) student of Blackwell. Max is aided by the ability to rewind time in short bursts, which to my understanding is not something the average high school-aged girl experiences. Max also experiences visions of a tornado ravaging Arcadia Bay, and has to figure out how to use her powers to save her loved ones before the vision comes to pass.
If it feels like I forgot to throw up a spoiler warning for the last paragraph, don’t worry; everything I described happens very early on in the game. Gameplay-wise, Life is Strange is a point-and-click adventure game disguised as a third-person puzzle game. I say “disguised” because while the game does contain puzzles, the solution to every single puzzle the game throws at you is “wander around until you find the thing that fixes the problem you’re currently facing.” The game was made with the Unreal Engine, so you navigate the game world with Resident Evil 4-style tank controls, highlighting interact-able objects when you approach them. The placement of the camera occasionally makes it difficult to select objects above and below Max, but for the most part the core gameplay is perfectly functional. The gameplay, of course, is primarily a vehicle for exploring the world through Max’s eyes. As with in a point-and-click adventure, interact-able objects can be probed for Max’s opinion. The flavor dialogue from interacting with environments is the game’s strongest point: Max’s narration is consistently adorable and effectively illuminates both the game world and Max herself as a character.
As a story-driven game, Life is Strange lives and dies on the strength of its story and dialogue. Fortunately, both are solid. The story consists primarily of the adventures of Max and her childhood best friend Chloe, and both characters are supported by fantastic voice acting. There are a few issues in the presentation: the facial modeling for the characters is sometimes wonky, with eyes in particular being an issue at times for immersion. The dialogue between Max and Chloe also occasionally veers into the territory of what an adult thinks the kids these days are talking like. This makes story cutscenes unintentionally funny at times, which is the last thing one wants in a story-based game, but this issue is never an outright deal-breaker.
To spice up the flow of gameplay, Life is Strange occasionally confronts you with a binary choice of how to proceed. The game makes a big deal of how your choices matter, and those consequences mainly come in the form of dialogue referencing said choices. I’m torn on whether or not I wish the game did more to vary your experience based on choices. To expect more would require the game to deviate from its linear plot and potentially water down the story the developers are trying to tell. On the other hand, the lack of variation in the core progression of the story makes the game’s promise of meaningful choices seem somewhat hollow. The game’s story and dialogue are engaging enough that players who dig Life of Strange will probably be happy to go through the game again for that, but it’s hard not to wish for more. WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS.
The primary shortcoming of the game’s plot is the jarring tonal shift that takes place in the final chapter of the game. Again, spoilers ahead: the revelation of what’s happened to Rachel Amber and who was the mastermind of her disappearance comes out of nowhere and feels like a twist for the sake of the twist. It feels entirely like the developers realized they only had one chapter left and needed to drastically ramp up the drama for the sake of making the game’s conclusion more exciting. This makes the twist feel like it’s not earned, and how dark the plot of the game’s final chapter is really comes out of nowhere. Throughout the whole plot Rachel Amber’s disappearance always comes with the possibility that she might be dead, but for her to actually be dead and for the main characters to find her remains is the tipping point into a resolution that feels tonally distant from the carefree, upbeat tone that the rest of the game has cultivated.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve already played Life is Strange, and you know whether or not the ending of Life is Strange ruined the rest of the experience for you. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say it ruined the game for me, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. The majority of the fifth chapter dwells on “the Dark Room” where the antagonist commits his horrible crimes against women, and the resolution to the tornado subplot feels rushed as a result. The final choice being a binary choice of which ending you get is also disappointing, and overall the final chapter does a lot to undo the vibe that Life is Strange has cultivated. Nonetheless, the game is still worth experiencing—it’s charming and fun and does a fantastic job of drawing the player into its world. But I sure do wish that the developers would give Chapter 5 a second try.