“If I’m not looking through a viewfinder, I’m looking through a window. Always looking.”
Max Caulfield, the introspective protagonist of Life is Strange, spends her life searching, observing. Actually, it might be more akin to wandering. She’s 18, a newly minted “adult.” Everyone keeps telling her how much life has in store for her, but she’s more intent on the short-term — just surviving one awkward social interaction after another.
It’s a situation that’s easy to empathize with. Everyone’s felt the uncertain pangs of adolescence, even the most sure-footed of people. Life is Strange gives the player a chance to walk in those shoes with Max — to try to avoid the gaze of every set of judgmental eyes, and to skirt confrontational conversation lest things just get even worse. It can be weird and cringe-worthy at times, but, hey, doesn’t that nicely sum up those formative years?
Life is Strange: Chrysalis (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: January 30, 2015
MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode)
Life is Strange‘s first episode, Chyrsalis, is aptly named and hints at Max’s transformation that the audience can presumably expect to see over five installments. She’s in a transitory state — not still a youngling, not yet a full-fledged butterfly. Instead, she’s wrapped up hoping to simply survive.
A hard shell is necessary because most everyone in Max’s hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon is ruthlessly hostile. Blackwell Academy, the private school she’s enrolled at (and where the bulk of episode one takes place), is filled with the clique-iest of cliques, all of them an over-the-top depiction of mainstream stereotypes. The jocks are brainless bros filled with piss and vinegar. The popular girls are mean as can possibly be. The artistic kids speak in try-hard, exaggerated prose. In almost all circumstances, secondary characters eschew any semblance of subtlety or nuance.
Because Max doesn’t really fit into any of these archetypes, she’s excluded by almost everybody. There’s an early scene where she pops in her earbuds just to walk down the hall. It feels less like an opportunity to listen to music, and more like a necessary suit of armor to protect her from incoming immature insults. There’s even an anti-bullying poster along the way that she responds to by thinking “This must stop bullies dead in their tracks.”
That poster’s actually indicative of Life is Strange‘s strongest characteristic: exploration. Every setting is littered with objects to interact with, should anyone want yet another tiny glimpse into the brain of Max or the culture of Arcadia Bay. There’s so much to discover, but most of it’s in the finer details. Occasionally those items will offer assistance in a later situation, but most of the time they’re there to be the filler that gives the world depth. Always looking, after all.
It’s nigh-impossible to not be enamored by the hand-drawn world that Dontnod created. It has a wonderfully flawed look about it, maybe one that suitably reflects Max as a central character. The animations are similarly imperfect, with the mouth movements being the most detracting culprit. The dialogue and voice acting are a wild card, though. When they’re good, they’re really good; but, when they’re off, they’re noticeably bad. However, everything is generally charming enough to look past all that.
As Life is Strange is all about exploration (self- and worldly), the gameplay has a twist that aligns nicely with that core tenet of discovery. Max learns early on that she’s recently acquired the ability to rewind time. The reasoning behind this supernatural power isn’t explained in episode one, but nevertheless, it allows for as much poking around as anyone could possibly want.
The obvious draw to the rewind mechanic is to forge gameplay through puzzles. The earliest of these sections required Max to reverse a few seconds in order to keep her camera from breaking. Then, when she didn’t know the answer to a teacher’s question, she rewound after he reprimanded her in order to achieve desirable results. These are basic examples, but the first installment didn’t delve into anything much beyond the most rudimentary of brain-teasers.
But, the more intriguing prospect to time manipulation is to further explore. Branching dialogue options can all be chosen to see the immediate aftermath. If the effect is negative, rewind and try again. It also offers the ability to snoop without anyone knowing. For instance, a later area gave the option to look at some files, but grabbing them from a high spot would result in them spilling everywhere. Looking and then reversing until they’re back at their resting place leaves Max with the information and no one else any wiser.
However, all those choices that have to eventually be made might have far-reaching consequences. It’s too early to tell, really. After one-fifth of Life is Strange, it feels like a love letter of sorts to Donnie Darko and, to a lesser extent, The Butterfly Effect. That’s not to say it’s derivative, though. It may draw inspiration, but Dontnod has crafted its own world worth trekking through.
The plot that serves as the undertone to the introduction to the Max Caulfield Show is that of a missing classmate. There are fliers everywhere serving as notice of her disappearance, but strangely enough, so few people give a damn. One person who does is Chloe, Max’s former best friend, who has wholly adopted the punk-rock lifestyle since Max last saw her. Once the two are reunited, it’s obvious that rebellion is on the horizon. Presumably, future entries will center around finding Chloe’s friend while the two learn a bit about who they are.
For now, we’re left with our first glimpse at Arcadia Bay, our initial look into the life of Max. It was a slow, yet well-paced initial chapter that set the table more than anything else. There’s no telling where the story will go from here. But, as Chrysalis faded out, an indie song played that felt wonderfully at home in this setting, and served as a warning of things to come. It chanted “We will foresee obstacles, through the blizzard, through the blizzard.”
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]