Long live the return of the adventure game! A genre once moribund has seen a glorious return to form in recent years, in part thanks to Telltale’s series of adventures stretching from Monkey Island to Minecraft. Life is Strange is the latest in a long line of games that has continued to push and stretch the form, making the adventure genre more relevant to gaming than it has been since Lucasfilm Games’ heyday.
Set in and around the sunny campus of Blackwell Academy in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Life is Strange follows Max Caulfield as she rekindles friendships, foresees the town’s destruction and learns that she has the power to rewind time. Given the events that unfold around her, this becomes a fortuitous power for Max to own, even if there are times when using them makes the situation immeasurably worse.
Coming from Dontnod Entertainment, the developers of the interesting but flawed Remember Me, Life is Strange uses its episodic nature to deliver an ever-evolving tale of relationships, trust, betrayal and murder.
This review will avoid any plot specifics as to get the most out of Life is Strange it’s best to go in knowing as little as you can. It is enough to know that after returning to Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy, Max catches up with her old friend Chloe and becomes embroiled in a search for a missing girl, bullying, drug abuse and viral videos.
Eschewing the point-and-click style of more traditional adventures, Life is Strange instead gives you full control of Max as she explores Arcadia Bay, highlighting objects that can be interacted with or collected, or other people to talk to. Puzzles are on the whole more simplistic than in other examples of the genre but are nonetheless entertaining, with only a few missteps (such as a fetch task in the second episode that the game itself pokes fun at later on) along the way.
One of the most striking things about Life is Strange, however, is not the puzzles but the emphasis it places on characters and relationships and how this shapes your view of the whole game. Every action you take has a consequence, some immediate and others long term, and as the game develops and the story gathers pace the weight of these decisions grows heavier upon you.
Buying in to the characters and their stories is key to enjoying this game but there is one major barrier to this – the first episode. “Chrysalis”, as the first episode is known, unfortunately opens in a classroom full of the most overwritten, annoying and cloying teenage characters outside of a John Hughes film. With their arch hipster dialogue and regular references to philosophers and artists they threaten to kill Life is Strange as it is taking its first breaths. Stick with it though and beyond the first episode these elements begin to take a back seat and the characters themselves become more accessible. By the third episode you are so drawn in to their world and what is happening in it that the stumbling opening chapter is all but forgotten.
By the end of the game you will be drawn into it, as the plot twists and turns and characters you thought you knew reveal whole new sides to them. This is the joy of Life is Strange – it draws you in to its world of jocks, nerds and surly security officers and inverts the cliches at every turn. Many of the decisions you make, particularly at the start of the game, may well be made based on your own prejudices about these characters and this can have a fairly dramatic affect on how the story plays out for you.
As you begin to understand more how the game works, so you begin to play more with its time travel aspects, attempting to unravel decisions before making them again. Instead of undermining the narrative, however, it only adds to the tension, as largely the consequences of changes you make are difficult to predict and the game constantly throws surprises at you.
The diverging narrative and the impact of your decisions leads to Life is Strange’s other unexpected joy – it’s social aspects. Not something you would normally associate with adventure games, the nature of Life is Strange means that it is one of only two games in recent memory (the other being PS4 exclusive horror story Until Dawn) where each game has been followed by frantic calls to friends to see what decisions they made. That it shows you what decisions your friends and others made at the end of each chapter shows that Dontnod knew exactly what they were onto with this.
If you are in the mood for a good adventure or just a ripping yarn then Life is Strange is worth your time. Don’t be put off by the awkward first chapter with its unlikeable characters, just give it time to pull you in to its tale of time travel, tornadoes and lifelong friendship.