On the eve of the prequel’s launch, Screen Critic Joe goes back to experience the charm of Life is Strange
The charming, episodic darling, Life is Strange, combines a pulpy high school drama with sci-fi time travel. Conceptually, the blend may sound absurd, but developer Dontnod Entertainment melds the two together to tell a unique and impactful story over a five episode arc. After a few years, it isn’t hard to see why the world of Arcadia Bay is expanding with a prequel starting in just a few days.
Life is Strange‘s first episode sets up the framework of the game well. The experience is initially jarring, with a camera that feels too tightly zoomed in and awkward facial animations, a la Mass Effect Andromeda, but both complaints though, fade quickly as exploration becomes more intuitive and the charm of the art style sets in. Once adjusted, players find an invigorating story that sets up a plethora of intrigue. At some points, it almost feels overwhelming, but not initially too large. The killer, hipster sound track complements the vibe nicely.
In terms of gameplay, episode one strongly showcases the unique blend of genres and fires on all cylinders right out of the gate. Episode one sets up a lot of compelling plot lines early on, but what sets Life is Strange apart from other narrative titles of a similar vein (read: Telltale), is the ability to rewind time and play through scenarios differently. Dontnod takes advantage of this mechanic by creating morally ambiguous scenarios; it would be easy to rewind through scenarios to get a ‘good’ ending, but the scenarios were developed with enough intention to keep the game relatively grounded. The emphasis, then, falls on how individuals work through the different scenarios with time for reflection, making the choices each player makes more indicative of each player’s own views on morality. The resulting experience is vigorously authentic and promoted an above average amount of metacognition from a video game.
What’s tragic then is how episode two, titled Out of Time, slows the momentum of the first episode to a crawl. The objectives in Out of Time feel mundane in comparison to the blood pumping scenarios of the first episode. The trivial nature of the tasks is likely an attempt to capture a ‘slice of life’ vibe, but it falls flat due to a lack of fun or meaning in the actions. Outside of the powerful and somber ending, Out of Time loses most of the first episode’s steam because of the simultaneous lack of consequences and short term payoffs. Episode two also features some scenarios where time travel isn’t allowed for what seems like arbitrary reasons, effectively losing the charm of the mechanic that made the first episode feel so powerful. The syncopation, especially in a few of the crux moments of the episode, was particularly frustrating.
Episode three thankfully remedies the issues by quickening the pace and giving the suspenseful actions more intention. Even the mundane activities that plagued episode two feel like less of a drag. Of all the conclusions and cliffhangers, Chaos Theory stands out as one of the strongest from both a narrative and mechanical perspective. Chaos Theory upends a lot of assumptions about the world and expands the scope to engrossing heights. Episode three recovers the missteps of episode two and propels the drama through the final episodes.
The logic puzzle that opens episode four brings the wide narrative together and ramps up the pace yet again, even if that focus is fleeting. The tense interactions between focal NPCs bring a lot of side narratives to a close with varying levels of satisfaction. Plenty of through lines have lackluster resolutions, leaving a sense that perhaps Life is Strange bit off more than it could chew, but nothing ever feels too disappointing or not concluded properly. The high number of loose ends that get tied up, whether satisfying or not, makes episode four feel like the meatiest episode of the season. The twist at the end isn’t super surprising as the narrative reaches its climax but still ends on a significant, jaw-dropping cliffhanger.
Life is Strange concludes with a strange and unbalanced episode that leans too heavily on the science-fiction, whereas episode 4 focused on the teenage drama. The small bit of tension that follows from the previous episode has an unsatisfyingly cramped feel and rarely capitalizes on the thematic bombshells before completely devolving into a trippy mess. By the time the narrative comes back into focus for the major final choice, a lot of the cadence between the two main characters and the importance of the decision is all but squandered.
Despite a few significant bumps in the road, both narratively and mechanically, Life is Strange meshes two interesting genres to deliver an impactful story. Some elements of the story feel like they are relied on too heavily, giving a sense of imbalance to the narrative, but the true star is the unique take on decision-based adventure games that provides a more honest reflection of the player’s own agency. In a lot of ways, the payoffs in Life is Strange leave a dissatisfying taste, but the inner reflection through the use of time travel puts Dontnod’s title in a higher echelon of gaming.
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