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Life is Strange

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Release Date: Jan. 30, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


Xbox One Review - 'Life is Strange: Episode 1 - Chrysalis'

by Brian Dumlao on Feb. 11, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Life is Strange is a five part episodic narrative driven adventure game that sets out to change story based choice and consequence games by allowing the player to rewind time and affect the past, present and future.

Whether it's in recent Telltale outings like The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands or smaller indie efforts like The Detail, the power of choice is strong enough to steer the story in new directions and is enough to compel players to revisit the titles and make different choices. Life is Strange is an adventure game that also values the mechanic of choice, but it gives you the ability to make some immediate changes based on those selections. Does the instant do-over button help or hinder this episodic tale?

You play as Maxine Caulfield, a photography student at the somewhat prestigious Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Back in her hometown after some time away, she's a bit introverted and unsure of her abilities despite receiving a scholarship for her photography. A month after her 18th birthday, she has a strange dream that entails the destruction of Arcadia Bay. Shortly afterward, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time in short bursts. Now she has to figure out how to use the newfound power and decipher her dream.

As important as the dream is, it's pushed aside in favor of a more intimate look at Max's school life. The tropes of teen movies are present, from the class bully to the insecure friend and the teacher who believes in your talent. When you walk down the hall while your earbuds blast away, the scene is reminiscent of any number of teen dramas. When you peer into Max's journal, it helps to deepen her character and situation, but it isn't groundbreaking to anyone who's recently watched a teen drama.

The introduction of rewinding time opens up things a good deal. All of the side characters feel pretty fleshed out since they're all dealing with their own issues and problems. One of the ladies is duped into thinking that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Others are more elevated, like the overzealous security guard's relationship with the students and her old best friend Chloe's relationship with her step-dad. There's a shooting in the bathroom that sparks the awakening of your time-rewinding power. There's also the larger story about a missing girl in the area, and it's amplified by some later references.

Even with all of this going on, the story remains focused on Max and her reactions. The newfound powers freak her out at first, but she doesn't immediately change her attitude. Her insecurity influences every important decision she makes. The immediate use of her power includes answering simple questions correctly and ensuring that some of the wrongs are righted. There's a sense of guilt when she sees Chloe again, since she feels guilty for not staying in touch for those missing years. With all of the bigger mysteries and events, the story remains rather human in this first episode. In a game, that approach feels rather novel.

The episode's plot ends by bringing up more mysteries to entice you to continue, but what's more important and impressive is how the events build up and flesh out the world. The details of Max and Chloe's childhood paint a happy picture of the good times and the sadness that it was abandoned due to a move. The major players in the school seem like caricatures of what you'd normally see in a teen drama, but they feel more real than their portrayals in other games. The town also feels real, even though you don't see much of it, and the pop culture references make it believable. Outside of a few missteps here and there, this feels like a typical small town in America.

As intriguing as the story is at this juncture, Life is Strange gives the player more control when compared to the Telltale template it follows. A big part of that is evident in the exploration sequences, since you can clearly walk to just about every spot you can see and, in some cases, interact with it. It follows in the tradition of old adventure games, where items can be viewed and picked up no matter how trivial, and Max's internal commentary takes over with descriptions both witty and useful. It highlights everything of importance in the world and gives you a quick list of options, taking away from some unnecessary guesswork. There are few puzzles in this episode, and they're fairly easy to solve since they use actual logic instead of contrived game logic.

Conversations are still the main focus, and as in any modern adventure game, you're given a choice between two responses that come with the warning that they'll have future ramifications. The choices aren't timed, so you can take your time in making a decision, but you can rewind conversations and choose a different choice at any interval, so that cuts down on the need to replay the episode to see what's different about each branch. As each of the decisions reaches a conclusion, Max always ends up questioning them, so the game is never clear about whether any of the choices are right or wrong. It might seem annoying at first, but it's a great move since the title isn't steering you toward a specific outcome.

Like the story, the gameplay feels like it's setting up for something bigger down the road. The time rewind mechanic is only used for simple puzzles here, but you can see its potential for more complicated ones. Whether that happens is anyone's guess, but at least you don't get the feeling that it's just a gimmick thrown in for fun. We won't see the consequences of any of your choices until (at least) the next episode.

One thing that is interesting is how many elements the game counts once you finish the first episode. All of the big decisions, such as whether you inform the principal about something or whether you save your friend from being bullied, are counted against the community. Actions like watering your plant or drawing on a dusty RV are seemingly inconsequential, but seeing them highlighted in the end-of-game stats makes you wonder if there's something bigger behind those specific game actions. There's a mystery to it, and it'll be fascinating to see if that plays a bigger role as the episodes roll out.

Most games struggle to get the cinematic look that's the aim of most big-budget titles. Life is Strange nails that part perfectly, as long as you're comparing it to independent cinema. There are plenty of perspective shots where foreground elements disappear in a blur while the main focus of the shot sits far away in contemplative poses. There are a few shots taken for atmosphere, such as focusing on nature or inanimate objects that have sentimental value. The time rewind mechanic is framed in a film negative burn, and faded and out-of-focus shots are used for past events. The eternal afternoon setting of the episode provides lots of scenes with sunrays bursting through silhouettes.

Aside from the cinematic shots and angles, the graphical style is less uniform and more of a mix between styles in other adventure games. The character models are almost photo-realistic, minus the overly detailed skin texturing and the plastic shine in some titles that use Unreal Engine. The backdrops also feel like a mix between realism overlaid with paint, while highlighted items with a moving squiggle feel like crude sketchbook animation. Close-up shots of photographs go for a completely painted style. On paper, it sounds like a mess, but it works well in action and makes the game look rather distinct.

However, there are some technical issues. The well-known issue of texture pop and creep that plagues the Unreal Engine shows up in full force, with some quick camera cuts showing blurry textures before the more detailed ones abruptly pop up. There are also a few instances when the shadows are off on some objects when viewed from certain angles. More notable is the issue of lip-synching, where the lips don't move correctly with the words, almost as if this were developed with French speech in mind before English was added.

The sound is brilliant. To continue movie comparisons, the soundtrack feels like it came out of an indie drama. There's great use of folk music at just the right times, like the walk down the school hallway or through Chloe's house. The lyrics are meaningful, and it feels appropriate for the story. The performances by the voice actors are also quite good, though there you sometimes heard hints of non-American accents peeking through at inopportune times. Some of the lines use really outdated slang, but it still works well in conveying modern teen life in a small town. Overall, the script feels richer due to these elements.

There's a lot of interesting setup in the first episode of Life is Strange, and this is a great start. There's the overarching mystery of the missing girl, but the smaller ones have the potential to open up interesting subplots later on. The time rewind mechanic is very convenient for solving simple puzzles and ensuring that the choices you make are ones you're comfortable with, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact this will all have. Like all episodic adventure titles, it's too early to tell if the entire game will be good. Based on this episode, there's enough intrigue that the wait for the second episode, which is currently scheduled for March, might be a tad unbearable.

Score: 8.0/10

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