Life is Strange

Developer: Don’t Nod
Publisher: Square Enix
Year: 2015
Platform: Windows, Xbox, iOS, Android, Mac

Rating: 9

I came for the time travel. I stayed for Maxine and Chloe.

Life is Strange begins in media res, our hero Maxine Caufield alone in her thoughts in the middle of a photography lecture at the esteemed Blackwell Academy, a private art school for ambitious high school students. After being admonished by her professor and teased by the class bully, she plugs in her headphones and heads for the bathroom. There she witnesses the murder of another student, and following an emotional outburst of fear and anger, finds herself back in the same photography lecture ten minutes prior, with just enough time to prevent the murder from happening.

Max quickly surmises she’s been blessed (or cursed?) with the power to rewind time. While grateful to be able to use it for good, she soon agonizes over every life decision and whether or not to give herself a mulligan. She soon bumps into Chloe Price, her bright but troubled best friend from childhood whom she hasn’t seen in five years. Max discloses her super power to Chloe and they spend the next week trying to solve the attempted murder, all the while experiencing the usual teenage angst and turmoil.

Max’s time travel ability presents itself in ways beyond just rescuing people (or herself) in danger. With few exceptions, she is able to rewind at almost any time for upwards of a minute or so in order to restart conversations or undo actions while solving puzzles. And the ability grows throughout the week. The time travel ability is rarely fun from a gaming perspective as there are few puzzles to work out and most of the other uses are either mandatory or inconsequential.. However, it is integral to the overall story and how it shapes the characters’ lives.

And this is where the game shines. Max and Chloe are an absolute delight together and they are wonderfully voiced by Hannah Tell and Ashly Burch respectively. I clicked on anything and everything to hear Max’s internal monologue. While some have criticized the characters for being overly emo, it seems to me that most people just underestimate how emo they were in high school. I was a fairly unremarkable teenager, and I’m pretty sure everyone would rather listen to Max than read my high school diary. The supporting cast does a fine job as well, even if for the most part they’re light on character development. There are a few cliché dialogues (mostly by the adults in the room) that occasionally take the player out of the moment, especially when contrasted with the otherwise authentic conversations. I’ll note that despite the two main characters identifying as female, there were disappointingly zero women on the writing team.

Gameplay is quite user-friendly, whether using a gamepad or the keyboard/mouse. I found the gamepad to be more relaxing, and there’s occasional vibration deployed for those so inclined. Movement occurs in a comic-book style 3D environment similar to that of The Walking Dead. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, and the character animation is a bit stiff at times, but the voice acting helps rise above these imperfections. What is frequently jarring is the poor lip syncing, which will be fine for long stretches and then suddenly off enough to torpedo a dramatic scene. The soundtrack is rock solid, with apropos emo songs layered over scene transitions.

As mentioned, there is little in the way of in-depth puzzle solving. There are many fetch quests, though for the most part they don’t feel contrived and integrate well with the plot. If you ever get stuck on what to do next, Max’s inner monologue will give you gentle nudges (and eventually specific pushes) in order to keep the story going. The better puzzles do involve using your time travel ability to rewind time for everyone else while you stand still in order to gain positional advantages.

One fun aspect of the game is that Max carries her instant camera everywhere. While this is used as a plot device several times, there also many opportunities to take pictures for Steam achievements. None are required, and they’re often hidden visual delights that require deep exploration or puzzle solving to access.

Max does make many decisions throughout the game that do alter how the story progresses, though as with most games of this nature, the impact is more in the flavor than in the end result. This is not a criticism, as there’s a really good story at play here that would be ruined if every decision branched into a completely different path. And even if the endgame is similar for everyone, there are definitive mood shifts and varying character arcs that are based on your choices throughout. One can replay the game from any chapter (either to find more photos to take or make different game choices) and save it to the same or a separate file.

While I didn’t have a strong desire to replay the game right away, it will be nice to have some different options shall I revisit this world in the future. I’d much rather just have more of the world to visit. After the credits rolled I found myself instantly missing Max and Chloe, which is a surefire sign of a great story.

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