[REVIEWED] Life is Strange – Episode 1

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This first game in a series has taken a page from TellTale’s book and delivered an interesting story, replete with compelling characters, meaningful choices and many reasons to look forward to subsequent instalments. As far as episodic adventure games go, that’s a full house.

You play as Max Caulfield, an 18 year old girl who’s just returned to her home town after a five-year absence to attend a prestigious art school. She’s been at the Blackwell Academy for a month as the story opens, but she’s not made any real friends yet and is still trying to get to grips with the very teenage dynamics of attempting to fit in, as well as with various high school cliches like cliques, bullies and general angst.

Life is Strange - High School
High school: Party central for some.

She’s a bit shy and nerdy and she clearly loves photography – her chosen instrument is an instant camera from the 1980s rather than something new-fangled and digital – but she’s also experiencing moments of supernatural weirdness: she’s plagued not only by disastrous visions, but also the ability to rewind time which she discovers early on.

Life is Strange - Dream
Darkness and violent storms in visions don’t exactly bode well.

That ability comes in handy throughout the story, as Max rewinds time to pursue alternate conversation options, fix mistakes and learn things which she uses to make rewound conversations go her way. It’s a cool mechanic, lending the game a welcome fantasy air and a convenient way around the whole save/load system of other games. It won’t let you change the decisions you’ll make once they’re made, but it will let you consider both options each time a little more closely.

If you’ve ever played a TellTale game, you’ll be right at home with Life is Strange’s concepts of choice and consequence and character-driven storytelling. But you’ll also notice one big difference: instead of playing through scenes that feel like digital sets thanks to a fixed camera, you have full camera control in Life is Strange, and are able to walk through the fully 3D world, just looking at things. The graphics, though, seem intended to appear more arty than technically accurate and are just okay as a result, but the freedom is welcome.

Life is Strange - Interface
Stylish, but not amazing.

The change lets the designers really flesh the world out, giving the player snippets of insight into other characters, places, and most importantly, Max by sharing her inner monologue with you. That way the story, its characters and even Max develops organically, eventually feeling more natural than TellTale’s stories do, which I rather appreciated. I also thoroughly enjoyed the game’s soundtrack, featuring some rather fitting songs from bands like Mogwai, Bright Eyes and Syd Matters.

And it’s here where Life is Strange really shines. By giving the player a rather slow introduction to Max, by fleshing out the mysterious people in her world and raising intriguing questions throughout, it lays a great foundation on which to build subsequent episodes. I do worry that modern gamers may not have the patience to stick with Max as the story progresses given how slow this first episode unfolded, though.

Life is Strange - Consequence Indication
Your cue to rewind if you don’t think your choice was right.

Me, I couldn’t help being drawn in, but then I do consider myself a patient gamer. As the game progressed, I found myself wanting to know the answers to the questions I was presented with; I was surprised to learn that I actually cared about Max and her best friend Chloe; I wondered at the motivations of certain characters and how they were going to play out as the game developed, and by the time my three hours of playtime came to a close, I was hungry for more. As per the developer’s plan, I’m sure.

Life is Strange - Chloe
Ah, Chloe. Your mystery is as alluring as your purple hair.

On the other hand, I could also see a few flaws in their approach. Puzzles, for instance, don’t require much thought to solve; this is far more an interactive story with choice elements a la TellTale’s games than it is a puzzle-driven adventure. Dialogue, too, is not the best at times, with such gems as “Go f*** your selfie” and “Are you cereal?” somehow making its way into a game supposedly about modern-day teenagers. Adding insult to injury, the lip-synching is way off a lot of the time, which is a bit jarring for the viewer.

Those minor gripes aside, I enjoyed Life is Strange’s first episode, and am certainly looking forward to seeing how the groundwork laid by this introduction pans out.

Life is Strange is on PC, Xbox One/360, PlayStation 3 & 4. Each episode costs $4.99 (R60 or so).

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.