When I first played Remember Me, the first game of French dev Dontnod Entertainment, I said that while the game fell short from my expectations, there was some potential in there that made me hopeful for whatever project they’d tackle next. Back then I also assumed that their next endeavor would be a sequel to that game, which is why Life Is Strange’s announcement came as a pleasant surprise that quickly put them back on my radar, specially because a graphic adventure game would give them the chance to express themselves outside the limitations of having to cater to the AAA market, or needing massive sales. After finishing the first episode of Life Is Strange, I can say that Dontnod figured out how to play to their strengths and, while not perfect, this might be the game that finally earns them some much deserved recognition.
On Life is Strange we’ll play the role of Max Caulfield, an 18-year old girl moving back to her native town of Arcadia Bay after a five-year absence to continue her Photography studies at a renowned school. But her life will take an unexpected turn (ha!) when, after witnessing and trying to stop a violent episode at the school’s ladies’ room, she discovers she has the ability to rewind time. While noticeably confused by her newfound skills at first, Max quickly learns how to dominate and use them at her benefit: wrong answers can be undone in order to make them right the second time around, objects we’re not supposed to interact with can be returned to a previous state therefore leaving no evidence, and it’s up to us (as Max) to use our best judgment in order to choose the best course of action for each situation, and use our knowledge of the future to change (or not) their outcome.
On the other hand of this story we have Chloe, who was Max’s best friend before she moved to Seattle five years ago. But this punk-ish, blue-haired Chloe is not the same from back then, to the point Max doesn’t recognize her as the person she saved at the bathroom earlier that day. After seeing each other again and catching up with their lives, both girls decide to work together to investigate a mysterious disappearance, which the game tells us about earlier, and hits Chloe really close.
Life is Strange’s gameplay borrows heavily from modern graphic adventures, like those of Telltale Games or Quantic Dream, but unlike these companies’ latest offerings it doesn’t forget it’s supposed to be a video game. While controlling Max we’ll have liberty to move and interact with the game world and all the characters that show up throughout the story. The game also uses a third person camera during all the playable sequences, leaving more ‘cinematic’ camera angles only for cutscenes, interactive or otherwise. From Telltale it also borrows the on-screen prompts and messages that let us know whenever one of our choices will have future consequences. The twist being, of course, that we can undo our choices if we don’t want to deal with them, taking advantage of Max’s gift in order to take a different path. There are also a few basic puzzles, but they feel extremely welcomed now that Telltale has completely changed their focus to interactive stories. Add some optional conversations and events we can miss during our first playthrough, and the game offers quite a bit of replay value over the two+ hours it takes to complete.
One of the biggest positives in the game to me was the writing. All the characters feel believable. Aside from a few moments of sloppy, cringeworthy dialogue (you can almost picture the writers at Dontnod saying “this is TOTALLY how teenagers speak, right? Right?”), every character’s personality feels well realized. Max’s classmates and teachers feel like real people, and for the most part they avoid stereotypes and clichés, even if sometimes they fall into familiar character tropes for this kind of high school/college setting.
Max herself deserves recognition too, since she never feels like anything else than a regular 18-year old girl. Through the episode we’ll not only hear her thoughts, but we can also read her diary where she writes about her day-to-day life, and Dontnod made a great job to make a credible female main character.
Visually speaking, Life is Strange goes for a very personal visual style, although Unreal Engine 3’s limitations and a limited budget make for sort of a mixed bag. Most of the areas and backgrounds in the game show some great design and feel like real places. Character models are well done and show some pretty great face animations. My biggest issue with them is that there’s absolutely no lip syncing, which took me out of the game at several points. I can’t even call it bad lip sync, because that implies there’s lip syncing at all. Instead, characters will flap their mouths like puppets, with no rhyme or reason, and no effort whatsoever to match the dialogue.
Another issue I noticed was visible texture buffering whenever entering a new area, which also takes a hit on the framerate, which for some reason is locked to 30 fps on consoles. Seeing performance drops on a graphically speaking non-demanding game such as this made me wonder if maybe a bigger budget or dev time would’ve helped with it. Anyway, these are minor gripes and the game looks and runs great most of the time, and some of the scenes even look beautiful. Throw in an OST consisting of mostly licensed indie/folk rock tracks, and the game really achieves that indie movie feel.
The first episode of Life is Strange shows promise. An artsy, beautiful at times game that leaves us with many questions that we’ll undoubtedly see answered as further episodes come. Add an engaging story, and never forgetting about actual gameplay, Dontnod don’t fall asleep on Telltale’s laurels and play their best card. I hope it pays off for them.