‘If only I could turn back time. I could do things differently.’ I’m sure that’s a thought most of us have had at some point in our lives. This ‘What if?’ line of thinking is the basis for DONTNOD Entertainment’s new episodic adventure Life Is Strange. Similar to Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead episodic series, DONTNOD are attempting to present a Butterfly Effect-esque choice and consequence driven story that promises multiple endings based on player decisions. Episode 1 of Life Is Strange, aptly titled Chrysalis, focuses on Max. An otherwise normal, if somewhat shy and awkward eighteen year old student of photography. She discovers an ability to rewind short amounts of time when witnessing the murder of another student. It is from this catalyst that events will unfold and be affected by the choices Max makes. In essence, episode one is primarily a tutorial and introduction to the world of Arcadia Bay.
Controlling Max and interacting with the world is an easy affair regardless of whether you choose to play with the mouse and keyboard or a controller. On-screen prompts switch on the fly allowing a change in controls at any time without the need to restart the game or alter settings in the options menu. When Max is near to an object or person of interest an identifying label will be displayed. Move nearer or focus your view on one of these and the label changes to show possible actions. Playing with a mouse will require you to press the left button down and drag the mouse to one of the options. Using a controller however, allows for a simpler method of interaction; you only need to press the corresponding button displayed. Max’s inventory is handled in a similarly simple fashion. Key items are displayed in the top right corner in sketch form and these are automatically used when required. This eliminates the need for inventory management and allows the player to focus on the main mechanic of Life Is Strange – rewinding time.
Max’s ability to rewind time is reminiscent of the memory alteration mechanic from DONTNOD Entertainment’s earlier game, Remember Me. While changing memories was limited to certain stages in Remember Me, rewinding can be performed throughout Life Is Strange. Max has access to this power outside of conversations and it has several uses. For example, rewinding to the point before you spoke someone, allows you to play out alternate conversation paths. This gives you the opportunity to alter an interaction based on information you learnt moments before, such as providing the correct answer to a question. Several of the puzzles throughout the episode can be solved by rewinding time, although not all of them require this if they are solved correctly the first time. Manipulating time also allows Max to avoid fatal outcomes by jumping ahead of life-threatening obstacles.
Time skipping in this manner does feel awkward as Max is unable to move while rewinding time. Thus you need to keep rewinding in short bursts, moving, then rewinding again. While most interactions Max has with the world are rather inconsequential to the main story arc, there are four key events and twelve actions which have consequences that may carry over to later episodes. Rewinding allows you to experience each of the available outcomes, once you discover how to trigger them, as many times as you like before settling on your choice. However, not all scenes provide a chance for using the rewind function due to immediately moving the player to another area.
Selections are finalised upon leaving the current area and cannot be undone after that point. Regardless of what you decide during an event, there is an overwhelming tendency for Max to double guess her actions. While understandable that DONTNOD Entertainment did this to eliminate any clear signs of a right answer and to encourage the use of the rewind mechanic, the constant doubt can wear thin. Overall, the ability to reverse your initial decision is a refreshing change, and one of the elements which allows Life Is Strange to stand out from other adventure games.
A veritable smorgasbord of photo shoot (read as screenshot) opportunities, Life Is Strange’s artistic direction is truly beautiful. This can be best described as a digital representation of a water colour painting. Life Is Strange is a strong argument for some games being a form of art. The graphical style is complemented with the choice of camera direction and the limited field of focus used to frame the action. Every scene is presented in a manner that emulates the US TV drama mould, right down to how the ending is formatted. Also interspersed throughout Life Is Strange are several interludes, such as Max leaning against a tree or flying a drone. These not only provide a chance for Max to voice her thoughts, but are also another opportunity for the delightful style of the game to shine.
While there have been many attempts at employing the interactive film style, it clearly stands out in Life Is Strange. DONTNOD Entertainment have left a further nod to this inspiration in the form of vehicle number plates. Each is a reference to a popular TV show. All of this is complemented with the voice acting and soundtrack. From the lazy guitar riffs present as soon as the game loads to the various songs used throughout, the score for Life Is Strange would be perfectly at home in a captivating drama. It is worth turning on the Hi-Fi’s found around the game world, just to hear the music. Many of these tracks are from independent bands and I would like to see this soundtrack made available for purchase.
While it is obvious that DONTNOD Entertainment have put a lot heart and soul into the creation of Life Is Strange, there are some flaws. Max will occasionally receive messages on her smartphone. When playing with a controller, these can be easily scrolled with the same stick used to move Max. However, when playing with mouse and keyboard, these are controlled with the arrow keys instead. It is not possible to use the mouse wheel to scroll through them. While most previously viewed scenes can be skipped, this is not true of those shown when entering a new area. This results in needing to watch them several times if you choose to end your game at the start of a new section.
Due to the format, only checkpoint saving is made available and saves are limited to only three slots. Once an episode is completed, there are a variety of choices for replaying. A collection mode is made available and allows you to play any scene again without affecting the choices you already made. The primary use of this mode is to find any optional photo opportunities that were previously missed. I would have preferred seeing the inventory icons hidden during this mode. Alternatively, there is the option to replay the game from any chapter to make new choices. This can either overwrite your current save, or can be transferred to another available save slot. As such the provision of only three slots feels too restrictive.
In an early stage of Life Is Strange the player is informed that Max is not affected by rewinding. She retains facts and inventory objects. While this is true in most parts of the game, there are some glaring inconsistencies. In one case Max has the option of taking a photograph, but if the player then rewinds and opts to select the alternative choice, that photograph no longer exists. From a story point of view this makes sense, as the timeline in which the photograph was taken never existed, but it does contradict the information provided in the aforementioned tutorial message.
While multiple endings depending on choices are boasted as a feature, there is only one ending to the first episode. Subsequent episodes are expected to release at a rate of once every six weeks, so it will be some time before it is clear whether this promise will be lived up to. The choices made throughout episode one do currently feel rather inconsequential. Events still occur in roughly the same manner regardless. A pivotal scene in the parking lot has an identical outcome regardless, although certain elements of the conversation do change. On average a play-through of the first episode will take around three hours. This will be longer if time is taken to interact with each of the characters; which is recommended as additional information can be gleaned from them. When the episode is completed you are shown a list of the choices you made. The percentage of friends or worldwide players that made each choice is also shown. This is helpful in pointing out alternative selections that may have been missed.
Created with the Unreal engine, Life Is Strange offers several settings for graphical quality, including a variety of resolutions and the ability to play windowed. Keyboard controls can also be remapped. I experienced no crashes or bugs and generally had consistently smooth framerates of 60 FPS with V-Sync turned on. However, there were one or two instances where this dropped significantly for a few seconds.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Life Is Strange has several options for purchase. The full season can be purchased outright for $19.99. Alternatively the first episode can by bought for $4.99 with a later option to upgrade to the full season at an additional cost of $16.99. Based on my time with episode one, I would highly recommend purchasing the season outright. Life Is Strange is a wonderful example of the interactive TV genre, and future developers should take note. I eagerly await the second episode.
- Time Played – 6 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- Windowed Mode – Yes
- Resolution Played – 1920×1080
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None
- DRM – Steamworks
- System Specs – Intel i7-3770K @3.50 GHz, 8GB RAM, 4GB GeForce GTX 670
- Control Scheme – M/KB or controller; controller recommended
- Saved Game Location – Documents\my games\Life Is Strange\Saves
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam,
- Demo – No