Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Life Is Strange - Review

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment 
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3, PC, Xbox One, 360 

First impressions can be deceiving. That's certainly the case with Life is Strange. It's the kind of game you can boot up, play for a while and think “damn, what were they thinking?” as you cringe at the awkward, dated writing (“Shaka Brah”) and the abundance of hipster characters. Meanwhile,  a bunch of presumably 40-something French game designers attempt to write dialogue for Americans half their age. It doesn't help that the character animation is awkward, with people stiffly jerking about during cut-scenes like cheap action figures.

So yes, Life is Strange doesn't do much to endear itself. But then you keep on playing, and, at some point, the whole thing clicks. And it's pretty darn brilliant.

Developers Dontnod were previously responsible for the somewhat underrated action adventure game Remember Me, a typical sci-fi exploration title that bolstered its limited game mechanics by investing in its story and world. Life is Strange does the same thing, swapping the robots and neo-Paris locale for Arcadia Bay, a small town in the Pacific Northwest.

The game has you take control of Max, a young photography student just starting out at university. Before long, some strange events happen and, out of the blue, Max discovers she has time travel powers.

The game wears its influences on its sleeve. It's indebted to Twin Peaks almost as much as Deadly Premonition was; filled with weird characters all bustling around the same small town. Likewise, it can be easy to label Life is Strange as a Telltale-clone, using the same episodic structure  and focus on story.

However, this is perhaps a bit of a misleading comparison. Whilst Telltale's recent success no doubt influenced Life is Strange, Dontnod's game arguably has its feet further in the past. There's actual areas to explore here, things to interact with, people to talk to that aren't directly related to the story. Telltale's games are focused, cinematic, almost becoming dialogue simulators at some points. In contrast, Life is Strange wants you to explore, to mess around and investigate.

It's an old-fashioned point-and-click in other words, only with modern sensibilities, and it certainly goes a long way to helping the game work.  With the major gimmick being time travel  this directly dovetails with the emphasis on messing around with potential outcomes.

Talk to someone and you can rewind time to ask them something else. Sometimes this won't have much of an impact but at other moments it can be crucial. Get a secret out of someone and you can rewind time so that they think they never told you, or maybe undo an accident so that it never even occurs.

There's a pulpy weirdness to the game which slowly works in and is what arguably makes it so endearing. Max's time travel powers are never fully explained, they're just there. Characters talk about weird weather (many simply blame it on global warming), a second moon shows up, whale corpses pile up on the beach. There's moments where the strangeness almost makes the step into horror and it arguably benefits from it.

Although the weirdness is never quite the focus of Life Is Strange but it's always there, hovering in the background.

Rather than focus on its fantastical conceits, the game instead puts emphasis on its relationships. There's a core bond built up between Max and Chloe, childhood friends who have only just had a chance to get back together. Throughout the five episodes their friendship, which, doesn't have to remain merely a friendship, depending on your choices, becomes the heart of the story.

Likewise, Max's relationships slowly evolve with the rest of her classmates too. It's here where Dontnod lean on genre stereotypes; there's the devout religious girl, the friendly geek, and the bitchy prom queen. Yet, by the end of the game, all of these characters feel like they've been subverted somewhat. At the beginning it's easy to predict where these characters will end up, yet, by the end, it's honestly surprising how they've developed.

Dontnod's attempts to explore interesting subject matter is  equally compelling. Chloe and Max's relationship can become something more than platonic but even if they just remain friends, Chloe's sexuality is hard to pin down. She's a fascinating character, and whilst she starts out as a loud-mouthed stoner, by the end of the game, she's become the centre of the story. This development is gradual and fascinating to watch, and arguably justifies the game's episodic structure.

Moreover, there's a storyline early on that leads to one character being bullied and driven to suicide. Once again, it's handled surprisingly well and there's genuine ramifications depending on how you've acted throughout the series leading up to this point. The writers don't amp this up as an “Emotional Moment™” but simply let it breathe. It's one of the strongest moments in the game and a credit to the writers that they pulled it off without the whole scene feeling exploitative.

What's more impressive is how these events have genuine ramifications. One of my criticisms of one of Telltale's more recent works is that the entire sections seem so on-rails. They have little room to manoeuvre and the characters all appear to make their minds up regardless of player-input. In contrast there's several moments in Life is Strange where you have to stop as you realize something you did hours ago has finally had repercussions. After warning the school principal that a student had a gun it wasn't until the very end of the episode that I had a threat from his (very rich) parents, that my accusations wouldn't go unpunished.

Most of all though, Life is Strange teaches you to have fun with its mechanics. There's something incredibly meta about the ability to rewind events and alter your choices. It can initially seem like your choices won't have any weight, after all they can simply be undone. But then, you can just reload a save file and have created just the same effect. The developers seem to acknowledge this and use the time travel mechanic to comment on the idea of there ever being a “right choice”, and about taking responsibility for your own decisions.

And yet, for all the character dramas and mystery that go on, the game's best moments are when you get to the end of an episode. There's the usual page of “60% of people made this big decision” but then you turn the page and there's a list of minor events that you could have influenced. Maybe you talked to the homeless person outside the cafeteria, signed a petition opposing surveillance cameras in school or watered your plant. It's these little things that sum up Life is Strange even better than its more dramatic moments.

Going from eye-rolling and feeling like I hated every single character at the beginning, to having a lump in my throat by the conclusion, that was quite the journey. I didn't expect Life Is Strange to have that effect on me, yet it did, and it shows just how good Dontnod's game really is. It definitely takes time to get going and find its feet, but when it does, it's worth every darn second.


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