The story takes place in a struggling fishing village in the Pacific Northwest; a setting that plays seamlessly with hipster-savvy characters and strong female leads. You take control of our budding photographer protagonist, Max, on her 18th birthday as she’s recently enrolled in prestigious art-driven boarding school for gifted students. In the opening scene she has a crazy premonition and discovers that she has ability to control—reverse—time. It’s awesome. It’s every indie stereotype personified in a cataclysm of so much sugary-pop goodness that it hurts your teeth and rots your mind—only to later sideswipe you with depth and soul.
The writing team needs to be commended on the construction of their universe—something I feel that went naturally unnoticed for most but was subconsciously appreciated by all. Max carries around a journal in a messenger bag along with an old-school polaroid camera. This journal reads something straight out of the Riot Grrrl zines published by quirky girls from the Pacific Northwest a few decades earlier—the doodles in the margins and snarky attitude adds an unparalleled level of high school realism. The depth of research capturing Pac-West alt-rock, or perhaps pulling from real-life experience, encapsulated the earnest struggle of coming-of-age and wrapped the entire package in the “cool girls next door.” I couldn’t help but immediately identify with Max and Chloe because I felt like they were the crew that I hung out with in high school—or at least I tried to when they let me (*cough cough* Warren hit a little too close to home!).
It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but you have to keep truckin’ through to Episode 4 to really see how Life Is Strange evolves. In Episode 1 you roll your eyes by all of the needless high-school-drama that high school kids seem to get caught up in. It’s hard to remind yourself that this irrelevant bubble of humanity actually exists—think Thirteen Reasons Why—but I ate it up, just like the Netflix series. What’s cool is that the writers masterfully capture innocence lost—which turns out to be the crux of the game—but they demonstrate this beyond the stunning finale. What concerns Max in Episode 1 is absolutely laughable by Episode 5, but she gets there so effortlessly. You don’t realize how much Max matures as you play the game, only when you think back—just like real life.
The gameplay is rather basic. You just walk around, look at and discover items, have conversations, and use your time travel capabilities to sway circumstance in your favor. What keeps it interesting is Max’s inner monologue that seems to comment and have an opinion on everything—which is pretty much what it sounds like in my head all day. The writing and voice-acting, respectfully, is compelling enough to keep things interesting without a lot going on and you feel justified by deeply exploring the world as items you come across seem relevant. The first couple of episodes I felt like a snoop that was going to get caught, but I quickly realized that if you have the opportunity to explore—take it. You can aways reverse time if you get caught.
While you see the world from Max’s point of view, the story hinges around her best friend, Chloe—who is straight up rad. Chloe is the Riot Grrrl rock n’ roll to Max’s earnest hipster. Blue hair, beanies, tattoos, and a bullet necklace = Punk Rock Dream Come True. But I digress… Chloe’s irrational behavior seems forced for the sake of the story. I understand the frustration they’re trying to create is intentional, but it just wasn’t smooth. Chloe’s behavior creeps up later in the game and you’re forced to make decisions based around it. Even with these forced reactions and situations, I couldn’t help but think of my best friend as I played—they really did a good job of making their relationship compelling. It was an honest effort of realism instead of idealism—not everything is always pristine and perfect.
The game’s graphics were weak to say the least—especially in comparison to the rest of what’s out there. This was the most underdeveloped portion of the game. It looked like something off of a PS2. Once you get past the ridged controls and become invested in the story, the “retro” graphics almost seem on purpose in an effort to add to the “indie hipster” vibe—in the end, they don't distract too much from what the game is trying to accomplish.
Naturally, a game centralized around the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be complete without a soundtrack. The tunes are genuine, modern-folksy, and sound like something out of a Ellen Page film. That’s not a bad thing—it suits the mood and feel quite well. You’ll even recognize a few of the tunes—I always appreciate sync-licensing in video games. I was most impressed with the original scores—the music composed specifically for the game is some of the best and captures a contemplative-time-travel’s tone; but in a way that says I’m quirky with Casio keyboards and mandolins. Let’s put it this way, the soundtrack was good enough that I’ve listened to the Spotify playlist several times just to recapture and relive as much of the story as I could.
Ultimately the game is based around the choices and decisions you make, supposedly influencing the way the game plays out like a choose-your-own-adventure. I don’t really feel that choices had much of an impact—it was no Beyond Two Souls—but that didn’t really bum me out because the story made up for it. It was so well written and unique that nothing else really mattered—you just wanted to see what happened to these characters in their crazy world. To me, it was like a television show that allowed me to control the main character. It always knew where it was going to end up, but allowed me to get there at my own pace and explore the depth of the world as much as I wanted.
I’m all-in on Life Is Strange—I’m hooked and I loved it. I’ll totally play Life Is Strange 2 when it comes out this August. Rumors have it that it’s a prequel centralized around Chloe. I’ll miss Max—that’s for sure—but there’s not a lot of room for her in a prequel. Max’s backstory is already pretty well covered. I trust the writers will do a good job—they earned it in the original.
I understand how Life Is Strange could be “slow” or not for everyone—think of it as an interactive television show—but it’s my favorite game since The Last Of Us and Beyond Two Souls. The story is that good. It’s the only game that I can think of that captures true friendship.