So, I played through the first slice (titled "Chrysalis") of Square Enix/Dontnod Entertainment's new episodic game "Life Is Strange" last night. I wasn't sure what to expect from it. There was a good deal of hype leading up to it, and it looked like something cool, artsy, and (most of all) different so I was in, regardless. But, as with any new IP, you just don't know until you actually get your hands on it.
At first blush, the game reminded me of The Fullbright Company's acclaimed "Gone Home" mixed with the 1999 cult classic film, "Donnie Darko." Yes, that's an odd mix, but let me explain: In "Life Is Strange" you play as Maxine (Max) Caulfield, a new student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. After an odd, eerie dream, Max awakes in her photography class to find she can manipulate time. She quickly learns that this is most advantageous ability (i.e. if she answers a question incorrectly, she can rewind time to go back and answer again correctly). Soon after this discovery, she is thrust into life or death situation which she uses her new-found abilities to alter. From that point forward the timeline is irrevocably distorted and things are going to get weird. Sounds a bit like "Donnie Darko," right?
Where "Life Is Strange" succeeds is in offering a well-written, slice-of-life experience that makes you feel like you are in the shoes of a teenage girl for a short while...much like "Gone Home." Unlike "Gone Home" though, "Life Is Strange" is a third-person, narrative adventure game where you truly identify with the protagonist (Max) you are playing as. In "Gone Home," you play in first person mode and really know very little about the person (Kaitlin) you are playing as. Through exploration of the house you come to know Kaitlin's sister, Sam, very well...so "Gone Home" is truly Sam's story, not Kaitlin's. This first episode of "Life Is Strange" is unquestionably Max's show, and its emotional core centers on the rebuilding of her relationship with her long-lost friend who's just barely hanging on, Chloe.
Other positives here are that the game controls well, and Max's time-manipulating powers are well implemented...as are the puzzles that are interspersed thoughout the experience. You truly feel like you are having an effect (for good or for ill) on the world around you when you use them. Also, it took me about three hours or so to complete this first part, and for $5 that's a pretty good deal. As a counterpoint, it also took me about three hours to beat "Gone Home" and that cost $20 when it was released (you can get it on the cheap now). "Life Is Strange" will have five episodes, totaling 15 hours of gameplay for $25 total. "Gone Home" was three hours for $20 and that was pretty much it; you were effectively done with that game. As you can tell, I'm still having a hard time grasping The Fullbright Company's logic on that initial price point.
Where "Life Is Strange" falters a bit is mostly on the technical side. The graphics on the PS3 version were a bit funky and plastic looking in several places. This also carried over into the character lip-syncing with the dialogue, which was off at times and pulled me out of the experience. I'm not sure how much this has to do with me playing this game on last-gen hardware or not. From the videos I've seen of game running on the current gen hardware, "Life Is Strange" does look better...but not that much. One last quibble I have is that while I thought Max's time-altering powers were cool, I hope that they evolve in the future episodes simply beyond "rewinding."
All that said, there should be more games like "Life Is Strange." And I mean that in the best way possible. It's much like a fantastic, page-turning novel that you've only read first couple chapters of and can't wait to get back to. So, I'm obviously waiting with bated breath for the next episode ("Out of Time") to drop in March.
My review was based on the PlayStation 3 version. "Life is Strange" is also available now for the PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Xbox 360. Check it out. For $5 what have you got to lose?