Life Is Strange – Review

Short version: Life Is Strange is one of the most unusual video games I have ever played – and without a doubt one of the best written and crafted. While the play style and themes will not appeal to everyone, it is an extraordinary piece of storytelling that clearly demonstrates the power of video games as an art form.

It is a game about choices. It is a game about friendship.

If you are reading this, then you more than likely have read a few other things about the game. If you are unsure about trying it for yourself, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do you only enjoy action games or games that are challenging at a technical level?
  • Do you have trouble investing yourself in characters while playing games, watching movies, or reading books?

If the answer to both these questions is no, then you should absolutely play Life Is Strange.

How I (Finally) Played Life Is Strange

To be honest, I’m late to the party. I didn’t even pick up the game on Steam until after all 5 episodes were out, so my experience will be a little different from those that had to wait between episodes. Actually, I didn’t even play much of the game on my PC. I started it, but didn’t even finish the first episode. Looking back, it was simply too easy to be distracted by other things in the early parts of the game – largely because I was playing on my PC.

Three days ago, determined to give the game another shot, I purchased the Limited Edition of Life Is Strange for PS4. I finished it last night – and I don’t regret buying it twice for one second.

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Aside – PC vs Console

I’ve seen a few reviews of Life Is Strange that compare the visual quality of the console version from that of the original PC. To put it bluntly, such comparisons are irrelevant. The visuals are about the same in either case, and this is not a game in which high resolution or graphical effects are important. That’s not to say the visuals of the game are not important – nothing could be farther from the truth – but those visuals are not related to the technical prowess of your chosen platform. Personally, I found the controls of the console version to be slightly more intuitive, but there are pros and cons either way. In the end, I think I found the game more enjoyable on the console because it was easier to immerse myself in the experience while sitting on my couch, in front of a large screen, surrounded by sound. It felt more personal this way.

First Few Minutes and Gameplay

My intention is to keep this review free of spoilers (You should absolutely AVOID SPOILERS if you haven’t played the game yet. Though I imagine it’s power will be felt even if some of the details are revealed to you ahead of time.), but I will describe what happens in the opening few minutes of the game. You play Max, an 18-year-old girl who has recently moved back to her home town to attend an art school and study photography. While she is struggling to fit in, another girl has recently gone missing. Max has an incredibly vivid dream of a tornado destroying the town, shortly before seeing her childhood friend get shot in the school bathroom. This is when Max discovers she has the power to rewind time…

The rest of the game is all about making choices and dealing with their consequences.

As you might imagine, the power to manipulate time lends itself to some interesting gameplay mechanics. Gameplay revolves around exploring the environment and speaking with characters, then making choices about what to do or say. The ability to rewind means that you can often try different options before deciding to move one. When Max rewinds time it moves around her, leaving her unchanged – along with just about anything in her possession. This enables her to take some creative approaches to problem solving. Overall, the game play is actually very simple, but it is used to great and powerful effect.

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Sound and Visuals

The game’s sound is reasonably immersive and helps ground you in Max’s reality, but the music deserves special mention. The indie folk style is not really my cup of tea in the least (I tend towards rock, metal, and blues.), but it fits the game perfectly. The best way I can express just how superbly the music enhances the experience is with these two statements:

  • I’ve been listening to the soundtrack in my car for the past two days, despite not usually being a fan of the style, just to revel in the experience a little longer.
  • I suspect that anytime I hear this style of music in the future, I will be immediately reminded of Life Is Strange.

As for the visuals, the game’s art direction is beyond good – at once majestic and intensely personal. At first, the emphasis on photography in the game seemed a little superfluous. As the game went on, however, I began to appreciate just well the writers integrated the use of photographs into the themes and presentation of the story. In the second half of the game, photographs are used to great effect to illustrate how your choices have a ripple effect on the lives of those around you, and the importance of photos just increases as you progress through the story.

Feelings and Themes

At several points while playing the game, I was reminded of a couple other stories that involve a sense of mystery in a small town. Last year I watched the TV series Gracepoint (an American adaptation of the British Broadchurch), which is a sort of murder mystery set in a small coastal town. That sense of mystery, combined with the tension felt between a cast of well-rounded characters, was also strongly evoked in Life Is Strange. The game also reminded me of my time playing the first few hours of The Secret World. Small town, mysterious sense of danger, coming to grips with forces larger than yourself – all of these ideas exist in both games.

Life Is Strange also doesn’t shy away from some heavy topics and themes. Loss, murder, privacy, suicide, quality of life, love, insecurity, sexuality, and personal responsibility are just some of the themes explored in the story. One truly remarkable thing about Life Is Strange is how the writers have managed to explore these themes without really steering you in one direction or another – there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” decision, which is often true in the real world as well. Other games have tried to do this, often by making decisions and morality largely ambiguous, but Life Is Strange manages to pull this off without the same degree of ambiguity.

A lot of this is accomplished through the fine art of subtlety. For example, I don’t think anyone would reasonably say there is a lot of strong sexuality in this game – although a different developer or medium could certainly have incorporated more sexuality into this story had they wanted to. That said, many who have played the game feel strongly about some of the romantic undercurrents in parts of the game. The beauty of what the writers have accomplished is that a lot of what this game shows you is dependent on what you bring to it and how you perceive things. It can mean different things to different people. Personally, I think one of the great lessons from this game is how true friendship and love are really one and the same – it’s about something deeper than our common thoughts on sexuality and romance. It’s about caring for one another and being human.

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Criticism

Some aspects of the game’s final episode have been criticized as “undoing” much of what occurred in the first four episodes. While I completely understand why someone would come to this conclusion, I do not agree with it. I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say this:

While your decisions late in the game can “erase” some of your earlier decisions, those early decisions are in no way invalidated. They remain relevant to the story, and arguably take on an even larger significance.

That one issue is really the only common criticism I have heard from those that have really played Life Is Strange, which is impressive on its own.

I will admit to being a little disappointed that the game was not longer, but that’s just because I wasn’t ready to be done with its characters and story. I should also point out that several of the plot threads could have been taken in another direction and developed into something much different – many of which could have been made into some seriously interesting and fun games. But at the end of the day, I believe the writers likely told the best and most powerful story they could – taking things in another direction or making the game longer would have taken away from the whole and compromised something truly remarkable. Honestly, I’m not sure how DONTNOD (the game’s developers) can hope to top this one, but I’m more than willing to give them the chance.

Closing Thoughts

Life Is Strange is an amazing game – an experience – that takes the player on an emotional journey few games can match. As I right this, I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with just how good this story really is and how to explain it. As is true of all great art, it means a lot of different things to different people. It is a story about time travel, loss, bullies, compassion, responsibility, courage, guilt, fear, understanding, and love.

It is a story about choices. It is a story about friendship.

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