Platform: PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Release Year: 2015
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Sunlight and the dull rumbling of a waking lakeside town pour through the bedroom window and Max Caulfield stirs from her sleep. The warm glow of morning light falls upon the room's vibrant, hand-painted textures, splashing pastel-like warmth throughout. At Max's side Chloe wakes, too, and after a brief conversation where they fret about their eventful past and the looming future the two fall silent the game's gentle soundtrack plays in the background. The game tells me that I can press a key to stand up and get on with the day -- with the game -- but tempts me to hold off, to stay in the moment with Max and Chloe and keep those tough choices I know I'll have to make for them at bay. And I do stay, just for a little longer.
Life is Strange is full of things like this, moments that tempt you to linger and take in the beautifully rendered environments and the low hum and chatter of the world around you. In many games you'd be hard pressed to keep up with everything going on around you and be expected to dodge incoming fire or leap to the next precarious platform. But here you're invited to linger on the grounds of Blackwell Academy and read the posters and flyers speckled on the walls and trees, or to pick through Chloe's chaotic bedroom to examine her trinkets and evidence of her teenage uprising against her worried parents, or to find Max's dorm room and explore it for clues about what she's like to inform your future decisions in the game. Games are a medium of moments like any other media, but Life is Strange, like many adventure games, draws out its moments, tempting you to let your guard down and get comfortable so it can pull the rug out from under you later. And it will.
The game is also remarkably well thought out. Plenty of moments early on feel like nothing more than flavor, like Max's love of photography and her penchant to snap photos when the mood strikes her, but turn out to be integral to the overall plot that hangs over your head. This is also a surprisingly heavy and thoroughly spun plot, with seemingly unrelated details coming together as the game strides to its conclusion in ways you couldn't have anticiapted when you were first exposed to them. Even Max's very first photo you help her take in the game is hugely significant, and you have no hope is knowing its significance until nearly the end of the game. Few stories are written this tightly and with this much forethought, all while tackling difficult themes like loss and grief with steady-handed confidence, making it a must for aspiring writers to experience.
The novelty of the game's most advertised mechanic of altering time never quite overstays its welcome and often sits on the back burner as a tool at your disposal should you make a choice that you're not happy with or need to find a clever way to get from point A to point B. The real meat of the game lies in its dialogue trees and its simple puzzles. The game isn't difficult by any stretch of the imagination, but you might enter a situation without a clear path that stumps you for a moment before remembering, "Aha! I forgot I could do this!". It's a game that wants to be experienced, to challenge your emotions, not your dexterity.
The voice work is critical and, thankfully, exceptionally well done. Characters both round and flat routinely sound as if you've just caught them in a particular moment in their otherwise busy lives, rarely stopping everything doing and acting like you're the center of the universe. There's depth to most of these people thanks to their actors, and save for a few weak performances it's mostly a home run. Ashly Burch's performance as Chloe is particularly stellar, sounding like she was born to play the part of this critical character and giving the game all the believability it needs.
And it's a good thing, too, because some of the dialogue these teenagers are speaking sure sounds like something a middle-aged man would think that kids these days might be saying to one another 'round the old water cooler (which it is). It isn't all bad, and some of it is entertainingly out of place, but it can rear its head at some inopportune moment and undercut some of the drama. Couple that with the weak lip syncing and, for some, this could shatter the mood for some scenes completely. I would argue that the vast majority of the game makes up for this, but it's a pain point worth making clear, especially in a game where dialogue is so important.
Overall, I can't recommend Life is Strange enough. It's thoughtful, moody, and comfortable throughout with dazzling highs and heart-wrenching lows, brimming with color and character that few titles can achieve. It can be sappy and melodramatic but that's also part of the fun if you're into this sort of thing. Give it a try if you have the opportunity, I think you'll enjoy yourself.