Reviews: Life Is Strange

Life is being Reviewed (Alt Title: This Review is Strange)

I have a pretty simple system of scoring. "5" Means I love it, "4" Means I like it, "3" means I thought it was ok or am conflicted, "2" means I dislike it (usually because it bored me) and "1" means I hate it. I rarely give out 1. I don't hate much.....

This game seems....designed to to anger me. It's primary game mechanic is interesting enough but the whole thing feels so little like an actual game. I had a similar problem with "Gone Home" and "Dear Esther" (If you want to do a game with minimalism in the gameplay...I would suggest looking at the Stanley Parable, one of my favorite games). The game is more like a choose your own adventure, but with the added effect of being able to go back a previous page...sometimes.

So ok, gameplay isn't impressing. How about the story and characters? Ughhhhh, if I had to describe this game in one word, it would be "pretentious". This game thinks it's smarter then it is. It paints the world in overtly simplistic black and white terms; This guy is the evil jock whose rick and an a-hole, this guy is a dork and therefore cute and good. This girl is stuck up and a know-it-all and we hate her except when we don't she's on our side, this girl is a misunderstood rebel. This guy is a drug dealer, this guy is a sadistic tortured artist. The only character with significant depth is William Prince, if only because he's supposed to the game "antihero" in a sense. The game keeps spouting out somewhat defiant sentiments without any kind of overarching purpose. Forgive me for stereotyping a bit, but it's like if Tumblr was a game.

But through all this, I would still only give it a "2" and say it's not my cup of tea. Oh well. But the ending....the ending essentially has Max no longer even attempt to prevent her friend Chloe from being shot. The game's apparent message is that you simply must accept some bad things as necessary.

This is a personal thing to me. This message is one I can't stand....this whole idea of "We can't change it, just accept it." The main character Max via unknown forces is given the tremendous power to travel in time...and the game basically states she shouldn't use it because somethings are just meant to happen. I cannot in any good conscience abide this. Imagine if Max was given a cure for cancer by an advanced alien race, but decided not to use it because some things just have to happen. It is a fatalistic defeatist thought process, this antithesis of progress. If we are to make progress as civilized human beings it is necessary that we fight this exact train of thought. We should not just accept any kind of suffering as necessary. As a Utilitarian, an Empathic Person, as someone who wants to be able to sleep with herself at night, I must protest. No matter what, we MUST not let ourselves be ruled by this kind of thought process, we must not allow ourselves to view terrible things as somehow necessary or inevitable. To deny that thought, is the root of all human progress.

1/5

Hella Wowser

Despite the cynically mocking title, I'm not going to be coy - I love Life is Strange. It's one of my favourite video games. I think it was absolutely fantastic from start to finish and I loved every part of it. Even the Narmy dialogue. Even the bottle fetch-quest. Even Episode 5.

Life is Strange is a Coming-of-Age Story about Max Caulfield, who, despite sharing a surname with the douchebag from Catcher In The Rye, is an engaging and likeable character, and a great female protagonist. She's geeky and funny and relatable and discovers she can rewind time to some extent after watching her best friend get fatally shot in the girls' bathroom at high school. Yup.

Life is Strange is a slice-of-life teenage drama that fell into a blender with Braid and all the good bits from anything Telltale Games have done. The challenges you face can be worked out through original gameplay puzzles or interesting dialogue options. The supporting cast in particular are strong, albeit a tad clichéd, because they all have a certain depth to them. Teenagers: More Than Meets The Eye.

I honestly like the dialogue. And I don't want to criticize the people who didn't like the game, because you're allowed to dislike any game you want - except RollerCoaster Tycoon, I mean, come on - but the cast are primarily supposed to be teenagers; if you're not making people grimace with every other line, then you're not writing teenagers very well. Also, this game has time travel. You're okay with that, but you can't suspend your disbelief that a teenager would say 'Hella'? The most cringeworthy lines stay far away from the game's numerous more serious moments. Episode 2 had me in tears and I'm absolutely sure I'm not the only one. Your choices really do feel like they matter, instead of the game just telling you that they matter.

Without getting into spoiler territory, the game does come down to a choice between two outcomes at the end. But the outcomes are complete polar opposites, compared to, say, Season 2 of The Walking Dead, where there are five different endings but railroading forces you into the exact same outcome at the beginning of the next Season. And while the game does nudge you to pick one ending over another, it's still entirely your choice. At the time of writing this, the percentage of players who chose each ending are 47% and 53%. I think that's a very strong testament to how good the story is that players are split so much down the middle regarding what they do.

I'm excited for the sequel, which is wisely going to introduce a completely new cast instead of adding to this completed storyline, and excited for the mini-prequel that's going to flesh out some of the existing characters who weren't explored in the first series.

All in all, I love Life is Strange, and I'm hella fucking cereal.

Well, that was a rip-off.

For most of its run, Life is Strange is not a perfect game. The way Max is given the choice to use her powers doesn't always make sense, the overall plot isn't airtight, the gameplay can become tedious, and the voice acting is a mixed bag.

But it spite of its flaws, it's still damn good. The romance between Max and Chloe is very well done, and both characters, partly through each other's influence, become stronger, more well-rounded people. And apart from her relationship with Chloe, Max has the choice of becoming...well, an everyday hero; someone who has a kind word and a smile for just about everybody, even antagonistic characters, and does what she can to make their lives better.

And then Episode 5 ends, and that all goes out the window.

Why? Because it turns out that the universe, which is apparently run by the God worshipped by Jack Chick, is stuck on "BRING ME THE HEAD OF CHLOE PRICE" mode and is threatening to destroy the town with a tornado unless Max offers her as a blood sacrifice.

Oh sure, the game says that the tornado is coming because Max overused her powers, but this reasoning makes no sense and feels like it was thrown in because the writers didn't want to come out and admit they created a setting that's malevolent towards the characters within it. If Max using her powers was the cause, then her using her powers to go back in time and sacrifice Chloe wouldn't fix anything. It doesn't explain why Chloe seems to be in constant peril, or why she goes on a rant about accepting her fate in the finale. Despite weak protestations to the contrary, the player is given every reason to believe that Max is being punished for using her powers to save a life and generally do good, and Chloe is being punished for...existing.

And if you want to see the ending that's actually complete and feels as though effort was put into it, you have to give in. Max's efforts to come out of her shell, find love, and create a better world come to naught, and the bitter and hopeless worldview Chloe expressed pre-Character Development gets totally vindicated, but at least the petty and capricious reality the characters were unlucky enough to be born into is appeased.

Life sucks.

Life is Blandish

I played the first episode of Life Is Strange a long while back, and after the game asked me to complete a particularly convoluted puzzle in which I had to set up a Rube Goldberg style machine just to get a girl to move off of a step and out my way, I decided this wouldn't be the game for me. But a combination of positive feedback and a hefty steam sale discount was enough for me to give this series another chance.

Li S Has a lot of good ideas and a neat premise, especially in how it encourages players to deal with the protagonist's time reversing mechanic. There is absolutely the opportunity to abuse this power for personal gain, though personally I tried Jessica Jonesing it, in that I avoided using the powers as much as possible. Part of that was because I wanted to see the kind of protagonist who would behave that way, but mostly because I had real difficulty with engaging with the game and this seemed like the quickest way through.

Sadly, a lot of Li S best ideas are marred by opposing design flaws. For instance, its painterly design looks pretty, but it doesn't seem to fit a lot of its more violent situations. The series tries to produce a lot of emotional moments, but the animation is so limited that characters resemble shop window manikins, with flappy mouths that barely move in-sync to their dialogue. The rewind mechanic is cool, but it gets irritating on that one puzzle you can't solve, and have to constantly rewind rewatch the same 15 second scene over and over to figure out a solution.

The biggest missteps though are in the writing. Initially it is the dialogue that's the problem, sounding just like an adult doing a lousy job of emulating teenage slang. But bigger issues emerge over time. Not content with a slice of life drama, the series has to regularly throw the main characters into increasingly absurd perils for you to save the day. It eventually comes across as a little exploitative, when it is also trying to feed directly into teenage issues such as abuse and despair. Even the big ideas are mawkish and explored right on-the-nose. For instance, we are literally shown a butterfly that causes a tornado. References wrapped around anvils.

I really wanted to like Li S as it is s enthusiastic about doing things differently - but the more I played it, the less I enjoyed it.

Autumn Paths (Ep 1-4)

It’s been raining and the air is still damp. Leaves have fallen and been flattened onto the pavement in reds, yellows and browns. Your feet slip slightly as you walk, partly because of the wet and partly because the leaves have decomposed a little.

You’ve got somewhere to be, but you don’t care. It’s the first time out after the rain has stopped.

Life is … Full of Little Moments That Make People Happy. Chilling in a dorm room listening to music. Finding we can still connect with an old friend. Walking through the college grounds watching all the other people with all the other things going on in their lives. This is a game full of opportunities to just sit down and take it all in whilst listening to Max’s internal monologue on the world and it's the games triumph. We go through the hard times because of the good little moments in every day and this game gets that on a level even the developers probably don't understand.

Life is Awkward. Max is a teenager and her thoughts and actions are as full of delightfully cringey moments as most people’s memories of when they were a teenager. The way everyone speaks is silly and stupid, not in a realistic way, but in the same way we probably sounded to our parents. Everyone is a bit gangly and uncomfortable in themselves and stumbling their way through getting to know themselves.

Life is A Path Of Turns Taken and Untaken. But those turns aren't always hidden. This isn't a game where you express yourself through our choices, it's a game where we follow Max through her choices. She knows what's right and what's wrong most of the time, but it's about putting yourself out there and doing it. Sometimes it's less about the outcome and more about knowing Max could have taken the wrong path but didn't. That she was there and making that choice was hard and changed her.

Life is Tough. Through the low-key happiness, the game isn’t afraid to go to places no other game goes to. Pregnancy, suicidal thoughts, euthanasia, we see people in their darkest places and moments. But it all takes place against the background of a gentle world that we really care about. It resonates, it goes beyond hoping we’ll get ending X because we remembered to water the plant. We care about what we do because it matters in the moment.

Life is Good. And Strange.

Max does what we all wish we could do

How often have you said something you immediately wished you could take back? Or done something you immediately wished you could undo?

Life is Strange gives you the option to live that fantasy in a seriously flawed masterpiece.

The ability to rewind time is a nice mechanic, and the fact that some decisions won't affect you until much later - complete with a warning ahead of time letting you know that - makes it even more important. There are times when I wondered about the serious long-term implications of the thing I did. Was it wrong to take a photo of Kate being harassed by the security guard instead of yelling at him to leave her alone? Or would it have long-term benefits? There are quite a few choices with non-obvious outcomes.

The mechanic is gradually used in more clever ways over time. Once you learn that Max can "teleport" by rewinding time without moving her own physical position, it opens up a few creative possibilities that I won't spoil.

Unfortunately, the possibilities are limited by the story. You don't have the freedom to travel everywhere, but only to explore your immediate surroundings, look at stuff, interact with stuff, talk, and rewind time. In other words, this is no open-world game, or even one with selectable locations.

That said, the areas are loaded with tons of detail, lots of little details that bring the characters to life and reveal more about them, and the ability to immerse yourself in that world is awesome. You can read text messages on Max's phone (both ones she sends and receives), and review any previously seen pieces of evidence and information. It's a great feature that really brings the world to life, along with the amount of graphical and audio detail. Each location just feels alive.

Some of the more creative potential uses of Max's time travel power, like going back to point in the distant past to create an alternate universe, occur only in the story and not through player action.

The story is damn good, and I must say, I had opinions about the characters just like everyone else did - especially Chloe, who I really liked even with her flaws. And I really cared about my choices, because I cared about these characters.

Which, I imagine, makes this "game" a success. An experiment well done. I just hope the concept gets expanded upon someday.
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