Life is Strange
Please note that this game deals with themes some may find upsetting. Please see my comment below the review if you need further details to make an informed decision about whether to play.
The first episode of Life is Strange, the new episodic action adventure from SquareEnix and DONTNOD Entertainment, starts off with a literal bang as our heroine, school student Max, wakes up on a dark and thunderous coast that's being ripped apart by a tornado that looks big enough to swallow the world. When she snaps to and finds herself in photography class moments later, she's more than a little rattled... she didn't fall asleep, after all, and that didn't feel like a dream, so maybe she's losing her mind? Or maybe she's just having trouble adjusting to prestigious private school Blackwell Academy, which hasn't turned out to be the glorious dream school she thought it would be... Max has never been comfortable around people, and the teasing of school snobs combined with her loads of homework and an unexpectedly sharp difficulty curve isn't making things any easier. Especially since Max grew up in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, and she's trying to work up the courage to speak to Chloe, the best friend she hasn't spoken to in the five years since she moved away. But there's something strange about Arcadia, like the missing girl everyone is talking about... and there's something strange happening with Max, too. She's just your average eighteen year old girl who discovers she has the ability to rewind time and change the past... something she can use to help people, but also, she thinks, make all the right decisions for her life. Guided by your choices, Life is Strange is a gorgeously rendered and acted tale about growing up, identity, power, and what you choose to do with it.
To play Life is Strange, you use either [WASD] or the [arrow] keys to move, and the mouse to look around and interact. Click on a person or object to bring up any available contextual actions, like "look" or "speak", and drag your mouse towards the option you want before releasing. When she gains the ability, you can rewind time by holding down the right mouse button, while holding left [shift] makes it rewind faster. Hitting left [control] will automatically rewind to your last decision point. Watch for an icon that appears in the upper left corner of the screen, which means you've learned something that could be useful if you were to turn back time. If that icon is a butterfly, it means your decision impacts the game's story, so this is your chance to change your mind if you want to. Max is unaffected by the time changes, so any items you pick up will remain with her even if she has to rewind time back to before you did so. In doing so, you can figure out ways to prevent certain events from happening, even when it seems like you don't have enough time to take action, or otherwise could only do something that wound up getting Max hurt.
Initially it's easy to see how some actions are going to turn out, and what the best choice for Max is. Episode One, however, definitely has a very "training wheels" sort of feel to it, and it slowly begins obfuscating the obvious future for choices. What's interesting about the whole mechanic is the implications it brings up... saving people and generally "doing good" is one thing, but manipulating people by using your abilities to learn information and shape their opinions of you is another. If, for example, you kept rewinding your interactions with someone to learn the perfect things to say and do to make them fall for you, are they really in love, or did you just manipulate them? It's a question of morality that has been addressed before, but you can see Life is Strange setting itself up to potentially take it on in interesting ways through Max's seemingly innocent interactions with other characters. There's nothing about the game that's particularly difficult, and the few puzzles you'll encounter tend to be straight-forward and obvious, so the emphasis here is more on guiding the narrative than anything else. The way Max interacts with her "enemy" Victoria, whether she stands up for someone in trouble or keeps her head down to protect her scholarship, even heavier themes that you don't often see tackled or brought up at all in games. The characters aren't defined by their trauma or their heartache, nor are they all victims
While a lot of the dialogue that comes out of Max and other people her age is a little too trendy-snarky to always sound natural, by and large the game is extremely well written, and well acted, though character mouths don't always sync up with what they're saying. It's a beautiful game in a lot of ways, and also worth mentioning is how diverse the in-game world is, not just in terms of skin colour, but body type too. Tall and short, lanky and plump, curvaceous and lithe, Life is Strange manages to represent a far more realistic slice of life than nearly any other game out there. At the same time, however, Life is Strange deals with people beyond its sci-fi/thriller plot mechanics. Max is initially awkward and afraid to contact Chloe after so many years of silence, and doesn't recognise a lot about the person her former best friend has become. The story focuses on the two of them a great deal, about how some friendships can't ever really be broken regardless of time and change, and those themes of female love and friendship are refreshing to see. Episode One sets up a great deal of different plot threads and doesn't really offer any answers, but its pacing is excellent. You can see it crafting the bigger story in front of you, and while I hope down the road Max's power is used in more interesting ways to impact the gameplay, as it stands, I'm still waiting for Episode Two to come out in March with far more impatience than I expected. If you love a finely crafted tale and complicated characters, you absolutely need to pick up the first episode of Life is Strange and get to know Max, Chloe, and the others. Highly recommended.