Life is Strange review

Review of Life is strange
By Troy Wilkins

Interactive fiction is a genre that has been around for a very long time now, with the very early forms being completely text based, with the player typing in what they wished for the character they are playing as to do next, such as “Go north”, “Open door”, or “Pickup key”, with the game using text to describe the result of the action taken and advance the plot. Some well-known examples are the infocom games, such as ‘Zork’, and the ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ interactive fiction games, although the genre has its origins well before these games in the 1976 game of Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as ADVENT, Colossal Cave, or Adventure), which worked in the same way. In these games the player was presented with various puzzles to solve, which may involve items they can retrieve, such as a key to open a locked door.

This later evolved into the graphic adventure game, where instead of using text to describe the game world and objects within it, the player could instead see for themselves the environment and items, as well as their own character. Less emphasis was placed on text, and thus these games found a greater audience, with some popular examples of the genre being Kings Quest, Maniac Mansion, and The Secret of Monkey Island.

With the growth in computing power and storage capacity in the early 1990s, the ability to add video sequences was seen by many as being the next logical step for the genre, with the intention of making these games more like an interactive movie. These are often referred to as “FMV” games, and while there were some notable games produced in such a way, such as Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, and Phantasmagoria, the genre is better known for examples such as Night Trap or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers FMV game. The potential was there to make entertaining interactive content, but generally the biggest problem was that the game play was almost completely forgotten, often boiling down to nothing more than the player needing to press a particular button at a particular time, and then watch the video cut scene. This balancing of the players control scheme and the game content meant that many of these games were simply not fun to play, which is never a good thing for a game, is it?

The interactive fiction genre isn’t as popular as it once was, with there being many different reasons given by people, some being that people prioritise game play mechanics over story, which has traditionally been a weakness of the genre, with others stating that the puzzle aspects are simply not enjoyed by many people who play video games these days. There is also the element that many of these games relied upon the puzzles to extend the game play time, but in this age where there are walkthroughs for games available at our fingertips, this means that it’s all too easy to look up what you have to do any time you find yourself unsure what to do next, and so games that may have taken weeks or even months to finish, can now easily be finished in a matter of hours. A common complaint heard is the use of “moon logic”, where the solution to a puzzle may be far from obvious, and may in fact make the game seemingly impossible to make progress in, with this being seen as a way of making the game time artificially extended.

Life is strange is an interactive fiction game, with the main gameplay mechanic being the ability to rewind time when relevant and make choices affecting your own character and other characters you meet in the game. It is presented in a 3rd person perspective, where you are in control of the main character – a young female adult named “Max”. When you begin episode 1, the very first thing you see is white text, presented in a hand-written style, on a black background, informing you that “Life is Strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present and future. Choose wisely…”

And with that out of the way, the game starts with an introductory cut scene, where we see the main character waking up, laying on the ground, apparently unaware of where she is or how she got there as she stands up. This is a dark scene, with a huge storm, lightning lighting up the scene occasionally and what appears to be torrential rain. We have no idea if this is at night, or if it merely appears to be night time because of the darkness caused by the heavy storm. We are then introduced to the basic movement controls, which will depend on the control method the player will be using. I was using my trusty old Logitech K400r wireless keyboard and touchpad, so I had the usual WASD keys for movement, whilst the touch pad was used for looking around. This initial scene is as linear as it gets, as it’s made clear to the player that we must get to the lighthouse, and the only path we can take is the path leading to the lighthouse. As we do so, we hear our character talking to herself, and we learn that her name is “Max”, as we make our way up the path to the lighthouse.

When we almost reach the lighthouse, another cut scene is triggered, showing a small rowboat being hurled into the lighthouse, and suddenly, Max appears to no longer be in the storm, but waking up in a classroom. But we hear Maxes voice, seemingly thinking to herself, telling us that she “didn’t fall asleep, and that didn’t feel like a dream. Weird”.

We’re then introduced to another important gameplay mechanic, the ability to “look” at specific objects within the game world. There is only one item you at this point which is available for you to interact with, a photo, and the screen shows you once again with text how you can perform this action.

After we’ve looked at this photo, we have to click back to get back to the game, and now we’re presented with a far greater number of choices of things we can look at, and some we can even use in ways appropriate to the particular item – look or read for the journal, look or take selfie with the camera, and look for most of the other items.

Once again, the game makes it abundantly clear what you are supposed to do next, with text appearing on the screen stating “Aim at the camera, hold Left Mouse Button, drag mouse downwards and release Left Mouse Button to take a selfie.”

Now, while I know they’re trying to introduce game play elements one at a time, this does feel rather condescending at this point, as if they think the player couldn’t work out how to do this on their own, and seemingly discouraging the player from naturally exploring the other options now available to them. This linearity in the game play is one of the problems I have with this game, it could have been so much better if the player had been more free to do things in their own time more often, instead there are many times when there is only one path for you to follow, only one or two things you can do, while at other times you feel somewhat more free to explore and do what you wish to do within the game world.

After you ‘take a selfie’, the story continues, and some of the other characters in the game world are introduced to the player. We’re introduced to the way conversations between our character and others is handled by the game, and after several conversations, the game makes it clear what you have to do next – go to the bathroom, in order to splash some water on our face. While in the bathroom, the next game play mechanic is introduced to the player, and this is the most important mechanic in the game – the time rewind mechanic.

This is introduced after the players’ character notices a butterfly in the bathroom and chooses to take a photo of it, a very unsubtle hint at the butterfly effect, which becomes such a big part of this game.
The Max character witnesses a murder, and then finds herself suddenly back in her seat in the classroom, with the teacher giving the same lecture previously heard, which Max makes clear when she says to herself “I’ve already heard this lecture”, followed by several other events occurring just like they previously had. This leads Max to knock her camera to the floor, whereupon it shatters into several pieces. We are then given the option to “rewind”, and in fact that is the only option available to us. When we do, time goes backwards, and the camera that had been smashed and laying on the floor returns to its previous place on the table, unbroken. And with that, most of the required game mechanics for episode 1 have been introduced to the player.

The rest of the first episode is taken up with you getting to know the other characters, and forming your own opinion of them, as well as exploration of several locations and utilisation of the ‘rewind’ mechanic. Without going into too much detail and possibly spoiling the game, some of the characters you form an opinion of you will be right about, and others you will be very wrong about indeed. Some of the writing is quite awkward, with an over emphasis on attempting to make the characters’ sound like they’re in their late teens, making some of them seem rather more like caricatures, which is rather off-putting at times. You also learn about a mysterious disappearance, which becomes rather more important to the story as the plot unfolds.

Perhaps oddly, the character that is the most forgettable in this entire game, is the character you play as. Max is a very vanilla character compared to most of the other characters in the game, and comes across as rather boring.  While this does make it easier to place the player into the role, it limits the interaction choices with other characters to what I consider to be the most boring choices possible.

While the main characters are young adults, with other characters in the game being older adults, this is certainly not a game suitable for young children. Not only would it not hold their interest, but a lot of the topics, particularly drug use, sexual abuse and suicide, are not suitable for a younger audience.

While at some times, the game is incredibly linear, providing sometimes only the one course of action for you to take, there are other times when you’re free to wander around and look at whatever you like. During these times, it is best you plenty of exploring of the environment, as there are many things you may not otherwise see, and this can provide further information important to the story. Don’t approach this game as one to run through as fast as possible, as you’ll miss some of the more charming aspects it has to offer, as well as helping you understand much better just what is going on.

The game has its own unique aesthetic, with the visuals being an interesting mix of line-drawn and 3-dimensional objects, which people can draw their own conclusions on – while some may find them to be charming, others may find that the character models to look uncomfortable, like store mannequins that move on their own and speak. Audio wise, there is heavy use of voice acting, which varies from great to regrettable, and there is a collection of licensed music purchased by DONTNOD Entertainment, used throughout the five-episode series, which is predominantly what I’d call ‘easy listening’. It sets the mood quite well, but again may not be to everyone’s taste.

Speaking of which, that is, in general, a good way to sum up this game, while it has been awarded many awards since the release of the first episode, it really depends on your personal taste – if you don’t like the look of the screen captures, then you probably won’t enjoy this game at all. For me, I’d have to say the visuals, while stylish, didn’t work well for me, the characters seem to be in the ‘uncanny valley’, too realistic to be described as cartoony, yet too unrealistic to be anything but computer generated. The music, while it set the mood well, isn’t my sort of style, and I felt was quite forgettable. It must also be said that there are many instances where, like an old-school FMV game, all you can do is sit back and watch what happens next.

But this is not always a bad thing, as sometimes that gives you a break from having to agonise over what choices you will make, if you should use your ‘rewind time’ skill (when it’s available to you), and if you should change the course of events or not. You have many choices presented to you in this game, and which one seems to be the better option will depend on your own moral compass, but before the end of the first chapter it is made clear to you that it isn’t as simple as things may first appear.

The control scheme works reasonably well for the most part, but sometimes can be a little frustrating, particularly during timed events.

There are new game mechanics that are introduced to the player in later episodes, one of which I found to be particularly infuriating, and that was where the player has to focus on a photo in order for the game to progress further.

There are also occasions where it feels like certain events have been added to the game in order to artificially extend game time, one that I really did not enjoy at all was when the player has to search an area for 5 empty beer bottles, and the game will not progress until you’ve found all 5. Seriously? I don’t know how much time I spent wandering around, trying to find all 5, but I can honestly say that I didn’t enjoy any of that time at all. Does it sound like fun to you? I didn’t think so…

At the end of each episode, you are presented with statistics, showing how many other people made the same choices you did, and sometimes this will be the first time you even know about some things in the game, depending on how thoroughly you explore the game world. For example, at the end of the first episode, I discovered that there was a pot plant that I hadn’t watered, which made me all the curious as to how that tied into the story.

While the first episode is all about introducing the player to the game world and gameplay mechanics, it does feel a bit, well to be frank, boring, and some of the characters seem rather one-dimensional. It isn’t until the 2nd episode where things start to get interesting, and you really get an idea of how the choices you make not only have an immediate effect, but also a longer-term effect. The end of the 2nd episode can come as quite a shock, and you will find yourself feeling strangely powerless, considering that your character can rewind time. It isn’t really until towards the end of the 2nd episode that the game really starts to draw you in, and many people may not stick with it long enough for it to do so.

By the time you have worked your way through to the end of the 4th episode, you will have learned a lot about the other characters in this world, and no doubt changed your mind on what choices you would have made earlier in the game, which gives this title some unexpected replay value.

Having built up the consequences of your choices in the first 4 episodes, the finale is somewhat of a letdown, and left me wondering if any of the choices I had agonised over in the previous episodes really mattered after all. It also has probably the worst gameplay, with several sections where it was confusing where I had to go, and once again, times where it felt like a chore to play, rather than a game. I felt this was rather disappointing, and after the replay value the previous episodes felt they had, a lot of that I felt was undone by the final episode. Some of the surreal visuals and gameplay reminded me strongly of the first Max Payne game, when Max experiences a drug-induced nightmare, even down to the characters sharing the same name and experiencing hallucinations. I felt this last episode really let the entire game down, it felt rather rushed and didn’t conclude the story in a way that felt satisfying at all to me.

The first episode is one of the weakest in the series, while it does an important job of introducing the game mechanics and most of the characters, the writing, particularly of the dialog, will make most people cringe, but it doesn’t really give a good feel for what will happen in the episodes to follow.  While it’s important setup for what is to follow, it’s a very weak episode to have for free in order to get people interested enough to purchase the other 4.  Which leads me to the value for money aspect.

Now, regarding the technical aspect, you don’t need the latest and greatest computer for this to run well – I have tried it on various older setups and found that it worked well enough on all of them, an AMD Phenom II X4 955 with an nVidia GTX570, a Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 with an nVidia 9600GT, and even on a 1st generation Intel Compute stick with an Intel Atom Z3735F and Intel HD Graphics, and it ran acceptably on all these devices under Windows 10.  So it passes the “Does it perform to an acceptable level on a potato” test with flying colours, and gets points for that.

But, is it worth $19.99 USD for all 5 episodes?

Well, each episode will take approx 2 to 3 hours to complete.  So there is at least 10 hours worth of content here, quite probably more if you take the chance to explore when you can.  But maybe a third of that isn’t interactive, where you’re unable to do anything but watch the cutscenes.  But the first and last episodes are pretty forgettable, for entirely different reasons.  So strike out at least 4 hours of that game time.  That changes the equation drastically, to only 3 of 5 episodes even in consideration regarding if they’re worth the cost.  And sure, you can may more for a blu-ray movie, which doesn’t last as long and is far less interactive.  But you also have to compare the value to other games, and this is where Life Is Strange really hits it’s biggest hurdle.  Is it good value compared to Half-life, Half-life 2, Portal, Portal 2, or The Secret of Monkey Island?  No, not all of them are the same genre, but they are all games competing for your money, and measured against those, I cannot recommend Life is Strange at the usual asking price.  Perhaps if it’s on sale for $4.99 USD, but not at full price.  It’s not a bad game, but it’s just not one that has as much replay value as it seems as you first play it, nor is it one that will be remembered in the future in the way the other games I have mentioned already are.

So I’d give this one a 7 out of 10.  Worth getting if you enjoy this sort of game and if it’s on sale at a decent price, but give it a miss at full price.

UPPERS
When the time travel mechanic is used well, it is fantastic, and will make you really consider what choices you will make, and really wonder if you should have chosen differntly.
DOWNERS
That ending felt rushed and was very unsatisfactory.  Also there are several points where it is obvious they’d added a scene to artificially extend the game time.  Searching for empty beer bottles was NOT fun, nor was the focus mechanic.
VERDICT 7.0
Could have been a step forward for the interactive fiction genre, but sadly didn’t end up that way.  Story will draw you in, but there are points where you may just simply not find fun, and that ending is just so unsatisfying.

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