Life Is Strange

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Square Enix De­vel­oper Dontnod En­ter­tain­ment For­mat 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One

The kids in Life Is Strange are hella keen on youth slang. So much so, in fact, that they can barely get through a sen­tence with­out awk­wardly in­sert­ing bare dol­lops of teenage ar­got. Oc­ca­sion­ally this chimes clev­erly with the game’s ado­les­cent themes, such as when pro­tag­o­nist Max­ine ‘Max’ Caulfield tries to be some­thing she’s not in or­der to im­press some skaters, and the dia­logue is never anachro­nis­tic – no­body ever de­scribes any­thing as ‘hip’. But for the most part, it just feels forced, the writ­ers im­pos­ing their skewed per­cep­tion of how young peo­ple speak onto voice ac­tors who sound old enough to know bet­ter.

Which is a pity given how charm­ing the game’s cast can be, regular bouts of awk­ward cant aside. Player char­ac­ter Max in par­tic­u­lar is more of­ten ap­peal­ingly nat­u­ral­is­tic than not – and, like al­most ev­ery char­ac­ter in the game, she’s at her most cred­i­ble when Dontnod’s writ­ers re­lent in their at­tempts to con­vince us of that. But even if the dia­logue doesn’t al­ways hit its mark, Life Is Strange nails the dorm-room ri­val­ries and so­cial awk­ward­ness of col­lege life, and con­jures up a rich at­mos­phere of Amer­i­cana that calls to mind the likes of My So-Called Life, Twin Peaks and just a dash of Spiel­berg’s heady com­ing-of-age ad­ven­tures.

There’s a great deal of heart be­hind the story of the young photography stu­dent’s re­turn to her for­mer home­town and her strug­gle to find her own iden­tity as she reignites old friend­ships, which also leads to a search for a miss­ing stu­dent. Dontnod’s greater achieve­ment, how­ever, is the in­tro­duc­tion of fresh game­play ideas to the mod­ern adventure tem­plate, as de­fined by Tell­tale’s branch­ing choices and QTEs. The lat­ter are mer­ci­fully ab­sent, and the for­mer mag­ni­fied: even this first episode packs in many dilem­mas and, cru­cially, ev­ery sin­gle key de­ci­sion you make will have tan­gi­ble, of­ten episode-span­ning con­se­quences.

But Dontnod has at­tempted to ex­pand upon Tell­tale’s tem­plate in other ways, too, not least in the much larger ex­plorable spa­ces it lets play­ers loose in. A dorm quad, Black­well Academy’s green, and later an en­tire house: the lo­cales in Life Is Strange feel much less like rigidly framed the­atri­cal scenes and more like real places. They’re so big, in fact, that Dontnod has even in­cluded the op­tion to jog be­tween each con­ver­sa­tion and in­ter­ac­tive ob­ject. The sheer num­ber of things to look at some­times clashes with the game’s more filmic set­ups – a scene-set­ting walk down the col­lege hall­way, ear­buds in, early on in the game is derailed by the op­tion to stop ev­ery cou­ple of steps in or­der to learn about all the kids you pass and to read each poster on the no­tice board – but it gen­er­ally makes for a much richer en­vi­ron­ment than, say, those found in The Walk­ing Dead.

A larger play area is one thing, but Life Is Strange also in­cludes a Re­mem­ber Me- style tem­po­ral me­chanic, although it’s not re­stricted to in­di­vid­u­als’ mem­o­ries here. Max dis­cov­ers her abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late time dur­ing a dra­matic mo­ment in the girls’ bath­room, when she wit­nesses an­other girl be­ing shot. Pan­ick­ing, she reaches out and sud­denly finds her­self right back in class, lis­ten­ing to the lec­ture that she’d just left. And it’s in this way that Dontnod in­tro­duces Life Is Strange’s most in­trigu­ing el­e­ment: the abil­ity to re­play scenes armed with new knowl­edge.

Aside from a few oc­ca­sions, Max can rewind time at will, a spi­ral marker ap­pear­ing in the top left of the screen with cru­cial mo­ments marked on it by black dots. Hold­ing the left trig­ger will wind events back, and you can speed up the process by squeez­ing the right trig­ger at the same time. New dia­logue op­tions open up as, for ex­am­ple, you hear the cor­rect an­swer to a ques­tion you pre­vi­ously stum­bled on and then rewind to de­liver it as if it were your own. You can fast-for­ward through pre­vi­ously heard ex­changes too, while clever dia­logue short­cuts present you with a way to skip over large por­tions of con­ver­sa­tion by pre­empt­ing a re­sponse. Do­ing so means you might miss some in­for­ma­tion, though, pre­vent­ing you from ex­plor­ing all of the con­ver­sa­tion’s branches. It’s a daz­zling setup that en­cour­ages play­ers to ago­nise over ev­ery de­ci­sion, but al­lows you to change your mind sev­eral times be­fore press­ing for­ward to face the ram­i­fi­ca­tions, even if it also re­sults in the ab­sence of any­thing like Tell­tale’s time-pres­sured, in­stinc­tive re­ac­tions. Dontnod matches this more con­sid­ered pace with a hand­ful of well-de­signed, if sim­ple, puzzles that make use of the fact that any­thing picked up by Max is un­af­fected by her sub­se­quent leaps through time. For ex­am­ple, a set of small tools we need to fix our cam­era later on in the game is found on top of a stack of boxes, which are them­selves perched atop a dryer in the garage. In­stinc­tively, we switch the dryer on, top­pling the pre­car­i­ously bal­anced tower, but send­ing our screw­drivers out of reach un­der a work­bench. We rewind time and try again, this time slid­ing a piece of card­board un­der the unit to catch the tools, be­fore rewind­ing yet again to clean up the mess.

Time travel isn’t just re­served for puzzles, ei­ther: you can also use it to cover your tracks af­ter hav­ing ri­fled through po­ten­tial ev­i­dence, say, or even to avoid some fall­ing ob­jects when the game tries its hand at a some­what stodgy ac­tion-in­fused mo­ment. But its most en­thralling use re­mains the abil­ity to change the way oth­ers per­ceive you by re­play­ing con­ver­sa­tions with new facts to hand, an as­pect that will hope­fully be ex­plored in even greater depth as the se­ries con­tin­ues. For now, Life Is Strange’s first episode stands up as both a cap­ti­vat­ing pre­am­ble and a coura­geous at­tempt to shake up the adventure genre.

The lo­cales in Life Is Strange feel much less like rigidly framed the­atri­cal scenes and more like real places

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