There always seems to be a love or hate relationship between people and games that want to tell a story. They’re some of my favourite titles but Life is Strange is here to tell a story and if that’s not what you want it’s not for you. Luckily Life is Strange sticks to its guns throughout and never forgets it’s main goal is to tell a story just to try and please everyone. Through exploration, conversation and the protagonist’s internal dialogue we follow Maxine on her journey – although never call her that, it’s Max.
Max is a pretty cool 18 year old girl attending college trying to make her way as a Photographer. She’s a bit of a nerd and proud of it struggling as many have to navigate through the difficult social experiences of college. There’s a sense of reality to her that makes her feel like a genuine person. She doesn’t pause to look directly at the camera before quoting the latest meme to try and win favour with the audience. Instead she is allowed to develop and grow on her own as we watch as an observer. We see some of Max’s deepest thoughts and feelings and follow her through almost every experience. There isn’t anything to experience in LiS that isn’t through Max’s eyes which builds a strong connection. So much so that during intimate or personal moments I even felt slightly uneasy as if I was spying. There’s a strange awkwardness to those moments that only further build your relationship with Max.
It’s not just Max either, she’s backed up by an incredibly able supporting cast of characters that you get to know through their interactions with Max. Apart from a few NPCs stood by the side of the road there are no characters to interact with that don’t serve at least some purpose. And even those NPCs may have effects that aren’t instantly obvious. It never feels like your talking to a ‘B’ character or someone who doesn’t matter because basically, everyone matters.
The majority of the gameplay takes the form of conversations where, in the game’s own words, every decision counts. Even the smallest of interactions can have some serious consequences and it’s nice that they’re rarely blatantly obvious. With no manual save system you might be thinking there’s going to be a lot of unplugging consoles or PC’s or that LiS is a punishing roguelike but Max has a rather important trick up her sleeve.
There’s something Max can do that most people can’t. She has a limited ability to reverse time which she becomes aware of right at the start of the first episode. Undeniably this would be a significant ability in any game but when every decision counts it becomes vital. You quickly learn to play your way through the different options available to you in a conversation and then reverse and select the best outcome. It sounds like it’s impossible to have significant choices given that you can see the effects and then select the one you want but believe me you will agonise over some decisions. Often knowing the outcomes makes deciding worse and of course the butterfly effect is always a concern.
What’s removed from the game is the question of how to get the outcome you want. There’s none of the ambiguous remarks from Mass Effect 3 to trick you into a mistake. You not only know what each choice does but you can see the effects happen and then change them at will. So LiS therefore concentrates on making each decision important given that you have the tools to choose wisely. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few moments where you’ll need to rely on Max’s relationships and communication skills without being able to rewind but for close to the entire game you will be able to do so at will.
The story itself revolves mainly around Max’s relationships with the people around her combined with he understanding of her abilities. There is a criminal mystery to unravel along with a strange vision that Max keeps experiencing suggesting something major, really major, is about to happen to her home town. It’s an emotional story at times that takes time to develop and knows exactly when to wait and let things set in and when to punch you in the heart with a turning point. More than once I have been close to tears in certain scenes where emotions are high. LiS is definitely capable of shocking you and stirring emotions thanks to a cast of well designed and realistic characters along with a well written story.
The only time I didn’t enjoy myself was during some of the game’s investigation scenes. Between conversations you will inspect objects, find hidden items, use the rewind ability to solve physical puzzles or even just take a look around to see what you can find. But some of the puzzles had me frustrated as I aimlessly wandered around seeking a solution. It never took me that long but once or twice I felt the pace of the story was broken just enough to remove me slightly from the experience especially when you have several areas to search.
The watercolour art style distorts and ripples through every object and character in LiS and it just looks gorgeous. I love games that are stylish and unique and LiS held my attention visually right until the final credits rolled. It’s confident of its good looks and definitely not afraid to show off.
On top of that It’s very musically aware. There is a wonderfully directed scene right at the start were Max plays some music to herself on her phone and blocks out all but the music and her own thoughts allowing you to inspect objects and people silently as the music plays. Most of the music is heartfelt acoustic guitar stuff which would normally drive me mad but it’s well selected and matches the tone of the story and the style of the characters well.
But the voice acting totally overshadows the music, which is a pleasant change from the norm. Characters speak confidently and their emotions are clearly delivered but not exaggerated. Despite every piece of dialogue being great Max shines brightly above the rest. Her internal dialogue in particular sounds like actual thoughts you might have to yourself rather than someone reading from a script. It’s that realism that once again strengthens your relationship with her. Even when dealing with slang or discussing memes and pop culture every line is delivered naturally.
In one word Life Is Strange is beautiful. As a narrative experience it’s the best title I’ve played since Heavy Rain. It’s use of realistic characters really brings the cast to life as they grow patiently and significantly. It can be emotional and has the confidence to brood over time if needs be. The story takes its time alongside their development so that you are deeply invested in all the characters – but especially Max. From the first chapter I was hooked and the story just gets better as it goes. Life is Strange tells a beautiful, melancholy and mysterious story through realistic character interactions and dialogue. It is proof that games are the best way to tell a story. Aside from the occasional pace breaking puzzle every second of Life is Strange was outstanding and the biggest tragedy is that I can only play it through for the first time once.