Late to Game: Life is Strange review

Life Is Strange™_20170518215237Developed by Dontnod, published by Square Enix

I’m not too fond of movie-like video games, and yet I’ve played quite a few of them lately. A month after Tales from the Borderlands, which quite to my own surprise I loved, I got Life is Strange on PS Plus for June.

But this time I had to push myself to finish the game. Life is Strange is quite long, much longer than I’d expected, and unfortunately, though I enjoyed just enough of it to keep playing, its problems would quickly start piling up and stinking up my experience a little.

From forced dialogue, through the immersion-breaking and consequence-defying rewind mechanic, to poor pacing and a slogging plot development, and finally to just lack of editorial restraint in the final episode, where the creators seem to be playing around arbitrarily with the level editor throughout the dream sequence, this game is full of missteps.

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The 5th and final episode is a mish-mash, a drawn out recapitulation, antithesis of a climactic resolution, and testament to a story that goes way off track before being pulled back full circle. There are some nice twists along the way to the finale around episodes 3 and 4, but they are buried up to the neck in redundant distractions and thus are made hard to appreciate. The mystery of Rachel Amber’s disappearance, for instance, is given surprisingly short shrift after you’re made aware of it to an almost painful degree earlier in the story.  And then it’s like, oh, that guy — I hadn’t seen it coming, but yes, it definitely was for lack of trying.

The trouble here stems in part from the authors’ taking it on themselves to present a complex and paradoxical timeline where “this just happened, period” becomes “this just happened but in which reality and let’s go change it now” — a recipe for trouble in any medium, but especially in one where interactivity is fundamental. Unfortunately, what happens in Life is Strange, the game teaches us, means little. Rewind. Decisions, with consequences changed at a whim, cease to matter as decisions and become mere gimmicks used instead of saving the game, trying an option, then using the save to try another, and finally picking an optimal option from those.

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And when the game takes away protagonist Max Caufield’s power to rewind, it just takes away your power to save the game, and it does so for reasons of convenience to an already arbitrarily convoluted plot. Here, Max, you shall not rewind. Here, player, you shall enter a no save segment of the game. Because reasons. Because at some developer meeting it was decided that that was going to be the case. And then they went to have lunch and left it at that.

Life is Strange, by Dontnod’s own admission from the developer commentary, wants to be a character study and uses sci-fi only to broaden the possibilities here. But it is perhaps precisely because the game fails to take its sci-fi elements seriously and work them out with deeper consistency that the characters suffer from the half-baked ideas pushed to the background, ideas that call for a more prominent presence in the game. We are talking about a huge storm that takes up the horizon as it slowly approaches Arcadia Bay to devour it throughout the five episodes. But the residents not only do not seem to care, which you can brush off as natural human behavior; they are not genuinely terrified and remain occupied with their petty squabbles, which is anything but natural. The storm, despite its ominous presence, fails to be a catalyst for plot development–a huge wasted opportunity.

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The above in Life is Strange is topped with generally bad voice acting — crucial to a narrative-based game like this — where especially the young performers simply try to hard, and most of all try too hard to sound cool. Ashly Burch as Chloe Price is by far the worst offender here. If I hear “hella” one more time… And if Hannah Telle was as irritating in her voicing of Max, I’d have kicked my console out the window. Fortunately, her voice was just soothing enough to prevent this.

I did like the visual style, both in concept and in execution, as a clever way to both stay fresh in an industry dominated by uninventive photorealism, and to economize on the cost of visuals. Animations in general are stale and lip syncing is off but that doesn’t really hurt this title. The menus and fonts and such are well thought out and caringly crafted, and amount to a great overall presentation.

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I enjoyed the music for its intimate feel “We played hide and seek in waterfalls — we were younger.” Ah, cool. Music, you tried to help this game out, you could almost carry it through, but not all the way to the end. Actually the moment when Max first walks down the school corridor in Blackwell after putting on her earphones and the music plays — awesome, and a rare thing to really love in Life is Strange. Without the music tugging away at the heart strings, the game wouldn’t be half of what it is.

Look, Life is Strange is not a terrible game at all. To get poetic for a moment, when it does not speak but breathes its intimate atmosphere into you, it’s at its absolute best. But then all too often it does speak and it’s hard to listen to it.

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I’ve put a lot of time into it and it was not necessarily time well spent. Life is Strange is a really cool thing to remember, even one day after I’ve finished it. I’m already growing fonder and fonder of the game just for speaking of it. That’s probably why I’m even doing this review. But it’s pretty bad to play. And playing it has cured me of wanting to get either the upcoming prequel or the sequel, or Dontnod’s upcoming Vampyr RPG, for that matter. You’ll say people learn from their mistakes, but it’s hard to spot your own when you’ve received a bunch of game of the year awards.

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