Twin Peaks meets Telltale's episodic structure as Dontnod delivers the first episode of Life is Strange.
Life is Strange is a coming of age adventure starring a teenage girl called Max, who finds herself moving back to the small town she grew up in to study photography. She's navigating the pitfalls of high school, with jocks, douchebags, emotionally fragile girls, self-absorbed teachers, bullies and nerds, while trying to reconnect with her childhood best friend, Chloe. Since Max left town five years ago, Chloe's father has died and she turned into a teenager who smokes weed and doesn't give a damn. While Max is the timid and thoughtful, Chloe is rebellious and outspoken.
There is however one thing Chloe does give a damn about and that's Rachel. Rachel became her best friend after Max left and went missing six months ago. Everyone thinks she just ran away, but Chloe thinks something must have happened to her. The first episode focuses on introducing the setting, mechanics and the relationship between Max and the rest of the cast, but the mystery of Rachel will apparently be central to the plot later on in the season. She's the Laura Palmer of Life is Strange if you will, as most people seem to have some kind of connection to her.
As you've no doubt guessed Life is Strange follows the familiar structure of a Telltale Games adventure. The season or game consists of five episodes, and rather than focusing on puzzle-solving, decisions and story are the main gameplay elements.
From a mechanical and gameplay perspective, Life is Strange stands out compared to Telltale's games as it turns what you'd normally consider cheating into a central game mechanic. You're introduced to it early in the episode as Max witnesses a confrontation in the ladies' room at school that ends in someone getting shot. This traumatic event appears to trigger an ability to rewind time, thus giving her an opportunity to alter what happens and save the life of a character central to the plot. Max is now able to rewind time at her own pleasure making it possible to see short-term consequences of actions and reverse decisions. You can do this both as a means to solve a puzzle, but naturally you can also alter how you handle a sticky situation. However, the longterm effects of your actions aren't as easy to predict.
One example of how this works is when Max is searching the garage in Chloe's house for some tiny tools to try and mend her Polaroid camera. Here she has the opportunity to snoop around, and find some things out - she can opt to rewind time and erase any evidence of her snooping or leave the evidence there for Chloe's stepfather to find. That's perhaps an obvious thing to do, but if you don't search a certain cupboard you won't be able to inform Chloe of the invasion of privacy she is being subjected to. One rule about the time rewind power is that Max is unaffected and so is any object she holds in her hand (only exception to this is photos as they won't be able to show an event that didn't happen). A great touch as far as the writing goes is how you'll kind of feel like a jerk when you, much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, replay a conversation and provide the "perfect answer".
As this is a first episode that plays out like a prologue it does leave us wanting more as it doesn't really deliver much in the way of major drama. You get the feeling that most of what you do and decide in this first episode is setting you up for what's ahead. Only natural, but it does leave this episode wanting for something a little more substantial. Another potential weak point is that many of the references and metaphor are fairly plaintext - a licence plate that reads Twn Pks or a butterfly that just happens to be there at a watershed moment. It didn't really bother us too much to be honest, but we could see it turning some people off. Overall, the writing is great and the characters come across really well. The lack of lip sync does unfortunately taint the experience a little, and while we understand that this isn't a full scale AAA development, we still feel that perhaps some resources should have been spent in this area as the rest of the game looks great.
There are some great characters in Life is Strange, and some interesting dynamics, like the relationship between Max and Chloe that is in need of some serious rebuilding. The only supernatural element is the time rewind power that Max possesses, but while fascinating in its own right it's not really central to the plot. This game is about what lies underneath the seemingly normal surface of a small town in Oregon.
Life is Strange offers something different and unusual. Not only is the protagonist a young female, but central to the story is her friendship with Chloe. But we found that rather than experiencing something strange and exotic, we are dealing with themes that are universal. We've all struggled to fit in at one point or another. We've all had that one childhood friend that we drifted apart from and lost contact with. And we've all wished at one point or another that we could have turned back time in order to say something different.
8 / 10
Great setting and concept, Interesting characters, Tons of Twin Peaks references, Rewind mechanic works well.
First episode is kind of slow and mainly sets things up for later episodes, Lip sync would have been nice.