Life is Strange review – “Hella” ain’t no place I ever heard of

Life is Strange wallpaper

Say “hella” again. I dare you, I double-dare you motherfucker say “hella” one more, goddamned time.

Okay, now that’s out of the way…

I assume people by now are aware of “The Telltale Game”? You know: a point-and-click, character-based, interactive-story with rapid decisions made during dialogue, minor puzzle-solving, and several major decisions made over the course of the game which will have far-reaching consequences in the scope of the game? *Gasping inhale* The sort of game which I have heard, in my opinion slightly unfairly, termed as interactive films, rather than games. Well, Life is Strange is a new Telltale game, by DontNod entertainment and NOT by Telltale surprisingly… This is indeed a most disturbing universe…

In Life is Strange you play the role of one Maxine Caulfield, a young (18 year old?) girl who has just started a degree (I think, at least I am reasonably confident she was not in high school, that much wasn’t exactly clear) in photography at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, in some remote fishing town of Oregon. Max begins as something of the cliché of the sensitive artsy type. Very shy, massive self-confidence issues, inability to really speak to anyone or make friends, and a complete lack of faith in her own artistic “talent” and ability.

The game has a rather strange beginning, starting with a dream sequence in which Max is witnessing the destruction of the town of Arcadia Bay by a gigantic tornado, before waking up in class. Immediately the game starts throwing foreshadowing around like an absolute boss, making it very clear that this was not just a normal dream and was in fact some kind of bizarre and possibly metaphorical premonition. While Max is rather briefly introduced to most of the other major characters, other students and teachers in the school, in the prologue she hurries away to the bathroom where the very first massive event of the game takes place. Now I’d rather not spoil it exactly but let me tell you that it definitely came out of nowhere for me given the early tone of the game.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the game is going to be a standard teenage high-school drama considering how it begins.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the game is going to be a standard teenage high-school drama considering how it begins.

The event comes as a surprise for Max as well, such that she wishes to stop it and through some unknown act of willpower actually manages to rewind time, ending up right back in class again, replaying the whole starting section of the game.

This allows the introduction of the biggest mechanic of the game. While the dialogue and choices of the game may bear more than a passing resemblance to Telltale’s games, Life is Strange introduces the entirely new act of rewinding time, allowing the player to make one choice in terms of dialogue or decisions and then rewind time in order to take back the action and try the others as well.

Now your first reaction may actually be somewhat similar to mine. Upon discovery of this I was immediately concerned that the ability to rewind any decisions made would remove literally all the tension from the game. I mean, hell, part of what makes Telltale’s games good is that you are forced to make off-the-cuff decisions with supposedly broad impact and often there is really no telling which is the better option. In Life is Strange, seeing as you get to see the outcome of both actions (or all the various options of dialogue) then surely it’s just a case of methodically rewinding time and choosing the best one?

The truth is actually somewhat different, despite the fact that yes you can and do rewind your actions, often the best course of action is only made harder to discern after having seen the possible outcomes. It makes choosing it that much harder when you know that either way someone is going to get pissed off and so you have to make the decision about who you are happier upsetting. As well as this, the ambiguity of the choices in the long-term means that despite knowing short-term effects, it can still be impossible to determine the long-term consequences.

One could do without being TOLD everything has consequences all the time though. I mean... We fucking get how this works by now!

One could do without being TOLD everything has consequences all the time though. I mean… We fucking get how this works by now!

In dialogue as well it offers the chance to rewind and replay conversations. Many conversations are less dramatic than those in Telltale games, as often containing the option of gathering various bits and pieces of information from the people you talk to as actually pushing the conversation along. Plus you can then replay conversations with the new information you previously gleaned in order to surprise the individual with some insight that they had just revealed to you.

It is actually an excellent mechanic which is fantastically employed to make both dialogue and decisions made still hold weight even while you can replay and change them at a moments convenience. It gives you both the sense of having the superpower of rewinding time and the reminder that even with said power, you might not have as much power to fix everything as you would dream. It’s a very fine balance and it’s done expertly.

My one complaint with the rewinding is that you cannot rewind to specific decisions made in a conversation. A standard dialogue will be quite quick, with Max being presented with three or four choices during it (almost always between two options), and in these cases it’s not really a problem. However, once or twice towards the end of the game there were really rather long conversations which sometimes even involved major decisions being made. If you then wanted to change your decision (or one of the choice phrases during the dialogue) you would have to replay the whole thing. This might not be so frustrating if you just do it once, but doing it more than once can get a little irritating. Worse, while the ability to skip through the dialogue is obviously absolutely necessary here, it somewhat ruins the immersion which can be a real blow for games like these. It is just a minor complaint, but there are actually more than a few “minor” complaints.

First and foremost of these complaints would be the dialogue itself. Now really, honestly, it is mostly fine or better than fine. Excellent writing and, as far as I can make out, excellent voice acting. Although, that said, the voice for Max (Hannah Telle) has a slightly irritating habit of always being slightly breathy and whispery. I mean, I know she’s supposed to be the shyest girl this side of the Introversion Nebula, but I think that even girls like that will be a bit more confident in their own internal monologues.

To be fair, when a game is trying this hard to be "artsy" perhaps one shouldn't exactly be surprised by the tone it uses.

To be fair, when a game is trying this hard to be “artsy” perhaps one shouldn’t exactly be surprised by the tone it uses.

The problem with the dialogue comes down actually comes down to a few specific things. First off, a very common complaint, there is a ridiculous overuse of “teenage” slang, with “hella” being a word which makes such a regular appearance that it starts to saw away at one’s nerves until you feel the urge to reach into the screen and grab the worst offender by the throat and give her a good shake. Another slight issue might more come down to a plot aspect in that the dialogue and internal monologues occasionally feels slightly cringe-y and forced, with Max sometimes being overly introspective and frustratingly flightly and mousey. Like some kind of introverted wannabe philosopher.

The primary culprit of the abuse of the English language and of Max’s worryingly “deep” thoughts is Chloe Price. A resident of the town and former best friend of Max, prior to the start of the game the two had not seen each other for something like 5 years. Chloe is easily the second most important character after Max, and most of your interactions are with her, but she also is the target of a lot of my frustrations with the game.

Also, did you know, apparently selfies are a legit form of art now? Who knew?!

Also, did you know, apparently selfies are a legit form of art now? Who knew?!

Aside from what I have already mentioned, I have to admit I have very little patience for “breaking bad, rebellious teenage phases” so because Chloe is the epitome of punk girl who acts out because her life is so terrible and everyone is against her, I really fucking disliked her. I’ll admit she grew on me slowly, but I also had to deal with a lot of shit with her. For example, one big decision involved whether to answer your phone while Chloe would get scolded by her mother or whether to simply ignore the call and leave. Choosing the former leads Chloe to somehow take this as a sign that you never have her back and she is “all awone is this tewwible, tewwible world”. And I have NO time for that bullshit. None whatsoever.

The other issue with Chloe is how very quickly Max seems to suddenly latch onto her as her new BFF once more. Thus she often goes on the occasional rant in her head about how close the two of them are and how amazing Chloe is. While this does sink in and is actually kinda effective at making you, the player, grow close to her, it also initially feels, again, a little forced and overly quick. I mean… They literally had not spoken in 5 years before becoming best pals again. I don’t think it quite works like that.

While there may have been small niggles like this (and one other thing I shall come back to), I would say that the plot of Life is Strange is absolutely fabulous. Episode 1 has a very slow start, despite an initial surge of action when Max discovers her powers, slow enough that it could potentially be described as boring, but really for me seems like a nice slow pace to allow you to get to grips with your powers and also learn about the characters and location of the game.

Episodes 2 through 4 are the best of the game. The time travel mechanic heats up and becomes of varied and interesting use. The various characters in the game continuously impressed me with their depth and Max’s interactions with them are part of what makes the game so great. Max herself also undergoes an extremely believable change from the self-doubting girl she is at the start to a stronger and more self-assured person. There are several remarkably tense moments in the game where you have to use your powers to get out of a tight spots while Max and Chloe start delving into a mystery which shrouds Blackwell Academy, a mystery involving a missing girl and a clique for the rich and spoiled elite.

The mystery, perhaps oddly, becomes the focus of the game. Not, y'know, the massive impending cyclone of complete destruction...

The mystery, perhaps oddly, becomes the focus of the game. Not, y’know, the massive impending cyclone of complete destruction…

This mystery provides the primary arc for the game and is repeatedly absolutely astoundingly good at surprising you. Much like the early episodes of The Raven you are forced to make decisions and are allowed time to speculate about what is going on while you gather clues and evidence to try and figure out what is going on and who the culprits are. Everything comes to a head towards the end of episode 4 and the various twists and turns along the way are absolutely excellent, providing some very tense and emotional moments.

All of this is done to a backdrop of a secondary story arc: a whole lot of supernatural craziness is going on, all potentially to do with the storm which threatens to destroy the whole town. Unfortunately, the supernatural story stuff is nowhere near as strong the main story and a lot of it rings frustratingly hollow, and therein is my other niggle I mentioned previously.

As an example (and trust me, this isn’t much of a spoiler), towards the latter stages of the game, the sky is filled with a second moon during one night. I mean, there are literally two moons in the sky and the general reaction of the populace is “oh, that’s quite strange” as opposed to literally the entire scientific community going “holy shit that is incredible/impossible! Where the fuck did a second moon come from?”

The fact that the game just brushes over this outrageously ostentatious phenomena and then tries to excuse it by having people make jokes about it being “the end of the world” is just incredibly jarring. Bitch there’s TWO fucking moons! That IS the end of the world!

That actually leads to another couple of issues of mine. The game seems to be slightly aware of its own failings in terms of dialogue and story occasionally and makes small self-referential jokes every now and then (such as a character voicing her dislike for the word “hella”). But I should say that this does NOT excuse them doing it in the first place (nor the fact that they often repeat it after). The other thing is another example of the slightly cringe-worthy dialogue is the repeated mentions of how Max’s friend Warren is some kind of “science genius” and so she often asks him to try and explain the literally inexplicable phenomena, and naturally he has to brush it off because it IS inexplicable. For example, when asked about there being two moons Warren just kind of says “oh I dunno, I guess it’s the end of the world” without really seeming that excited by the whole TWO FUCKING MOONS thing. In case it wasn’t clear… That whole thing really bothered me.

And then they all went and got drunk.

And then they all went and got drunk.

Incidentally, one of Max’s first reactions to her powers is to ask Warren for advice on time travel, who then suggests a bunch of films and TV shows which relate to the subject. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think that if I ever woke up with power over time, my first reaction would not be to watch Back to the Future to figure out how I got the abilities.

The game wraps both arcs up in episode 5 and it is the same story here. The primary storyline finishes up in a mostly satisfying and acceptable way, but then because they also have to wrap up the supernatural stuff and (for SOME reason) tie them together, the actual ending of the game is far less satisfying. The game was mostly very good, so it is just a shame that it feels like DontNod stumbled at the final hurdle, leaving the whole experience somewhat soured.

I don’t wish to spoil anything but in short it turns out that the clue to stopping magical and crazy phenomena is to do MORE crazy and magical stuff. Who’da thunkit? It’s just the same story with all of the supernatural side of the game. It’s not particularly well thought out, it’s annoying and feels out of place and just doesn’t have the same strength of writing as the rest of the game. It’s something of a recurring theme with the game unfortunately, that whenever the supernatural side rears its ugly head it just drags the game down a notch.

I feel like the game really did do an excellent job at providing an emotional and powerful experience, one which is not cheap and is definitely lasting, enough so that i stand by my decision to give it the Best Story of 2015. However, I just feel that it was let down at times by breaks in the immersion which can be oh-so-important for a game like this, enough so that I just cannot truly give it a completely whole-hearted recommendation.

Rating: B-

About Seb May-Wilson

A sometime protege of Leeroy Jenkins. A lover of all things RPG. A geek and a sci-fi man. Nothing is true... Everything is permitted...

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