Life is Strange Episode 1 'Chrysalis'
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
Life is Strange’s title screen is all you need to see to understand exactly what you’re playing. An idyllic vista of a small seaside town spreads out before you, framed by the leafy perspective of a hilltop forest. Birds twitter above the sounds of a mellow acoustic guitar. Going into the menu, save slots are displayed on notebook paper; the loading icons are notebooks and Polaroid cameras. The game immediately drips with a warm, humble charm, readying you for a sweeter, more human narrative not about guns, aliens, or shooting aliens with guns.
Then you wake up in a forest, a gigantic typhoon about to engulf that same town. Then you wake up again. You are Maxine Caulfield and, instead of being in an Alan Wake-ish horror forest, are simply in photography class. Max has been awarded a scholarship into the prestigious Blackwell Academy, propelling her back to the hometown she left five years ago. With a renowned photographer teaching her class, Max is thrilled to come back and learn from him, intent on honing her burning passion for capturing life through a lens. But all is not well: in her absence, her former best friend Chloe has changed greatly, sinking into the mire of drugs and delinquency. The mystery of the disappearance of Rachel Amber, the all-around darling beloved by everyone at school, hangs over the campus like a fog too. It’d all be very teen drama if not for one thing: Max can turn back time.
Though it’s hardly a new idea, Life is Strange’s application of time travel registers on a much more humble level. Max mostly uses this ability in this first episode for things we all wish we could: taking back awkward conversations, learning things to your advantage, and occasionally playing pranks. With the ability to turn back the clock at any time, but only for a few minutes, Max and the player both are free to experiment as much as they like. What stops this from being an exercise in cheating the system is the consequences following these choices. Like the Walking Dead game before, many of the choices in the game carry consequences both immediate and long-lasting. Small things, like letting a friend sketch you, only have the consequence of that sketch showing up on social media and being commented on. Larger things, like informing the principal about the popular jock waving a gun around, can lead to more violent conclusions. All the decisions that seemed to loom so large as a teenager are on display here, rather than wildly unrealistic scenarios, infusing the player with a sense of agency that’s positively potent.
Amongst the varied cast of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, the leads of Max and Chloe stand head and shoulders above the others. A quiet 18 year old starting in a new school, already labelled the photography dork, Max is painfully teenage. She’s always internally beating herself up, pining, thinking, craving, and trying her absolute, heart-breaking hardest just to make friends and fit in. Even the simplest decisions end up shining with the anxiety and indecision that comes with this youth. Now gifted with this strange power, she still remains keenly aware of the burden it carries, putting the responsibility of her usage of rewind firmly into the player’s hands.
Chloe, on the other hand, has gone down a somewhat darker path. Whereas Max is withdrawn and nervous, Chloe is brash and outspoken, brandishing her defiance of society’s rules through ripped jeans, blue hair and a beat-up truck. Coming from a broken home with a domineering stepfather and suffering the loss of several very important people in her life, the hurt radiates off her, even moreso when she is reunited with Max after five years of silence. Though their interaction is brief in the first episode, the chemistry is already palpable in both the good and the bad. It’s very reminiscent of Gone Home, another indie darling about the relationship between two girls, and the genuine emotion of all the interactions between Max and the people around her are what really create the charm of the piece. It’s a game with focus, warmth and heart, the time travel acting as an engine to propel the tale of teenage conflict and relationships.
One moment particularly stands out as an example of the calibre of choice. Straight away, you’re introduced to Victoria Chase: the rich, snooty schoolmate who bullies, causes drama, and is trailed by a pair of giggling cronies. Through your actions, she decides that you are her next victim and blocks your entry to the dorm. Through careful application of your new rewind powers, you can make her have a very bad time and leave her deeply disheartened. Having brought her low, now you have a choice: do you make fun of this girl who has been actively cruel to you at her weakest moment or do you comfort her, earning yourself some trust instead? Neither is necessarily right or wrong. There are only choices and consequences, dictated only by your own moral code.
As far as drawbacks go, all that can be said is that this might not be a story for you, depending only on you. If you don’t like modest stories about teenage girls and the pain of childhood, then there’s not a lot of flash and explosions to distract you from that. Life is Strange stays firmly on its own rails in this manner: aside from following the story and chatting to your classmates, there’s nothing to do save for seeking out the secret photos for Max to take. Some animation, especially lip-synch, are off just enough to distract. From a story perspective, Max’s commitment to her photography teacher’s eye-roll worthy theme of ‘everyday heroes’ is a little on the nose too, as are certain voice actors, but these are minor flaws on an otherwise incredibly glossy product.
Life is Strange knows exactly what it is. The score, animation, acting and writing all combine to create an incredibly soulful experience, human to the core and bursting with potential. With the foundation now laid by the first episode, it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here and if the heart shown so far sticks around. With releases slated to be six weeks apart and the first episode only $7.55, it’s worth your time to take a look and see what Max might do for you.
- Soulful, charming narrative
- Weighty consequences and clever use of rewind function
- Gorgeous art and environments
- Occasionally off-kilter animation
- Not very replayable