Life Is Strange - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.
Life Is Strange was released back in 2015 and picked up a whole host of awards on its debut as well as a passionate following thanks to its two charming protagonists, Max and Chloe. As a fan of narrative driven games Life Is Strange has long been on my radar but until now has languished on my PS4 taking up valuable hard drive space. Time to binge on all five episodes and find out if it was worth the wait. Spoilers follow.
One Hour In
The opening plonks me right in the middle of a giant storm, as Max, our main character fights her way up to a lighthouse on a cliff face. Then surprise! It was actually a weird vision and suddenly Max is in the middle of a photography class being lectured to by her teacher. Max, like all great protagonists, is big on internal monologuing and I get the feeling her voice is going to be my constant companion throughout this game. It’s a relief then that her voice-acting is spot on. Max has the right tone of teen cynicism and moodiness masking a caring, thoughtful inner self. She uses plenty of teen speak which mostly edges on the right side of authentic and only occasionally slips into Awkward Teen Slang Moments. It’s a shame then that the lip syncing doesn’t match up: the characters look like cows chewing the cud and it’s pot luck if any of the mouth movements match up to the speech. Already I’ve found myself staring off screen because I can’t bear watching the cutscenes.
The class acts as a tutorial and introduces the simple gameplay, Max’s movements are controlled with the left stick, the camera the right, and everything else I’ll need to interact with in the environment is mapped to the face buttons. I’m thankful there’s no David Cage-style controller acrobatics to contend with. I’ve also got a polaroid camera for in-game collectables as Max’s main passion is photography.
After class I head to the bathroom and things kick off: Nathan Prescott, a rich kid at the school threatens a cool girl with blue hair in the bathroom and pulls a gun on her. It escalates quickly: after a short tussle he shoots her dead. Jeez, this game isn’t pulling any punches. Max jumps out from her hiding spot and then everything blurs and I’m back in class again, listening to the same lecture. Groundhog Day is go. Looks like I’ve got the power to reverse time. I have a feeling this is going to come in handy later.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “Isn’t this totally awesome-sauce!”
Two Hours In
I’ve learnt a lot: the cool girl with the blue hair is Chloe, my childhood best friend. Max has returned to Arcadia Bay to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy after being away for five years. Rachel Amber, Chloe’s friend while Max was gone, is missing. After finding out about Max’s rewind power, Chloe enlists her help to find Rachel. There’s some other suspicious stuff happening at the school with an exclusive club for rich students, a creepy janitor guy and an overbearing Head of Security (who just so happens to be Chloe’s step dad). All of them could be involved in Rachel’s disappearance. Oh and the world may be ending judging by the massive storm that’s brewing.
Already the story has dealt with serious subjects: Max has uncovered rumours of drug abuse, assault and cyber bullying. The integration of technology is handled well, you can open the menu at any time and check Max’s phone for messages from her friends and parents and there’s also a journal which fills in Max’s backstory and recaps events.
Disappointingly, the use of the rewind mechanic has been trivial up to now, only used for opening up new dialogue topics or to stop something from falling off a high shelf. Conversations are mostly a case of trying each option and then rewinding to follow a new lead. I had to save Chloe from an oncoming train but the moment lacked any real tension since I could rewind time as much as I liked until I found the right solution. Any time I paused for a few seconds Max’s voice chipped in and told me exactly what to do. It’s frustrating as I felt like I was getting towards an answer on my own only to have it given to me. The story hasn’t grabbed me yet: one girl, Kate Marsh, is being cyber-bullied and I had a couple more visions, but aside from a few hints at a bigger mystery the pace has been slow.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “C’mon Max all you need to do is rewind time and blow Chloe’s mind.”
Four Hours In
Woah, things got really intense! Kate, dear sweet Kate, tried to kill herself and Max had to talk her down off the roof. I chose to ignore Kate’s call earlier because Max was hanging out with Chloe and now I feel awful. I managed to talk her down off the ledge but only because I’d luckily paid attention when snooping in Kate’s dorm room. I remembered the photo of her dad and her favourite Bible verse which was enough to convince her to come down off the roof. Phew.
This was a clever moment: by making me play with Max’s abilities on the silly stuff I’d ‘exhausted’ my powers so couldn’t use them when I needed them most. Suddenly all these actions have a lot more consequences and I’m starting to think more carefully about what I’m choosing to do. Thankfully, I saved Kate but I know from the stats at the end of the episode that only 55% of players did. I’m really impressed with the way the stakes have been raised and my actions finally felt significant.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “I’m really digging this.”
Seven Hours In
Max and Chloe have broken into the school to find some dirt on Nathan, since he was the one responsible for bullying Kate (and drugging her at a party). One fetch-quest later and it’s job done, but first Chloe wants to go check out the pool before we leave and have a midnight swim — cos we’ve all done that, right?
Sadly, what should have been a sweet bonding moment is undercut by the stilted animation. Max looks blank most of the time which undersells the more dramatic scenes and they both jerk about in the water like they’re floating on air. It’s hard not to laugh when they look like character models from The Sims 2 — not quite what the developers had in mind I’m sure. There’s some light stealth to make our escape but it’s nothing taxing and I don’t even need to use Max’s rewind power.
Back at Chloe’s the next day and I have the option to lie on the bed for as long as I like while Max internally monologues what’s she thinking and reflects on what’s happened so far. There are sections like this in every episode, spots where Max can sit and think for as long as the player likes. The soundtrack is a mix of gentle indie pop and acoustic tunes which really come to the fore in these moments of quiet. I’m coming to appreciate the slower paced sections, I’m not rushing through conversations anymore but enjoying just spending time with these characters. Chloe and Max’s relationship is growing closer and there’s hints of romance which I hope gets explored further. I feel like I’m finally playing the game how it was intended.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “Cowabunga!”
Ten Hours In
So much for down time, the plot is really racing along and some new time mechanics have been introduced. There was a whole segue with a big jump into the past after looking at a photograph of Max and Chloe when they were much younger. Things got very The Butterfly Effect as Max jumped back in time to save Chloe’s Dad from a car accident, causing even bigger ripples. Max is getting serious nosebleeds from all her time hopping and the weird weather is only getting worse with dead birds and beached whales showing up.
After amassing enough clues I finally got a go at some proper detective work and not just following Max’s voiced orders. Once I selected the right clues from the pin board and cross-checked the relevant information I found a new lead. This was the first time I had to apply my own logic to solve a puzzle and not be handed the answer right away. I wish the developers had trusted the players with more of these sorts of puzzles that require you to understand the plot and character relationships. With this information I’ve got dates and times of Nathan’s movements and his drug use.
The story ramps up another notch: there’s a major reveal that I won’t spoil, but it’s well signposted and the right kind of twist that has me piecing together little bits of evidence and telling myself I knew it all along. This episode ends on a cliffhanger so I’m diving straight into the next and final episode.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “Maximus rules!”
Thirteen Hours In
Wow. That last episode really shook things up. There were more time jumps into the far past and the developers play with the idea of a circular narrative, throwing in a few more tricks and twists before dumping me right back into the classroom at the start of the game as Max attempts to fix all her mistakes. I wish some of these more inventive uses of time travel had been littered throughout and not just in the end game since these are some of the most innovative and gamey sections. A standout area is a nightmare sequence that has you sneaking past other characters while they taunt you with your insecurities. I appreciate the developers taking the time to show us more about Max’s internal emotions, but it felt like a big departure from the game I’d been playing and only stalled the story when I wanted it to accelerate.
My favourite conversation choice also happened in this episode and I took great delight in being able to make Max choose between ‘Eat shit and die’ or ‘Fuck You’ — finally, meaningful player choice.
All this time-hopping isn’t good for Max though and the strain is showing on herself and the weather as the tornado wreaks havoc on the town. We have a few more false leads to run down and playing around with the past before we’re back on track and are off to save Chloe one last time.
We’re back at the very beginning and it’s clear now that Max’s visions were of an apocalyptic future that she helped create through all her time hopping. The moment has come, it’s time to make one Final Big Choice. My fingers hovered over the two options for a long time before I decided. The relationship that’s been building between Max and Chloe really sells this dramatic moment and makes for a rewarding, and in my case, heartbreaking ending. I’m tempted to immediately go back and replay the ending with the other option but I don’t fancy rewinding time any more. I’m going to have to stick with my choices, however difficult they might be, and accept my well earned ending.
Awkward Teen Slang Moment: “Holy shit, are you cereal?”
If you have the patience to overlook a few pacing issues and dodgy lip syncs, Life is Strange offers up a mature, nuanced story which centres on female friendship (and maybe romance) and the effect our actions have on others. Take your time to explore the world and its characters and you’ll be rewarded with a narrative that draws you in and dare I say it makes you feel. Just try not to look at anyone’s mouth while they’re speaking or take too long to solve a puzzle.