Editor’s Note: This review is for the entirety of Life is Strange, covering the game’s five individual chapters. This adheres to our standard procedure for reviewing episodic games.
Perhaps apropos given the game’s connections to internet-era technology and the current need we have to put ourselves out there in ways that would have seemed ridiculous before, I’ve spent the free time I’ve had since finishing Life is Strange last night watching YouTube recordings of other people doing the same.
After coming to the end of an experience that asks so much emotional involvement from the player—involvement I had to indescribable levels by the time I reached its fifth and final chapter—doing so has been somewhat cathartic. I’ve watched moments I played through myself countless times, each loop providing a new participant, giving a new set of reactions that blend shock, anger, sadness, and regret over the choices that they’ve made.
I’m sure Max Caulfield, Life is Strange’s protagonist, could relate. Early in the first chapter of Dontnod’s attempt to join the growing world of episodic adventure gaming (styled similar in gameplay to releases from Telltale and others), she inadvertently stumbles into the middle of an argument gone bad in the girl’s bathroom at her school. Heated words are exchanged, a gun is brandished, a shot rings out, and Max reaches her hand toward the fallen blue-haired girl—a desperate attempt to stop what’s happening—only to find herself back in class, a short time before all of that happened.
With no understanding of why or how, Max determines that something has awakened inside of her, giving her control over time. At first, she uses her newfound gift to make sure the girl gets out of the situation safely. Soon, she’s purposefully rewinding situations in order to try to find the best outcome to her problems. Unfortunately, Max can’t appreciate the complexity soon to befall her life. It starts when she bumps into the girl she saved—only to find out it’s her childhood friend Chloe, someone she hasn’t seen in the five years since Max’s family moved away from the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay. Max and Chloe try to rekindle their friendship, but all around them, an ominous sense of impending doom is beginning to grow. Their reunion is interrupted by a vision Max has of a giant tornado destroying the entirety of the town, compelling her to reveal her strange powers to her friend—and admit to having changed fate so that Chloe wouldn’t die that day.
Life is Strange continues on as a tale of Max’s connection to Chloe, her ability to manipulate time, and the consequences that come with doing so. From the moment Max alters the future in Blackwell Academy’s bathroom, she’s forced to make some tough choices in what to do and how to use her power. Player choice has become a staple of the gaming world in recent years, but I’m not sure it’s ever had the weight or consequence that it does here. Being able to take back a decision right away by rewinding time seems like it could break the concept of having to make tough decisions, but as in real life, rarely do either Max or the player truly understand in that moment the consequences their choice will bring. A simple action can have huge ramifications later, and the options Max has available to her in a given situation may all feel like “wrong” paths to take. At some point, you’ll have to commit to your decisions, and seeing the game personalized as these threads come to fruition left me heartbroken at times and overjoyed in others.
This “choose your fate” aspect of Life is Strange wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had its world not been so masterfully crafted and developed. Though you’ll only visit a handful of locations between Blackwell and Arcadia Bay proper, everything feels so full of life and teeming with encounters big and small that help give this place and its people humanity. This is also true of Max’s fellow students at school, as she grows to learn that none of them are who they seem—and whose lives she gets deeper and deeper involved in, both intentionally and accidentally.
You’d have to be a cold-hearted person not to grow at least some attachment to Max’s friends and acquaintances, but none of them can match the importance or emotional connection of Chloe. Given I’m definitely more of the Max-type in real life, Chloe’s punk lifestyle and “do or die” attitude can be hard to gel with at first. She’s not the easiest person to get along with—she’s not supposed to be—but the more time you spend with her, the more you come to understand why Max holds her so dear. Through Max, my friendship with Chloe grew stronger across each chapter, a statement so rarely made with such earnestness when it comes to video games and the “companions” we’re so often given. I also can’t say enough about how heartwarming the relationship between the girls is, given it’s another element so frequently done wrong in gaming. Too many developers don’t understand how to craft a friendship between two female characters without inserting male counterparts into the picture—or having the girls end up romantically involved to justify their closeness.
Dontnod, meanwhile, seems to do this with ease, one of many results of the game’s fantastic narrative and writing. Yes, some have complained about the slang and “hipness” of Life is Strange’s script, but any misgivings I had at the start were, as Chloe might say, hella wrong. Dialog is part of the game’s charm, and I now can’t imagine these characters or their conversations written (or spoken) any other way. On the complete other end of the spectrum, there’s a real specialness in the moments when the game lets you just sit down and take in the world around you. Life is Strange knows how to give players those pauses to appreciate what’s happening or reflect on a previous decision—an idea too few other games make use of.
The team’s talent shines through in other ways as well. Visuals are simplistic yet gorgeous, giving the world a more artsy, dream-like quality that was a far better decision than trying to go the hyper-realistic route. Even more fantastic, however, might be the soundtrack, a combination of original creations and indie folk licensed tracks that are just as much a character in this story as Max and Chloe. And though there aren’t as many as I might have liked, the puzzles you’ll encounter in Life is Strange are almost always clever, offering solutions using time manipulation that feel both smart and satisfying.
Last but absolutely not least, there’s Max herself. As the glue that holds everything together in Life is Strange, she’s an outstanding character. Even with her faults—yes, she indeed talks to much, as a certain character accuses her of during the game—she’s a fabulous pseudo-superhero who simultaneously feels grounded and real in a way few video game characters do. Max, you’re one of the best female characters gaming has seen in years, and you’ll always have a special place in my heart.
There’s so much more about Life is Strange that I want to tell you about, so much that I’d love to share, but doing so would only serve to help ruin your own experience through the game. I don’t know that any modern-era adventure game has accomplished what Dontnod offers players here—and none of them have certainly moved me as much. I simply can’t recommend Life is Strange enough, even if it initially looks like something that wouldn’t be relevant to your usual gaming interest.
From its opening moment until its final scene plays, Life is Strange is a wonderful, beautiful, captivating, touching adventure built upon the undying friendship of two girls trying to find their place in the world.
M - Mature
|Life is Strange is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.