Life is Strange – A Full Review

Part of my problem with blogging is I like to dabble in lots of things which makes my blog broad and hard to define. For a while I have been enjoying The Subtext’s game reviews and I wanted to give some of my thoughts on games. I have recently played most of Red Dead Redemption Two and needed a break from it before I play the epilogue – Life is Strange has sat in its wrapping for ages so I gave it go.

Unboxing Life Is Strange – Limited Edition

I must admit, one of the reasons Life is Strange has sat for months on end in its wrapping is that I hadn’t heard of it and it was more of an impulse buy, mainly because the limited edition was discounted. For the second time in not so many months I felt as though I should be videoing the unboxing (the first being my Red Dead Redemption collector’s edition) but I felt that plenty of people would have already done that – so I didn’t. I may do unboxing videos in the future though as I do enjoy it!

Anyway, I digress, back to the game!

Inside the box is a CD which I put to one side; most video game music is pretty poor so I expected no different here. An artwork book and the game itself. The artbook is pretty awesome if you enjoy that kind of thing and looking through it with the hindsight of playing the game it has a little bit more sentiment to it.

Inside the game you also get a product registration code – though I don’t know if you actually get anything for registering your game… I rarely register products.

The limited edition also includes a director’s commentary which is downloadable, the problem with that is the commentary takes up a lot of additional memory (up to 4gb) and I am not sure I would get any enjoyment playing through the game with it on. I suppose for absolute diehards this is a great feature but for everyone else, it kind of strikes me as vanity of the director (games unlike films require far more than a director to organise any given scene).

tornado life is strange

Life is Strange – How Does the Game Look?

Remember, I came from a very graphically impressive game in the form of RDR2 so I played this fully expecting a drop in aesthetic quality. This is definitely the mindset to get into with Life is Strange as the graphics are a bit dated in places, not particularly well executed in others, and overall the finish isn’t quite what I would expect of a game released in the last few years.

The interesting thing is that I think early on the production team made a choice, accepting that graphically it wouldn’t be next level and focusing on making the game good in other ways. Either that or they didn’t care – but given the game’s self-awareness (we will get to that in bit), I suspect it was a deliberate choice to not try and compete on a graphics level and invest money elsewhere.

As I played through the game there were many small moments where I was thinking “Oh, that actually looks good”, the problem is those moments were few and far between and for the most part, I thought the game looked poor graphically.

Things of special note that looked bad are;

  • The Tornado/Weather Effects (at first, I thought this was because it was imaginary in the game – but no – a very real and poorly executed tornado)
  • The photos Max takes – these are a major game feature but there is nothing pleasant about looking at these supposedly beautiful photos.
  • The characters look poor, disproportioned and outdated for much of the game with brief glimmers where the graphics improve and they look a bit better.
life is strange visuals

Now we have dealt with the graphics, I can wholeheartedly say that although the graphics are poor, the overall game looks good. This is in part because the designers kept the game simple which meant that it didn’t overload the game and further degrade the graphics.

The last part is that choice I mentioned. The game is very stylised and where the graphics suffered, the designers built further along that style which gives the game a very fluid look throughout. Because they didn’t try to push boundaries, they actually managed to make a pretty seamless style that pervades the game. Finally, although anything moving looks odd, the location work and settings are always well executed enough to make the game look half good.

Life is Strange – How it Sounds and Feels

The single biggest thing that makes this game shine is how it places you into the story and makes everything feel authentic. The overall ambience of the game is treading a very narrow tightrope. It never feels absurd or poorly made, although had the developers got this wrong it would easily have fallen into this trap.

The soundtrack fits the game so well – if you’re a fan of music moments (I had just come from Red Dead Redemption Two so I was in full music moment mode) then this game has some amazing music moments. Don’t expect the grandiosity of Red Dead, the moments in this game are more subtle, tranquil and in keeping with the story.

Some of the strongest points in the game are where you have control of your character but you choose to do nothing and just enjoy the music, the setting and the moment. The ending of chapter one is possibly the strongest moment of the game and you could play that ending to someone who hasn’t played the game and they would instantly know what the game looks like, sounds like and feels like.

life is strange gameplay

Life is Strange – Memory Glitches

Before we move onto the story and characters, one of the most annoying things you will experience when playing this game is the poor mechanism for rewinding time. If it worked fluidly then it would be absolutely perfect. It doesn’t.

Fast-forwarding a rewind will often cause the game to freeze or lock you into the rewind which means you have to reload the last checkpoint. My advice to anyone trying to avoid this Life is Strange glitch, is to not fast-forward your rewinds. It is painfully slow but it saves you replaying long sections of the game over again.

Another bug which I think the developers added in to try and simplify the memory process is that sometimes you will be able to rewind the entire sequence of events, which can be beneficial if you want to start at the beginning armed with a wealth of knowledge, and other times it jumps and removes earlier sequences only allowing one memory to be rewound.

This is particularly frustrating when putting codes into the computer where you could rewind all three incorrect times but after it alters it only gives you one rewind which means you’re locking the computer with every try rather than three and means a whole lot more rewinding.

If you don’t know the errors with the game beforehand, I could imagine these glitches could ruin the entire game as people are often reluctant to replay completed sections let alone over and over and over again like Groundhog Day.

life is strange blade runner reference

Life is Strange – Story

If you know me, then you know that story and character development are very important for my overall game satisfaction. If either of these suck, then I am likely not to enjoy the game.

Life is Strange was very risky with its storytelling for a number of reasons. In fact, I can list these all specifically;

  • Clichés – Life is Strange uses a lot of clichés to develop characters and the story.
  • Pretentiousness – There are moments littered throughout the game where very pretentious things are forced into the narrative like the lead character forcing in a Kerouac reference while on a train track.
  • Lack of Rational Explanation – The whole game is predicated on a power the main character has to rewind time without explaining how or why this happened.
  • Stolen Ideas – There are a lot of themes and whole storylines that are taken from other games, TV shows and movies. Some of the storyline is taken directly from the Butterfly Effect.
  • Obligatory pushing of a lesbian subtext to seem edgy or controversial.

Adding all of these things together and the writing team have committed a litany of crimes for which another writer would crucify them. The pretentious elements are jarring, the clichés are cheesy and you could go through this game thinking that the story is poor. Really poor.

That is without the context of the main character being a teenager. If you’re in a forgiving mood, because it is set in a teenage context, you can let slide the pretentiousness because that comes with teenage angst. The clichés likewise fit the context. Although the lesbian subtext was a little forced, it actually really fit well into the game and at the end you’re faced with a couple of choices, whether Max embraces that or fights it.

There was no shock value to the gay storyline and it was done impeccably well, feeling natural and honest. Although it was likely included to be a bit controversial and gain a bit more marketing exposure, it was implemented well.

The overall theme developing so far is that the Life is Strange development team have managed to make every awful/rubbish aspect and against all odds made it work. That is until we get to the characters…

life is strange characters

The Characters

Aside from Chloe and Max (although I can take or leave the name Max, especially for a female character) the rest of the supporting cast is poor.

This is where the weakness of the storytelling team told out because getting away with the pitfalls above in an overall story is just passable, but on the level of characters where it is inspected closely, it all rings a bit hollow.

This, alongside the poor dialogue, made me often very aware that these characters weren’t very realistic. Reacting in unusual ways, talking in unusual terms and being wholeheartedly mundane with not much thought or imagination put into their development or even on a base level – who they are.

Watching the story of Max and Chloe unfold was nice – touching even. But even these two had some jarring moments with dialogue that immediately withdrew you from being immersed in their interaction.

For me, the characters were a long way off where they needed to be and after playing Red Dead Redemption Two where I was unimpressed with some of the character work it seems to be a recurrent theme that games aren’t getting characters right. It was a huge annoyance to not be able to see Dutch as the enigmatic pied piper who had otherworldly wisdom and philosophy as the game made out. Likewise, in Life is Strange it was very annoying to have the two main characters propped up by a largely two-dimensional and stereotypical cast.

max from life is strange

Life is Strange – Gameplay

By now, there have been some great aspects and some not so great. The gameplay of Life is Strange is its saving grace. Had other areas like graphics, storyline and characters been implemented better and then paired with the current gameplay the game would have been almost perfect.

The mechanisms of play are good and there is nothing too challenging about the game. Puzzles are good and difficult in places with an excellent memory being key (thankfully I was up to scratch). Some puzzles seemed too easy and were therefore unneeded.

Exploring the environment was good and there was just enough (I would have liked to have seen more) interaction with the environment to make it feel organic. The controls were very simple and the function of each button was straight forward, though there is one point in the game where I am using the confirmatory A button (XBOX ONE) to go back and the cancel B button to progress which was irritating.

The memory glitch is also a big bug. Other than that, there weren’t too many issues with the actual gameplay and it was quite seamless throughout.

Pacing

Another really strong aspect of the game was its pacing, which also is a credit to the story-writing team who must have worked well with the game engineers. For the most part I felt the pace was spot on throughout the game, there were moments that lingered a little longer than needed but that also meant that other moments weren’t rushed. I was able to explore and enjoy the game at my own leisure and that is truly remarkable credit to give to a game developer as pacing is so easy to get wrong.

The pacing was so good that the moments as mentioned with music (could be skipped if the player wanted) were enough time to immerse yourself in that moment and weren’t over-indulgent. Another mechanism is being able to run faster by pushing the trigger, this didn’t really make Max run that much faster but the game was paced so well and the character fit the environment that well that I rarely felt like rushing.

I only pushed the run button a small handful of times while playing the entire game.

chloe and max life is strange game

Conclusion

You might think that my conclusion might be to say this game has too many little nuisances to make it very good. It is definitely flawed. The thing I have to say is if the game lasted the duration of just the first chapter and I was to review that, then I would be overwhelmingly saying that Life is Strange is one of the most amazing games I have ever played. The game lasts five chapters though so that makes it a good game.

Good games are hard to find these days and I am really looking forward to playing Life is Strange Two.

One absolute praise I must give Life is Strange to finish is that in some of those immersive moments when the game just allowed itself to be what it was, there was something enchanting and magical about it. In those few moments, Life is Strange was by far the most beautiful game that I have ever played.

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