For years, Telltale has been the only name associated with quality (yet incredibly buggy) episodic gaming, but we’re delighted to see some new blood enter the blossoming genre. Life is Strange is leading the way with Remember Me developers, Dontnod Entertainment, bringing us a brand new IP over five episodes through digital platforms.
I’ve always been rather cautious with this type of game. Knowing I have little patience for waiting, I’ve played the likes of Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us once a season has finished, as I didn’t want to wait weeks/months between episodes to find out what happens next. It’s a Netflix mentality that’s going to drive me insane with Life is Strange. I’ve played one episode and I’m hooked. The time between episodes is going to draaaag.
Of course, how you play is up to you, you can wait until the season finishes -and keep your fingers crossed for a discount too- or you can dive in now and not have to throw a magazine across the floor or stick your fingers in your ears whenever the game’s name is mentioned. A Game of Thrones syndrome if you will.
Anyway let’s get stuck into the game. There’s no beating about the bush, it uses a very similar template to Telltale’s episodic titles. So you can expect dialogue choices aplenty with them directly affecting the way people behave towards you. Frequent prompts indicate when something important has happened. But there’s a large difference and I’ll get to that soon.
The story involves a high school senior called Maxine (or Max), who attends a photography school in Arcadia Bay, a small coastal town in Oregon. Arcadia Bay’s her home town, but she’s spent the last few years in Seattle, so is very much starting afresh with a host of new people to make friends with or cliques to avoid. We join the story after she’s been there a few months, with some helpful diary entries bringing us up to speed with her first term.
Without going into too much detail -because story is everything with these types of game- Max discovers she can rewind time, with the last minute or so’s action being free to undo. So for all those times in the Walking Dead where you’ve made a snap-choice and regretted it, this is the game that lets you rethink your actions without waiting for a second playthrough or if you’re going with the choose your own adventure books comparison, it’s like sneaking back to an earlier page choice (yes!). So, if you piss someone off, but you’d rather keep them onside for a while, simply rewind and go for the other dialogue choice. Multiple checkpoints throughout the episode subtly let you know you can’t rewind if you proceed, which clearly allows you to plot your own course.
Rewinds can also be used to alter actions. For example, an early task requires you to clear the doorway as a group of bullies block your path. There are numerous interactions involving sprinkler systems, hanging tins of paint and so on to fiddle around with to find the right mix. Time is rewound around Max too, she herself does not move backwards, so if she picks something up, it will remain in her possession, which is all sorts of neat. The mechanic can also be used to evade falling objects as shown by an action-packed scene.
These rewinds aren’t a handy, but unexplained, cheat mechanic. It’s slowly being woven into the story’s fabric and looks set to play an integral role. The episode’s bookending of the possibly related looming trouble ahead does a fantastic job of ensuring we’ll be snapping up episode two.
The largest AI role so far is that of Chloe, Max’s childhood friend who she lost contact with after moving away. Although much has changed while they were apart, their friendship doesn’t take long to rekindle and it looks like the pair are set to lead us through the game’s events. There’s a wide range of characters already with a healthy mix of snobs, spoilt kids and scary bastards. One part of the story briefly touches on the subject of sexual violence, date rape drugs specifically. As a subject gaming rarely touches, it will be interesting to see how it is handled going forwards.
There’s a very relaxed vibe to episode one, the sleepy town is supported by a very low key selection of acoustic indie tracks that give the game a unique sense of identity and is a stark contrast (much like the rest of the game really) to the epic orchestral score of Dontnod’s Neo-Paris in Remember Me. The visuals have a stylish ‘painted’ quality to them, particularly the backgrounds, the townsfolk also share the painted aesthetic, but with a bit more detail in order to give them more emotional character. Everywhere you look though, you’ll be tempted to snap a screenshot on the PS4’s share button. I was spoilt for choice in taking the pictures for this review.
Despite this episode having a bit of a ‘pilot’ feel (show them just enough to make them tune in next time), there’s still lots to do. Unlike Telltale’s episodes, this lasts much longer, with my initial playthrough lasting about two hours and 45 minutes. The rewinds ate up a nice chunk of this as I played with the emotions of Arcadia Bay’s townsfolk. There are loads of posters and intricate items around campus to explore that add extra detail to Dontnod’s world. Special photo opportunity assignments can be viewed in Max’s diary as items to snap if you can spot them.
Dontnod have been smart to include various save file options for when you finish the episode. You can see which areas you’ve missed a photo op in and reload them, with any choices made set to not affect the plotline. Alternatively, you can reload an area in order to make different choices and keep them if a choice you made is nagging at your conscience when you finish. This could get very messy with each new episode, but we’ll see how far you can change things when we have more episodes to play.
- A finely-paced introduction
- No glitches (Telltale can keep those)
- Great replay potential
- Already invested in the two leads
- A long wait between episodes
- Some of the students need a slap
An intriguing start for Dontnod’s leap into episodic gaming. Chrysalis is very much a scene setter, easing us in gently to a host of intriguing characters and ensuring we get to grips with the rewind mechanic before we’re asked to make any seriously tough choices. As long as the momentum continues to build pace, this could turn out to be something special. At this early stage, I can’t wait to play more, but to put a numbered score on this at such an early stage would be strange. Such is life.