January is starting the year off with a little bit for every gamer. Those who aren’t excited about the re-release of Resident Evil, or the open world sensibilities of Dying Light might be looking for a more laid back experience. In comes Dontnod’s Life is Strange, where the Remember Me developer takes on the interactive storytelling genre previously saturated with Telltale titles. The first episode, titled Chrysalis, shows that Dontnod knows what they are doing with a creative story that benefits from good writing and characters.
Taking place at Blackwell Academy, a well-known art school tucked away in a quiet small town, the story begins to tell a coming of age tale of Max Caulfield. A shy girl, Max finds herself as a loner at the school, often focusing on her talent in photography. Her life changes, however, when during a daydream in class she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time to some extent. She makes use of this skill to help a friend in need in a terrifying situation. As the story develops, more questions are raised than answers provided all culminating in a story that starts out full of emotion and intrigue.
Characters throughout the adventure feel while a little weak in several instances, feel very legitimate through their dialogue. While many characters fit very thinly veiled high-school archetypes, there are a few diamonds in the rough that show through with more than one dimension, at least in this first episode. Max’s meek character is well represented here through her actions and dialogue. Chloe, a childhood friend who has undergone an entire character arc off-screen feels like the most complex character the game has to offer. In the majority of cases, it feels like Dontnod has a firm grasp on the demeanor that they want their characters to possess, without compressing them into entities with personalities as flat as cardboard. On the other hand, the remainder of the characters who you speak to in the game can be ridiculously annoying in their way of acting.
The action takes place in the modern adventure game sense, where the focus is very much on dialogue trees, exploration, and branching paths based on choices within those dialogue trees or bouts of exploration. The entire thing is more or less a copy paste of the Telltale formula, with minor tweaks. A massive amount of objects seem to be observable in the game. Every few steps seems like it had a handful of new objects to inspect. Fearful I’d miss any point of interesting dialogue, I spent a good amount of time checking out everything each area had to offer, with mixed results of satisfaction.
Consequences of dialogue choices is a major draw to Life is Strange. However, it does have that Telltale issue where the game claims that tons of things will have noticeable consequences. Compared to Telltale titles, however, I noticed a more immediate backlash to my actions than expected. For instance, when given the option to rat a student out or stay quiet, doing the former actually had a very noticeable and important impact on the progression of the story, or at least appeared to do so, as an event soon afterwards seemed entirely dependent on my decision. This was supported a few times within episode 1 alone, however, there is no saying how well it will work its way into future episodes.
The rewind mechanic is the game’s primary gimmick to set it apart from other similar titles. Players have the ability to undo a dialogue decision by rewinding past the last major event. Anything gained, such as knowledge or items in your inventory, remain in your grasp when you rewind. This allows for the game’s very simple puzzles. For instance, someone may refuse to let you access some important information due to your lack of knowledge on a topic, like a piece of art trivia, ultimately revealing that knowledge to you in their explanation. Rewinding time now knowing this info allows Max to re-initiate the conversation and use it to please the person beforehand. A lot of the game’s puzzles are like this. Using the rewind mechanic to execute a loosely timed paint can sabotage, or to fix a mistake retroactively is entirely what the mechanic is used for in Episode 1. The issue with this is that these feel like filler. The typical progression was failing the first attempt at the dialogue or puzzle, learning the solution, and simply rewinding to complete it. It ended up being a little tedious towards the end.
The game’s atmosphere is one of it’s most redeeming aspects. The art design does suffer from poor textures and underwhelming character animations, but makes up for it decently with style. The game’s great soundtrack samples from dreamy indie rock tunes that exudes the emotional wonder of growing up with all it’s ups and downs. The lighting leans on the soft side more often than not. This gives the entire experience a pleasant day-dreamy, flashbacky feel. The game aims to take that Gone Home sort of aesthetic and bring it into a story that takes place in our current era and does so so effectively that it actually was able to trick me into believing the story did take place in a late 90’s early 00’s world.
Dontnod’s Life is Strange is the start to what could be an incredible story. The music, writing, and ambiance make for an experience that feels both nostalgic and authentic. While the game is very troubled when it comes to it’s graphics, and a handful of the characters are insufferable, none of the game’s negatives took away from my satisfaction upon finishing Chrysalis. Dontnod is a strong force in stories that break the mold in today’s industry, and Life is Strange has the potential to be one of 2015’s most important adventures.