Dontnod's episodic time travel series starts off with promise, but not without some hitches
High school can be a daily exercise in embarrassing encounters. Stumbling through an awkward exchange with your current crush, taking a volleyball straight to the face during gym, having a teacher ask you a question while you’re daydreaming—wouldn’t it be great to rewind time and prevent these horrific moments from ever happening?
Life Is Strange allows its main character, Max Caulfield, to do just that. The episodic series from Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix capitalizes on the collective trials of navigating teenage life. The first episode, “Chrysalis,” is not without its issues —some hokey dialogue and stilted line reading can make the centerpiece of the game, the characters, a bit unbelievable. But it also sets the stage for a relatable tale with a nice sci-fi spin and enough hanging plot threads to encourage sticking around for future episodes.
Max, an 18-year-old at the small but well-respected Blackwell Academy, has a knack for photography, but she’s not exactly a social butterfly. Her inner monologue is constantly rolling, constantly questioning herself, and just about anyone who’s had a modicum of shyness can relate. She would rather be behind her camera, plugged into her music and observing the world. Max wants to stick to the outskirts of Blackwell’s social circles, but after her photography class, she witnesses an altercation that escalates into murder in the school bathroom.
Max watches as a boy shoots a girl following a heated argument over drugs and money. (It’s always about drugs and money, isn’t it?) Before she can react, though, she wakes up back in her photography class. Her professor is giving the same lecture, she notices the exact timing of events is identical as it was before.
This class has to be a dream, but she can tell it isn’t. This is real. Somehow, she’s gone back in time. Not just that, but she can control that time reversal—up to a point, of course—and knows what she has to do. She has to prevent that girl’s death.
Coupled with a mysterious dream about a tornado that feels just as real as her classroom, Max is having a hell of a day, and things, as the title suggests, are only to become stranger.
Life Is Strange’s format will feel familiar to those who have played any of Telltale Games’ recent line of adventure games. The majority of Max’s adventure are composed of conversations in which the player determines the outcome of each chat, with the added hook that time travel allows the player to reverse a choice if they’re unhappy with it. “Chrisyalis” takes place over only a single day, and there are occasional puzzles that players must solve to continue advancing, though they’re all relatively simple.
Instead, Life Is Strange will live or die by the characters and the flow of its story’s ability to connect with players. The main culprit holding Life Is Strange back from fully achieving that goal is its script. Characters too often sound like an older person’s approximation of what modern teenagers talk like. Slang feels forced and some of the teenagers just don’t sound like real people. At times while playing, I questioned whether this was the ambition on the game, to comment on the artifice of teenagers and their need to sound like they are cool and belong with the rest of their peers.
Then, a character will reference “posting on social medias” while sounding like the idea of Facebook and Instagram is a foreign language. It comes off in the way your grandpa would ask about the Internet at Christmas, not what a teenager who checks Twitter every 20 minutes would say.
The scripting oddities become a deterring distraction too often, and even extend beyond the teen characters. One adult is presented as a hardass, but it’s because he’s a soldier who went to war. The game not only reminds the player of this characterization half a dozen times, but relies on cliche with this character and many others.
Yet in spite of these issues, I finished the episode and immediately wanted to start up the second, unreleased episode. The world Dontnod has created has an indie-film charm, bouyed by an acoustic, melodramatic soundtrack and some gorgeous scenery. Because the game can be, at times, like an interactive movie, framing and directing of the story becomes an essential aspect. Here, Dontnod often succeeds with a gorgeous color palette that allows the nature of the Pacific Northwest to shine—literally, in a beautiful scene set at sunset—even when the characters themselves suffer from the uncannt valley.
And even when the dialogue can be groan-inducing, Max and her rekindled friendship Chloe feels honest and real. Despite the uptick in narrative-focused games in the last few years, few explore something so familiar as the relationship of two teenagers navigating life, and for all of “Chrysalis'” faults, I found myself wanting to repair the tattered friendship between Max and Chloe.
And that friendship, combined with the idea of exploring teenage life with some time travel assistance, will be what makes me return for episode 2. It’s too early to say whether the decision-making aspect of Life Is Strange is effective. The short term results of my decisions as Max to treat characters a certain way or whether to remain passive or active in a given situation were only occasionally satisfying. But most of the decisions which the game informs the player will have consequences later remain unresolved.
“Chrysalis” is a flawed but intriguing first step. The writing, in terms of the actual dialogue, weighs the project down and will need some serious overhauling in future episodes, but there’s a wealth of heart and honesty to the game’s plot and thematic ideas. Even if Dontnod can’t go back in time and reverse some of the mistakes that “Chrysalis” makes, it can continue on with the heartwarming elements that make this first episode feel fresh and engrossing.
Life Is Strange’s first episode will be available Jan. 30 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360.