Review: Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis (Sony PlayStation 4)

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Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 01/30/2015

It was only a matter of time before another company attempted to out Telltale a Telltale game. Square-Enix has turned to Dontnod Entertainment, makers of Remember Me, to do just that. Life is Strange is an episode interactive drama that emphasizes cinematic gameplay and player choice. It’s time to see how a bigger name company gets the job done.

The story follows the tale of Max. Max is a teenage girl who’s come back to her home town so as to enroll in a prestigious photography class. She’s the typical wallflower hipster girl. She’s nice, quirky, and unpopular. She also listens to music that’s so indie, you probably haven’t heard of it. Oh, and she discovers that she has the ability to reverse time a la Prince of Persia.

lifeisstrange1There are a lot of plot threads to keep track of. There’s a reconnection with a childhood friend, dodging a disturbed teen with a handgun, returning a friend’s flash drive, dealing with a paranoid security guard, and trying to deal with the school bully. OK. So maybe one of those isn’t as bad as the others. The thing is that all of these elements are handled well. Each character is given depth through dialogue options, Max’s inner musings, and simple observation. The events so far are very interesting and promise greater mysteries and revelations down the road. This is an excellent start. It doesn’t get bogged down by it’s supernatural elements. Rather, it uses those elements to bolster a genuinely well written story.

For the most part, Life is Strange looks great. The models and environments are well detailed, there’s a good use of color, and nothing looks strangely out of place. A couple of issues bog it down though. The hair for example, has the complexion of cheap plastic. It almost looks like characters are wearing helmets. Facial hair doesn’t fare much better either. Those that have it look like they’ve simply drawn it on with marker. More importantly, the lip syncing is terrible to the point of distraction. It feels like the audio is simply out of sync with the visuals. Unfortunately, these issues are consistent throughout the game and make it hard to enjoy an otherwise well put together little world.

lifeisstrange2Things fare better in the aural department. Those indie songs fit the mood to a tee, and sound pretty nice to boot. The voice acting is also quite good across the board. A few lines are overacted a bit, but that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that teenagers actually act like that. It’s not odd at all that Max would get into an all too serious reverie about some silly bit of graffiti or lament the state of her self portrait. That’s what kids do. It’s a solid package across the board really. It’s just a shame those words don’t match the lip movements.

Much like the various recent TT games, Life is Strange keeps a minimalist approach. However, this game keeps a few of the puzzle elements that those games have ditched. The time rewinding mechanic also throws a fresh perspective on the genre.

There’s actually freedom to explore and discover in the game. While you can only really progress the plot by completing certain actions, you’re often given a fairly well sized area to walk around in. You can hunt for photo ops, talk to people, and get Max’s input on various things as well. Talking to people helps flesh out the story, and adds a lot of depth. There’s one plot line about a girl who went missing in the months prior to the start of story, and you’ll find out a lot more by talking to non-essential people than you will on the main path. It’s really all about walking around and pressing one of two or so face buttons. It’s simple, but effective.

lifeisstrange3When a puzzle does show up, it’s often only a couple of steps in complexity. For example, you’ll only need to perform two actions in order to get the popular girls to stop blocking your way into the dorm. The trick is in using the time reversal to see what things you can interact with. In one case, you need to hide in a closet. If you attempt to open the door, a floor lamp falls into it and knocks everything over. A quick time reversal allows you to move the lamp first and thus save you from the accident. To reverse time, you need only hold down a shoulder button. The game has skip options to allow you fast forward through stuff you’ve already seen before/maneuver through time faster. Best of all, this mechanic lets you change your mind about even the biggest decisions in the game. The catch is that you can only reverse time so far, and once you leave the area, those decisions are set in stone. Still, it takes a lot of the anxiety out of making a choice. You can see what all the options do and pick the path you think is best.

When it comes to making choices in the game, your options are usually limited. Fans used to TT’s four option method might be disappointed to know that this game usually offers only two or three choices. This is most likely to give more meaning to those choices and to keep the time reversals from getting out of hand. On the other hand, you’re free to talk to someone until you’ve exhausted all dialogue options, which is nice. It’s certainly less on-rails than comparable games. It’s not quite to the point where you can call it a true adventure game, but it’s much closer than you’d expect.

lifeisstrange4As you might expect, the episode isn’t very long at all. It only took me a couple of hours to go through it. There are some reasons to go back through. One of them is obviously that you can change your choices in order to see all the possible outcomes. Another is that there are hidden photo ops in the game that unlock trophies if you can find them. It’s possible to get them all on the first go, but they’re easy to miss if you’re in a hurry to see the story play out. There are even a few key decisions that you can miss if you’re not committed to searching every nook and cranny. It’s not a whole lot, but it does offer you something at least.

This is a very good start to a promising series. If you’re a fan of the modern interactive drama game, then this particular example should prove very interesting. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out when its up against two concurrent Telltale series.

Short Attention Span Summary
diehardjack1-150x150Life is Strange does most of what it wants to do quite well. While there are a few hiccups in the presentation department, the game delivers on story and decision making. The time reversal mechanic allows for some amusing puzzles and allows the player to get more information before making crucial decisions. Hopefully, the momentum of this first episode will carry forward and create a fantastic first season to this series.

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