As I write my first ever game review, I have to confess something: I’m not much of a video gamer. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lifelong devotee of certain games – The Sims, Pokemon, Final Fantasy VII. Anyway, my gaming habits – or lack thereof – are something I’m trying to remedy. I know that perhaps that sounds strange coming from a member of the millennial generation that is slowly but surely growing disillusioned, peeling the wool away from its eyes and looking to get away from screens, to live life in actual reality rather than its virtual counterpart. But I enjoy gaming. I just don’t necessarily have as much time to devote to it as I would like. Add on the patriarchal stereotype of video games being the domain of increasingly violent teenage boys, and you can further see why sometimes I feel like I don’t belong and why I feel obliged to say that I’m “not much of a video gamer”.
That was until I recently discovered ‘Life is Strange’ and suddenly a whole new wealth of gaming opportunity was presented to me.
‘Life is Strange’ (henceforth I’ll refer to it as LiS, because ain’t nobody got time for typing full names repeatedly) is what is commonly referred to as a “walking simulator”, which definitely undersells how brilliant it is. After all, why would you want to play a game that markets itself as a simulator for something that most people can just get up and do anyway? I’d prefer to think of it as a semi-choose-your-own-adventure, story-rich, psychological thriller with elements of sci-fi and a whole dollop of emotional depth (try condensing that into Steam tags). To me, LiS was an extremely rewarding slow-burner full of characters and relationships that you couldn’t help but fall in love with, with plenty of satisfying cliffhanger moments to keep you hanging on the edge of your seat. I must have cried a full bucket of tears at this game.
I suppose I should probably explain what LiS is actually about. You play as 18-year-old artist Max Caulfield (above), who has recently moved from Seattle back to her sleepy Oregon hometown of Arcadia Bay to study at the prestigious Blackwell Academy under the tutelage of esteemed photographer Mark Jefferson. However, all is not right. A local girl is missing, and when she saves her estranged best friend Chloe Price from being shot in the girls’ bathroom through accidental time travel, Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time. Sure, this power is helpful in class – she can rewind and give correct answers to Mr Jefferson’s questions, having already heard him say them aloud – but where it really comes in handy is uncovering Arcadia Bay’s menacing secrets. She teams up with this new punky, deeply troubled Chloe, and together they try to solve myriad local mysteries – where the missing Rachel Amber went, why animals seem to be dying all over town, why good girl Kate Marsh seems so depressed, what school jock Nathan Prescott and his cult-like social elite (known as the Vortex Club) seem to be hiding. Add in some compelling relationships, the everyday struggles of Max trying to break into the photography business, absolutely gorgeous, cinematic graphics and a killer soft-rock soundtrack, and you’ve got a game that will keep you hooked for hours. In my case, sixteen hours.
As I’ve mentioned, LiS is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of game. You explore the world around you through Max’s eyes, and every interaction – whether it be with a person or an object – can affect the course of the game more than you could ever predict. Some interactions are minor and have no real consequence, while others significantly change the outcome of the game and are quite often literal life-or-death decisions. This really boosts the game’s replayability, as you can go back and play time and time again to see how different decisions influence the rest of the game. One feature I really liked is how at the end of every episode (the game is divided into five episodes, making it seem even more like a TV drama that you have some input in), it recaps the choices you made and compares your choices to those made by players all over the world. It was interesting to see how what I thought was the obvious, moral choice was so often eschewed by others.
There are also plenty of puzzles to solve, often involving hunting for objects in a specific location. This reminded me of the kind of games I used to play as a kid, when collecting certain items boosted your score, so I really enjoyed this element. There are also sections where you need to make full use of your rewind power in order to get the information you need, sneak around without getting caught, and even save lives. While it’s fun to rewind and just see how saying different things can influence conversations, the suspenseful moments when you need to solve puzzles under time constraints are really where this power excels.
The game is not without fault, but its flaws are minor. The synching of dialogue was pretty terrible at times, and I wasn’t a fan of Max’s voice acting (everyone else was pretty good though, especially Chloe). A lot of relationships in the game don’t seem to resolve one way or another, and SPOILERS, Max and Chloe’s friendship is a bit queer-baity at times. Anyway, in my mind, they escaped Arcadia Bay and set up a life together elsewhere. Thousands of fanfic writers can’t be wrong.
No more spoilers now, don’t worry.
On the whole, I would give LiS a solid 5/5 stars. No game has ever had me this hooked, this willing to give up on all other hobbies and social engagements for two weeks. I was so excited to get home from work every day and play some more. Each episode takes around three hours to complete, depending on how much exploration you want to do. That’s the good thing about the game: while many things are time-sensitive, your rewind power means you can explore your surroundings to your heart’s content because you’re never really going to mess up. There is no risk of doing something wrong and getting a “game over” screen, because even mistakes are useful in the wider context of the game. They don’t give you a “wrong” ending, they just give you a different one.
It’s for this reason that, despite the time travel and the freak weather, ‘Life is Strange’ is one of the most realistic games I’ve ever played.
The first episode of ‘Life is Strange’ is free to download and play from Steam, with the rest of the game currently only £3.99 (RRP £15.99), and is also available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
All pictures from Steam and video by Gamespot.