Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis Review
Indie Movie: The Game
It's no secret that narrative-driven, episodic adventure games are making quite the resurgence, largely thanks to the efforts of Telltale Games and their licensed titles based on franchises that include Borderlands, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and even Back to the Future. The latest game that falls into that genre isn't coming from Telltale, nor is it based on an existing franchise. Square Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment's Life is Strange is an episodic story that doesn't rely too much on puzzle solving, or even pointing and clicking, but more-so on the story and character development with some sweet time traveling mechanics thrown in for good measure.
Life is Strange revolves around Max Caulfield, a just-turned 18-year-old student at a prestigious photography academy in her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and her strange gift of being able to rewind time. Max is your typical introvert, keeping to herself and never really reaching out to others. She has a few close friends, but mostly keeps to herself and her analog way of life. Max is very much a hipster in the modern society, preferring tube TVs and analog cameras to their modern counterparts. She enjoys a hefty dose of indie music and carries around a polaroid camera to capture life's great moments.
In fact, the whole game absolutely exudes "indie." A socially awkward main character who refuses to adapt to the modern world and only sticks to analog technology, check. A rural town next to a forest that also happens to have a lighthouse, check. A great selection of indie songs by bands you most likely never heard of, check. The only thing that would make Life is Strange more indie is if the Sundance Film Festival logo appeared before the game's opening scene.
The first episode does a really good job at setting up the atmosphere and introducing a majority of the secondary characters, as well as establishing Max as the protagonist. Max spent the last five years living in Seattle after her family relocated, leaving her best friend Chloe behind. Coming back to Arcadia Bay gives Max a sense of belonging since it's her hometown; however, it also makes her feel somewhat alienated, since for the past five years she has made no attempt to contact Chloe. It's easy to sympathize with Max, even in the very first episode, and DONTNOT certainly needs to be commended for that.
Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy also deserve a shout out, since they're both seemingly perfect, but both hide some dark secrets -- which you'll slowly start to unravel in the very first episode, including a disappearance of a young girl. Needless to say, by the time I finished the first episode, which actually took me about an hour-and-a-half, I very much wanted to start playing episode 2 immediately, to find out where the story is going.
Max discovers her time altering abilities pretty early on in the episode thanks to a traumatic experience of witnessing a boy shooting Chloe in the girl's bathroom. She then realizes she's able to rewind time, but only to a certain degree, allowing her to change up her actions or answers depending on the situation. Got a wrong answer in class? Rewind time and give the right one. Did you manage to make a mess while snooping through some secret files? No problem, rewind time and the mess is gone. Max is completely unaffected by the flow of time, meaning she keeps the items she picked up, even after rewinding time. It's a unique mechanic that actually gets integrated into the very light puzzle elements that the game has.
Whenever you make a story-altering decision, the game alerts you and gives you a heads up that you can still rewind time and change your answer, and therefore, change the outcome. These outcomes, like in Telltale games, will affect your storyline. Do you tell the principal that you saw a kid waving the gun around? Or do you keep it to yourself because the kid belongs to a wealthy family that donates to the school? Also, like Telltale, at the end of the episode, you get a stat screen which compares your choices with the rest of the community. Where the game differs from Telltale games is the exploration. Here you have full control of Max in an explorable environment with full camera control.
The only downside, besides some stiff looking animations, was the lip-synching. I'm assuming that since DONTNOD is a French developer, the lips aren't synched to the English language. It somewhat breaks the immersion that the game otherwise does such a good job at building, when the lips don't correspond to what they're saying. I'm also not very fond of some of the voice actor choices, Max specifically. I know she's supposed to be this introvert, but some of her line delivery are pretty cringe-worthy.
Chrysalis is a fantastic setup episode. It doesn't reveal much except for a few tidbits that you know you'll be exploring in later episodes, and hooks you in with the time rewind mechanic and some great atmosphere building. I have a feeling that the lip-synching issue won't be fixed by later episodes, which is slightly unfortunate. With that said though, I can't wait to find out more about this strange little adventure game. The six weeks wait will be quite tough.
*We will not be assigning Life is Strange a score until its final episode is released, at which point we'll be reviewing the game as a whole