As I was playing through and readying our review of Grim Fandango Remastered, I put a lot of thought into the adventure gaming genre. It was the first style that I really got into as I began playing the majority of my games on PC around 1990. In my article on Grim I mentioned how it was, for a long time, thought of as the swan song of adventure games. While that was never fully true, it certainly marked the end of the “classic era” for companies like Sierra and LucasArts, which is why it was so interesting to be looking at a remastered title from that period, releasing at a time when adventure games have come back with some force behind them. Today, we’re talking about a new episodic adventure from Dontnod Entertainment and SquareEnix.
Now, let’s get this right out of the way. Dontnod’s first release, Remember Me, received fairly mixed and middling reviews. I happen to think that it’s almost criminally underrated. Though not without its flaws, I felt that it featured a solid story concept in a beautiful world, with an extraordinary soundtrack. Combat was not difficult, but once you understood how to structure it though, it was repetitive.
My biggest gripe with the game was the total under-utilization of its rewind feature. Once their latest game, Life is Strange, was announced as an adventure series with a rewind feature and choice-based gameplay, I was highly intrigued. Switching from an action/combat/platforming adventure, to a straight up point-and-click in what can only be called the “Telltale style”, is a large task. The resulting first episode, Chrysalis, shows a lot of promise — any trepidation of how the gameplay works is tempered by the setup of very interesting story.
Our tale focuses on college student, Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a self-professed photography geek. She has recently enrolled in Blackwell Academy, a college in her small (fictional) hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. We will learn that she has returned here after trying to make it in the “big city” of Seattle to the North. It helps that Blackwell is noted for their photography program — her area of interest — and is headed by a noted photographer.
As the story begins, Max is experiencing some sort of nightmare. She finds herself outside of a lighthouse near her town, but everything is off — it feels otherworldly. As she makes her way up to the top of a bluff, she spots a massive, swirling tornado. Lightning and thunder tear the skies — debris is littered everywhere. Suddenly, a boat flies from the spinning vortex and strikes the lighthouse, sending it crashing towards Max. It’s a stylized, darkly beautiful scene which quickly transitions to a brightly paletted reality, filled with light, painterly textures.
As she jolts awake from her terrible vision, she finds herself in photography class. She is uneasy, made worse by her embarrassment from being shown up by another young woman in the class. After eventually make it out of the classroom, she heads to the bathroom for a moment to gather herself. Instead, what she observes is a confrontation between a young man and woman involving a weapon. She witnesses violence, and in the moment of her crying out, suddenly finds herself back in the classroom at the exact moment she woke from her dream. She seems to have some sort of control over time, allowing her to change recent events based on information or items she gains. The real gameplay and story begin at this point.
Though this ability to rewind time is certainly the core mechanic, it means nothing if not given a purpose in the game’s world. Max has many more people to meet and interact with: more classmates, her former best friend and other various people on campus. As she walks through the world and examines items and speaks to people through a simple click and interact wheel, she will uncover multiple threads of story weaving together. Aside from her newfound ability, perhaps the most intriguing piece of the narrative which emerges is the disappearance of female student at some recent point prior to Max’s return to Arcadia. This missing woman, Rachel, has ties to nearly all of her acquaintances, both old and new. As Max explores campus and other areas, clues she discovers begin to hint at conspiracy, possible murder, and looks to point the finger at multiple potential perpetrators.
Technically speaking, there’s not much to the game. The rewind feature is more simple than Remember Me’s in that you don’t do any heavy manipulation of the environment or change people’s memories. There are still key points displayed on your rewind dial, so you know where to head. The game also constantly reminds you that your decisions could have an impact and that you can, and possibly should, rewind over your last decision. It’s borderline annoying. When using the mechanic to avoid things within the environment, it can feel clunky and imprecise. However, there’s no real danger of it causing a fail-state of any sort. Selecting and interacting with items is a simple process, unless there are multiple ones within close proximity to each other — this can cause you to select that item you weren’t trying to focus on, particularly when the camera wedges you into the corner of an area.
The one benefit to reviewing a few days into the launch period is that it can allow a writer to read and react to what other people think about the game. There are criticisms of the game that are valid and others that seem way off-base. Some have suggested that this feels more like high school than college. While I may not fully agree with that sentiment, I can see why people feel that way. Some of the characters are juvenile, but let’s be honest, that’s not a trait reserved exclusively for teenagers — let’s remember that our main character is merely 18.
I have also heard some suggest that the writing is bad or that it is serving some sort of “agenda”. This is pure nonsense. The dialogue feels like a natural — if somewhat sanitized— version of modern conversation, given the age of our characters. The voice acting is, for the most part, consistent and believable. It is also heavily focused on the internal monologue of Max as she narrates to us what she is thinking.
The developers have caught my attention from all sides: establishing characters worth exploring, a mystery begging to be solved and a power needing to explained, all within a single episode that will clock in around two hours of play time. The soundtrack features generally mellow, contemporary, folksy-style tracks that complements everything really well — including the game’s atmosphere — and the acting, story and visuals all flow together to provide a satisfying experience overall. And to make the playthrough even more interesting, there are enough significant choices to go back on and setup a different save with alternate picks to see how the narrative will shift and how different characters will react to the changes.
Dontnod and SquareEnix’s Life is Strange, Episode 1: Chrysalis, is available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One now for $4.99. A subsequent Season Pass for the remaining future episodes is $16.99, or you can buy them all at once for $19.99. If the series can continue to build on the premise they have setup and tighten up the use of the rewind mechanic, it will be well worth that price. I’m looking forward to the next episodes which are scheduled to come in six week increments.
Life is Strange: Episode 1 – Chrysalis was played for review on PC via Steam.