Piggybacking off of the success of Telltale Games’ recent slate of critically-acclaimed point-and-click adventure titles, DONTNOD Entertainment (Remember Me) has launched its own series dubbed Life is Strange. A new IP without any sort of license to rest on, it’s an adventurous effort for both the developer and its publishing partner, Square Enix, and one that has quite a bit riding on it.
Kickstarting this five-part episodic saga is Chrysalis, aka. Life is Strange: Episode One. It’s the introductory chapter, and perhaps the most important of them all, being that it’s responsible for hooking us and making us want to return. After all, there’s a fine line between starting things off positively and introducing too much, and those bounds remain uncrossed here. An incredibly interesting story, full of suspense, intrigue and tough choices evidently awaits us, but Chrysalis takes things slowly and unravels like a good book, without showing any signs of being overly hasty.
Life is Strange is the story of one Max Caulfield, a young adult who has moved back to her former hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, after spending five years in Seattle with her parents. The reason for this change of address is less about old friends and more about school, however, as it just so happens that prestigious Blackwell Academy — a private school for gifted seniors — is located in that very same area. It’s a narrative convenience to say the least, but also a creative necessity.
Max, who happens to be both a gifted photographer and an introspective geek, is still trying to acclimatize to her old but new surroundings when we meet her. However, that part of the story isn’t what we’re introduced to at the beginning of this episode, as things truly start with a bang during a nightmare sequence that takes place along the town’s seaside shoreline. It’s some sort of waking nightmare, or a vision if you will, which shows a large tornado en route to the quaint locale, threatening it and everyone who calls it home.
Once she reaches the cliffside and its aging lighthouse, Max wakes up in photography class, where others haven’t noticed a thing. From there on, we’re treated to a realistic-feeling school life experience that is made unique and unrealistic by the girl’s startling discovery. That is, that she has the ability to rewind time – something that happens without intent once she watches a mysterious girl die at the gun-touting hands of a wealthy student.
After it’s introduced, the noted time travel mechanic becomes pivotal to Max’s progression, as she explores her school and interacts with not only friends, but also newfound acquaintances and ignorant bullies. This design creates the opportunity for unique moments, wherein Max must bend the space/time continuum to set things in motion. Or, if she chooses, rewind time to change past decisions, many of which will affect how things play out in future episodes.
Being able to see how each choice will play out (at least, at that moment) is a neat twist on the formula, especially in comparison to Telltale’s “act now and live with it” philosophy. Neither school of thought is wrong, either; both work well for all intended purposes. It’s nice to be able to take a breather here, though, and it’s this explorative lack of urgency that makes Life is Strange an endearing piece of entertainment. Explore at your own leisure, talk to whomever you want, but know that you have a goal to accomplish.
Of course, while a story about a young woman coming of age can be entertaining and immersive, that’s not all that’s on offer here. Although you want to help Max live the best life possible, by helping her make friends and become happy, there’s an overarching mystery that prevails. It surrounds the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful Blackwell student, who had aspirations of being a model, and it just so happens that Max’s former best friend (Chloe) became close with the girl after losing Max to Seattle. That friendship, it seems, was born out of isolation and loneliness, two things that Max helped cause after failing to keep in contact during the five years that she was living elsewhere.
Chloe — who’s introduced and plays a large role in this introductory episode — is a troubled punk with a drug problem and financial woes. She’s not the same person that our fantastic protagonist remembers, and it seems that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Even when she spills the beans, per se, it’s hard to not feel like she’s still hiding something dark inside.
Blackwell Academy exists to be explored, and so does Chloe’s humble abode. It’s in these moments where a lot of heart comes out, too, as DONTNOD has created a living, breathing world that feels as lifelike as it does traditional. Look at family photos, read posters and listen to Max’s thoughts. Or snoop in classmates’ rooms, play guitar and listen to music. Speaking of that, this is a game that loves its pop culture references and music, as evidenced by its fantastic soundtrack and neat homages to great TV shows and cult classic movies, such as The X-Files and Cannibal Holocaust.
While exploring, photographic opportunities arise. These — which act as the game’s collectibles and can be searched for in a genius “Collectible-only Mode,” which doesn’t save the choices you make — are fun to look for and add extra play time to an already two to three hour-long episode. In total, ten different secret photos are available for discovery in Chrysalis, and you’ll have to influence the world around you to find around half of them.
Now, for the tech talk, which is where Life is Strange shines and struggles in different ways.
For starters, the game and its locations are vivid, immersive and beautifully designed from an artistic standpoint. The world truly does feel alive, but it’s also got an artistic flair to it, which is accentuated by the hipster handwriting-like font that prevails throughout. Still, it’s not devoid of issues, as occasional frame rate hiccups do appear, as does pop-up, which is only noteworthy during cutscenes that introduce new locations. Max’s hair also looks like plastic from time to time, but that’s not a big deal.
The soundtrack has been covered, but what about the rest of the audio? Well, it’s solid for the most part, although some of the voice acting is less than stellar. That can be overlooked, but it’s tougher to forget about lip-syncing issues that occasionally appear. Neither problem comes anywhere close to being game breaking, though, so don’t avoid this title because of them. If you do, you’ll likely end up regretting your decision.
When it all comes down to it, Life is Strange is a potential masterpiece that is just beginning to break out of its proverbial cocoon. Although only one episode has been made available to us thus far, it makes for a great introduction and hints at a fantastic overall experience. I, personally, cannot wait to continue my time in Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and hope that you will take this opportunity to support DONTNOD in its effort-soaked quest to create a magical point-and-click adventure.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
As the introductory episode of Life is Strange, Chrysalis exists as a great beginning, which is full of both intrigue and hints towards greatness. This is a game that feels like it exists in a living world, and it's one that we want to explore more.