Max Caulfield just got into one of the best high schools in the country for art students. This has her returning to her home town of Arcadia Bay, but also has her stumbling into an insane dream, a vision perhaps? The town is being approached by a massive tornado the size of a town itself, and with a sudden realization, Max learns she can reverse time in small intervals, and has teen-drama’d her way into the impossible.
Max’s biggest dilemmas come mainly from her newfound powers, but returning to your hometown after five years and a school full of the classic spoiled rich kids with too much power contributes as well. The teen drama aspect of Life is Strange is probably its biggest draw or, for some, its biggest breaking point. If you, like me, enjoy marathoning episodes of Gilmore Girls, you’ll feel right at home in Max’s shoes. Conflict comes from dealing with shallow teenage rivals and boys that like you but you don’t like back, maybe trite conflicts, but they feel personal because of how well they’re delivered on. If this is genuinely childish or annoying to you, it’ll come off as such here as well. Life is Strange captures the teen drama well, and sits comfortably with the best of them in any medium.
It’s all supported by relevant references and a specific openness to pop-culture. Sure there is a tongue and cheek reference to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there are also nods to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Full Metal Alchemist, and several other TV and anime mentions I myself watched and obsessed over in my teenage years. A lot of them actually made me laugh and reminisce in an oddly nostalgic way. It helped build the characters up as someone real in a small fashion, and will probably come off as forced to some, but worked for me.
And again, everything here is endearing you to its genre and its characters. This is a teen drama with supernatural elements, and never tip-toes around that. It’s ready acceptance of those aspects of it make it sincere and convincing, as opposed to the alternative. For its flaws of sometimes awkward dialogue, use of the word “hella”, and at times too on-the-nose references, it just works as a flawed piece. In spite of itself, it gleams through as brighter and more captivating.
Adventure games are nothing but style, so with major success on that front, the whole setting and cast are more approachable. It helps that it plays more along the lines of other third person games as opposed to other adventure games on the market. It’s a close-to-the-character, over the shoulder third person perspective, instead of fixing the camera above all the action. It feels better for it, and the character moves at a quick pace, bypassing the usual frustrations of slow-pacing in the genre.
As for how the time mechanic plays into gameplay, it feels very basic in this first episode. It works like a dialogue-only Prince of Persia The Sands of Time: you can roll back time a couple of seconds/minutes or one major action at a time. Every dialogue option is reversible, until you leave the area, so you can play around with rewinding here and there to see how characters will react to what you say. Sometimes you can even rewind to open up new dialogue options. The puzzles to progress were very simple, and never had you carrying more than one object at a time in your inventory. Sometimes you had to do certain tasks in the correct order, like sabotaging a bucket of paint and then flipping the sprinklers on to open up a blocked area, but they were never frustrating or overly-complex.
It also can’t be understated how fantastic the use of music in Life is Strange is. It’s scored by Jonathan Morali with several appearances of his band Syd Matters, and takes on an indie folk sound, which effortlessly builds a sense of style. The title card pops in an interactive scene over the song “To All of You” by Syd Matters themselves, which perfectly encapsulates the tone. That’s just the first excellent use of licensed music, which continues throughout. It’s fantastic and feels like a small personal touch that helps you fit into the shoes of the character and the story as the game embraces itself and what it is.
Life is Strange’s unabashed acceptance of itself and its own tone is intoxicating and endearing; it does exactly what it wants to do, and it does it well. Though it is flawed and clunky at times, it more than makes up for it with its inspired repurposing of the “Prince of Persia mechanic” and its charming self-awareness.