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Review: Life Is Strange Episode One – Chrysalis

Described in its own trailer as Gone Home meets The Walking Dead with time travel, Life is Strange is an episodic game about Max, an awkward, teenage photography student who discovers she has the power to rewind time after seeing a girl killed in the school bathroom. Inspired by the decision-based, dialogue-heavy, Telltale adventure games, Life is Strange follows Max as she learns about her powers, discovers the secrets of her town and struggles to survive high school.

Unfortunately, Life is Strange falls at the first hurdle. It’s a narrative game, mostly based around conversation, and the writing is awful. The characters seem like they’re written by someone who’s never met teenagers, but watched a few indie movies a couple of years ago and kind of remembers them. The characters have “mad skills” at taking “hella selfies”. Every other line made me cringe. No one has ever talked like this, and in a game that seems to want naturalistic dialogue that’s a pretty big problem.

Even if they spoke like actual people, the characters are paper thin. There’s the shy artist, the hipster girl, the nerd who makes constant pop culture references, the queen bee and her army of mean girls. None of them are at all engaging because they’re so incredibly flat. The distance from the characters isn’t helped by bad lip-syncing and poor facial animations – sometimes their eyes might twitch a bit, but everyone seems stuck with the same expression no matter what. Telltale’s over-emoting is far preferable to watching these robots.

The game has obviously taken cues from Gone Home, with a big focus on exploring the environment and piecing together character’s stories through mementos. A lot of effort has gone into the environments, and there’s a lot to explore and discover, but these characters just aren’t interesting to learn about and Max’s voiceover is just as forced and weird as the rest of the dialogue. Life is Strange draws on some of the same themes as Gone Home as well, especially nostalgia, as Max reminisces about her hometown and her old friends. But Gone Home felt authentic. The game was written with real affection for the early 90s and Riot Grrrl culture, while Life is Strange is a sterile, distant view of modern teens.

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What Life is Strange does well is its gimmick. Rewinding time lets you change your most recent decisions before you’ve seen their long-term consequences, which is an interesting mechanic. There’s a bit of puzzle-solving to do with it as well, and what’s most interesting is how it can affect conversations. Max can rudely search someone’s room, discovering all their secrets, then rewind time and come across as considerate now that she knows their problems. She can hear someone else say the right answer in class, and then rewind time and impress the teacher. The little details here are nice, and do help capture a feeling of teenage awkwardness.

That’s something that the game, probably inadvertently, actually does well. I’ve described it as sounding like it’s written by a committee, but at the same time it could also be written by a teenager. The characters are super flat, the mean girls cheat and the artists are misunderstood, the conflicts are overblown and unrealistic, but there’s a genuine feeling of teenage awkwardness to it all. I would have much preferred a game that realistically captured being a teenager, not the fanfiction version of it, but after a while it seemed kind of endearing.

The first episode of Life is Strange didn’t impress me, but I’m not going to stop playing. It’s an ambitious game, with themes, characters and settings often not used in this medium, and if only the writing was better it could be a real gem. The story is actually interesting, with hints at weirdness going on in the background of the small town setting, and the time travel mechanic is well-implemented and adds some more depth to gameplay. I really hope that Chrysalis turns out to be a poor start to a great series, because there’s a lot of potential here, but at the moment it seems wasted.

Sad face.